Royal Travelogue 5: Caernarfon Castle and the Princes of Wales

Caernarfon Castle

Caernarfon Castle

In 1538, King Henry VIII of England received a report that Caernarfon Castle in Wales was “moche ruynous and ferre in decaye for lackke of tymely reparations.” With the Tudor dynasty on the throne, descendants of Henry V’s widow, Katherine of Valois and her Welsh steward, Owen Tudor, there was less need for fortifications to keep the English and Welsh apart, as a conquering Edward I intended in the late thirteenth century. By the reign of King James I (1603-1625), only the Eagle Tower and King’s Gate still had roofs and the buildings inside the castle were “all quite faln down to the ground and the Tymber and the rest of the materialls as Iron and Glasse carried away and nothing left that [is] valiable.”

The King's Gate

The King’s Gate

The magnificent ruins of Caernarfon Castle still bear the evidence of centuries of neglect. Reaching the top of the Well Tower, which once housed the the massive castle cistern, requires a long climb up a stone spiral staircase into the darkness above. The narrow steps are uneven from centuries of use and exposure to the elements. (The Well Tower was still unfinished in the 14th century and did not receive a roof until the 19th century restoration of the castle). There are ropes to assist visitors up the medieval steps to see Edward I’s view of the village of Caernarfon and waterfront. Once at the top, Edward I’s plans for his new castle become clear. There is space for an entire royal household in the turrets as well as massive fortifications designed to enforce England’s conquest of Wales.

In 1282, Llywelyn “the Last,” the final Welsh ruler from the House of Gwynedd died in battle against English forces. Edward I seized the opportunity for a complete conquest of Wales. The King sent Llywelyn’s only child, Gwenllian ferch Llywelyn, to a distant Lancashire convent and began construction of a series of castles around Wales. Edward I’s queen, Eleanor of Castile, accompanied the King on the 9th Crusade and she was also present for his occupation of Wales. In 1284, the royal couple’s son, the future Edward II, was born in Caernarfon during the construction of the Castle.


View of Caernarfon Castle from Eagles Tower

View of Caernarfon Castle from Eagles Tower

According to a legend dating from the 16th century, Edward I promised the Welsh a prince, “borne in Wales and could speake never a word of English,” beginning the practice of the King’s eldest son serving as Prince of Wales. While some of these Princes, including Henry VIII’s elder brother, Arthur, spent time in Wales learning the business of kingship, more than half of the “Princes of Wales” never visited Wales. Caernarfon Castle rarely served its intended purpose as a Welsh residence for the Prince of Wales. Instead, the castle became a local prison and storage facility for armaments, gradually falling into disrepair.

Statue of David Lloyd George in Caernarfon

Statue of David Lloyd George in Caernarfon

The castle returned to prominence in the 20th century when it became the site of investiture for Princes of Wales. In 1911, David Lloyd George, the future Prime Minister and member of parliament for Caernarfon Burroughs, was Chancellor of the Exchequer, and he favoured  a Welsh investiture ceremony for the future Edward VIII as Prince of Wales. The ceremony, which took place in Caernarfon Castle, sped the restoration work.

In 1969, the current Prince of Wales, Prince Charles, was also invested as Prince of Wales in the castle. In contrast to previous Princes of Wales, Charles made efforts to learn the language and customs of Wales before his investiture, completing part of his university education in Aberystwyth. The current royal family continues to maintain close links with the region.

Following their wedding in 2011, William and Catherine, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, resided in Anglesey while William worked as a Search and Rescue pilot. Edward I arrived in Wales as a conqueror but William and Catherine arrived as residents eager to blend into their surroundings, finding a degree of privacy and normalcy in the early years of their marriage. Caernarfon Castle is now a World Heritage Site and one of the most popular tourist destinations in Wales.

Next: Cornet Castle in Guernsey, the last Royalist stronghold during the English Civil Wars

Elizabeth of York: The First Tudor Queen by Alison Weir (Review)

King Henry VIII’s mother, Elizabeth of York, has emerged from the shadows. After decades of obscurity compared to her son’s six wives, Elizabeth is now the subject of popular biographies and historical novels alike including Elizabeth of York: The Forgotten Tudor Queen by Amy License and The White Princess by Philippa Gregory. The England of Elizabeth’s lifetime has also captured the public’s imagination. The recent discovery of the remains of Elizabeth’s uncle, Richard III, has revived interest in the Battle of Bosworth Field where her future husband, Henry Tudor seized the crown and founded a new dynasty that united the Houses of Lancaster and York. In Elizabeth of York: The First Tudor Queen, Alison Weir, author of sixteen medieval and Tudor biographies and five historical novels tells the story of the first Tudor Queen and her tumultuous times.

