The birth of a royal baby is met with excitement from some, indifference by others and media speculation that will spin even the slightest tidbit of information into a story in itself. For three days while we waited for the announcement for the new Prince Louis’ name we were treated to live updates confirming that yes! The baby has been born and no, they haven’t announced his name yet. But public interest in the birth of a new royal is a relatively recent event. Much of the royals born in history did so without particular notice of their future subjects and sometimes with only scant notice from their kingly fathers. Interestingly, the exceptions are scattered across history rather than appearing as trends during general periods, reflecting the whims of the king not the traditions of royal society.
One of the earliest examples of a publicly celebrated royal baby was as late as 1239. The unpopular Eleanor of Provence had been married to Henry III for almost four years without sign of a child. King, court and commons alike were thrilled with the news in early 1239 that the Queen was pregnant. It was enough to bolster her popularity, at least for the moment, and when she went into labour in mid-June much of London flocked to the streets to wait for news. Although the hour was late when the child was delivered, church bells across the city pealed to announce the birth of a baby boy and the people rejoiced. The cheering crowds drew even more crowds and visitors wrote how people shared food and drink with each other to celebrate the new arrival. Such an outpouring was a far cry from Henry III’s own birth which had drawn little attention from his own father, who was preoccupied with matters of state, even though he had already annuled one childless marriage to beget an heir. Henry III proved himself to be a family man from the off and held huge celebrations for his son who he named Edward after the sainted king, further endearing the child to the Londoners. Four days later Edward was baptised at Westminster Abbey and once again the city of London took to the streets. Henry gave generously to the church and to the poor (as he would for all his children) and the commons who had massed in the street proceeded to, according to observers, make very merry indeed. Henry’s grandson Edward III would provoke a similar reaction when his birth was greeted with wild parties, and the city was allowed free wine for a week to celebrate.
In 1365 the birth of Edward of Angouleme, son of the Black Prince was used as a publicity exercise to impress the region of Aquitaine. To some, the Black Prince was the very embodiment of chivalry, but he was less popular among the nobles of Aquitaine. In 1362 he had been created Prince of Aquitaine and Gascony by his father, Edward III, after he had led a successful military campaign there some years earlier, but was met with hostility from the native populace. The Prince kept a lavish court and was known for excessive spending, but instead of impressing this only served to increase his unpopularity. With the birth of his son, Edward, the Black Prince had him baptised in a magnificent event in an attempt to impress upon his subjects that in him they had a true king (although neither the Prince or his son would live long enough to take the crown). Tournaments were held in the young Edward’s honour with hundreds of lords and knights in attendance.
The fifteenth century was dominated by the Wars of the Roses and as such many of the children born to be king were not born to stable monarchs. Edward of Westminster was born while his father, Henry VI, was catatonic. Edward IV and Richard III were both born to the Duke of York, the latter being the twelfth of thirteen children. Richard’s son Edward of Middleham who was briefly Prince of Wales was so far from the throne at his birth that his birth date was never officially recorded. Henry VII was also an unlikely claimant at the time of his birth, born in Pembroke Castle to Margaret Beaufort after his father had died a few months before. The future Edward V was born during an interruption to his father, Edward IV’s, reign while the Queen, Elizabeth Woodville, was in sanctuary in Westminster Abbey. Edward would not see his son for another year until he returned to England and reclaimed his throne.
Under Henry VII the birth of his first son was used, as the Black Prince had done, as a way to solidify his image as king. In an effort to cement the Tudors as the rightful kings after so many years of instability on the throne, the boy was named Arthur harking back to the legendary King Arthur. This suited the romantic notion that this child was the living embodiment of the Yorkist and Lancastrian Union, heralding in a new time of peace. He was born in Winchester, a place associated with the oldest kings of England, and there was a great deal of celebration for the child, followed by a christening of great ceremony. Of the second son, Henry who would become Henry VIII, there was far less attention paid. Henry was the third child and with the exception of an impressive christening which was standard for a Tudor baby, little note was made of the event.
When Henry VIII came to celebrate his first child it is hardly surprising, given his reputation for festivities, that he went all out for the occasion. Henry, Duke of Cornwall was born on new year’s day 1511, a year after Queen Katherine’s first pregnancy resulted in a miscarriage. To announce the birth the guns were fired from the Tower of London, free wine was distributed around the country and bells rang in every city. Henry held a magnificent tournament that was considered the greatest of his reign, but unfortunately, the young Henry died within two months. Subsequent births were treated with less splendour, possibly because it was six years before they would have a successful pregnancy and a living child was born. Because the child was a daughter the celebrations were not as grandiose but her christening was lavish. Another tournament was planned for Henry’s first child by Anne Boleyn who was expected to be a son. Although they were happy to be delivered of a live baby, traditionally the birth of girls was greeted with less ceremony than boys and so the tournament was cancelled but the christening was again, extravagant. The bells rang once more for the birth of Edward but the celebrations were cut short when his mother, Jane Seymour, died shortly after he was born.
Although no more royal babies were born to the Tudors after Edward, across the border the future king of England James I was being celebrated to the point where the English ambassadors excused themselves, offended by the theatrical entertainments. James’ own son while he was king of Scotland but before he became King of England. There were considerable celebrations for the birth of Henry Frederick and he was baptised in a new chapel royal purpose-built for the occasion. The Stuarts saw a great deal of turmoil themselves in securing the succession and saw a period of exile when James’ son Charles I was executed for treason and the monarchy suspended. Although Charles II would be invited to take his father’s throne after a short-lived Commonwealth, he and his wife had no children and the throne passed to his brother James. The following years proved turbulent for the monarchy and it was not until the Stuart line died out and their cousins the Hanovers took the throne that stability ensued and royal children were born again.