Victoria was born into a family that rather resented her, and her cousin Charlotte was the product of a failed three-day marriage. Meanwhile the future Edward VI was feted purely on the grounds that he wasn’t a girl. As Kate Williams demonstrates, the British royal family’s quest to produce successors has been nothing if not eventful…
The first son of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, Edward V of England was born in a turbulent time. His parents had married secretly in 1464, much to the horror of the court, for Elizabeth was a Lancastrian of common blood. A few years after her coronation, her father and brother were captured in battle and executed by relatives of the king.
By 1470, Edward was deposed – and Elizabeth was pregnant. She took sanctuary in Westminster, and there on 2 November gave birth to a son, Edward, in privation and insecurity. Instead of the blaring of trumpets and rejoicing across the land, his birth was received quietly and he was baptised in the abbey “like a poor man’s child”.
In 1471, Edward IV was restored to the throne and his son became Prince of Wales and was placed at Ludlow Castle. On 9 April 1483 Edward IV died and the new Edward V travelled to London, but he was put into the Tower with his brother and his coronation was postponed. It was announced that his father had been already betrothed when he married Elizabeth and that Edward was illegitimate. His uncle Richard was then declared king.
Edward and his brother, Richard, soon disappeared from view entirely in what became the most famous mystery of British history: who killed the princes in the Tower?
2) Henry VIII gets the son he craves
Henry VIII had tried everything to sire an heir. After two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, produced by Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn respectively, the court was praying for a boy. The pressure to produce one now rested on the shoulders of Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife and former lady-in-waiting of his second, Anne Boleyn.
Jane was confined in September 1537 in her room at Hampton Court and, after a difficult three-day labour, gave Henry the boy he needed at two o’clock in the morning on 12 October. That night, 2,000 gunshots were fired from the Tower. Bonfires were lit across the country and church bells rang. The little boy was fat and healthy, he fed well and his father was overjoyed, dallying him in his arms and holding him up to show the court. He was christened on 15 October, with both of his half sisters carrying his train.
While Henry celebrated, Jane’s health deteriorated. The labour had left the queen critically ill and she died less than a fortnight after giving birth. Though the son she’d given her life to produce did accede to the English throne – as King Edward VI in 1547 –he died just six years later, aged 15.
3) The “immense girl” who became the people’s hope
George III had 13 surviving children – and none of them seemed particularly keen on marriage. In the face of these dynasty-wrecking antics, the king’s patience snapped and his son, the Prince of Wales, grudgingly agreed to marry his cousin, Caroline of Brunswick. Their first meeting was a disaster – and the prince spent the wedding night with his head in the grate, drunk. Three days later, the pair separated.
Somehow, Caroline had fallen pregnant and, in January 1796, the prince wrote that his wife had been delivered of an “immense girl” after “a terrible hard labour”. They named her Charlotte. Even though he had wished for a boy, George wrote, “I received her with all the affection possible”.
George and Caroline were briefly reconciled – but then the prince returned to his mistresses. George III’s 13 children produced around 56 illegitimate children but, in 1796, only one legitimate child –Princess Charlotte. She soon became the nation’s hope. She grew up a warred-over child but was a captivating young girl.
News of her marriage to Leopold of Saxe-Coburg and ensuing pregnancy delighted the country. But she was in labour for nearly 50 hours in November 1817, before delivering a stillborn son. Within hours, she too was dead. The country was devastated but the brothers of George IV set about finding wives – in a race to produce a legitimate royal heir.
4) Victoria, the “pocket Hercules” with the ridiculous name
There was little dignified about Victoria’s birth. Her parents, the Duke and Duchess of Kent, had married in 1818, after the duke relinquished his mistress of decades to find a wife. His brother, the prince regent, was in mourning for his daughter Charlotte; the race was on to produce a new heir.
While they were visiting Germany, the duchess fell pregnant. The duke wished his child to be born in England, so he later hauled his eight-months’ pregnant wife into a carriage and they travelled across Europe in terrible weather, arriving just in time for the birth on 24 May 1819, at Kensington Palace. The duke was delighted with his daughter (“as plump as a partridge”), although he had to admit she was “more of a pocket Hercules than a pocket Venus”.
The rest of the royal family were not pleased. George III was incapacitated through madness and the prince regent, the future George IV, was head of the family. At the christening, annoyed by his brother’s pride and grieving for his own daughter, he refused to declare a name to follow the child’s first name of Alexandrina (after her godfather, the tsar of Russia).
The duke wanted the name Elizabeth, but the regent eventually announced she would be named Victoria after her mother. Contemporaries thought the name very odd – Victoria was not then in use as a girl’s name in Britain. Still worse, it was perceived to have a French derivation, just a few years after the end of the Napoleonic Wars.
“My brothers are not as strong as I am, the throne will come to me and my children,” said the duke. He was wrong about himself for he died the winter after his daughter’s birth. As Victoria approached adulthood, politicians discussed changing her name – but her mother refused. Victoria became queen when she was just 18 – despite consternation about her name.
5) Baby Elizabeth brings joy in troubled times
On the eve of the general strike in 1926, the home secretary, William Joynson-Hicks, had much to do. Assenting to the legitimacy of the royal baby was not uppermost in his mind. Still, it was the task of the home secretary to do so, as all births in the line to the throne had long been attended by politicians to verify that the child had been properly born of the mother.
He travelled to 17 Bruton Street in Mayfair, where the Duchess of York, wife of the second son of George V, was in labour in the home of her parents. A little girl was born by caesarean section at 2.40am on 21 April 1926, plump, healthy and pretty. “I do hope that you & Papa are as delighted as we are to have a granddaughter, or would you sooner have had a grandson,” the Duke of York wrote to his mother, Queen Mary. “I know Elizabeth wanted a daughter.”
Despite the social unrest, crowds cheered outside the house and the royal birth was received joyously across Britain. Joynson-Hicks dashed back to prepare for a meeting with mine owners.
Queen Mary called the child “a little darling with a lovely complexion”. She and King George V were thrilled by their grandchild; he even allowed her to pull on his ears and ride him around the rooms at Sandringham.
She was named Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, after consorts rather than queens regnant. As daughter of the king’s younger son, she was not expected to attain the throne. It was thought her uncle, Edward Prince of Wales, would marry and produce the heir. As it turned out, history would have a very different role for Elizabeth to the one anticipated at the baby’s birth.
Kate Williams is a historian and presenter. To listen to our podcast in which Kate Williams discusses how royal babies have been treated through history, click here.