Elizabeth was popular in her own lifetime and idealized by Victorian biographers because she appeared to be the ideal Tudor wife, mother and queen consort, providing quiet support and legitimacy for Henry VII’s rule. While source material concerning Elizabeth’s life, particularly before her marriage, is frustratingly incomplete compared to her more famous children and grandchildren, Weir emphasizes evidence that she exerted influence over her family and court. The “Song of Lady Bessy” imagined her actively plotting to place Henry Tudor on the throne and secure their marriage. Her account books as queen reveal her extensive charitable activities and court patronage. Elizabeth also worked with her powerful mother-in-law, Margaret Beaufort, to influence Henry VII’s policies, particularly the dynastic marriages of her children. There are a few places where speculation is presented as fact, most notably Weir’s controversial view that Elizabeth “was actively pushing” for a marriage to her uncle, Richard III, but most of the analysis of Elizabeth’s character is clearly supported by surviving source material.

In additional to revealing Elizabeth’s full role at the Tudor court, Weir provides an evocative portrait of her world. Elizabeth’s father, Edward IV, imitated the sumptuous display of the Burgundian court and the young princess therefore grew up in an atmosphere of great luxury. At the same time, the political circumstances of the Wars of the Roses made her position precarious. She experienced two periods of sanctuary in Westminster Abbey and was declared illegitimate by Richard III before becoming Henry VII’s queen. The disappearance of Elizabeth’s brothers, the Princes in the Tower, remains a mystery to the present day. Weir is critical of revisionist interpretations of Richard III’s reign and blames him for the death of his nephews, summarizing convincing evidence from her previous book, The Princes in the Tower.

The second two thirds of the book is stronger than the first because there are more sources about Elizabeth’s time as a queen than a princess. The early chapters would benefit from a more thorough discussion of English attitudes toward female succession in the Middle Ages. Weir writes, “in the fifteenth century it would have been unthinkable for a woman to succeed to the throne” but there had actually been plenty of debate about women’s succession rights. William the Conqueror’s granddaughter, Matilda, briefly held power in 1141, during a Civil War with her cousin, King Stephen.

England explicitly upheld women’s succession rights during the reign of Edward III when a proposal to introduce a Salic law was defeated by parliament. The Wars of Roses resulted in both men and women losing succession rights that they would have enjoyed in peacetime. Outside England, there were prominent examples of female rulers in the fifteenth century including Queen Isabella of Castile and Mary, Duchess of Burgundy. A key reason why Henry Tudor was determined to marry Elizabeth, and there was speculation that Richard III contemplated marrying his niece, was because she was a rival claimant to the throne.

Elizabeth of York: The First Tudor Queen is a well written and interesting portrait of Elizabeth of York’s life and times. Weir captures the unique circumstances of Elizabeth’s world, which combined sumptuous display and deadly political intrigue. Greater attention to the medieval English debate over female succession would have made the narrative stronger, demonstrating how Elizabeth’s granddaughters, Mary I and Elizabeth I were able to establish themselves as England’s first undisputed female rulers.


My interview in the Globe and Mail about the Duchess of Cambridge and Royal Fashion

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry at The 2011 Sun Military Awards at Imperial War Museum in London.  (Photo by Arthur Edwards - WPA Pool/Getty Images

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry at The 2011 Sun Military Awards at Imperial War Museum in London. (Photo by Arthur Edwards – WPA Pool/Getty Images)

I am quoted in Sarah Hampson’s article “Will a ‘regal makeover’ mean the end of winsome Kate?” in the Style section of today’s Globe and Mail. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will visit Australia in April and there is a great deal of speculation that Catherine’s wardrobe will incorporate jewels from the royal collection. There is a long tradition of royalty displaying their status through elaborate clothing and jewels. In Hampson’s article, I mention the regal fashions of Queen Elizabeth I.

