Perhaps The Crown’s second season’s most memorable episode was that which showed the drama surrounding Prince Charles beginning boarding school in Scotland in 1962. The show doesn’t offer a merry depiction of Gordonstoun, instead offering Charles’s attendance there as a paternal failure stemming from Prince Philip’s own psychological wounds. The question as to whether the episode is “true” has prompted many a headline in the weeks since it aired, but strictly in regards to the issue of Prince Charles at the school, I think that’s more difficult to answer than a simple “yes” or “no.” There were inaccuracies in the episode. There was also some over-dramatization. But it did strike on something real.
Prince Charles attended Cheam Preparatory School in Berkshire, yet another of his father’s alma maters between the ages of eight and 13. His time there was not deemed a success, particularly socially, and he was often homesick. Especially close with his grandmother, the Queen Mother, she began focusing on where the next phase of his education should take place as early as the spring of 1961. To her, Eton College was the natural choice. Its proximity to Windsor Castle, where the Royal Family spent a considerable amount of time, made it ideal, allowing Charles to come home and see his family often.
Philip, on the other hand, wanted his son to follow him at Gordonstoun in Moray, Scotland.
Per Charles’s biographer, Sally Bedell-Smith:
“In a letter to the Queen in May 1961, the Queen Mother described Eton as ‘ideal … for one of his character & temperament.’ If he went to Gordonstoun, ‘he might as well be at school abroad.’ She pointed out, quite reasonably, that the children of the Queen’s friends were at Eton, not to mention the advantage of Charles being able to see his parents regularly and stay in touch with family affairs. Her final argument cut straight to his future as the Supreme Governor of the Faith when he became King: ‘One would not be involved in any controvrsies in a staunchly Protestant place like Eton Chapel.'”
Philip had done well at Gordonstoun when he attended in the 1930s. It instilled in him discipline and an admirable work ethic. It also offered him some stability after a childhood that can only be called nomadic. He came to it an outsider thanks to his German and Danish heritage, not to mention his place within the Greek Royal Family, but when he eventually turned up in London after World War II and became engaged to Princess Elizabeth, he lacked certain social qualifications that would have made his transition easier. That he didn’t possess them wasn’t a weakness – and could even be seen as a personal strength – but what Gordonstoun equipped him with as an “outsider,” could not possibly work on his son, who was born in Buckingham Palace and will eventually sit on the British throne.
Within the dynamic of Charles’s parents’ marriage, Philip had the final say in the rearing of him and his siblings. The Duke of Edinburgh argued that proximity to the family might only increase Charles’s homesickness and, more importantly, the remoteness of the Gordonstoun campus would ensure the boy had privacy and a chance to come into his own, well, on his own.
Philip dropped Charles off at Gordonstoun by himself on May 1, 1962, flying them both by plane to an Air Force base in Scotland. Established in 1934, Philip had been one of the school’s first students. Its founder was a German and Jewish educator who had come to Scotland after Hitler’s rise, and its ethos was based on Platonic philosophy, while its motto was, “There is more in you.” Included within this all-encompassing approach to education was a strong emphasis on the physical – even in the midst of a Scottish winter, the boys wore shorts and windows were left open.
Charles shared a dormitory, the Windmall Lodge, with 13 other boys. Days began with a run before breakfast followed by a cold shower, while military-style drills and activity courses were normal. This would be Charles’s downfall, who lacked his father’s natural athletic ability and was singled out due to his status as the Prince of Wales (though he was not formally invested until 1969). The intersection of a theoretically egalitarian atmosphere co-mingled with an adolescent desire to “be cool” unfortunately led to Charles’s status hurting and not helping him. In short, it put a target on his back. And when boys did try to befriend him they were accused of sucking up to him for him status, discouraging friendliness.
One classmate said years later, “Bullying was virtually institutionalized and very rough.” It wasn’t helped by Charles’s housemaster who was himself a bit of a bully and the house was effectively run by the older boys who implemented rather aggressive forms of hazing. Said the same classmate, “I never saw him react [to physical blows] at all. He was very stoic. He never fought back.”
In one letter home during his first year, however, he wrote, “I hardly get any sleep … because I snore and get hit on the head the whole time. It’s absolute hell.”
In 1966, Philip decided to send Charles to Australia for two terms. For six months, he spent his time out in the wilderness, working on a farm and completing physical challenges, the last of which he did surprisingly well with unencumbered by bullying. The experience gave him confidence and when he returned to Gordonstoun for his last year he was made head boy and joined the sea rescue corps. Nevertheless, when he left the school in July 1967 at the age of 18, his only lasting relationships were with two masters, both of whom had been authority figures to whom he could look up and who helped him survive his five years at the school.
His parents (both of them) later acknowledged that Gordonstoun had been a mistake, akin to trying to fit “a square peg in a round hole.” With hindsight, it’s rather tragic to consider how Charles might have fared at Eton College per his grandmother’s wish. Likely he would have grown in confidence sooner and not as a defense mechanism. And certainly having a greater chance of forming friendships with his peers would have been an asset.
The same classmate later said that, “It probably sticks in his throat that the unintended consequence of going to Gordonstoun was his strength of purpose and single-mindedness.”
And to this day the Prince of Wales still starts his mornings with an ice cold shower.