The Royal Nanny: Prince William and Prince Harry Mourn Olga Powell

Diana, Prince of Wales, Prince William, Prince Harry and the children's nanny, Olga Powell

Olga Powell, former nanny to Prince William and Prince Harry for fifteen years, died suddenly yesterday at the age of eighty-two. Powell cared for the princes from early childhood, through the divorce of the Prince and Princess of Wales and the death of Diana in 1997. She remained close to her former charges after she retired, attending Prince Harry’s twenty-first birthday party and his graduation from Sandhurst military academy as well as Prince William’s wedding to Catherine Middleton.

The week before she died, Powell wrote to Harry in Afghanistan, concerned about his safety after the recent Taliban attack on Camp Bastion, where he is stationed as an Apache helicopter pilot. The enduring relationship between Powell and the Princes is part of a long tradition of caregivers to royal children becoming honorary family members, continuing to influence their former charges into adulthood.

Prince Charles in St. James' Park on his second birthday with his nanny, Mabel Anderson

Prince Charles also enjoyed a warm relationship with his nanny, Mabel Anderson. Just as Powell provided stability for William and Harry during the breakdown of their parents’ marriage, Anderson was a figure of continuity in Charles’s childhood as Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh were often away from their children for commonwealth tours. Anderson was a member of the royal household for decades and has been described as one of the most significant influences over the Prince of Wales.

In 1949, she replied to an advertisement for an “assistant nanny,” unaware that her charge would be Prince Charles, and was reputedly hired for her quiet unassuming manner. Anderson also cared for Charles’ siblings, Princess Anne, Prince Andrew and Prince Edward before leaving the Queen’s household to look after Anne’s son, Peter Phillips. Although she retired in 1982, Anderson maintained a close relationship with the royal family. Prince Charles personally supervised the redecoration of her grace and favour home at Frogmore House in the Windsor Castle Park. As recently as 2010, Anderson accompanied the royal family on a summer cruise around the Western Isles of Scotland to celebrate the 60th birthday of Princess Anne and the 50th birthday of Prince Andrew.

The future Edward VIII riding a pony in 1902.

Not all members of the royal family enjoyed warm and loving relationships with their caregivers. The future King Edward VIII and King George VI had an abusive nanny who attempted to make herself appear indispensible by secretly pinching her charges before taking them to the drawing room to see their parents, the future George V and Queen Mary. When the children cried, they would be sent back to the nursery. The effect of this treatment on the young princes is discussed in the recent film, The King’s Speech. George and Mary eventually discovered this nanny’s abuse of their children and dismissed her from their service. She was replaced by Charlotte “Lalla” Bill, who devoted much of her attention to the royal couple’s youngest child, Prince John. Bill’s devotion to John, who was epileptic and may also have suffered from autism, is dramatized in the BBC miniseries, The Lost Prince.

The experience of being cared for by an English nanny was not unique to members of the British royal family. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the employment of nursery staff from the British Isles became fashionable throughout Europe’s royal courts. Historian Charlotte Zeepvat explained in her article about English nannies to Russian Imperial children, “For at least a century, the Tsars and Grand Princes and Princesses of Russia grew up speaking English as their first language and learning the habits of the English nursery. It was a situation no one questioned; all over Europe nursery English ruled, along with porridge, mutton, cold baths and bracing fresh air. (Zeepvat, Romanov Autumn, p. 84).” As in England, the Russian Imperial Family treated favourite nannies as members of their family. When Katherine Strutton, nanny to Tsar Alexander III and his siblings, died in 1891, the Tsar and the Grand Dukes walked behind her coffin in the funeral procession through St. Petersburg.

The warm relationship between William and Harry and the late Olga Powell demonstrates that the tradition of favourite nannies being treated as honourary members of the royal family has continued in the twentieth century. Powell provided stability for the two young princes and her influence over her charges continued into their adulthood.

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