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.

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.

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

Amy Licence is a late medieval and early Tudor historian focusing on women's lives. She is the author of the forthcoming biography Anne Neville, Richard III’s Tragic Queen and her blog can be found here.

Getty
Show Hide image

We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?