I recently returned from a holiday visit to the land of my birth and discovered that there is frenzied excitement about Prince William and Princess Catherine’s unborn child, who is expected to arrive sometime this summer. This baby will be third in line for the British throne after Prince Charles and William.
Of course, there has been speculation about when this famous couple would start a family since they returned from their honeymoon in 2011, but most people thought that they would wait until after both the queen’s diamond jubilee and the London Olympics in 2012 before making baby plans.
Nevertheless, speculation in the press late last year reached unprecedented heights, fuelled by a perceived happy glow about the couple because Prince William publicly accepted a “baby-grow” (onesie) from a well–wisher and the princess has a new hairdo with a “fringe” (bangs)!
The announcement of the royal pregnancy was made rather earlier than the normal 12-week mark because the princess was hospitalized to treat a severe form of morning sickness known as hyperemesis gravidarum. Interestingly, many sufferers of this sickness have twins — which has not happened before in the 2,000-year history of the English (and, in recent centuries, British) monarchy.
However, in 1430 in Scotland (which had not united with England at that time), the future King James II was born as one of twins, even though his brother Alexander died as an infant.
If the princess is expecting twins, the first baby born would be the future monarch. Things would get really interesting, however, if a C-section was needed because the doctor could potentially be picking the next queen or king of England.
In historical times, when infant mortality was high and the importance of hereditary royal power enormous, the poor royal mother-to-be had to give birth in front of male relatives and — even worse — male members of the government so that they could swear that the child was indeed legitimately of royal blood and not a substituted commoner.
Even poor Queen Victoria in the 19th century had a senior politician waiting for news in a room close to where she was “lying in” the birthing chamber.
Fortunately, we now live in more enlightened times, and the rules governing royal succession are due to change any day now. Under the old rules, a girl born before her brother would have nonetheless found herself behind her male sibling on the royal-succession list as a result of male-preference primogeniture rules. Or, to put it more simply, the eldest boy became king even if the first-born royal child was a girl. Girls only inherited the throne if they had no brothers.
However, thanks to the reforms agreed to by the British Commonwealth countries in 2011 (which still need a go through few final bureaucratic steps before they’re official), this has changed, and formalization definitely will be a priority by the British government in light of recent events.
Despite Americans declaring independence from England in 1776, there is still a significant interest here in the U.S. in the British constitutional monarchy and the youngest royal couple. Today, the reigning monarch has mostly symbolic duties as official head of state, and almost all decisions are made by the United Kingdom’s democratically elected government.
Unlike monarchies in many other European countries, the royal family has survived in Great Britain because it has evolved and adapted in spite of difficult times, such as the upheaval caused by Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s divorce in the early 1990s and her tragic death in 1997.
While the importance and even the need for the royal family has been hotly debated in the U.K. for centuries, I personally believe the queen and her royal successors play an important role as symbolic heads of the country. As one of my heroes, Margaret Thatcher, once said: “Those who imagine that a politician would make a better figurehead than a hereditary monarch might perhaps make the acquaintance of more politicians”
I wish the prince and princess and their future children a happy family life because without that, all the riches and fame in the world are meaningless, as Princess Diana learnt to her cost. So God bless America – and as we say in the British Isles, “God save the queen!”
Lesley grew up in London and moved to Richmond Hill in 2009.