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Have royal births changed in 200 years?

Dr Sarah Richardson from the Department of History writes about the public reaction to the pregnancies of Kate Middeton, the Duchess of Cambridge, and Princess Charlotte of Wales.


sarah.jpgBetting over what sex the Royal baby will be, speculation by economists as to how much the Royal birth will bump up the British economy and widespread public interest and media attention awaiting the end of the pregnancy and the arrival of a new prince or princess. This is not, as you may think, the tale of William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge; these reactions occurred around the pregnancy of Princess Charlotte, nearly 200 years ago. Dr Sarah Richardson explores the similarities and the differences between the two pregnancies and what they mean to our constitution.

The birth of a royal baby, particularly one connected with the succession, more often than not has, in the past, prompted unease and apprehension as much as national celebration. A new royal baby, could strengthen, or destabilise the monarchy. Henry VIII’s desperation for a male heir is well known. In spite of marrying six times, he produced just three legitimate children and only one son. In June 1688, the surprising birth of a son to James II and his Roman Catholic wife, Mary of Modena (the so-called 'warming pan baby') sparked off a series of crises which led to the Glorious Revolution and James’ exile.

Childbirth, until the twentieth century, was risky, even for the wealthiest families. In 1817, the country was plunged into sudden mourning following the death of Princess Charlotte and her stillborn son. Charlotte was the heir apparent, the daughter of the future George IV and his estranged wife, Caroline. In 1810, the reigning monarch, George III, had succumbed again to madness and the country was ruled by a Regent. Although the immediate succession appeared secure, Charlotte was the king’s only legitimate grandchild and his own children were all over forty. The Prince Regent, was deeply unpopular and, therefore, the nation’s hopes were vested in Charlotte and her new baby. There was widespread public interest. Bets were placed on the sex of the new baby and economists calculated that the birth of a princess would raise the stock market by two and a half per cent, whilst the birth of a prince would increase it by six per cent. The ‘stout’ wife of a respectable local yeoman was reported to have been employed as a potential wet nurse. Again, if she were to nurture a prince, she would receive fifteen hundred pounds plus two hundred pounds a year for life.

In the month running up to the birth, the papers were full of details about Charlotte’s health and disposition. Although she was young (only 21), fit and strong, she had been subjected to a regime of ‘bleeding’, which was still a popular treatment in the early nineteenth century. One paper reported that she had submitted to, “…four incisions in her arm without effect, in consequence of the veins being deeply buried”. She was also put on a strict diet, to limit the size of the baby. Both interventions, led to her being severely weakened as the pregnancy neared its end. Just as with the Duchess of Cambridge, Charlotte went several days beyond her ‘due date’ without giving birth. The tension in the nation as reported by the press was palpable.

Charlotte’s pregnancy and childbirth was a very public affair. As soon as she went into labour, messengers were dispatched to bring the key officers of state to her bedside to witness the birth. These included Privy Counsellors, the Prime Minister, the Lord Chancellor, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London. Her labour was long and painful, and her baby boy died during the delivery. A few hours later, Charlotte herself began to complain of pain, suffered convulsions and died soon afterwards. The distress and unease of the country were summed up by the Morning Chronicle:

“The order of succession to the Crown is now by her death disturbed; and from the age of the Princes in the order of succession, and the state of the illustrious family, apprehensions will occur to every loyal mind. It will be the earnest prayer of the nation, that an early alliance of one of the unmarried Princes may forthwith be settled… We trust that this melancholy and unlooked-for event will accelerate the auspicious alliance, which may yet secure the inheritance of the crown to the lineal descendants of his Majesty till the latest posterity.”

The Duke of Kent, George III’s fourth son, took up the challenge put forward by the press. He dismissed his mistress and proposed to Victoria, Princess of Leiningen. Their daughter, Alexandrina Victoria, was born in 1819. She would become the last of the Hanoverian monarchs, acceding to the throne in 1837.

Perhaps things have changed in the twenty-first century. Yet, many of the laws governing succession, which date back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, remain in place. In particular, legislation banning Roman Catholics from becoming monarchs has not been repealed. Although Britain passed the Succession to the Crown Act in 2013, which allows for the first-born child of a monarch to be heir apparent, regardless of gender, legislation still needs to be passed in a number of Commonwealth states. So, it is still unclear if female succession is guaranteed. History has demonstrated that the sudden birth (or death) of an heir apparent may throw any planned succession into disarray. Thus royal births, even today, raise significant constitutional questions.


About Dr Sarah Richardson

Dr Sarah Richardson’s research in political, constitutional and gender history brings a range of benefits both to society and to the economy. She is committed to the principle of spreading the results of her research to a wide audience via the broadcast and print media, the internet, policy forums, public speaking engagements and via more creative environments such as the theatre and exhibitions. Her local history research has led to the development of a community website used as an exemplar for a Beacon Award in digital inclusion. As Director of the Higher Education Academy's History Subject Centre, Dr Richardson has influenced the development of policy towards teaching and learning at schools and at higher education level.