Click here to read “Will a ‘regal makeover’ mean the end of winsome Kate?” in the Globe and Mail. 

In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn by Sarah Morris and Natalie Grueninger (Review)

If your plans for 2014 include travel in the United Kingdom and France, pack a copy of In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn by Tudor history enthusiasts, Sarah Morris and Natalie Grueninger. As the subtitle states, the book is “The visitors companion to the palaces, castles & houses associated with Henry VIII’s infamous wife” but the book is much more than a travel guide. Morris and Grueninger have written an unconventional biography of Anne Boleyn through the lens of the places she visited and provided a unique snapshot of Tudor court life by retracing Henry VIII’s and Anne Boleyn’s 1535 progress. In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn is also a unique architectural history of Great Britain and France and an enjoyable travelogue about the authors searching for long lost Tudor palaces and abbeys.

Admirers of Anne Boleyn usually imagine the controversial Queen in three settings: Hever Castle, where she spent part of her childhood, Hampton Court Palace, where she presided over the Tudor Court with Henry VIII, and the Tower of London where she spent her last days before her execution. All three of these places are tourist attractions that attract thousands of visitors every year, who often forget that the sites no longer look the same as they did in Anne’s lifetime. Morris’s and Grueninger’s research reveals that Anne may have visited more than seventy places scattered throughout England, France and Belgium over the course of her short life.

By examining Anne’s life through its settings, the authors bring often overlooked aspects of the Queen’s character to the fore. Her time as a member of the household of Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy and Queen Claude of France meant that she was far more well traveled than Henry VIII, who never saw the Chateaux of the Loire Valley. Anne’s travels also revealed that she had a wide network of social and political connections and was clearly comfortable engaging with everyone from Kings, Queens and Duchesses to humbler clergymen or gentlefolk who hosted the royal party on their progresses. Most biographies of Anne Boleyn focus on her relationship with Henry VIII or her Boleyn and Howard relatives. Morris and Grueninger bring the full extent of Anne’s experiences and social circles to the fore, including key primary sources along with descriptions of palace and abbeys.

The travelogue aspects of In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn are just as interesting as the source material about Anne Boleyn’s life and Tudor times. In the modern age, any house where Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn stayed during their courtship and marriage is worthy of preservation in its original state but that was not the view in past centuries. The dissolution of the monasteries during the English reformation that permitted the marriage of Henry and Anne, resulted in the destruction of abbeys that the couple once visited together. Casualties of the English Civil Wars in the 1640s included key Tudor historic sites and Napoleon III’s transformation of Paris in the 19th century destroyed much of the medieval city. The settings of Anne’s life that survived into the 18th and 19th centuries often experienced “improvements” by Romantics or Victorians designed to evoke the feeling of a bygone age rather than the precise architecture. As a result, a book like In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn is necessary for tourists to distinguish original Tudor buildings from modern innovations.

Morris and Grueninger include their own impressions of each site in the narrative including frank comments about whether each the various obscure settings of Anne’s life are worth visiting. I have visited many of the palaces in the book, following the footsteps of Queen Henrietta Maria rather than Anne Boleyn and it’s great to read the impressions of other travelers who have walked around the ruins of Wolvesey Castle in Winchester and journeyed to Saint-Germain-en-Laye outside Paris to find traces of royal life in the rooms that now house the National Museum of Archaeology. I have noted some places in the book for my next visit to the United Kingdom and France this August.  In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn will appeal to a wide audience of readers interested in Anne herself, the times she lived in, how the architecture of England and France has changed over the centuries and planning a trip to historic sites off the beaten path.

The Boleyn Women by Elizabeth Norton (Review)

There is an entire sub-genre of Tudor themed historical fiction that centers around conflict between two “Boleyn Girls” at the Tudor court. All these novels present two female archetypes and place them in conflict. The most famous of these novels is of course Philippa Gregory’s  The Other Boleyn Girl, which imagined Henry VIII’s mistress Mary Boleyn as “the good sister” devoted to her home and children, and his second wife, Anne Boleyn as “the unscrupulous sister” determined to become and stay Queen at any cost after the end of her betrothal to the future Earl of Northumberland. In Murder Most Royal, Jean Plaidy contrasted the lives of two “beautiful cousins,” Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard who both married Henry VIII and were both ultimately beheaded.

