From Buckingham Palace to the Lindo Wing: how royal births have changed and why we’re so invested in them
27th May 2019
They are the public staging of a private joy, a strangely clamorous occasion when all that is most intimate in life is paraded in front of the world in a ritual of celebration that is both deeply traditional and unmistakably modern: the palace announcement on the easel in the forecourt of Buckingham Palace, the tweet proclaiming the birth, the forest of photographers’ ladders outside the hospital.
Royal births: we can’t get enough of them. And little wonder, for they mark the moment when our common humanity, our natural inclination to celebrate the arrival of a new human being on the planet, collides with the celebrity gaze and, from the Royal Family’s point of view, the sense of quiet relief that the dynastic succession has been secured for another generation. Even if, in this case, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s baby is only seventh in line to the throne.
The script can usually be written in advance. The latest cast member in the royal soap opera makes their first appearance on stage (usually asleep), the world beams with approval, and someone somewhere says that the little mite looks just like its father, or elder sibling, or the Queen. All nonsense, of course, but it is what we do. And even avowed republicans cannot help having a quick glimpse, just to check and say, reluctantly, that yes, the baby does look quite nice.
It is at times like this that one has the greatest sympathy with modern royal women. They have just been through the most physically demanding experience of their life, and their overwhelming desire is to do nothing other than to spend time with their new baby, and rest.
Instead they have to leave hospital in the harsh glare of the public spotlight, knowing that a billion people around the world will be able to see them in high-definition close-up at a time when, just possibly, they might not be looking their best. The Duchess of Cambridge was the mistress of this miraculous transformation, managing on more than one occasion to pose for pictures on the steps of the Lindo Wing just a matter of hours after giving birth, looking so immaculate that one wondered whether a body double might not have been involved. It was, one might argue, something of a disgrace that the list of distinguished medics whose signatures adorned the palace announcement on that golden easel did not include the name of the make-up artist.
Royal childbirth as public performance is, of course, a modern phenomenon. Prince William was the first direct heir to be born in a hospital: the Queen had all her children at home, as did generations of royals before her. There were no cameras to bother them.
Princess Diana set the standard in 1982 for the well-groomed appearance outside the Lindo Wing, offering a bashful smile as she stood there holding the day-old Prince William.
Behind the scenes, however, it had been a different story. Diana was not happy with the way her officials told her that they had to come to the hospital to keep the public up to date. According to her biographer Sarah Bradford, she was furious and told them: “What’s that got to do with you?” Good question, perhaps, although it was one battle she was always destined to lose.
Her labour was long and difficult and at one point the gynaecologist George Pinker considered performing an emergency caesarean operation. In the end it was not necessary, and she gave birth naturally.
The following day there was that other ritual of royal childbirth, indeed, of any birth: the grandparental visit. The Queen arrived, took one look at the tiny bundle and said: “Thank goodness he hasn’t got ears like his father.”
Charles, reflecting the style of modern fathers, was present for William’s birth. He later wrote to his godmother Patricia Brabourne: “I am so thankful I was beside Diana’s bedside the whole time, because by the end of the day I really felt as though I’d shared deeply the process of birth and as a result was rewarded by seeing a small creature which belonged to us, even though he seemed to belong to everyone else as well!”
A generation earlier it was a very different story. Prince Philip was not present to see Charles being born: instead, waiting around in the equerry’s room with the rest of the Royal Family for news of the birth (he had been so distracted that he had to be taken off for a game of squash with his private secretary, Mike Parker). Once the baby was born, he rushed into the room to greet his new son, still dressed in his flannels and open-necked shirt. When Princess Elizabeth came round from the anaesthetic – she had had a caesarean, a fact which, thanks to the prudery of the age, did not emerge until some time later – he presented her with a bouquet of red roses and carnations that had been provided by Parker.
By the time Edward was born in 1964 – some 16 years after Charles – fashions had changed, and Philip was invited to attend the birth by the Queen, who had been much taken with the new idea that fathers should be more involved in the birth. Her confinement took place in the bathroom of the Belgian Suite in Buckingham Palace, which had been converted into a delivery room. According to writer Ingrid Seward, Philip’s jocular asides helped lighten the mood when spirits waned. As he walked into the bathroom and saw all the glum faces, he remarked: “It’s a solemn thought that only a week ago, General de Gaulle was having a bath in this room.”
By then – much to the relief of all concerned, no doubt – the tradition had ended of the Home Secretary having to attend the royal birth. The last Home Secretary to have witnessed the birth of a future sovereign was the Conservative Sir William Joynson-Hicks, who was waiting in the next room while Princess Elizabeth was born in 1926 and was said to have conveyed the news by special messenger to the Lord Mayor of London.
Four years later the Labour Home Secretary, John Robert Clynes, a former organiser of the Lancashire Gasworkers’ Union, had to travel to Scotland to witness the birth of Elizabeth’s younger sister Princess Margaret at Glamis Castle. With Margaret two weeks late, Clynes had to be put up nearby at Airlie Castle, a telephone line was set up between the two castles and a motorcycle and dispatch rider were also employed in case the wire broke.
While such traditions might seem extraordinary to modern minds, the Royal Family was used to having witnesses present at all important occasions, no matter how private. Even by the standards of the time, however, the birth in 1688 of James Francis Edward, the son of James II, was a rum affair. James’s wife, Mary of Modena, was Catholic, and public concern at the prospect of a Catholic heir to the throne fuelled rumours that she was not really pregnant. To quell doubts, more than 40 people were summoned to witness the birth at St James’s Palace. That did not stop the gossip, however, and the talk in the coffee houses was that the baby who emerged had been smuggled into the bedchamber in a warming pan. The child never became king: by the end of the year James II had fled to France, and the throne was handed to William and Mary.
Nowadays we don’t have coffee-house gossip: we have Twitter. And we don’t have all those doctors, priests, Lords of the Privy Council and Ladies of the Bedchamber summoned to witness the birth: instead we have to make do with 100 photographers and camera crews sandwiched together on the pavement outside. But the fascination and excitement of a royal birth remain unchanged.
The Times of London
This article appears in the 2019 Vogue Royal Special, on sale now. Buy it here.