The Duchess of Cambridge with the newborn Prince George of Cambridge in July, 2013
The christening of Prince George of Cambridge on October 23 in the Chapel of Royal of St. James’s Palace will be private occasion attended by family, close friends and the royal baby’s godparents. From Saxon times until well into the reign of Queen Victoria, however, royal christenings were often public occasions. When the christening of a royal baby went according to plan, the ceremony effectively symbolized the close relationship between the Crown and the Church and presented the next generation of royal heirs to the world. Unfortunately, royal christenings also had the potential to showcase unfortunate omens, religious discord and conflicts within the royal family regarding names, godparents and child rearing. Here are the 7 most controversial British royal christenings:
1) King Aethelred the Unready (c. 968-1016) According to the medieval chronicler William of Malmesbury, the life of the future King Aethelred the Unready began inauspiciously when the infant defecated in the font at his christening. Dunstan, the Archbishop of Canterbury exclaimed angrily to the assembled guests, “By God and his mother, this will be a sorry fellow!” Aethelred grew up to become one of the most ineffective Kings of Saxon England, losing his throne to King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark from 1013 to 1014.
The twenty five year old Elizabeth I in her coronation robes, embroidered with Tudor roses
2) Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) The future Queen Elizabeth I, daughter of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn was the first royal baby received into the newly created Church of England. Since the ceremony in the Church of Observant Friars in Greenwich proclaimed both the legitimacy of the King’s second marriage and the new religious settlement, there was critical commentary from supporters of the repudiated Queen Catherine of Aragon and the old papal supremacy. Imperial Ambassador Eustace Chapuys, one of Catherine’s most prominent supporters wrote, “the christening has been like her mother’s coronation, very cold and disagreeable, both to the Court and to the city, and there has been no thought of having the bonfires and rejoicings usual in such cases.”
3) Prince Henry Frederick (1594-1612) The eldest son of King James VI of Scotland (the future James I of England) and Anna of Denmark received a lavish christening at Stirling Castle. The King intended to make his son’s ceremony stand out from all previous royal celebrations by surprising the guests with a lion pulling a chariot into the christening banquet. At the last moment, this plan was cancelled as there were concerns that the lion might “forget himself.” Guests had to settle for viewing the King’s lions from a distance as the animals remained in their courtyard enclosure. Prince Henry died at the age of eighteen and his younger brother Charles succeeded James as King Charles I.
4) Princess Catherine Laura (1675) When the future James II’s second wife, Mary of Modena gave birth to her first child, the Roman Catholic royal couple arranged for a secret christening by Mary’s Catholic chaplain. James’s children from his first marriage, the future Queens Mary II and Anne, were Protestants and he wanted the children of his second marriage to share his Roman Catholic faith. When Charles II found out about Catherine Laura’s secret baptism, he ordered a second, Church of England, christening for his niece against the wishes of the baby’s parents. The infant princess died of convulsions at the age of nine months.
Prince George William, second son of the future King George II
5) Prince George William (1717-1718) Arrangements for the christening of the future King George II’s second son led to a lasting rift between the Prince of Wales and his father, King George I. The Prince and Princess of Wales – the future King George II and Queen Caroline – wanted to name their son Louis and suggested the Queen of Prussia and Duke of York as godparents. George I promptly took charge of the christening planning, choosing “George William” as the name for his grandson and asking the Lord Chamberlain, the Duke of Newcastle to be one of the godparents. The Prince of Wales detested Newcastle and confronted him at the ceremony, declaring, “You are a rascal, but I shall find you out!” Due to the Prince’s thick German accent, Newcastle heard “I’ll fight you!” and assumed he had been challenged to a duel. George I banished his son and daughter-in-law from court because this incident, retaining custody of their children. When baby George William died at the age of three months, the Prince of Wales blamed his father for the tragedy because he had separated the child from his parents. The relationship between George I and the future George II never recovered from the circumstances surrounding George William’s christening and death.
6) Queen Victoria (1819-1901) The christening of the future Queen Victoria was the setting of an argument between the baby’s father, the Duke of Kent and her Uncle, the future King George IV, regarding suitable names. The Duke and Duchess intended to name their daughter Victoria Georgiana Alexandrina Charlotte Augusta after her mother and godparents. The King rejected these choices and told his brother and sister-in-law that he would inform them of the baby’s name at the christening. At the ceremony, The Archbishop of Canterbury held the baby over the font until the King decided, after some deliberations, that she would be named Alexandrina for her godfather, Czar Alexander I. The Duke of Kent requested a second name for the baby and suggested Elizabeth. George refused this idea, declaring, “Give her the mother’s name also then but it cannot precede that of the Emperor.” With the name settled, the future Queen was finally christened Alexandrina Victoria.
A group photograph from Prince William’s christening in 1982
7) Prince William (1982) After the breakdown of her marriage to Prince Charles, Princess Diana stated that she had been excluded from the planning of her elder son’s christening. Diana stated in a taped interview with James Colthurst published in Diana: Her True Story in Her Own Words, “I was treated like nobody else’s business. Nobody asked me when it was suitable for William – 11 o’clock could not have been worse. Endless pictures of the Queen Mother, Charles and William. I was excluded totally that day.” Diana’s biographer, Tina Brown dismissed Diana’s account in The Diana Chronicles, writing, “The christening was a dynastic ceremony involving all the Royal Family, not a “Mommy and Me” class.”