 Not every novel about Boleyn women includes Anne. In Elizabeth I: The Novel, Margaret George contrasted Elizabeth I with her Boleyn cousin Lettice Knollys imagining the Queen as a woman who sacrificed having any sort of personal life to maintain her position while Lettice surrendered to her passions. All the Boleyn women were more complex personalities than they have been portrayed in historical fiction. In The Boleyn Women: The Tudor Femmes Fatales Who Changed English History, Elizabeth Norton, author of ten books about the Tudors including Bessie Blount: The King’s Mistress, Anne of Cleves: Henry VIII’s Discarded Bride and Anne Boleyn: Henry VIII’s Obsession, reveals the true story of eight generations of Boleyn women, placing the famous Anne Boleyn and Queen Elizabeth I within the fascinating context of their Boleyn extended family.

Long before Anne Boleyn caught the eye of Henry VIII, the Boleyn family were well known for advancing themselves from the “middle class” to the nobility through advantageous marriages. Norton reveals that the families of these Boleyn wives contributed more to their families than their lineages and inheritances. Anne’s great-grandfather, Geoffrey Boleyn trusted his wife Anne Hoo Boleyn so implicitly that his will gave her the authority to arrange her children’s marriages and divide the family silver between them. There is no evidence that the marriage of Queen Anne Boleyn’s grandparents, William Boleyn and Margaret Butler was as close but Margaret was devoted to advancing her children and staking her claim to the Irish earldom of Ormond.

The best chapters of The Boleyn Women are the sections that reveal how little known members of Queen Anne’s extended family navigated the treacherous politics of the Tudor court. Anne’s aunt, Lady Shelton found herself in a particularly difficult situation when she became Governess  to Princess Elizabeth, head of a royal household that also included Mary, Henry VIII’s daughter from his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Although Anne instructed her Aunt to treat Mary harshly, Lady Shelton appears to have become close to her charge and they continued to exchange gifts long after Anne Boleyn’s execution. Lady Shelton’s daughter Mary or “Madge” as she is better known became an accomplished poet and a rival to her cousin, the Queen, for Henry VIII’s affections.

The wife of Anne Boleyn’s brother George, Jane Parker, came from a family that sympathized with Mary’s cause and another one of Anne’s aunts, Anne Tempest Boleyn, was expected to report her nieces conversations during her last days in the Tower of London. Norton’s book reveals that there were divided loyalties within the supposedly united “Boleyn faction” and that a number of Anne’s aunts and cousins in addition to her sister-in-law remained at court after the famous Queen’s execution.

Since Norton reveals fresh details about the lives and divided loyalties of so many obscure Boleyn women, the least compelling chapters of The Boleyn Women are actually those that focus on the most famous members of the family, Anne Boleyn, her sister Mary and Queen Elizabeth I. The Boleyn Women is unlikely to be the first book on the Tudors chosen by a general reader but will instead appeal to those already interested in the life of Henry VIII, his wives and his children. Readers who are familiar with Norton’s other works on the Tudors,  The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn: ‘The Most Happy’ by Eric Ives or Mary Boleyn: Mistress of Kings by Alison Weir will skim through the sections on the famous Boleyns to learn more about their little known aunts and cousins.

In The Boleyn Women: The Tudor Femmes Fatales Who Changed English History, Elizabeth Norton reveals the complex role of the Boleyn wives, daughters, mothers, aunts and cousins in the rise and fall of the famous family. The Boleyn women launched their children into the English nobility and many survived the fall of Anne of Boleyn, remaining at the Tudor court as Henry VIII married four more times and Elizabeth I became the sole  Boleyn woman to rule England in her own right.

The Kings and Queens of Scotland by Timothy Venning (Review)

There are two kinds of Scottish King and Queens in the popular imagination. There are the larger than life figures who have passed into legend such as MacBeth, St. Margaret, Robert the Bruce and Mary, Queen of Scots. Then, there are the monarchs considered forgettable or ineffectual, ascending to the throne as children, fighting losing battles against the English or their own rebellious nobles and often dying violently in the prime of life. In The Kings & Queens of Scotland, Dr. Timothy Venning, author of The Kings & Queens of Wales and The Kings & Queens of Anglo-Saxon England, places Scotland’s legendary monarchs in their proper historical context and reassesses the lesser known King and Queens, revealing their achievements as well as their challenges before the Union of Crowns in 1603.

