By the time Elizabeth became Queen in 1952 she was already a mother of two. Charles was born in 1948, the year after her wedding, and Anne two years later in 1950.
Time spent visiting Prince Philip in Malta, where he was stationed with the Navy, and taking on her ailing father’s engagements meant Elizabeth was often separated from her young children – even before she was Queen.
But after ascending the throne at the age of just 25, the first few years of her reign were devoted solely to following in her father’s footsteps – and proving she was good enough for the job.
This meant more extended periods away from the children. It wasn’t until the 1960s when she gave birth to Andrew and Edward that she was able to balance her roles as monarch and mother more evenly.
Long periods away from home
As a child herself, Elizabeth grew up in a very close family.
Often referring to themselves as ‘we four’, she, Margaret, their mother and father spent lots of time together, uninterrupted by the prospect of a monarch in the family until she was 10 – when her uncle abdicated and her father became king.
But Sarah Gristwood, royal historian and author, explains: “Having grown up in a loving, tight-knit family, things were slightly different when it came to Elizabeth’s own children – at least for the elder two.”
The demands of being a young Queen, which included long tours of the Commonwealth throughout the 1950s, meant Charles and Anne were left in the care of nannies and governesses while their mother and father were abroad.
Carolyn Harris, royal historian and author of Raising Royalty: 1,000 Years of Royal Parenting, added: “There was a sense in the early years of Queen Elizabeth II having to prove herself on the world stage.
“And this meant extended periods of time when she didn’t see her children.”
When they were reunited, some say she appeared cold and unaffectionate.
After one tour abroad, the Queen was met by adoring crowds at London’s Paddington Station, but when it came to greeting young Charles, she shook his hand.
“That famous image of the Queen shaking hands with Charles – not rushing to hug him – as Diana did when she returned from tours, says a lot,” Ms Gristwood said.
She noted another occasion when Elizabeth returned from months abroad and instead of rushing to see Charles at boarding school, chose to spend several days in London.
‘Traumas’ of Charles’s childhood left Anne untouched
Prince Philip wanted Charles to follow in his footsteps and attend the same boarding school he did.
While Philip thought the location of Gordonstoun in the Scottish Highlands would leave his son free to enjoy his education without any press intrusion, it suited Charles “badly”.
“The remoteness was difficult for Charles – he would have preferred to spend time with his family,” Ms Harris said.
By contrast, when Anne was old enough to go to school, she was much closer to home at Benenden in Kent and found the experience “much easier”.
Charles’s overall temperament meant his relationship with both of his parents – complicated by the pressures of being heir to the throne – seemed more difficult compared to his sister.
“Charles was often more sensitive,” Ms Gristwood said. “Whereas Anne looked forward and got on with things.”
Anne has also been much quicker to dismiss claims her mother was cold in her early years, telling a BBC One documentary in 2010: “I simply don’t believe there is any evidence whatsoever to suggest that she wasn’t caring.
“It just beggars belief. She’s my mother and the Queen.”
Anne’s success in the equestrian world and her and her mother’s shared love of horses is also likely to have made them closer, Ms Gristwood says.
“Princess Anne has given a much warmer picture of her and Charles’s childhood than he has.”
“What Charles perceived as the traumas of his early childhood seem to have left Anne untouched,” she added.
This closeness was reflected in her adult life when the Queen gave her the title of Princess Royal.
Age gap allowed Queen to enjoy motherhood more
By the time Edward and Andrew were born in the 1960s, Elizabeth had been on the throne for a decade.
And after years of travelling extensively to establish herself as head of the Commonwealth, in the 1960s she was able to spend more time at home.
“By then the Queen had relaxed into her role, so she could enjoy her other role of being a mother a bit more,” Ms Gristwood said.
“She would bathe them and put them to bed in a way she often wasn’t able to do with the younger two.”
Attitudes around parenting were also changing, noted Ms Harris, with “more of an expectation for parents to spend more time with their children”.
Queen didn’t have favourites
Commentators have often speculated that Prince Andrew was the Queen’s favourite child, but many courtiers have dismissed such claims.
“I don’t think we can firmly say whether the Queen had favourites,” Ms Harris said.
Not having to worry about one day becoming king like his older brother, however, Andrew appears to have enjoyed his early childhood and schooling more than Charles.
This undoubtedly made his relationship with his mother easier, with Andrew himself saying: “I’ve always been told I was an extremely well-behaved kid.”
With the Queen’s admiration of the armed forces, his decision to join the Navy may also have brought the two closer together.
Andrew once said that “there was no question” in the Queen’s mind about whether he should be allowed to fight in the Falkland Islands, claiming it “only took her two days to sort the issue”.
Ms Harris comments: “The Queen seems to have quietly supported Andrew’s desire to serve in the Falklands.
“And as the second son, Andrew had more freedom than Charles, with the emphasis being on safeguarding the heir.”
During her ‘annus horribilis’ in 1992, the Queen had to navigate not just Andrew’s divorce, but Charles’ and Anne’s at the same time.
And when in 2019 Andrew was forced to step down from public life, his relationship with his mother came under renewed scrutiny.
His “ill-judged” association with the paedophile billionaire Jeffrey Epstein and the “major disruption” it was causing to their family’s work meant the Queen had to distance herself from Andrew.
The Duke of York was also absent from celebrations marking the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee as a COVID infection sidelined him from the event he had been expected to attend – a thanksgiving service at St Paul’s Cathedral.
“What we saw at the beginning of the Queen’s reign, with Charles suffering from a mother who put her duty first, came full circle with Andrew,” Ms Gristwood said.
“When push came to shove, she protected the institution.”
Edward ‘kept his nose remarkably clean’
The Queen’s youngest child Edward was born in 1964.
In a documentary on the Royal Family five years later, the Queen is seen driving him to the local town at Balmoral to buy an ice cream in an unusual display of affection.
But his lack of interest in rural life and poor exam results caused some to speculate he was the “weak link” of the family.
Often seen carrying a Roberts Radio, Edward was more interested in the arts than horses and the military, dropping out of the Navy after just four months of service.
Afterwards Edward stepped into the media, working for Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s theatre company and then setting up his own TV production business, which faced criticism for being out of touch and later dissolved.
After seeing all three of his siblings divorce, he was relatively late to marry his long-term girlfriend Sophie, Countess of Wessex, in 1999.
But their stable marriage and two children appeared to bring Edward closer to his mother.
“He was her only child not to have divorced and he’s kept his nose remarkably clean,” Ms Gristwood commented.
Harris adds: “With fewer working members of the Royal Family after Andrew, Harry and Meghan stepped down, Edward and his family have become more respected and more prominent.
“His daughter Lady Louise shared the Queen’s love of horseback riding and the Queen loved being surrounded by her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”
In a Sky News documentary for her 90th birthday, Edward spoke of his admiration of her as the monarch.
“Her impact is immense,” he said.
“Because she has been this rock through all sorts of periods and times. That engenders a huge amount of love, but also respect.”