Two royal babies, two October christenings… with just the little matter of 476 years between them. On 23th October 2013, little Prince George, third-in-line to the throne, was baptised at St James’s Palace in London. It was a relatively low-key royal occasion. Well, as low-key as it could be, with the presence of seven godparents and the baby’s great-grandmother, the Queen.
Nearly 500 years earlier, on 15 October 1537, the christening of Henry VIII’s son Prince Edward took place at Hampton Court Palace. He was Henry’s long-awaited male heir – the future King Edward VI. This was the most ambitious ceremony ever staged there. The formal procession to the Chapel Royal contained around 100 guests, and there would have been hundreds more looking on as it snaked its way through galleries and courtyards.
In our new BBC2 documentary, David Starkey and I, with the help of scores of volunteers playing the part of Tudor courtiers and royals, have re-created this splendid christening for one of the most important babies in British history. So why was it so important?
It’s a king!
While the current monarch has a son, grandson and now a great-grandson all lined up to secure the succession, Henry VIII had gone through 28 years as king and three marriages without managing to produce a single male heir who lived longer than a few weeks. Of course he had his daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, both future queens of England, but their mothers had fallen out of favour. The king had divorced Mary’s mother, Catherine of Aragon, while he had executed Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, only the year before. So at Edward’s christening his half-sisters were treated as princesses, but as merely the “Lady Mary”, who was then 21, and the four-year-old “Lady Elizabeth”.
The nation would have felt genuine relief at the birth of Prince Edward. The Ward of the Roses were not long over, and a straightforward succession would avoid the risk of renewed civil war.
Banish the Demons
At the Tudor court, every aspect of life was governed by ritual. The heralds, custodians of the court’s ceremony, would have dug out old records to ensure that things were done properly. Indeed one herald afterwards wrote a full account of Edward’s christening, and another made a visual record of it, by chance providing us with all the information we needed to re- stage the ceremony nearly 500 years later.
The baptism itself was conducted by Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. Although Cranmer was the architect of the English Reformation, this was a very conservative, Catholic ritual. This may sound surprising, but it was all to do with the timing.
During the days when Anne Boleyn held sway and Henry wanted the Pope to give him a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, he became a hot Protestant. But by 1537, Henry had swung back the other way again, and he would actually die as a good Roman Catholic. So salt was used to exorcise demons from the child – it’s still used in a Catholic christening today – and the baby was dipped into the water three times.
The guest list- minus two
Prince Edward’s christening should have been spectacularly well attended, but fear of plague meant that fewer people than normal were invited. Nevertheless, the key players were all there. “Lady Mary”, in her cloth- of-silver kirtle, was the best-dressed woman. Also present was the king’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell of Wolf Hall fame. Along with more than a dozen others present, he would go on to be executed.
But two people were missing: the king himself, and the baby’s mother, Queen Jane Seymour. Henry was absent because he wanted the most important person present to be his son, not himself. The Queen was still in her bedchamber for the ritual month of lying-in after the birth. While the court’s attention was on the celebrations, the queen was neglected. It’s possible that the placenta was not fully expelled when Edward was born, and her health gradually worsened.
In 2013 Prince George followed royal family tradition by wearing a replica of the white gown made for Princess Vicky, Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter, at her christening in 1841. Prince Edward, on the other hand, had a specially made new gown. It would have been purple, lined with ermine, and 12 feet long, which meant that several people had to help carry him.
Font with a view
Unlike Prince George’s font, which also dated from the christening of Princess Vicky, Prince Edward’s font of silver in the Chapel Royal was probably brand new. It was placed on top of a bizarre walled structure, ten metres wide and rising through four levels, so that the congregation could see the ceremony. It took six men at least three days to build this wooden centrepiece, and it would have been taken down afterwards, a bit like a stage set.
What happened next?
Edward’s christening was really the high point of Henry VIII’s reign. In Jane Seymour he had a wife he loved; he had a baby boy; it seemed like a new dawn. But little did he realise that this was in fact the end of something. Edward was the last of his line and there would be no more Tudor christenings. Ascending to the throne aged nine after the death of Henry in 1547, Edward would die of tuberculosis aged only 15, leaving his childless half-sisters Mary and Elizabeth to rule after him before giving way to the Stuarts.
And, most poignantly of all, Queen Jane would not long survive the christening of her son. She died of an infection nine days later on 24 October. The next grand Tudor ceremony at Hampton Court would be her funeral.