Why, for the first time, the nation is hoping for a royal baby girl
If the Duchess of Cambridge has a girl, new legislation will ensure she becomes our monarch
William owes a special debt to the Duchess of Cambridge, who has helped shape his image Photo: Rex Features
By Sarah Gristwood
8:09PM BST 12 Jul 2013
Henry VIII would have been baffled. Even the monarchs of 100 years ago might have had a moment’s pause. But now, if the Duchess of Cambridge, who is due today, gives birth to a girl, she’ll have fulfilled the desires of the whole nation. That must be pretty much a first in the history of the British monarchy.
Of course, the arrival of either a Prince or Princess of Cambridge is going to be cause for widespread celebration. But the legislation recently pushed through Parliament – the Succession to the Crown Act 2013 – is concerned with a child of one particular gender.
If a blue-wrapped bundle emerges from the Lindo Wing, that legislation – whereby the Cambridges’ child will become monarch regardless of whether it’s a boy or girl – will be of no practical relevance for yet another generation. And surely, if we’re honest, there’ll be just the faintest sense that someone has rained on the parade.
It wasn’t always thus. As late as the 1940s, it was decided that the future Elizabeth II could never be declared Princess of Wales. She was heir presumptive, not heir apparent, and officially the hope had always to be that George VI might still sire a son.
So when and why did the idea of a woman’s rule become acceptable?
The Tudors saw the succession of a woman as a horror story. King Henry was so frantic for a son he changed wives until he found the spouse who could give him one. When his daughters Mary and Elizabeth came to the throne, it was still assumed that the only thing a reigning queen could do was hand over rule to her husband. How else could things work, when a husband was his wife’s master?
The Virgin Queen chose to avoid the question, but it’s never entirely gone away. Prince Albert faced a hard struggle before he finally found his role. And only now are we beginning to realise what an extraordinary thing the Duke of Edinburgh has done in marrying his role as his wife’s helpmeet with his own traditional masculinity.
When Elizabeth I approached the end of her long reign, there were a dozen candidates to succeed her. It seemed as possible that the next monarch should be chosen by Parliament, or by the dying queen herself, as that the crown should pass automatically to the next in line by pure heredity. The rules of succession have always been more flexible than we believe.
Almost a millennium back, the succession had to be apportioned among William the Conqueror’s immediate descendants by a consensus monarchy, and the medieval age saw several enforced changes in the ruling family.
Less than 100 years after Elizabeth I’s death, in 1688, the voice of the country’s ruling class was enough to declare that James II should be replaced by his daughter Mary. With Mary came William to take care of the practical business, which squared the circle nicely.
But a line had been crossed. First, no one could doubt that a queen regnant was acceptable. Second, it was now clear that strict right of blood was not the only criterion for rule.
When it was obvious that Mary’s sister Anne would also die without a living child, Parliament invited the Elector of Hanover to become George I, ignoring 50 closer blood heirs. George II was the last British monarch to lead an army, and once a king was no longer required to be a battle leader, there was one less reason that he should necessarily be a he.
Other fears about female rule could also be laid aside – including those about a woman’s frailty. When Princess Victoria came to the throne there was some public relations value in her femininity. She was the antithesis of her “wicked uncles”, and, only 15 years after Edward VIII’s abdication, the same was perhaps true of Princess Elizabeth.
And now, as the role of the monarchy is constantly reassessed, it may be the female figure that has most appeal. The authoritarian image of a father figure may not play as successfully.
In one sense, Elizabeth II’s sex has not affected her monarchy. She has done everything a male ruler could have done, hardly interrupted even by her other duties as wife and mother. But in another she – like Elizabeth I – has actually found strengths in what might once have been seen as the weaknesses of her gender.
Historically, a queen, whether consort or regnant, was meant above all to be a gracious figure. Steadfast, loyal, ceremonial – interceding on behalf of the weak. By contrast, a king was supposed to be impressive. Scary, in a good way. That’s a harder act to pull off in the 21st century.
So you could say that the changes to the succession laws are more than just an enforced response to a post-feminist clime. They offer a far better chance of producing heirs who are well suited to taking the monarchy into the future.
It is Princes Charles and William, who will, probably, first occupy our throne. But those two men owe a special debt to the women they have married, and who have helped to shape their image as modern, accessible, friendly.
Right now, there’s one more important part for those women to play: displaying to the world a pretty, pink-wrapped baby.