Opinion Articles

Baby George is named, but beware the christening

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The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have successfully negotiated the politics of naming their new baby son, with George attracting widespread approval. But perhaps they should beware the christening. At the christening of his second son, George, in 1717, and following a dispute with his father about naming the baby, the Prince of Wales (later George II) was accused of challenging one the King's courtiers to a duel. We can be fairly confident that the christening of Prince George of Cambridge will not descend into similar farce!

The choice of George for baby Cambridge was hardly shocking. It was the bookmakers' favourite but, more importantly, also the most frequently adopted name for British monarchs over the last three hundred years. Press comment, not unnaturally, has focused on the commemoration of the current Queen's father and grandfather, George VI and George V. The former was, however, known as Bertie within the family and only used George as his regnal name after 1936.

The future George V faced considerable pressure from his grandmother, Queen Victoria, to commemorate her late husband when his own sons were born in the 1890s. His eldest son, the future Edward VIII, was born in 1894 and was christened Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David, a mouthful by any standards with the last four names marking the patron saints of the constituent parts of his realm. In 1895, a second son arrived and this time Victoria's wish was granted: the future George VI was christened Albert Frederick Arthur George.

George was considerably less popular as a name within Victoria's family than it had been in the eighteenth century. None of Victoria's four sons had George as their first name. Indeed only the youngest, Prince Leopold, had it among any of his given names (they all had Albert). Victoria's reluctance to continue the tradition was probably related to her impression that her Hanoverian forebears had been dissolute philanderers who had brought the monarchy into disrepute.

With respect to her uncle, George IV, she was probably right. For all his achievements as a connoisseur and patron of the arts, George IV had gained a popular notoriety for his gambling and womanising during his time as first Prince of Wales and then, following his father's incapacity, Prince Regent. Preparations for his coronation in 1820 were marred by an attempt to censure his wife for her infidelity. The proceedings in the House of Lords provoked considerable public comment, both pictorially and in print, and did little to enhance the new King's reputation.

Yet George IV's father, George III, was actually a monarch who espoused very similar views to Victoria about what a good monarch should do. Like Victoria, George III sought to place a stable family and domestic virtue at the centre of royal life. His constancy to his wife, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, was unusual in an era when a sexual double-standard meant that it was assumed that Kings would take mistresses but that their wives would be unquestioningly faithful. Their marriage produced fifteen children and family life was not without its toils and tribulations but both Charlotte and George wanted the royal family to become an example to the nation: a model for others in turbulent times when revolutionary winds were blowing across Europe. Much of what we now know as 'Victorian values' might be better described as 'Georgian values'. To reduce George III's reign to the King's supposed insanity does a disservice to a monarch who reigned for sixty years. In contemporary prints, George III was sometimes satirized as 'Farmer George', suggesting that it was difficult to differentiate him from other members of the landowning classes. While such images partly undermined notions of monarchs as being entirely different from their people, they also showed the ways in which it was possible for monarchs to adapt and change in the face of new circumstances.

The ability to deal with new circumstances was an important political skill evidenced by both George I and George II. When George I became King in 1714 he was already in advanced middle age. Born Georg Ludwig (or George Louis) in 1660, he had considerable experience in military and political affairs, having commanded troops against the Ottoman Turks in the 1680s and the French in the 1690s and 1700s. Since 1705 he had ruled the upwardly-mobile and expanding territory of Hanover in the north-west of the Holy Roman Empire (roughly equivalent to modern Austria and Germany).

His path to the throne was unusual. The Bill of Rights (1689) and Act of Settlement (1701) had both affirmed that future monarchs must not be Catholic or married to Catholics. George's mother, the Electress Sophia, was the granddaughter of James I and VI and the nearest protestant relative of Queen Anne. When she died shortly before Anne in 1714, her claim passed to her eldest son. George had to tread a careful constitutional path following his arrival in London in 1714. He was keen to continue the British participation in European politics that had characterised the post-1688 period but he was also aware that he was operating within constitutional constraints, even if these had not been formalised into a single document.

Shy and retiring, George I was uncomfortable with some of the public rituals of monarchy and the absence of a consort (he had divorced in 1694) did not help. His son and daughter-in-law, the future George II and his wife Caroline of Ansbach, were able to fill the void, however. Contrary to the popular perception of an alien royal family, they embraced their new roles with enthusiasm and made considerable efforts to assimilate.

George II's life provides two final examples of the politics of names. When Princess Caroline of Wales gave birth to a son in October 1717, she and her husband were anxious to name the child William. George I initially approved of the choice but then changed his mind. He, and his British ministers, thought George would be a more appropriate choice (the couple's eldest son was called Frederick). George William was suggested as a compromise. George I was keen to be a godparent to the child, although his son wanted an uncle to fulfil the role instead. The christening itself ended with the Prince of Wales supposedly challenging one of his father's courtiers to a duel. The Duke of Newcastle, representing the King at the ceremony, thought that the Prince of Wales had said he would 'fight him'. The Prince claimed that Newcastle had misheard; he had actually said he would 'find him' but his German accent had resulted in misinterpretation. No duel was fought, but George I was so displeased that he banned his son and daughter-in-law from his court. The christening was the last straw - relations between father and son had been worsening for some time, not least because the future George II was the first Prince of Wales for several generations and struggling to establish a role for himself. The pattern of intergenerational conflict was to repeat itself continually within the royal family during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but is hardly a phenomenon unique to royalty.

More positive is a further association that has seemingly gone unnoticed. In the period before the Hanoverian succession in 1714, both George I and II were honoured in various ways by Queen Anne. In June 1706, George II became a Knight of the Garter and in December that year, was granted further titles: Baron Tewkesbury, Earl of Milford Haven, Viscount Northallerton - as well as Duke and Marquess of Cambridge.

Monarchy as an institution is constantly adapting to changing circumstances, even when it gives the appearance of remaining constant. The Hanoverian monarchs were past masters in this and are instructive role-models for the present Prince of Cambridge.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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