5 momentous royal births

Historian Kate Williams traces the history of the monarchy's quest to produce successors – from Edward V to Princess Charlotte…

Britain's Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge show their newly-born daughter and their second child Princess Charlotte, to the media outside St Mary's Hospital in central London, in May 2015. (Photo by Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images)

The “poor man’s child”

After his father was overthrown, Edward V began life in less-than-royal conditions


The first son of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, Edward V of England was born at a turbulent time. His parents had married secretly in 1464, much to the horror of the court, for Elizabeth was 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 Abbey where, on 2 November, she 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”.

An oil on panel portrait of Elizabeth Woodville

In 1471, Edward IV was restored to the throne and his son became Prince of Wales and was placed at Ludlow Castle near the England/Wales border. On 9 April 1483, Edward IV died and his son – the new Edward V – travelled to London, but he was put into the Tower with his brother and his coronation postponed. It was announced that his father had been already betrothed when he married Elizabeth, making Edward illegitimate. His uncle was then declared king – Richard III.

Edward and his brother soon disappeared from view entirely in what became the most famous mystery of British history: who killed the princes in the Tower?



The long-awaited heir

In 1537, Henry VIII finally got the son he craved

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. In September 1537, Jane was confined to her room at Hampton Court, west of London, and, after a difficult three-day labour, gave Henry the boy he needed at 2am on 12 October. That night, 2,000 gunshots were fired from the Tower of London and church bells rang. The king was overjoyed, holding him up to show the court.

Baby Edward was baptised three days later, with both his half sisters carrying the train of his christening gown. While Henry celebrated, Jane’s health deteriorated. The labour had left the queen critically ill and she died less than two weeks 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.



The people’s hope

Princess Charlotte was the only legitimate option

George III had 13 surviving children, none of which seemed particularly keen on marriage. In the face of these dynasty-wrecking antics, the king’s patience snapped and his son, Prince George, grudgingly agreed to marry his cousin, Caroline of Brunswick. Their first meeting was a disaster and the prince later spent the wedding night with his head in the grate, drunk. Soon after, the pair separated.

Somehow, though, Caroline fell pregnant and, in January 1796, the prince wrote that his wife had delivered an “immense girl” after “a terrible hard labour”. They named her Charlotte. Even though he had wished for a boy, Prince George “received her with all the affection possible”. The couple were briefly reconciled – but then the prince returned to his mistresses.

A portrait of Henry VIII with Prince Edward, his son by his third wife, Jane Seymour. If the future Henry IX had survived, there may have been no cause for Henry to annul his marriage to Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn in 1533, says Amy Licence. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

George III’s children produced around 56 illegitimate offspring but, in 1796, Charlotte was the one legitimate child. She soon became the nation’s hope to produce a male heir. Yet these hopes were cruelly dashed when she died within hours of giving birth to a stillborn son.



The distraction

The future Elizabeth II brought joy in troubled times

On the eve of Britain’s general strike in 1926, the home secretary, William Joynson-Hicks, had much to do. Confirming the legitimacy of the royal baby was not uppermost in his mind. Butit was the task of the home secretary to do so; all births in the line to the throne had long been attended by politicians to verify the child had been properly born of the mother.

He travelled to Bruton Street in central London, where Elizabeth, the Duchess of York and wife of the second son of George V, was in labour in her parents’ home. A little girl was born by caesarean section at 2.40am on 21 April 1926, 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 a meeting with mine owners.

Queen Mary called the child “a little darling with a lovely complexion”. As daughter of the king’s younger son, she was not expected to attain the throne. As it turned out, history would have a very different role for Elizabeth to the one anticipated at the baby’s birth.

The young Princess Elizabeth with a pony, c1939. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)



The next generation

Princess Charlotte: a young royal trailblazer

Saturday 2 May 2015 marked the beginning of a bright new chapter in the royal family’s long history as Prince William and Kate Middleton emerged from St Mary’s Hospital in London – before a sea of reporters, cameras and well-wishers – clutching in their arms their new daughter, Princess Charlotte Elizabeth Diana.

Charlotte is fourth in line to the throne – behind her elder brother, George, who was born in July 2013. In fact, the young princess is already something of a trailblazer – for, thanks to the change to the succession law that came into effect in March 2015, she cannot be displaced in the line of succession by any younger brothers.

Kate Williams is a historian and presenter. 


This article first appeared in BBC History Magazine’s ‘Royal Women’ bookazine