Daniela Elser: Kate Middleton’s heartbreak hidden in Prince George birthday photo


When it comes to Prince George, never has one child done so much for the British T-shirt industry so young.

Ever since the third-in-line to the throne deigned to arrive on July 22, 2013, by which point the British press had been camping out outside the Lindo Wing of St Mary’s hospital for three weeks, his big day each year has been marked by his devoted mother Kate, Duchess of Cambridge and keen photographer sharing snap of the boy with the world.

And in six out of eight of years, the wee lad and future Commander of the British Armed Forces has been seen wearing a very calculated assortment of high-street label T-shirts and polo-shirts.

Early this morning we were treated to the latest iteration of the royal family’s Operation: Normal Lad aka Kensington Palace released this year’s birthday shot of George, showing the eight-year-old prince sitting on a Land Rover Defender in a touching nod to his recently departed great-grandfather Prince Philip. (While discussing funeral plans, the late royal is reported to have said,” Just stick me in the back of a Land Rover and drive me to Windsor.”)

At first glance, today’s shot is par for the wholly predictable course: Personal, heartwarming and with a suitably bucolic twinge.

But what makes this image so interesting isn’t what it shows but what it signifies, which is that George has reached the same age at which his father and uncle Prince Harry were bundled off to boarding school. (Ditto Prince Charles.)

For the first time, the question has reared its controversial head over whether the Cambridges might decide to send their own son away to school now he’s reached this particular milestone moment.

While at first blush it might seem patently ridiculous in an age of the Instagram-loving, Zoom-using modern royal family that William and Kate would pack their boy off to live away from home, a report in today’s (UK) Telegraph adds credence to the possibility, reporting that there are “claims that he will start a new prep school in September.”

(William and Kate could, of course, simply be thinking of sending him to another day school however the notion that they would uproot him from a school they are seemingly happy with would be most odd.)

For most people the very notion of sending a child away borders on the cruel but the British upper classes have, for centuries, firmly believed in dispatching their scions to receive an early introduction to Latin verbs, frigid, predawn rugby scrums and a diet of grey, overcooked vegetables.

While that sort of thinking might seem hideously archaic today, this particular aristocratic predilection remains as strong today as it ever was. Ludgrove School, where both William and Harry went at age eight, is still considered a “top choice” according to Tatler’s annual school guide. (Current fees: $52,600.)

What the Cambridges will choose to do in regards to George’s schooling is a heavily freighted question, both in a personal sense and in terms of the royal family’s public standing.

Both William and Kate had rocky starts to their boarding school careers.

When the duke was sent to Ludgrove he was homesick, according to royal biographer Penny Junor, with his mother Diana, Princess of Wales writing him letters daily and addressed to ‘Darling Wombat.’ (The future king kept the touching missives in his tuckbox. Awww….)

For Kate, after reportedly being picked on at Downe House school where she had been a day girl, her parents sent her to board at the exclusive Marlborough College, current fees $70,500-a-year. When she arrived there, “apparently she had been bullied very badly at her previous school and she certainly looked very thin and pale. She had very little confidence,” one classmate has said.

Even though both of the Cambridges came to embrace their boarding years, would they be willing to put their son through a similar experience?

And as a close family unit, would it not be too painful of an emotional a wrench to send their son away?

On a public level, a decision to enrol George in boarding school would be a dicey move. It would serve as a painful reminder that no how many Zara jackets Kate wears or how many H & M tees they stick their kids in, William and Kate are exceedingly wealthy and exceedingly upper class.

Similarly, they run the risk of alienating and angering the public who could well see the decision as somewhat barbarous in this day and age. Post-Megxit and post-the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s claims of royal cruelty the last thing the palace needs is anything that could bolster the perception that they are a cold, unfeeling lot.

If William and Kate did choose Ludgrove or a school of a similar ilk, it would dash once and for all any pretence of him being raised even vaguely outside of the loftiest of social echelons. Rationally we might know that George is not like other third-graders but him being shunted off to board would very, very visibly remind the world of his class status. The duke and duchess, the message would be, want their son educated alongside the future dukes, earls and sons of the global uber-wealthy that these sorts of schools attract.

In recent years, thanks nearly entirely to William and Kate, the monarchy has managed to attract a nearly warm and fuzzy tinge, a certain homely, relatable charm. All of that is at stake here.

There is nothing relatable about being willing, or financially able to spend the $50,000 it would cost, to send their son off to a prep school and to not see him for weeks or months at a time.

There is also the question of the boys he would be boarding with. Currently both George and his younger sister Princess Charlotte are students at Thomas’ Battersea. While the school is expensive (costing just under $36,000-a-year) the students are drawn from a moderately diverse more social background and it’s hardly a bastion of stiff-upper-lip Britishness. The school’s mascot is a reading unicorn for heaven’s sake.

It’s probably very cold comfort for Kate that Evelyn Waugh once famously wrote “anyone who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison.” (He also called boarding school “four or five years of perfect hell at an age when life is bound to be hell anyway.”)

The school question is, for the duke and duchess, just one of a long line of questions they are going to have to find answers to as they walk the tightrope between protecting their son and the demands of the position he was born into.

They say being a mother is the hardest job in the world but during moments like this, I think being the mum of a future King is even harder still.

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