The strongest chapters of the book deal with the five successive Stewart Kings named James who reigned from 1406 until the ascension of the six day old, Mary, Queen of Scots in 1542. In contrast to their more shadowy predecessors, there is more surviving source material about Stewart Kings and the emerge as distinct personalities as well as political figures. James I of Scotland was a Renaissance man, who read classical philosophy, composed love poetry to his future wife, Joan Beaufort while a prisoner in the Tower of London and introduced tennis to the British Isles. His son James II introduced new military technologies to his kingdom, losing his life when one of his new cannons misfired during a siege.

James III was an anglophile who relied heavily on the advice of his mother, Mary of Guelders, one of Scotland’s most capable regent Queens, and pursued interests in literature, music and architecture. In contrast, James IV befriended the enemies of the Tudor dynasty, supporting rebellious Irish magnates and Perkin Warbeck, the most significant figure to claim to be one of the “Princes in the Tower.” James’s marriage to Henry VII’s daughter, however, gave his descendants a strong claim to the English throne.

Mary, Queen of Scots’ father, James V, was known as the “People’s Prince” and might have enjoyed a successful reign if he had not died at the age of thirty. Venning considers each reign within the broader context of Scottish history, revealing how some of the seemingly obscure or ineffectual monarchs contributed to the centralization of the state, legal reform and cultural patronage. Even, Mary, Queen of Scots, who is better known for her failures than her successes on the throne emerges in Venning’s book as “a competent and adroit sovereign” during her first years as an adult Queen in Scotland. Venning blames her second and third marriages for her her ultimate downfall.

Unfortunately, the opening of The Kings & Queens of Scotlanis densely written and may not have as much appeal for general readers. Venning devotes the first chapter to the convoluted genealogies of the Kings of the Picts, Dal Riada and Strathclyde. Although there are clear family trees included revealing the complicated rotations between different ruling families and the significance of female descent, this early history is difficult to follow and readers may want to  begin with chapter two and rise of the House of Dunkeld. The early chapters also focus quite narrowly on the relations between each monarch and his nobles. More detail about how royal decisions affected ordinary Scotsmen and women would enhance Venning’s analysis of the successive monarchs.

Venning concludes the book with the 1707 Act of Union that created “Great Britain” from the formerly distinct kingdoms of England and Scotland. Charles I was the last Stuart King to have a separate coronation in Edinburgh and the later Stuarts paid little attention to their northern kingdom. Venning ends with “the extinction of one [Stuart] line and the rigid Francophile Catholicism of others” but it would have been interesting to read subsequent chapters about the revival of the monarchy’s interest in Scotland during the reigns of King George IV and Queen Victoria and the effect that devolution may have on the current Queen’s relationship with Scotland. The Kings & Queens of Scotland is an excellent introduction to Scottish royal history that will leave readers interested in learning more about Scotland’s monarchs.

The Kings and Queens of England: The Biography by David Loades (Review)

The Kings & Queens of England: The Biography stands out from other collective biographies of Queen Elizabeth UU and her predecessors because it begins with the unification of what is now England under the Saxon King Athelstan and ends with analysis of Prince Charles as the future King. Most studies of Queen Elizabeth II and her predecessors begin with William the Conqueror’s victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and end with the present reign. By expanding the scope of The Kings & Queens of England: The Biography, David Loades, author of over thirty books including Henry VIII, Mary Rose and The Boleyns: The Rise & Fall of a Tudor Family, reveals the origins of the relationship between England and the monarchy and the nature of the institution that will be inherited by the Prince of Wales.

Since forty monarchs reigned between 1066 and the present day alone, each chapter about an individual monarch is brief, focusing on key themes. Loades states in the introduction that his goal is to recover the identities of each ruler but he is far more interested in how successive monarchs engaged with their subjects, church and finances than the personal lives of Kings and Queens. This approach reveals some interesting trends in royal history. Despite his reputation for indulgent living, King Edward IV was the first monarch to die solvent since Henry II, setting a precedent for the frugality displayed by Edward IV. Long after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, constitutional monarchs continued to exert influence and Loades presents the Hanoverian Kings and their families as political figures rather than focusing on their dysfunctional family relationships.

