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Forgotten by history: the royal babies you've never heard of

Amy Licence reminds us of the royal children who shaped the course of history, only to recede into obscurity.

Portraits of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon in the National Portrait Gallery
Portraits of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. If their first-born son had lived, he would have changed the course of history. Photograph: Getty Images

Finally, the nation’s patience has been rewarded. On Monday 22 July at 4.24pm, the Duchess of Cambridge was delivered of a son, weighing 8lb 6oz. The news was broken four hours later, announced by Kensington Palace and spread across the world within seconds. For the first time in over a century the monarchy has had three generations of heirs. Almost at once, speculation regarding the future of this new prince began. The role which he will fill, and the path unfolding before him, appear far more fixed than those of his contemporaries, born on the same day. His education, career, religion and even his marital prospects, have already been mapped out. Yet the lives of royal babies of the past have rarely run smoothly. Many of those born in anticipation of the throne never achieved their lofty destinies, while others born in obscurity rose to take their place.

When it comes to royal babies, some were born great, some achieved greatness and some had greatness thrust upon them. Expectations have always been high when it comes to the line of succession. Since historical records began, these important infants have arrived under a wide variety of circumstances. While some were born in times of peace, others were delivered during episodes of civil warfare or national depression. A few became the casualties of political conflict, feted and anointed, groomed for a kingship they never enjoyed.

Two examples of the fickleness of royal fate are Edward of Westminster and Edward V, who both lived and died during the turbulent fifteenth century. Familiar to fans of Philippa Gregory’s historical novels, these boys were the eagerly anticipated sons of the medieval houses of Lancaster and York respectively. Edward of Westminster was born in 1453, after his parents’ eight-year marriage was suspected of having been barren. Longing for a son and heir, his mother, Margaret of Anjou, prayed to the saints to intercede and grant her wish by securing the dynastic line. Edward should have inherited the throne after his father, Henry VI, but died in battle at the age of seventeen, attempting to reclaim his kingdom. The opponent he fought, Edward IV, had a son of his own. After the birth of three daughters, his wife Elizabeth Wydeville, the “White Queen”, finally presented him with a male heir while in sanctuary. The little boy, also named Edward, was celebrated and seen as a symbol of new hope, but he would not live long enough to enjoy his father’s title either. He would become known to history as the elder of the Princes in the Tower and would disappear in mysterious circumstances before his coronation.

History also provides examples of royal births which illuminate the pressures experienced by queens, whose role required them to deliver the future, in a literal and metaphorical sense. Henry VIII’s marital exploits are well known, but the birth of his first son, early in his reign, is less well remembered. Following his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, in 1509, Henry began the quest to father a son which would last for the next 28 years. It was to be far more difficult to achieve than he could ever have imagined. Early in 1511, Catherine delivered a boy whom they named Henry. When the news was proclaimed, London went into celebration. Days of public rejoicing and partying followed, with bells ringing, wine flowing, cannons at the Tower booming and bonfires burning in the streets. The boy was given a magnificent christening, with jousts, pageants, feasts and tournaments: it was the second most expensive occasion of Henry’s reign, outshone only by the legendary Field of Cloth of Gold.  A special gallery was built for Catherine and her ladies to watch the proceedings and it seemed as if the future of the Tudor dynasty was secure.

However, tragedy struck. Before the child was two months old, he succumbed to one of the infant illnesses of the day. Had he lived, the little prince would have become Henry IX of England. Although it is not possible to rewrite history, the implications of his imagined survival help us understand the impact of his premature death. Had this child lived, the well-known story of Henry’s six wives almost certainly would not have happened. Perhaps the course of the English Reformation would also have played out differently. There would have been no Edward VI, no Mary I or even Queen Elizabeth. The imagined reign of Henry IX is another historical “whatif” which provides a fascinating alternative path for English history; save for one small twist of fate, perhaps even an infection that may easily be cleared up by antibiotics today, it may have become established historical fact. The life and death of this tragic prince truly did shape the future of his country.

Henry would not father a legitimate heir until 1537, after he had divorced Catherine and her successor Anne Boleyn. Having won Henry’s love partly on the promise of presenting him with a healthy boy, Anne anticipated her own first confinement in 1533. Henry’s physician, astrologers and astronomers were confident that a son would arrive. Advanced notices were drawn up, declaring the arrival of a prince, to be dispatched across the nation and beyond. When Anne gave birth to Elizabeth in September 1533, the planned celebrations were cancelled and the notices hastily altered. A queen’s ability, or inability, to reproduce defined her power and determined her country’s future. Throughout history, the fertility, pregnancies and labours of queens have shaped national politics as well as their own personal relationships.

Celebrations for the birth of the Prince of Cambridge will continue this week but not every royal baby’s arrival has been welcomed by its future subjects. In 1688, the birth of James, son of James II and Mary of Modena, proved the innocent catalyst for his parents’ loss of the throne. The prospect of a male heir being raised as a Catholic was unacceptable to many at the time and the media played a significant part in spreading this dissent. By the seventeenth century, a proliferation of small presses flooded the market with pamphlets, chapbooks and newspapers, making the spread of information more immediate. Ballads written to honour the royal birth sat alongside seditious anti-Catholic material. The satirical cartoons of the Georgian era allowed criticisms of the royal family to spread further, amongst the illiterate, turning the tide further against the Stuarts. When James II was deposed, months after the birth, his infant son went into exile and spent the remainder of his life as the “old Pretender,” trying to regain the throne. It was claimed instead by William of Orange.

No such controversy surrounds Monday’s birth. The future line of succession is clear for the Prince of Cambridge and the baby’s timely arrival coincides with a modernisation of the monarchy, with the Duke and Duchess setting the tone as modern parents. Their son is the most immediate heir to the throne born in a new millennium, eagerly anticipated by its family and subjects. As the latest in a line of royal babies, stretching back centuries, its life will be the next chapter in the story of the Commonwealth.