Prince George of Cambridge will follow in a long line of royal babies when he is christened on Wednesday. As a deliberate nod to this tradition, he will be baptised wearing a replica of the christening robe made for Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter, which was then worn by most subsequent royal babies. While the details are often sparse, accounts survive of earlier royal christenings, suggesting that the ceremony did not always go smoothly.
Although all English royal babies will have been christened from the mid-Saxon period onwards, the details of only a few survive. It is to be hoped that Prince George will not follow the example of his distant ancestor, King Ethelred II (the ‘Unready’), who reigned between 978 and 1016. According to the later chronicler, Henry of Huntingdon, the young Ethelred managed to disgrace himself when ‘he made water in the font’, something which caused St Dunstan, the archbishop of Canterbury, to predict disaster for England when it came to be ruled by the child.
Ethelred’s great-great-granddaughter, the Scottish princess Edith also had an eventful baptism. Her godparents were Matilda of Flanders, the wife of William the Conqueror, and his eldest son, Robert Curthose. This was an odd choice given that her mother, who was an English princess, had fled to Scotland following the Norman Conquest, marrying Malcolm, King of Scots. During the ceremony, which was attended by Robert personally, the baby playfully pulled her mother’s headdress over her own head, leading to comments that she would one day be a queen herself. This proved to be the case and, after changing her name to Matilda, she married Robert’s younger brother, Henry I of England in 1100.
Robert, who had inherited Normandy from his father, had designs on England and invaded in 1101, setting out to capture Winchester. It proved fortunate for the queen that Robert remembered her baptism and his protective role as her godfather, since he abandoned his attack when word was sent that his goddaughter was then inside the town and about to give birth.
A christening proved to be a battleground in the rivalry between Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII, and her predecessor, the discarded Catherine of Aragon. Catherine had brought a ‘rich triumphal cloth’ with her from Spain, which she had used as a christening robe for her children. In 1533, Anne gave birth to her own child, Princess Elizabeth, and asked the king to request the cloth from Catherine, evidently considering it to be the royal christening robe (in the same way that Princess Victoria’s christening gown has been used over the generations by the royal family). Catherine, who had already been forced to give up her jewels to her successor, refused, stating ‘God forbid that I should ever be so badly advised as to give help, assistance, or favour, directly or indirectly, in a case so horrible and abominable as this.’ For once, Henry did not press her further and an alternative christening gown was used.
Four years later, a royal christening marked the last public appearance of Henry VIII’s third wife, Jane Seymour, who took part in the festivities surrounding the baptism of her son, Prince Edward, on 15 October 1537. Jane, who had given birth only three days before, was wrapped in velvet and furs, before being carried to an ante-chamber, close to the chapel, where she lay on a special sofa. By convention, the baby’s parents did not attend the ceremony itself, although they watched the procession leave for the chapel and return. Jane was up until late and the following day fell ill, dying just over a week later from the effects of childbirth.
Several centuries later, the christening of the future Queen Victoria was a tense one for her parents. Victoria was born in 1819 following the death in childbirth of her first cousin, Princess Charlotte, in 1817. Charlotte had been the only legitimate grandchild of George III and her death and that of her baby caused a scramble amongst her uncles to produce an heir to the throne.
It was Edward, Duke of Kent, who succeeded and, when his daughter was born he sought to call her Georgiana Charlotte Augusta Alexandrina Victoria, with the first three names popular ones in the English royal family and the last her mother’s name. Unfortunately, Kent was not on good terms with his eldest brother, the Prince Regent (who was the future George IV). The Regent sent the couple a note the night before the christening informing them that, on no account, was the baby to be named Georgiana after him.
At the christening the next day, the Archbishop of Canterbury asked what name had been chosen and the Regent immediately declared ‘Alexandrina’, after another of the baby’s godparents, the Tsar of Russia. Kent then suggested Charlotte, which was vetoed by his brother since it was the name of his deceased daughter. Augusta was also blocked for being too grand. With the Duchess of Kent weeping and the guests watching uncomfortably, the baby was eventually christened as simply ‘Alexandrina Victoria’, with her uncle permitting the use of her mother’s name for the baby.
There had been rumours that the Duke of Kent had sought to call her Elizabeth, which he considered an auspicious choice for a potential future queen. His daughter, who, as an adult, abandoned Alexandrina in favour of her second name, ensured that the name Victoria would become as associated with English queens as that of her predecessor, Queen Elizabeth I.
From babies defiling the font to rival queens fighting over a christening robe, royal christenings have often been dramatic. Prince George’s will no doubt go somewhat more smoothly than some of his royal predecessors, although as the examples show, even the behaviour of a royal baby can be unpredictable.
photo credit: A royal godfather – Robert Curthose from his tomb at Gloucester photo by Elizabeth Norton