The strongest section of The Kings & Queens of England: The Biography are the chapters about the Tudor monarchs, Loades’s field of expertise. Loades complicates the popular perceptions of Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Lady Jane Grey, Mary I and Elizabeth I. He explains that Henry VII did not live up to his reputation as a miser, spending large sums on court spectacles in keeping with the other monarchs of the time. The execution of the Duke of Buckingham, dramatized in the first season of the Showtime TV series, The Tudors, emerges as a turning point in the reign of Henry VIII, the moment when he developed a distrust of the nobility and came to rely on advisers from humbler backgrounds.

In a book covering over a thousand years of history, the occasional factual error is difficult to avoid. In the early chapters of the book, Loades occasionally misinterprets the personal lives, families and relationships of the medieval Kings. He states that the ultimate fate of Harold II’s children is “not known” even though the last Saxon King’s daughter Gytha made a prestigious royal marriage after the Battle of Hastings, becoming the consort of Vladimir Monomakh, Grand Duke of Kiev. The genealogical tables erroneously present King Stephen’s mother, Adela, as the daughter of Henry I rather than his sister.

Unfortunately, the number of factual errors increases in the chapters concerning Queen Victoria and her descendants. Loades states that the Queen had ten children, five sons and five daughters when even the genealogical tables in the book affirm that Victoria had nine children and only four sons. Loades asserts that Edward VII emerged from his childhood with “a highly developed moral sense” and that his “flirtations” “were all superficial,” an interpretation that does not match the portrayal of the future King in Jane Ridley’s Bertie: A Life of Edward VII  or Stanley Weintraub’s Edward the Caresser: The Playboy Prince Who Became Edward VII. Prince Charles is described as the first royal father to be present in the delivery room for the birth of his child, an inaccurate statement that was widely accepted as fact by the press during the weeks preceding the birth of Prince George of Cambridge in July, 2013

The Kings & Queens of England: The Biography end on a high note with a nuanced final chapter placing Prince Charles in historical context. Loades argues that the current Prince of Wales is the most active heir to the throne since King George II’s son Frederick became involved in opposition politics during the eighteenth century. The book ends with informed speculation regarding Charles’s eventual reign. Loades’s approach to the history of the monarchy reveals how the relationship between crown and country developed over the course of hundreds of years and continues to evolve in the twenty-first century.

The 7 Most Controversial Royal Christenings

The Duchess of Cambridge with the newborn Prince George of Cambridge in July, 2013

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

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

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

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.”

The Chapel Royal at St. James’s Palace from King Henry VIII to Prince George of Cambridge

St. James's Palace in London

St. James’s Palace in London

Prince George of Cambridge will be christened by The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, at St. James’s Palace on October 23. The choice of venue took the public by surprise because both Prince Charles and Prince William were christened in the Music Room at Buckingham Palace, which became a favourite venue for royal christenings after the palace chapel suffered bomb damage during the Second World War. The Chapel Royal at St. James’s Palace, however, has been the setting for key royal occasions since the reign of King Henry VIII. The upcoming christening will follow in a long tradition of royal events unfolding within the Chapel Royal.

Today, St. James’s Palace is the administrative centre of the monarchy and the senior royal palace in the United Kingdom. The Accession Council meets at the palace to proclaim each new sovereign and British Ambassadors represent “The Court of St. James.” The palace did not enjoy this prominence when Henry VIII ordered its construction in the 1530s. Henry’s principal residence in London was Whitehall Palace and he intended for St. James’s Palace to be a secondary residence. Much of the palace was constructed on the site of a leper hospital dedicated to St. James the Lesser. The palace chapel was originally part of a nearby convent acquired by the King during the dissolution of the monasteries.

Portrait of Henry VIII's 4th wife, Anna of Cleves by Hans Holbein

Portrait of Henry VIII’s 4th wife, Anna of Cleves by Hans Holbein

St. James’s Palace was completed in 1536. In 1540, Henry commissioned the artist Hans Holbein to decorate the chapel in honour of his fourth marriage to the German Princess, Anna of Cleves. Holbein had been a key figure in the marriage negotiations, painting the famous portrait of Anna that prompted the King’s proposal of marriage. Although the marriage ceremony itself took place at the Palace of Placentia in Greenwich, the adornments to St. James’s Palace were intended to celebrate the new Queen.

