The New Royal Baby’s Historical Significance

As norms around family life have shifted over the centuries, so have the royals.

Frank Augstein / AP

After months of anticipation, a new baby boy entered Britain’s royal family on Monday, taking his place as the seventh in line to the throne.

The hubbub has been going on for months; paparazzi and the 24-hour news cycle provided fodder for endless speculation in the lead-up to the birth: on where the delivery would take place, what the couple might name their newborn, and even what astrological sign the baby would have. While Meghan Markle worked to keep details of the pregnancy and delivery private, the intrigue is far from surprising, says Carolyn Harris, a historian of European monarchies and the author of Raising Royalty: 1,000 Years of Royal Parenting. People have always wanted a glimpse into the inner workings of the royal family. Previous generations may not have had access to the real-time updates of the internet, but they still scrutinized the royal family’s every move through other means.

Before the birth, I spoke with Harris about the baby’s place in a long royal history, the identity politicking that led up to the birth, and how royal parenting has shifted over centuries. An edited and condensed version of our conversation is below.

Natalie Escobar: With the arrival of this new baby, what are some of the things you’re thinking about? How does he figure into the history of the royal family?

Carolyn Harris: What’s interesting is that the royal baby is going to be seventh in line to the throne. Past precedent indicates that someone who is seventh in line often receives a lot of media attention at the time of birth, which gradually dissipates as they grow older and gradually come down the line of succession [as more babies are born and push older members of the family down the line]. Typically they’ll attend royal weddings, the Trooping of the Color, and other royal events, but they’ll also have the opportunity to pursue an independent career.

Escobar: I’ve been reading a lot about whether Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s baby will be the first biracial baby born into the royal family, since Markle is arguably the first black royal. Historically, how does this claim hold up?

Harris: There was a lot of speculation about the background of Queen Charlotte, King George III’s queen, and whether she had a distant Portuguese ancestor who may have been of African descent. It’s interesting that some of the descriptions of Queen Charlotte mentioned her having the appearance of a mixed-race person, particularly at a time when abolitionism was a significant part of public discourse. George III and Queen Charlotte reputedly were quite shocked by how enslaved people were treated and, for instance, declined to take sugar in their tea, a common sign of being opposed to slavery and sugar plantations in the Caribbean in the late 18th century. Well, if she did have African ancestry, it was quite distant, and her portrait painter was an abolitionist who may have emphasized those particular features.

Escobar: It’s difficult to have this conversation at all, because ideas about race and ethnicity have changed so much over time.

Harris: Yes, that’s the complicating factor. When you go back far enough in royal ancestry, Queen Elizabeth II is connected to all sorts of interesting historical figures. The queen’s grandmother Queen Mary has ancestry that claims descent from Genghis Khan. Because the queen’s ancestry can be traced all the way to the 500s, it is interconnected to all of these other European royal houses, some of which were connected in various ways to Asia and the Middle East.

Escobar: Historically, the royal family has been focused on maintaining a “royal bloodline,” a concept that really gets into the complicated ways that people have thought about race and so-called blood purity over the centuries. How has the British Crown historically tried to maintain this “purity,” and how have you seen attitudes about it shift?

Harris: The definition of the royal spouse has expanded immensely. Until World War I, it was expected that British royalty would marry other royalty. And if they did not, it attracted a great deal of comments. The Royal Marriages Act of 1772 even decreed that male-line descendants of King George II had to seek the monarch’s permission to marry, so royal marriage was not legal unless the monarch’s permission was provided. That remained in force until 2015, [when there were] succession reforms; now only the first six people in line to the throne require the monarch’s permission to marry. But after World War I, there were fewer royal houses, so we see marriages into the British aristocracy.

Now we’re seeing an even greater expansion in terms of the definition of the royal spouse; Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, is from a middle-class background, and Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, has been married before. In the past, that would have been a problem for marrying into the royal family, but the attitudes toward the remarriage of divorcées in the Church of England have relaxed in the 21st century.

Escobar: Why did the Crown care about a royal bloodline at all?

Harris: Well, part of the reason was the prestige of a royal house, and that a monarch would be able to state their connections to other European royal houses. Until the early 19th century, there were thought to be very strong diplomatic advantages to these various royal marriages, as well.

Escobar: Since Markle hasn’t become naturalized as a British citizen yet, I’ve read that the royal baby will have both American and British citizenship. Is there a precedent for members of the royal family being dual citizens?

Harris: There are cases within the wider royal family of members who are married to spouses who are not British and bring their own citizenship into the family. Prince Harry’s cousin Peter Phillips is married to a Canadian named Autumn Kelly, so their children are eligible for Canadian citizenship.

Escobar: What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in how the royal family approaches parenting over the centuries, or even just more recent decades?

Harris: Perhaps the biggest change is the idea of royal children having an upbringing that’s relatable to the wider population. For centuries, there was an expectation that royal life did not have very much in common with the lives of ordinary people. It was expected that royalty would look like royalty; it was considered questionable for royalty to live simpler lives or to not take an interest in pomp and circumstance, such as King Edward II, who liked rowing and ditch digging.

This changed in the 19th century with the rise of the mass media and photography. There’s a lot more images of the royals out there, and there’s an expectation that the royal family will live a life that reflects the values of their time. In the first photograph of Queen Victoria, she’s not wearing her crown, but is dressed relatively simply and is posing with one of her children, putting forward that she is a wife and mother as well as a queen. We’ve seen that process accelerate over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries. There’s now more of an expectation that a royal child will engage with other children from outside royal circles; we now see Prince George attending a co-educational school in London.

Escobar: Are there certain practices that you’ve seen hold constant? For example, how might the way the new royal baby will be raised be similar to how a royal baby born 200 years ago was raised?

Harris: I would say that media scrutiny and judgment of royal marriages and parenting has remained constant over a very long period of time. Critiques of the royal family or of royal parenting served as a way of making a broader political critique. Sometimes there’s the assumption that before tabloid culture, there wasn’t this scrutiny of what went on behind palace doors. But I think there has always been a very strong interest in how royal children are raised.