Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, as she was known back in 1936, was 10 years old when all of England heard the scandalous news. Her uncle, King Edward VIII, had abandoned the throne—ditching his royal obligations in favour of Wallis Simpson, the twice-divorced American woman he had been forbidden to marry. “I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love,” he told his subjects in a stunning December radio address from Windsor.
Elizabeth’s father—Edward’s stammering and thoroughly insecure little brother Albert—was suddenly the king. And Elizabeth, his beloved elder daughter, was now the heiress presumptive.
“Does that mean you’ll be queen?” her younger sister, Margaret, famously asked.
“Yes, someday,” Elizabeth answered, as crowds gathered near the family home.
“Poor you,” Margaret said.
Three generations later, as the house of Windsor prepares for the birth of another heir apparent, Margaret’s reaction still rings true: “Poor you.” Although the parents-to-be are no doubt thrilled (“very pleased” was the official word out of St. James’s Palace), the duke and duchess of Cambridge are well aware of what’s looming. The paparazzi. The pressure. Not to mention the double duty that no other parent faces: they have to raise a child and train a future monarch at the same time.
In other words, they need to ensure their offspring isn’t another King Edward VIII.
Whether it’s the 1200s or the Twitter age, much of the royal curriculum remains the same. Be humble and modest. Be courteous and polite (even to the photographers). Accept your God-given role. And don’t, under any circumstances, “let the side down.” As Prince William himself said on his 21st birthday, when asked if he “wanted” to be the sovereign: “It’s not a question of wanting to be. It’s something I was born into, and it’s my duty.”
How the future king and queen will prepare their child for the throne remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: the family history is full of examples—some effective, some not—to guide them along the way.
Before Queen Elizabeth II was the Queen, her father thoroughly groomed her for the job. She was tutored on the Constitution, and encouraged to participate in Christmas plays and other public performances that would prepare her for the spotlight. (“Where does she get her poise?” her dad once asked, amazed by her confidence on stage.) In 1945, Elizabeth even joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service, learning to drive ambulances and getting her hands greasy changing the oil in military trucks.
It was her mother who taught her the value of co-operating with the press; if a flashbulb failed to go off, she always made sure the family repeated the pose. “When it’s your duty, you stick out anything,” the Queen Mother once said.
By her 21st birthday, Elizabeth was thoroughly schooled in the disciplines of her inheritance, and embraced her role with open arms. “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service,” she said in a radio address. Sixty years later, she remains a symbol of the duty and commitment that defines the British monarchy.
But the heirs to her throne—her son Prince Charles and her grandson William—were not always as keen as she was.
Charles fondly recalls when he was four years old, watching his mother parading around in St. Edward’s crown before her coronation. “I remember my mama coming up when we were being bathed as children, wearing the crown,” he says. “It was quite funny.” But the Prince of Wales has also publicly complained about his upbringing, saying his mom and dad were more focused on protocol than on parenting. Once, after young Charles stuck out his tongue at a crowd of spectators, his father gave him a good spanking. (Cheating on his wife and dragging the family through a nasty public divorce wasn’t part of the kingly syllabus, either.)
The apprenticeship of Prince William had its own hiccups. Although Diana was obsessed with her eldest son’s public image—posing him for the cameras and trying desperately to expose him to the world outside the palace walls—he loathed the attention. In fact, Diana tearfully confided to friends, “William is waiting patiently for the monarchy to be abolished,” adding that he had asked: “Do I really have to be a part of this family?” The prince once told his dad that perhaps he would “go backpacking in Nepal and never come back.”
William despised the armed bodyguards almost as much as the paparazzi. During one winter vacation, when a guard tackled him in the snow before he tobogganed into traffic, William reportedly yelled: “Why won’t you let me be a normal person?”
Sadly, it was his mother’s tragic death that provided William with his most valuable hands-on lesson. The 15-year-old heir who so hated the attention seemed to accept his inevitable public role, speaking to mourners and walking, with his brother Harry, behind Diana’s funeral procession.
In the years that followed, William’s tutelage only intensified, under the very watchful eye of the Queen. They shared regular tea dates, granny and grandson, which provided her with a chance to mould the future king into a link between the traditions she represents—responsibility, pomp and protocol—and the uncertain, ever-evolving monarchy of the 21st century. “William has had the lectures,” one source explained to a British reporter. “He has been told: ‘Don’t let the side down.’ ”
He has not. While his party-prone brother has generated plenty of tabloid fodder (for smoking marijuana, for wearing a Nazi Halloween costume and, most recently, for naked photos snapped at a Las Vegas hotel party), William has behaved as a proper heir should. He graduated from St. Andrews University, trained as an RAF search-and-rescue helicopter pilot and married the love of his life in a ceremony that gripped the globe.
And, perhaps most importantly, he explained to his future bride exactly what she was getting herself into. More than once, William even gave her the opportunity to back out. She didn’t. She walked down the aisle at Westminster Abbey with eyes wide open, fully aware that when she did have a baby, the announcement would trigger exactly the type of media frenzy that’s now unfolding. (To be fair, though, Kate probably didn’t foresee that the Twitter handle @RoyalFoetus would have 11,000 followers.)
Will her baby grow up to be a teenager with a Twitter account? Will Twitter be obsolete by then? Will the monarchy?
It’s only the first trimester, probably a bit too soon to start worrying about those kinds of questions. At the very least, the throne training can wait until after the potty training.