Being a royal parent is a total minefield. Despite all the help you get with changing nappies and the like, there are some ways in which it’s actually a lot more complicated than being a regular, non-royal mom or dad. Did you know, for example, that there’s an old royal rule which means you could lose custody of your own kids? And yes, it applies to Kate and William.
Prince William and Kate Middleton occupy an extremely important place in royal hierarchy. After all, William is the person who will eventually take the throne of the United Kingdom, once his grandmother the Queen and his father Prince Charles have finished their reigns. He and Kate were always expected to produce at least one heir to the throne.
Ultimately, William and Kate ended up having three kids. First, Kate gave birth to a boy, the future King, in July 2013. There were celebrations all over the globe, everywhere from North America to New Zealand. A couple of days later the royal parents announced his name, George Alexander Louis. But the world knows him primarily as Prince George.
You probably already know the basics about George, but you may not know that before his birth an archaic royal rule was revoked in Britain. Yep, every so often the traditions of the royal family actually do change with the times. The Succession to the Crown Act ensured that male heirs would no longer take precedence in the line of succession.
To see how this works, you only have to look at Prince George’s younger siblings. Princess Charlotte came along in 2015, and then in 2018 she was followed by Prince Louis. Before the 2013 Act, Louis’ presence would have pushed her down the line of succession as he was male. But now males and females are considered equal in royal law.
George, Charlotte and Louis are all still under 10, and they probably have no real clear idea of what the rest of their lives will be like. Same thing goes for their cousin Archie, Prince Harry’s son with Meghan Markle. But they’re probably starting to realize now that they’re not like other kids. They already have different rules to follow.
Take the royal christenings for example — they’re not just an excuse for the parents to show their new baby off. They have to be done. Since the Queen is also the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, all her grandkids have to be baptized. The Archbishop of Canterbury is the one who does the honors.
So the royal kids are assigned a religion before they’re even old enough to talk. That’s not unusual of course, most families induct their kids into their own faith. But there’s other things the kids have to do which non-royals wouldn’t even consider. For a start, they’re supposed to be bowing or curtsying to the Queen from a very young age.
In 2018 Hello! magazine asked royal expert Marlene Eilers Koenig when the younger royals had to start minding their manners. “Certainly by age five,” she said. “The only person they will be curtsy or bowing to is the sovereign… Curtseying and bowing is etiquette, nothing to do with precedence. You bow or curtsy the first time you see the sovereign and then again when you leave.”
This sort of thing requires training, so yep, the royal children have to do that too. In 2018, etiquette expert Myka Meier told People magazine that the kids would get etiquette lessons “as soon as they’re old enough to sit at a table,” and they would have to learn “everything from voice levels to dressing appropriately.”
And school lessons are equally strenuous for royal kids. They’re supposed to learn a second language, obviously something very handy when it comes to travel and diplomacy. Prince William knows French, as does his father and grandmother. And Kate apparently began teaching George Spanish when he was two.
Don’t forget the rules of royal outfits! Have you ever wondered why Prince George only ever seems to wear shorts, rather than pants like other kids his age? It’s protocol, pure and simple. In the olden days upper-class young boys wore shorts until they were about eight, so the royals still do.
One of the most significant rules surrounding royal children, though, concerns their safety. It’s an unwritten rule, but very much present. Heirs to the throne shouldn’t travel in airplanes together, regardless of their age. This is to avoid the horrific situation of a plane going down and several heirs being lost at the same time.
Even so, William and Kate drew the line there — they weren’t about to make their kids take separate airplanes. So in 2013, William reportedly went to his grandmother and asked for her to relax the rule. She agreed, and William and Kate got to fly with baby George to Australia the following year.
As you can see, quite a few of these royal rules depend on an understanding between the monarch as grandparent and the heir to the throne as parent. They’ve got to work together to create the proper environment for young princes and princesses to grow up in. If this fails… well, that’s how you get rules like the custody one.
It all started back in 1717, when King George I was on the throne. He was not a very popular monarch, not least because he couldn’t actually speak English despite being leader of the country. And he also had — to say the least — an incredibly fraught relationship with his son George Augustus, Prince of Wales.
Not long after taking the crown, King George I found himself in what we modern folk might call a Game of Thrones-type scenario. A group called the Jacobites refused to recognize him as King and a political divide grew. After George I formed a government, some of his detractors began supporting his son instead.
It was a situation that makes the royal soap operas of today look utterly tame by comparison. Then, George Augustus had a son — just to make things more confusing this was yet another George, George William. King George appointed the Duke of Newcastle to be the baby’s godfather, and George Augustus did not like that at all.
George Augustus made his feelings known at the baby’s christening, but unfortunately, like his father, he couldn’t speak very good English either. When the prince shook his fist at the Duke of Newcastle and yelled, the latter took it as a threat — understandably. King George I was shocked, banned the prince from the palace… and took custody of his children.
To make his custody official, King George I approached the British judges of the time. They declared that yep, he had the “right of supervision” over his grandkids, regardless of the status of their own parents. The rule was passed with the unwieldy name of, “The Grand Opinion for the Prerogative Concerning the Royal Family.”
Obviously, things have changed a lot since those days. But the rule still technically holds sway in the modern-day royal family. There’s a lot about royal protocol that remains archaic — just look at how long it took for the rule of male heirs outclassing female ones to go the way of the dinosaurs. Royal historian Marlene Eilers Koenig attempted to explain it on her blog back in 2013.
