A look back at the surprising history of royal christenings

July 11, 2019 0 By HearthstoneYarns


8th Jul 2019

When Queen Elizabeth II decided a new baptismal gown needed to be made for royal christenings, there was only one person she trusted for the task: Angela Kelly. Her Majesty’s personal dressmaker turned advisor and confidant, Kelly was asked by the monarch to recreate the historic family christening robe, which had been in royal service for 163 years. It wasn’t a decision the Queen made lightly: 62 royal babies had worn the robe. It had swathed future kings, swaddled princesses and wrapped viscounts. It had been worn by the Queen herself, Prince Charles and his sons, Princes William and Harry. Although it had been carefully cared for – gently hand-washed by royal aides in spring water after each use and stored in a bespoke dark room – the Queen had become concerned the delicate lace fabric was becoming too fragile. Would it survive another baptism?

At the conclusion of the christening of Lady Louise Windsor, the daughter of Prince Edward and Sophie, the Countess of Wessex, on an April day in 2004, the Queen reached her conclusion. Lady Louise would be the last royal to wear the robe and Angela Kelly quickly set to work. Kelly travelled to northern Italy and consulted craftspeople to analyse the original dress, which had been commissioned by Queen Victoria in 1841 in order to baptise the Princess Royal. Created by seamstress Janet Sutherland, the first gown was fashioned to resemble Queen Victoria’s wedding dress and was crafted from fine white Spitalfields silk with a handmade Honiton lace overlay. In her diary, Queen Victoria remarked that wearing it her daughter looked “very dear”. Queen Elizabeth II was seeking an exact replica and Kelly’s team painstakingly recreated the design, not only using the same material but also the same processes – eschewing modern machinery and techniques. By 2008, the original gown was in preservation and the Wessexes’ second child, James, Viscount Severn, was baptised in the new design while the Queen watched on inside the private chapel of Windsor Castle. This outfit, which has since also been worn by Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis, will go on to be used by a century of her descendants in the many royal christenings to come. (The sharp-witted Kelly even saved enough material to ensure a replacement gown could be made, or perhaps a second one, for a royal twin.)

The official christening gown is a marker of the pomp and pageantry akin with the Royal Family – like a crown jewel is to a state banquet, it serves a purpose – but it also reminds the public that, in a way, the Windsors are a family like any other, with its own cherished traditions. It’s true that christenings are a distinctly personal affair: for the family, it is about baptising their child into the church of England, but like all royal events, it has grown into much more in recent times. The British Royal Family in particular has found ways to involve the public in this private event, from official portraits to public statements, which arrive on social media and cover essential details such as the date and location of the christening as well as the child’s godparents. Princess Eugenie of York was the first baby to have a public christening, in 1990. They’re now regularly hosted at more public, albeit royal, venues rather than behind closed palace doors. They aren’t televised so what actually occurs within the church is still shrouded in secrecy. Yet over time, the public has become just as smitten with a royal christening as any other grandiose event, in particular since it is often the second time we see the newest member of the Royal Family since the birth.

Like his father before him, Prince William’s christening took place in the music room of Buckingham Palace, deep inside the family home. He was baptised on August 4, 1982 in what was a quintessentially family affair – it even doubled as a birthday celebration for his great grandmother, the Queen Mother. The traditional Lily Font was used, a receptacle that holds the water for a baptism. It’s another ritual started by Queen Victoria – she was a true royal tastemaker. Usually, water from the River Jordan is used, but a popular theory goes that for Prince William’s christening, the special water was depleted and they had to use the palace’s tap water. Princess Diana later told royal biographer Andrew Morton the details of her first child’s christening were completely out of her control. It took place six weeks after his birth as Princess Diana was grappling with new motherhood. “Nobody asked me when it was suitable for William – 11 o’clock, couldn’t have been worse,” Princess Diana said. “Endless pictures of the Queen, Queen Mother, Charles and William. I was excluded totally that day. I felt desperate, because I had literally just given birth – William was only six weeks old. And it was all decided around me … I wasn’t very well, and I just blubbed my eyes out.”

It is true that royals now have a modicum of control over the planning of their child’s baptism. With careful negotiation, the new parents can ensure the day reflects themselves and their newborn baby. The christening of Prince George in 2013 took place in the Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace and his father, Prince William, had begged his grandmother for a “small, intimate affair”. Rather than a formal lunch at Buckingham Palace, the Cambridges wanted an afternoon tea at Clarence House, where they served slices of their wedding cake to their immediate family as well as the young prince’s godparents. The Duchess of Cambridge had a better experience than her late mother-in-law. She later quipped: “He was such a good boy, actually. We were very lucky: he’s not always like that.”

The Queen has allowed the Cambridges to follow this more informal process at the christening of all three of their children, including, most recently, the July 2018 baptism of baby Prince Louis. A modest litter of photographers was permitted to capture the Royal Family’s arrival, marking this as a decidedly stylish affair as we witnessed Meghan, the new Duchess of Sussex, arrive on the arm of her husband at her first family event since their May wedding. A little over a week later, four special portraits were released to mark the occasion, followed by a fifth informal photograph of a smiling Prince Louis held by his mother. It was proof the Cambridges have played a primary role in helping to re-shape the royal occasion.

Now, like their wedding, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have made their child’s christening their own. There is no doubt Archie’s day included personal touches, but one can say for certain that it also had all the flourish and ceremony the public loves and delights in – starting with that treasured lace gown.

This article appears in the 2019 Vogue Royal Special, on sale now. Buy it here. 

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