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.

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.