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Fit for a King: Prince Charles’s christening sponsors, 15 December 1948

Born just three-and-a-half years after VE Day 1945, HRH Prince Charles Philip Arthur George of Edinburgh was very much a post-war baby.  Even his christening, on 15 December 1948,  was a reminder of the impact of the war. It could not take place in the Private Chapel at Buckingham Palace, where his mother had been baptised, because it had not yet recovered from wartime bombing. The beautiful Music Room (previously the Bow Room), with its high domed ceiling and arched windows, was used instead. The Archbishop of Canterbury performed the rite at the gold and silver lily font, the baby wearing the royal christening robe of white silk and Honiton lace made for Queen Victoria’s children.

Prince Charles’s eight sponsors were all related to him and reflected his links to the royal families of Europe. Some were reminders of less settled times and testaments to courage.  King Haakon of Norway was the Prince’s great-great uncle through his marriage to Maud, youngest sister of George V. The Earl of Athlone stood proxy for the elderly King, who had seen the Royal Family the previous year at the wedding of the Prince’s parents.

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Born Prince Carl of Denmark, Haakon was elected as Norway’s first king after its dissolution from Sweden in 1905.  Queen Maud had died in 1938, so was spared the horror of Norway’s invasion by German troops on 9 April 1940.  They planned to capture the King and his Government in order to force the country to surrender. His refusal to comply with Germany’s demand to appoint Vidkun Quisling as Prime Minister saw him and his government become living targets, pursued through the mountains until the Allies evacuated Norway and a British ship rescued them. Setting up a government in exile in London, and devoting himself to the war effort, King Haakon became a symbol for all Norwegians working for the deliverance of their homeland.

The Prince’s first name was said to be for King Haakon. Coincidentally, when Charles was born, the film Bonnie Prince Charlie, about Prince Charles Edward Stuart, the pretender to the Throne, was having its first showing in cinemas. Its star was David Niven, a good friend of Philip’s, who had joined him at an all-male party Philip hosted to celebrate his son’s birth.

His sponsor David Bowes Lyon, his mother’s uncle, had played a significant part in the war in persuading America to support Britain. The younger brother of Queen Elizabeth (Consort to George VI, later the Queen Mother), he was appointed head of the Political Warfare Executive in Washington. His efforts were in marked contrast to the King’s brother, the Duke of Windsor who, while Governor of the Bahamas, had caused great concern by making ill-judged statements about the foolishness of America entering the war.  David Bowes Lyon was knighted in 1959.

Two of Prince Charles’s great-grandmothers were sponsors: Queen Mary and the Dowager Marchioness of Milford Haven, Philip’s grandmother. Both were remarkable women but the Dowager Marchioness, Princess Victoria, still carried with her memories of earlier troubles. A granddaughter of Queen Victoria, she had married the German Prince Louis of Battenberg, Britain’s First Sea Lord. However, sensitivities during the First World War had led to their name being changed to Mountbatten. He also had to relinquish his position and title. In recognition of his loyalty, he was created Marquess of Milford Haven.  When he died in 1921, Victoria became Dowager Marchioness and moved into Kensington Palace. She also had the sadness of overseeing the committal to a sanatorium of her daughter Alice (Philip’s mother), who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when Philip was a boy, after which Victoria supervised his care.

Lady Butter (née Wernher), a relation of Philip’s, remembers the Marchioness, who often stayed with her family. ‘She was the most amazing woman and frightfully clever,’ she told this author. ‘She had all the tragedy of the murders of the Russian royal family and the awful humiliation of her German husband during the Great War.  I remember her as very old and wrinkled and always wearing black.’

Prince George of Greece was represented by his nephew, the Duke of Edinburgh. A grandson of Christian IX of Denmark and a son of George I of Greece, his appointment as a sponsor was a reminder both of the Duke’s background and the unsettled past of those countries.

Prince Charles’s third name, Arthur, was that of two Dukes and a Prince of Connaught, and of his grandfather, George VI, another sponsor. The King had celebrated his 53rd birthday the day before and was relieved to be able to attend.  Just a month earlier he had been diagnosed with arteriosclerosis.  Doctors had feared his leg might need to be amputated, which the King insisted be kept from Princess Elizabeth until her child was born.  For now, at least, he seemed to be responding to treatment.

The advanced age of the sponsors was balanced by having two much younger ones, Princess Margaret and Lady Brabourne, Philip’s cousin, at whose wedding in 1946 Princess Elizabeth was a bridesmaid, and at which the picture of Philip removing her coat had sent the world’s Press into a frenzy of speculation that romance was brewing.

In time-honoured tradition, the Prince’s official christening cake was formed from the top tier of his parents’ wedding cake, saved specially for such an occasion, and redecorated with colonnades and a silver crib that held a miniature baby. Other splendid cakes were also welcomed, one decorated by ex-Service silversmiths, another made by young cookery students with marzipan from New Zealand and ingredients from all over the Empire. It was the sort of innovation that the infant, who would one day create the Prince’s Trust to help young people in work, would come to appreciate. What no-one at the christening could have imagined was that Prince Charles would also become the oldest and longest-waiting Heir to the Throne in history.

Jane Dismore is the author of PRINCESS: The Early Life of Queen Elizabeth II (pub. 2018 by Thistle Books UK and Lyons Press USA). It is currently long-listed for the People’s Book Prize, the only major book award determined solely by the public vote.  More at www.janedismore.com

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