Royal Nannies

4 July 2013 - 05:21pm
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As the world counts down the days until the Duchess of Cambridge gives birth to our future monarch, we look at famous nannies in recent British royal history.

The Queen

Margaret ‘Bobo’ McDonald started off working as the young Princess Elizabeth’s nursery maid, and went on to become the Queen’s dresser and closest confidant. Bobo’s sister, Ruby, held the same office for the Queen’s sister Princess Margaret. Bobo was a law unto herself, it being her custom to ignore everyone in Buckingham Palace apart from Royalty. Brian Hoey reported that ‘a young footman joining the Palace staff was instructed “not to speak to Miss McDonald if you meet in one of the corridors unless she addressed you first”’. The Queen was incredibly loyal to Bobo, always believing her side of the story above all others. Bobo had her own servants to attend to her and ‘the finest network of informers among the staff to tell her everything that went on in the Palace’.

Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret with their Grandmother, Queen Mary

Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret with their Grandmother, Queen Mary

Marion ‘Crawfie’ Crawford was appointed to be Governess to Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret in the 1930s before their parents became King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. Crawfie stayed with the family until the late 1940s, looking after the Princesses during World War Two while they were staying at Windsor Castle. After Crawfie left, she wrote a book all about her time with the Royal Family (The Little Princesses). Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) did not approve and felt that Crawfie had betrayed their trust. Crawfie was thrust out of royal circles and was never spoken to, or about, again.Clara ‘Alah’ Knight was the Queen’s and Princess Margaret’s nanny. She had been nanny to the Duchess of York (later the Queen Mother) during her childhood and when she had her own children, the Duchess asked for her specifically. Alah was devoted to the young Princesses, and looked after them steadfastly until she died suddenly just after World War Two. On her coffin, was a wreath from Queen Elizabeth, stating simply “In Loving and Thankful Memory. Elizabeth R”.

Prince Charles

The young Prince’s first nanny was Helen Lightbody, who was said to be ‘as imperious as old Queen Mary’. When Charles was a baby, Helen would always ask the kitchen at Clarence House to provide the royal lunch just before she knew the chef had to make lunch for 30 or so members of staff. She also insisted on the infant Prince having his own special lunch, something quite different from what was served to anyone else. Helen would then reject the meal that was first offered and demand another choice.


When Helen Lightbody left, her deputy, Mabel Anderson, took over. She later cared for the Queen’s other children, Princess Anne and Princes Andrew and Edward, and later still, Princess Anne’s eldest child, Peter Phillips. Even after retirement, Mabel was never far from Royal circles. When Diana, Princess of Wales died, she was at Balmoral to try and comfort Princes William and Harry. In 2010, she was a guest of the Queen onboard the Hebridean Princess, which had been chartered to take the Queen and her guests on a cruise around the Western Isles.

Prince WilliamDiana William Harry

When Diana, Princess of Wales was pregnant with her first baby, Princess Margaret suggested to her friend Lady Glenconner that the Glenconner’s nanny, Barbara Barnes, should apply to be the new royal baby’s nanny. Barbara went for an interview at Buckingham Palace, reporting that Diana was “quite informal”, and started work four weeks after Prince William was born. Barbara used to take William around London, stopping at local parks for him to play. Their chauffeur didn’t wear a uniform, and with Barbara and the police protection officer looking like ordinary ‘parents’, the little party was never recognised. According to Brian Hoey, ‘the only rules were that they should not take the same route or visit the same place two days running’. Olga Powell was employed as ‘relief nanny’ and Barbara’s assistant. After these two nannies left, they were replaced by Ruth Wallace and Jessie Webb, but Olga kept in touch with her charges, and was invited to all of the Princes’ ‘landmark events’ including William and Kate’s wedding. When Olga died suddenly in 2012, William cancelled his official engagements to be able to attend her funeral, and her family asked for donations to Harry’s charity Sentebale instead of flowers.

Tiggy Legge-Bourke was also a ‘nanny’ although she was employed by Prince Charles to be more of a companion to Princes William and Harry, a friendship which was invaluable to them as they coped with their parents’ divorce. She was unpopular with Diana, who thought that Tiggy was trying to ‘usurp her place in the boys’ affections’.

It will go without saying that all the royal nannies above and cared deeply for their charges and were loved in return, but as a footnote, it is worth remembering that not all nannies were this kind. King George VI, when Prince Albert, was mentally and physically abused by one of his nannies. She took a dislike to him, while revering his elder brother (the future Edward VIII and Duke of Windsor). The nanny would pinch Prince Albert just before he was taken in to see his parents, with the result that he would cry and be removed back to the nursery. Fortunately, Queen Mary eventually discovered what was going on and the nanny was dismissed.

Only time will tell whether the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will employ anyone to help with raising their child/ren. Even if they do not have a full time nanny, it is likely that with their royal duties, they will have someone on hand occasionally. Will a new generation of royal nannies be born? Perhaps not quite in the same way as before…


With thanks to Brian Hoey and his book At Home With The Queen and Majesty Magazine for some of the information.

photo credit: e r j k p r u n c z y k and BiblioArchives via photopin cc

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