Prince George’s christening more than just a family baptism

Today's christening of Prince George sends the latest in a series of signals that the once-fusty House of Windsor wants to update its image.

3rd-in-line to throne the focus of ceremony in Chapel Royal at St. James's Palace

When three-month-old Prince George was christened today, the ceremony steeped in British tradition was more than a private family celebration of its latest addition.

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The christening of the third in line to the throne in a small London chapel was also another signal that the once-fusty House of Windsor is determined to mould a more modern image of the monarchy, including how George's father, Prince William, may focus on a lower-key approach to royal life.

"This is a big one for the family because Prince George is a direct heir," says Bonnie Brownlee, CBC’s royal commentator.

The tiniest royal — the first child of William and Kate Middleton, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge — arrived amid much media pomp and circumstance at London’s St. Mary’s Hospital on July 22.

But after a media meet-and-greet alongside his parents outside the hospital the next day, George had been shielded from the public glare, with only two family snapshots taken by Kate’s father emerging before today.

The 30-minute christening ceremony was billed as private — no live TV feed from inside the chapel as was the case with William and Kate’s Westminster Abbey wedding in 2011. A few new pictures — of a more official and professional nature — are expected later today or this week.

"The fact that there’s not going to be very much pomp and ceremony indicates that it’s going to be a christening for this day and age," says author Penny Junor, whose 2012 biography Prince William Born to be King, has recently been updated.

"It’s in keeping with everything that we know about William, that he strives to be normal. He recognizes that he is royal and that he has obligations and responsibilities, but he wants to keep that as low key as possible for the time being​."

Brownlee says George — formally known as Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge — is now part of the "magical group of eight," which includes his great-grandmother, the Queen, her husband Prince Philip, grandfather Prince Charles, his wife Camilla, Kate and William and William’s brother Prince Harry.

"They want to the world to understand that it’s this group of people that are moving the monarchy forward." 

Off the royal payroll

As Brownlee sees it, "this christening becomes very significant because it’s a further demonstration of this family and this is the monarchy you have to worry about...

"They want to start taking other royals literally off the payroll."

Four generations

One much-anticipated picture from the Royal Family christening celebration will be a four-generation shot showing the Queen and her three direct heirs: Charles, William and George.

The last time such a shot was taken was 1894, with Queen Victoria holding her great-grandson, the future King Edward VIII. Also in the picture are the baby’s father, the future King George V, and his grandfather, the future Edward VII.

“It’s rare,” says Brownlee, who notes a picture with the current four generations will send a message that the Windsors are “projecting stability moving forward, that we are here, we are strong, we have our lineage.”

Such economic motivations are hardly new — the cost of the monarchy has been a touchstone for controversy and public discontent in some quarters for years, and as recently as last week, headlines touted a Royal Estate repair bill of about £50 million ($83 million Cdn) over 10 years.

Much tabloid speculation in recent days suggested William and Kate also wanted to take some family members off the christening guest list — Princess Anne, George’s great aunt, for example, wasn't there. In fact, she’s in Ontario on a mostly private visit. 

Prince George makes an appearance Monday outside the chapel of St. James Palace with his parents, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. (Reuters)

But observers say such absences are par for the course at royal christenings — not everyone goes and engagements like Anne’s are planned months if not years in advance.

"If we look back in history, there have been times when not even the baby’s godparents have been able to be at royal christenings," says Carolyn Harris, a Toronto-based royal historian who also blogs about royal subjects.

Who George’s godparents would be was also the focus of media speculation, with reports that William and Kate would turn more to friends rather than family or other royal families to fill the role.

And they did. The palace announced seven people as the prince's godparents on Wednesday morning.

The godparents include Oliver Baker, a university friend; Emilia Jardine-Paterson, Kate's secondary school friend; Earl Hugh Grosvenor; Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton, who served as Will and Kate's private secretary; Julia Samuel, a close friend of William's mother, Diana, Princess of Wales; Zara Tindall, Will's cousin and daughter of Princess Anne; and William van Cutsem, Will's childhood friend.

Family and friends

"They chose people they think might help the child’s spiritual future. That was the original idea. But you know, really, it’s just a chance to flatter your good friends," says Ingrid Seward, editor in chief of Majesty magazine.

Before the announcement, Seward said she expected one of Princess Anne’s children — Peter or Zara — would be a godparent, and possibly Kate’s high-profile sister, Pippa. Or maybe not.

"You don’t have to choose your sister," says Seward. "She’s going to be around anyway. It depends how many good friends they really want to include. I think it will be their good friends more than dynastic. When Prince Charles was christened, it was very much a dynastic thing."

One of Prince Charles’s godparents is ex-king Constantine of Greece, a distant relative of Prince Philip. Prince William is a godparent to one of Constantine’s grandsons.

George’s christening was held in the Chapel Royal at St. James’s Palace, just down the road from Buckingham Palace, where Charles and William were christened in the elaborate Music Room.

Junor says that move to the smaller locale marks a break with tradition.

"Generally speaking, I think that what William and Kate are doing, William in particular actually, is demonstrating that he has his own views about how things should be done and what he wants done in his life, with his marriage, with his child," she says.

"It’s not a rebellion in any way. It’s just a slight finger on the tiller that is moving things in a different direction." 

Diana's memory

The Chapel Royal, where Kate was confirmed before the marriage, is also a location that could have an emotional significance for William: the body of his mother lay there before her funeral in 1997.

"This may be a way of involving his mother’s memory in the ceremony," says Harris.

The gown

Prince George wore a replica of an 1841 Victorian silk, satin and lace christening gown worn by 60 royal babies, including his father.

But age took a toll on the original – “it was falling apart,” says Seward, so the Queen’s dresser, Angela Kelly, made a replica.

That elaborate garment was dipped in tea to give it an older look. The first royal baby to wear the replica was James, Viscount Severn, son of Prince Edward and Sophie, the Countess of Wessex, in 2008.

Planning for the christening also continued to incorporate more modern concerns for the Royal Family, including media news cycles on both sides of the Atlantic.

Royal ceremonies have tended to be morning affairs, with the main action often kicking off around 11 a.m. London time (6 a.m. ET). But George’s christening was a mid-afternoon event in London, starting at 3 p.m. (10 a.m. ET).

"They’re aware of global time zones and media TV news shows, frankly," says Brownlee, who notes the announcements of George’s birth and his name were both well-timed for full media consumption in the United Kingdom and North America.

"It hits their supper shows and hits ours in the morning and so we have all day to follow up."

The Chapel Royal at St. James's Palace, which will host Prince George's christening, was the location of Queen Victoria's wedding in 1840 and where the coffin of Diana, Princess of Wales, lay before her funeral in 1997. (John Stillwell/Reuters)

Such strategizing is hardly surprising. Over the past several years, the House of Windsor has drawn in younger, media-savvy advisers who have been instrumental in trying to dust off the image of an institution considered out-of-touch and, 20 years ago, mired in tabloid scandals.

And now George, who has had virtually no public profile in his young life, will have to fit into that strategy.

"I think that William will want to keep George pretty much under wraps. He will want him to have as normal a life as can possibly be achieved. Having said that, he does recognize the public interest in his son," says Junor.

"The day that the public are not interested in seeing photographs or hearing about him or wanting to find out more about him, that is the day when the monarchy really will not be very relevant any more."