6 royal births that changed the world (or could have)
Author and historian Amy Licence explores royal babies through history, and the unusual circumstances of their arrivals...
Some babies are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. The arrival of a new royal has been exciting public interest for centuries, but not all babies destined to wear the English throne have been born to the role. Equally, the arrivals of infants in the past have dramatically changed the course of history, as the result of their gender, or their health. But for a few twists of fate, the country might have been ruled by Henry IX and James III…
Henry VIII’s attempts to father a son are widely known. Married for the first time at the age of 17 in 1509, he did not produce a legitimate male heir until a whole 28 years later. This was missing a whole generation, perhaps more so by Tudor standards.
Had the son Henry fathered in 1510 [with his first wife, Katherine of Aragon] survived, it may well have been his grandson Henry was welcoming in 1537 [instead of his son, the future King Edward VI], and the course of English history would have been dramatically different.
Nine months after their marriage [in 1509], Katherine of Aragon had lost one child but fell pregnant again within weeks, and went into labour on the last day of 1510. The royal nursery was ready and waiting, lined with yards of purple velvet, as Katherine laboured through the night in her apartments at Richmond Palace.
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The couple was delighted when a healthy boy arrived on New Years’ Day. Henry ordered magnificent celebrations, including a joust that proved to be the second most expensive event of his reign, second only to the Field of Cloth of Gold [a lavish celebration marking the meeting near Calais in June 1520 of Henry VIII and King Francis I of France, intended to strengthen the bond between the two countries].
Before the baby reached two months though, the future Henry IX had died. The cause of his death is not known, but the extent of his parents’ grief was understood by all. If this child had survived, there may have been no cause for Henry to annul his marriage to Katherine and marry Anne Boleyn in 1533: the faces of the Tudor dynasty would have looked quite different.
In 1533, Henry VIII was convinced that Anne Boleyn was going to bear a son. It would be the vindication of his long and difficult struggle to separate from Katherine of Aragon and his break with Rome. It would be also God’s blessing on his new marriage. When Anne delivered a girl on 7 September, he called off the joust he had planned.
Of the many theories regarding Henry’s fertility, one of the most convincing is that he carried the rare blood group Kell positive, leading to McLeod Syndrome, making it unlikely that Henry would father another surviving child with Anne.
Of course, they did not know this at the time, but hindsight tells us this was their one shot at it. Henry continued to hope that Anne would bear him a son, but her subsequent miscarriages began to feel too familiar to him. Had Elizabeth been born a boy, it seems unlikely that Henry would have allowed Anne’s fall, and this child may have been the Henry IX he so longed for.
One of the most tragic and preventable losses for the royal family was that of little George in 1817. His mother, Princess Charlotte of Wales, was something of a romantic: she followed her heart, and identified herself with the swooning heroine Marianne from Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.
She had married the dashingly handsome Leopold after a string of secret meetings. She captured the popular imagination, and the public had taken the young couple to their hearts. She fell pregnant in January 1817, and every stage of her condition was announced, tactfully, in the popular press. Betting shops even opened a book on the baby’s gender.
Charlotte followed the trend of the age by employing a male accoucher, Sir Richard Croft, who moved into her residence of Claremont house in the weeks leading up to her confinement. Croft put the Princess on a strict diet, excluding her usual meat and wine, and bled her regularly. Thus, she was much weakened when she came to deliver her baby.
Thought to be due in mid-October, she finally went into labour on 3 November. After almost 48 hours, Croft had still given no intervention to assist delivery, considering it inappropriate to touch the princess so intimately. On the evening of 5 November, her 9lb son, George, was stillborn, and Charlotte herself died the following morning. Croft blamed himself and committed suicide.
It was a tragic tale of good intentions but misapplied wisdom. But for the presence of a more experienced midwife, George may have gone on to be crowned George V instead of Victoria coming to the throne.
Prince James Francis Edward Stuart
In 1688, the anticipated royal baby of the Stuart king James II and his wife, Mary of Modena, had the advantage of being born a boy. He was healthy, male and Catholic – everything Henry VIII had wanted – but times had changed. James was born into a largely Protestant country, and the majority of his father’s subjects did not want to be ruled by a Catholic. His parents had already lost four children by the time Mary went into labour that June.
Religious tensions and concern over the child’s health demanded a public delivery, so her plans to lie-in at Windsor were abandoned in favour of St James’ Palace, where a crowd gathered in her antechamber. Rumours flew that the baby had an unknown father, and in case it was lost, another child was ready to be smuggled inside concealed in a bed pan.
Mary bore a healthy son on 10 June, but it was not enough. In fact, his arrival now meant the continuance of the Catholic dynasty that parliament did not want. That November, James’ son-in-law, William of Orange, invaded England at parliament’s invitation, and displaced James as king. In his innocence, the arrival of the future James III had proved his father’s undoing.
Known today as one of England’s most famous kings, familiar through his success on the field at Agincourt, Henry V was one of those babies who had greatness thrust upon them.
His arrival was not considered important enough to record fully, but the most likely date for his birth was September 1386, at Monmouth Castle. His mother, Mary de Bohun, was still in her mid-teens and his father, Henry of Derby [aka Henry Bolingbroke], was about to join his fellow Lords in a dangerous opposition to his cousin, King Richard II.
Destined to be a great magnate, baby Henry grew up in the anticipation of the king fathering sons of his own. This did not happen, however, and by the time Henry was 12 his father had been exiled from England and the Lancastrian inheritance was in jeopardy.
Young Henry was loyal to Richard, and his feelings were torn when his father returned home, deposed and replaced him as king. Henry of Monmouth succeeded his father as Henry V in 1413, but it was a role that events beyond his control had propelled him towards, rather than as the inevitable consequence of his birth.
The arrival of the future Edward V in 1470 could not have come at a lower point in his parents’ fortunes. Having reigned for nine years his father, Edward IV, had fled into exile as a result of the readeption [return to power] of the former Lancastrian King, the unstable Henry VI.
Edward’s queen, Elizabeth Woodville, gave birth to her first son by him in the discomfort of her Westminster sanctuary, unsure whether she would ever see her husband again. She would have to wait until the following spring for his return.
Prince Edward was given the upbringing of a future king of England, established with his own household at Ludlow Castle. His Woodville uncle, Anthony, was appointed as his tutor, and his parents set out strict rules for his education, including the conduct of those in his household, and strictly allocated time for leisure appropriate to his age.
On his father’s death in April 1483, Anthony and Edward set out for London, where preparations were being made for the 12-year-old’s coronation. They were intercepted by Edward’s Yorkist uncle, Richard, who arrested Anthony and brought Edward to London himself, lodging him in the Tower of London.
He was soon joined there by his younger brother, Richard, but the coronation day came and went. After that summer, the boys were never seen again. Opinion is still divided about their fate, and the bones discovered in the Tower in 1674, currently in an urn in Westminster, are yet to undergo modern forensic examination.
Given Edward V’s upbringing, he is likely to have “proved most royal” had he been given the opportunity to rule.
Amy Licence is the author of 25 Royal Babies that Changed the World: A History, 1066 to the Present (Amberley Publishing, 15 May 2015). To find out more, click here.
This article was first published by History Extra in May 2015
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