With the royal family having recently announced that the Duchess of Cambridge is carrying a second child, the nation’s attention and indeed that of the world, is affixed once more on all things regal. In sharp contrast to royal weddings, funerals, and coronations (which are necessarily grand ceremonies of state) royal christenings tend to be private affairs, with just a few close relatives present.
Consequently, royal christenings throughout history are not as well documented as the other occasions mentioned. Though we know enough about them to know that some were not quite so modest. The christening of Elizabeth I featured heralds and ringing trumpets.
Many of the late Georgian and Victorian christenings were overblown affairs, with increasingly elaborate props and guests from all over the world. Intimacy, then, is a feature only really present in the christenings of more recent monarchs. Elizabeth II was attended by nine people, that of Queen Victoria herself by just seven.
What actually happens?
The ceremony is usually – though not always – conducted by the Archbishop of Canterbury and proceedings transpire in a particular order, in a time usually a little under half-an-hour. The ceremony commences with a selection of hymns, before the infant is brought into the room by the Head Nurse, accompanied by the mother’s lady-in-waiting. The child is then handed to the godparent and then to the archbishop. The Archbishop then asks for a name, before proceeding to pour holy water from the font over the child’s head while declaring ‘I baptise you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’.
Another hymn is then sung and those present leave the room in the same order that they entered, and are ushered into another room where the register is signed. A reception then follows, in which everyone enjoys light refreshments and cake.
Royal christenings are distinct in that they feature three special items, which have been present in almost every royal christening since that of Princess Victoria in 1841.
The Honiton Lace Robe
The gown first worn by Princess Victoria was directly inspired by her mother’s wedding dress from the preceding year. When Victoria the elder needed a gown for her daughter’s christening, she turned to a lace-maker from Honiton, East Devon – though the precise identity of this lace-maker is disputed.
It has been used by more than sixty individuals since its debut 173 years ago and the colour of the satin has now faded from white to cream and the linen has now worn out. As one might imagine, this costume is delicate and requires extremely careful maintenance along with occasional reparative work. Following every outing, the outfit is hand-washed in sterilised water. It is then dried, wrapped in black tissue paper and stored in an airtight container in Buckingham Palace.
The Lily Font
Even by royal standards, this is a breathtakingly opulent font. It is made from gold-gilded silver and is around seventeen inches wide and seventeen inches tall. Its border is comprised of elaborate lilies, while seated cherubim flank its base. Victoria commissioned the font in 1840, allegedly on the sole grounds that an illegitimate child had been christened in an earlier one. In 1960, the font was moved from Windsor Castle to the Tower of London, where it now resides.
The Holy Water
While having a priest bless the water has long been within the means of most families, the royals have traditionally gone a step further and had their water taken from the river Jordan, where Christian tradition holds that Jesus Christ was baptised by John.
Victoria’s christening took place in the Cupola Room at Kensington Palace at around three o’clock in the afternoon of June 24th, 1819. The ceremony was unusual, not only in that it was sparsely attended, but in that no-one present knew what the baby’s name would be.
While Victoria’s parents had come up with a shortlist of names, the decision ultimately rested with Victoria’s father’s brother: the Prince Regent, George IV. George despised his brother and flatly rejected all four of the names put forward, declaring that the child should not be given any name currently used by the royal family. When the Archbishop came to ask George for a name, he replied with ‘Alexandrina’, after the Russian Emperor Alexander I.
And so Victoria was christened ‘Alexandrina Victoria’. Though the name ‘Drina’ persisted throughout her childhood, but she always preferred to be called by her second name and after she became queen, she often got her way.
Throughout history, British monarchs have built and used a variety of venues for the occasion. The last royal christening (that of Prince George in October last year) was carried out in the Chapel Royal at St. James’ Palace.
For the house of Windsor, the music room in Buckingham palace has long been a favoured venue for the ceremony and four royal babies have been christened there: Charles, Anne, Andrew and William. In each instance, the ceremony was performed by the then-Archbishop of Canterbury.
The current monarch was officially welcomed into the world on 29th May, 1926 – around five weeks after her birth. According to historian and royal biographer Sarah Bradford, the queen cried so much that “her nurse dosed her with dill water, an old-fashioned remedy, to the amusement of her uncle, the Prince of Wales.”
No overview of royal christenings would be complete without at least a brief mention of the various christening cakes that have been created for the occasion, the most ostentatious of which seems to be that presented to Edward VII, which The Times compared to a ‘coliseum of sugar’ and reported as being around two-and-a-half feet wide and over four feet tall.
In keeping with tradition, most royal christening cakes are made from the top layer of the parents’ wedding cake. William’s was one such, though the fact that the top layer alone was sufficient to feed 182 veterans of the Falklands war should give some indication of the enormousness of Charles and Diana’s wedding cake.