Royal births today have an audience of millions – perhaps even billions – but their experience of the event is filtered through news cameras and confined respectfully to the outside of the hospital.
There was a time, however, when a Royal in labour could expect an audience at far closer quarters – in the room with them, while they were giving birth.
The custom began during the reign of James II – a Catholic king who was at odds with his protestant subjects, and desperate to produce a Catholic son who would supersede his Protestant daughter Mary II as heir to the throne.
In the first 15 years of his marriage to Mary of Modena, James II had produced no children who survived past infancy, making him well-known for his reproductive misfortune. Of their ten children, only five survived childbirth (to die shortly afterwards), two miscarried, and three were stillborn.
So when James II announced in 1688 that he was confident Mary was about to produce a healthy boy – and Catholic heir to the throne – his critics became convinced that the King had a trick up his sleeve, and was planning to sneak in a ringer to guarantee a future King in good physical condition, and of the correct religious persuasion.
To counter these rumours, James II decreed that more than 40 courtiers be allowed into the delivery room to witness the birth – with little apparent concern for the fact that this must be the least appealing prospect imaginable for an expectant mother. So the audience crowded in to witness the successful birth of James Francis Edward Stuart, and the proud Royal father published their testimony to prove to the public that the boy had truly emerged from his mother.
Sadly, this was not enough to assuage the masses and the rumour persisted; James Francis Edward was suspected by many of being a ‘changeling’ – a child secretly exchanged in infancy, brought into the delivery room hidden in a warming pan. His undeservedly dubious entry into the world followed him throughout his life; dubbed The Old Pretender, James Francis Edward watched as his Protestant sister Mary II became Queen following the Glorious Revolution that took place a few months after his birth, deposing James II. The Old Pretender spent the rest of his days claiming – to no avail – that he was the rightful heir to the throne.
Nevertheless, the tradition continued, with state dignitaries present at every Royal birth right up until 1948, to ensure that the line of ascension to the throne could never be called into question. By that point, however, the crowd was considerably smaller, the tradition having become for the Home Secretary and the Archbishop of Canterbury to be present during the delivery.
The tradition was neatly bookended by our current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. Even though she was not – at the point she was born – expected to become Queen (Edward VIII had yet to give up the throne for Wallis Simpson), her birth in 1926 was nevertheless attended by the then-Home Secretary. When it came time for Princess Elizabeth to give birth to Prince Charles, however, she was spared the indignity of a state audience – her father, King George VI put an end to the tradition shortly before she gave birth.
So when Meghan Markle gives birth this spring, Home Secretary Sajid Javid will most certainly not be present, and it is all thanks to Prince Harry’s great-grandfather, King George VI. Instead, the UK will simply have to take it on faith that the latest addition to its Royal family is not a changeling snuck into the delivery room on a warming pan.