Unfortunately for Holbein’s career, Henry was not attracted to the actual Anna as he was to her portrait and the marriage was annulled that same year. Holbein continued to work as an artist at court but he received fewer royal commissions after the failure of the King’s 4th marriage.

St. James’s Palace continued to be a significant royal residence during the Tudor period. Two of Henry VIII’s children, Henry Fitzroy and Queen Mary I, died in the palace and the heart of the Queen is buried under the choir stalls. Elizabeth I reputedly prayed for the success of her fleet against the Spanish Armada in the Chapel Royal in 1588.

The Queen's Chapel, designed by Inigo Jones for Charles I's consort, Queen Henrietta Maria.

The Queen’s Chapel, designed by Inigo Jones for Charles I’s consort, Queen Henrietta Maria.

In 1623, construction began on a new chapel at St. James’s Palace. Negotiations were underway for King James I’s heir, the future Charles I, to marry Princess Henriette-Marie of France and marriage contract ultimately stated, “. . . in all the said King’s Palaces in which the said Madam shall remain or be she shall have a Roman church or chapel capable and large with sufficient commodious entrances not only for the use of Madam and the better sort but also for the meanest of families. And this church or chapel shall be decently adorned according to the rites and customs of the Roman church.”

Inigo Jones, a favourite architect of James I’s late wife, Anna of Denmark designed the new Roman Catholic place of worship and Charles I’s bride brought her own chapel furnishings from France. Although there was widespread public concern that Henrietta Maria would encourage her husband to convert to Roman Catholicism, Charles I remained a devout member of the Church of England and received in his last Communion in the original Chapel Royal in St. James’s Palace before his execution at Whitehall in 1649.

During the interregnum, Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell made clear what he thought of Henrietta Maria and her religion by using the Queen’s Chapel as a stable. Henrietta Maria’s chapel became a royal chapel once more in 1938 and the remains of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother remained there during the preparations for her lying-in-state in Westminster Hall after her death in 2002.

George Frederic Handel

After Whitehall Palace was destroyed by fire in the reign of King William III, in 1698, St. James’s Palace assumed its current role as the administrative centre of the monarchy. Although William preferred to live at Kensington Palace because of his asthma, George I, George II and George III all used St. James’s Palace as their principal residence in London during the eighteenth century. At this time, the Chapel Royal became a significant cultural centre. George Frederic Handel was appointed ‘Composer of Musick of His Majesty’s Chappel Royal’ in 1723 and he composed the music for the coronation of King George II in 1727.

Queen Victoria married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha in the Chapel Royal at St. James’s Palace in 1840. The chapel has been renovated in 1836 to include oak paneling and a high ceiling. The overjoyed bride wrote in her journal, “His beauty, his sweetness & gentleness – really how can I ever be thankful enough to have such a Husband! … to be called by names of tenderness, I have never yet heard used to me before – was bliss beyond belief! Oh! This was the happiest day of my life!” In addition to ensuring the Queen’s happiness, the wedding also had worldwide social significance as Victoria’s choice of a white wedding gown with fresh flowers has influenced bridal fashions to the present day.

George Hayter's painting of the wedding of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert

George Hayter’s painting of the wedding of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert

In contrast to the Georgian monarchs, Victoria did not use St. James’s Palace as her residence, preferring Windsor Castle and the newly enlarged Buckingham Palace as official homes for her growing family.  Nevertheless, the Palace continues to be the setting for royal events to the present day. The children of Queen Elizabeth II’s cousin, Prince Michael of Kent, Lord Frederick and Lady Gabriella Windsor, were christened in the Chapel Royal in 1979 and 1981 respectively. The Queen’s granddaughter, Princess Beatrice was also christened there in a ceremony conducted by John Habgood, Archbishop of York, in 1988.

