Princess Charlotte's christening: A balance between private celebration and public show

Princess Charlotte's christening today was a private family affair to celebrate the newest member of the House of Windsor, but the ceremony in a small English church also offered a carefully crafted opportunity to put the public spotlight — briefly — on the youngest royal.

Traditional private ceremony for family, but onlookers were allowed to watch from church grounds

Princess Charlotte's christening today was a private family affair to celebrate the newest member of the House of Windsor.

But the ceremony in a small sandstone church in the eastern English countryside also offered a carefully crafted opportunity to put the public spotlight — briefly — on the youngest royal, who is fourth in line to the throne, and her family.

Prince George offers some brotherly support to Princess Charlotte at their rural home, Anmer Hall, about two weeks after her birth. (Duchess of Cambridge/Associated Press)

Hundreds of members of the public from as far afield as the U.S. and Australia waited and watched from the paddock near St. Mary Magdalene Church on the Queen's Sandringham estate, where the two-month-old daughter of Prince William and Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, formally received her history-laden name: Charlotte Elizabeth Diana.

Kensington Palace has said William and Kate are "hugely grateful" for the warm wishes they received since Charlotte's birth on May 2, and that the couple, known for vigilantly guarding the privacy of their family, were "delighted" the paddock would be open to the public.

In doing that, William and Kate are balancing "a private christening with the public's interest in seeing the new royal baby," says Toronto-based royal historian and blogger Carolyn Harris.

It's a move in marked contrast to the christening of Charlotte's elder brother, Prince George. On that day in October 2013, a few media photographs emerged of a small royal contingent coming and going from St. James's Palace in central London. Beyond that, however, the event was very much a private gathering of family and a few very close friends and godparents.

In fact, as the Daily Telegraph noted, Charlotte's christening was "the first time in living memory that the christening of such a senior member of the Royal Family has involved the public in any way."

The decision to ensure the public saw a bit more this time around could also reflect a sensitivity to mounting criticism from some quarters that Prince George was virtually never seen in public — especially in the U.K. — since his birth nearly two years ago. That, too, has changed in recent weeks.

'Bubbling resentment'

"William and Kate's aides would have been acutely aware of bubbling resentment that Prince George had been so hidden away," says London-based journalist Katie Nicholl, author of Kate The Future Queen.

"It was being heavily commented on in the media, and the palace will react to this."

Nicholl says William and Kate "have been determined to protect their privacy, and that of their children, and rightly so."

"But there's a balance," she notes, and the public does want to see George and Charlotte growing up.

For the House of Windsor, which weathered a tabloid storm of failing marriages and other screaming headlines two decades ago, this matters, particularly if they intend to remain a relevant institution.

Prince George nearly stole the show during Trooping the Colour on June 13, 2015, even though he shared the Buckingham Palace balcony with his parents Prince William and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, along with grandfather Prince Charles and his great-grandmother, the Queen. (Tim Ireland/Associated Press)

"Certainly the Queen has commented: 'I have to be seen to be believed,' and undertakes numerous public appearances," says Harris.

"The fact that William is second in line to the throne rather than heir to the throne, as Prince Charles is, means he doesn't have as many responsibilities. But there's still a strong sense that the public wants to see William and Kate and their children."

Strictly speaking, Sunday's christening was not a public occasion, in the way of, say, Trooping the Colour, the annual official celebration of the Queen's birthday, where Prince George pretty much stole the show from his great-grandmother on the balcony of Buckingham Palace last month.

More tradition

But Charlotte's baptism, which was conducted by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, is still an occasion rich in royal tradition.

Charlotte wore the same christening gown her brother George wore in October 2013. That garment replaced an 1841 Victorian silk, satin and lace christening gown worn by 60 royal babies, including George and Charlotte's father, Prince William. (John Stillwell/Associated Press)

"When the couple christened Prince George at the Chapel Royal in St James's, it was unusual, as heirs to the throne are usually christened in the Music Room at Buckingham Palace," says Nicholl. "So in fact there's more tradition to them choosing Sandringham this time round."

William's late mother, Diana, was also christened in the same church that Charlotte was, as was William's cousin, Princess Eugenie, the daughter of Prince Andrew and Sarah, the Duchess of York. It is the church the Royal Family attends every Christmas Day,

Nicholl says it's "rather poignant and meaningful" that Charlotte will be christened at St. Mary Magdalene Church, which is not far from William and Kate's country home, Anmer Hall.

"They love the countryside and their new country bolt-hole, Anmer Hall. It's going to be the Cambridges' family home for many years and George and Charlotte will spend most of their early childhoods here."

Nicholl also sees the decision to invite the public to the paddock as a nod to the reception the couple has received in the community.

"They are protected by the residents who are very loyal and discreet, and I think this is William and Kate's way of thanking them for welcoming them to the area."

Friends as godparents

Much media speculation surrounded the identity of her godparents. In previous royal generations, cultural figures were often chosen.

"But William and Kate seem inclined to choose family and close friends and people they socialize with regularly, rather than choosing godparents based on their public profile," says Harris.

The five godparents announced Sunday include William's cousin Laura Fellowes, Kate's cousin Adam Middleton, and three of the couple's friends.

Princess Charlotte, who will be christened Sunday, was oblivious to the media fuss focused on her as she left hospital hours after her birth on May 2, 2015. (John Stillwell/AFP/Getty Images)

Charlotte wore the same elaborate replica christening gown worn by George and other children in the Royal Family.

But despite that nod to tradition, Charlotte may well end up blazing something of her own trail growing up as a modern princess of relatively high rank in the Royal Family.

While Eugenie and her sister Beatrice, now aged 25 and 26, were given the title of princess, they are more remote from the throne.

In fact, it's half a century since there was a princess growing up so close to the heir to the throne: Princess Anne, the Princess Royal and younger sister to first-in-line Charles.

"There will be the need for [Charlotte] to prove herself and carve a meaningful role for herself," says Nicholl.

"Princess Charlotte could learn a lot from the Princess Royal who is one of the hardest-working and most liked members of the family."

With files from The Associated Press