Koenig noted that at one point, Princess Diana had threatened to take her sons William and Harry and move with them to Australia. But apparently she had been told by the Queen that that was out of the question, because she wasn’t allowed to take her own kids abroad without permission from the monarch.
This issue was noted in The Times back in 1993. An expert on these matters, Michael L. Nash, wrote in the newspaper that the Queen has, “the last word in the custody upbringing, education and even the right of abode of the princes, even during the lifetime of their father, Prince Charles. As for their mother, the Princess of Wales, her say is a matter of discretion and negotiation.”
But then, of course, the unthinkable happened. Diana was killed in a car accident in 1997, at the age of just 36. She never actually got to see her two sons grow to adulthood. Yet she did leave a will behind, which contained her wishes for what should happen to her children after her death.
Diana’s will stated, “Should any child of mine be under age at the date of the survivor of myself and my husband, I appoint my brother Earl Spencer to be guardians of that child and I express the wish that should I predecease my husband he will consult with my mother with regarding to the upbringing and welfare of our children.”
Yet, according to Koenig’s 2013 blog post about the custody rule, “This clause would have not held up in court because Diana, who separated from Charles when her will was written, had no legal right to decide about her children’s upbringing and education.” That sounds quite unsettling, but there’s more.
Koenig went on to say that despite what was in the will, “it is unlikely that [the Queen] would have allowed Lord Spencer to be her grandsons’ legal guardian in the event that both Charles and Diana died before their sons’ majority. More likely, the orphaned princes would have been raised by one of the Queen’s younger children.”
However, Koenig pointed out that Charles did follow the other part of Diana’s instructions. She noted, “At the time of her death, Diana was largely estranged from her mother and her brother. After Diana’s death, Charles invited his former mother-in-law to spend time with her grandsons, although she had no real role in their education and upbringing.”
But with the question of grandchildren comes the question of great-grandchildren. When the Grand Opinion for the Prerogative Concerning the Royal Family came into being back into force later in the 18th century, King George I had no great-grandchildren to be concerned with. But Queen Elizabeth II, as we all know, very much does.
In fact, Queen Elizabeth has eight great-grandchildren in all. There’s George, Charlotte and Louis of course. Then there’s Archie, who retreated from royal life alongside his parents but is still part of the family. The other four kids also don’t have titles — these are Mia Tindall, Lena Tindall, Savannah Phillips and Isla Phillips.
So could the Queen ever get custody of her great-children, if required? People magazine asked royal expert Joe Little this in 2018. “This isn’t an Act of Parliament, but a royal prerogative established in the early 18th century, so it is not legally binding,” he explained. “The circumstances would have to be pretty extreme for the Queen to invoke it on behalf of her great-grandchildren.”
Little continued, “Given that there are parents, and grandparents alive — not to mention all the aunts and uncles — there is a huge support structure already in place for the great-grandchildren.” Which leads onto another difficult aspect of things — the Queen is an old lady, and it’s not really ideal for her to be raising kids.
It seems likely that if any of the parents of the Queen’s great-grandchildren die, the Queen herself won’t actually be expected to raise them. In 2019 a solicitor named Rachel Carrington-Matthews told The Express newspaper that though technically the Queen would have custody, “In practice whether this would be the case would be another issue. It is possible that the royals would have other guidance in place in their wills.”
However, Carrington-Matthews also acknowledged that because the protocol was created back in the eighteenth century, it’s hard to know for certain if it would apply to great-grandchildren. It was hard to verify, she said, “because the law is too old and does not exist in any legal research that you can carry out.”
So the law is a little iffy when it comes to great-grandchildren, but not grandchildren. And when the Queen passes away and Charles takes the throne, the royal great-grandchildren will become royal grandchildren, the kids of the monarch’s kids. That means the Grand Opinion for the Prerogative Concerning the Royal Family definitely will apply to them.
That means that if anything happens to Harry and Meghan once Charles is on the throne, the custody of Archie would fall to him. But it’s worth remembering what Joe Little told People magazine; that this royal prerogative isn’t actually legally binding. The laws of the U.K. still take precedence over the royal rules.
And although Archie isn’t even out of diapers yet, his existence and current position in the family poses some questions about what will happen when Charles becomes King. Archie doesn’t have a royal title because his parents chose not to give him one, but could the wishes of Harry and Meghan actually be overruled?
Should Archie ever decide to get married, that will open up a whole new can of worms. When Charles inherits the throne of the United Kingdom, that will make Archie sixth in line. And all the first six have to ask permission from the monarch before they can get married. Unless another royal baby has arrived to push Archie down the line, he may find himself having to follow a royal protocol his parents tried to opt out of.
If one thing is clear, it’s that the royals really need to be careful to maintain family harmony when the stakes are so high. Sadly the child who all the original fuss was about, George William, actually died in infancy in 1718. His grandfather King George eventually relented and allowed his parents to visit him once a week.
So that’s the sort of history the royals have to look back on when dealing with questions of parenting. Luckily there’s yet to be a crisis as seismic as that one, but should you harbor dreams of marrying into the royal family, be warned — the ghost of King George I and his terrible parenting still hangs over the institution.