The Duchess of Cambridge leaving the hospital with Prince George of Cambridge that day after his birth

The Duchess of Cambridge leaving the hospital with Prince George of Cambridge the day after his birth

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have chosen a setting for the christening of their son Prince George that has a long and colourful royal history. For Prince William, the choice of the Chapel Royal also has profound personal significance. In September 1997, the coffin of his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales was placed before the altar of the Chapel Royal so that family and friends could pay their respects before the funeral at Westminster Abbey. By choosing the Chapel Royal as the setting for Prince George’s christening, William and Catherine are honouring the late Princess of Wales in addition to their son’s destiny as heir to a thousand year old monarchy.

Click here to read my interview with Ruth Dunley of about the christening arrangements for Prince George of Cambridge.

Royal Babies: A History 1066-2013 by Amy Licence (Review)

The future Empress Matilda was delivered by a team of monks in 1102. Edward II came into the world in a tent during his father’s Welsh campaign in 1284. Henry VIII and his elder brother Arthur were born surrounded by women in chambers specially arranged by their formidable grandmother, Margaret Beaufort. Queen Henrietta Maria’s doctors required parliamentary permission to cross the battle lines of the English Civil Wars to deliver Princess Henrietta Anne in 1644.

Queen Elizabeth II was delivered by caesarian section at her maternal grandfather’s London house. Prince William and his newborn son, Prince George of Cambridge were born in a hospital with the world’s media outside. In Royal Babies, Amy License, author of In Bed with the Tudors: The Sex Lives of a Dynasty from Elizabeth of York to Elizabeth I, Elizabeth of York: The Forgotten Tudor Queen and Anne Neville: Richard III’s Tragic Queen presents a history of Britain in 25 royal births, revealing the long and fascinating history of royal childbirth.

Licence places each royal baby in the context of his or her times, including a wealth of information from centuries of childbirth guides, revealing whether each expectant mother followed the advice of their day or made controversial choices in the delivery room. Numerous queens consort found it difficult to balance their duties as royal wives with motherhood. Edward IV’s consort, Elizabeth Woodville may have breastfed the future Edward V because she was confined to sanctuary in Westminster Abbey during the Wars of the Roses but numerous other Queens employed wet nurses, allowing them to resume public life and have another child more quickly.

Until the 20th century, mortality for mothers and children was high and royal women and children succumbed to illness and infection. The survival of certain royal babies profiled in Licence’s book would have changed the course of history. Henry VIII’s eldest son with his first wife, Catherine of Aragon died at the age of ten weeks, beginning the King’s long quest for a male heir. George IV’s only child, Princess Charlotte, died giving birth to a stillborn son, George, which allowed for the eventual succession of her cousin as Queen Victoria. Henry VIII’s mother, Elizabeth of York and third wife, Jane Seymour died of what was described at the time as childbed fever.

Royal Babies is not only the story of 25 princes and princesses but of their parents, revealing changing trends in royal marriage as well as childbirth. While the eighteenth century monarchs from the House of Hanover made purely dynastic marriages with varying degrees of success, a surprising number of medieval monarchs made marriages based on physical attraction or shared interests as well as political advantage. Henry I “long desired” marriage to Edith of Scotland, who shared his cultural interests. Henry II and John were drawn to the beauty of their respective wives, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Isabella of Angouleme rather than their wealth alone. Edward III chose Philippa of Hainaut as his queen over her sisters because she wept when he left her father’s court. The thousand year range of Licence’s work reveals the full scope of how royal domestic life changed over time.

With only 25 royal babies profiled in the book, however, there are omissions that leave gaps in the narrative. While the Queen, Prince William and the newborn Prince George each receive a chapter, the birth of Prince Charles is not discussed. His absence is surprising as he was the first direct heir since the Glorious Revolution who was not born with a member of the government close at hand. Henry III and his Queen, Eleanor of Provence were known for their close attention to their children, yet none of their babies receive a chapter. As the main text of the book is only 164 pages long, the inclusion of a few more royal babies would have allowed for more seamless transitions from one royal delivery room to the next. There are also some factual and proofreading errors that suggest Royal Babies was rushed to press for the birth of Prince George.

  Royal Babies is filled with fascinating details about royal births over the past thousand years, revealing the varied experiences of English and Scottish Queens in the delivery room. The arrival of Prince George this year in the same hospital where his father, Prince William was born in 1982 suggests that future royal births may follow an established pattern. In contrast to their predecessors, the wives of subsequent royal heirs may know exactly what to expect when they give birth to next generation of princes and princesses.