Royal christening 101: The official introduction of HRH Prince George

Our royal watcher on holy water, photo-ops and tradition

Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

The official introduction of HRH Prince George of Cambridge will occur at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 23 at the Chapel Royal of St. James’s Palace. That’s the time set for his christening, when the son of Prince William and Kate, duchess of Cambridge is officially brought into the Church of England through baptism. It’s also one of the few times when the youngest Windsor wears the fanciest duds of the multitudes of assembled royalty. His christening gown is a replica of one made of Honiton lace and Spitalfields white silk satin that was originally created in 1841 for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s first child, Princess Victoria Adelaide Mary Louisa. Worn by royal babies for 163 years, the fragile garment was retired from use after Lady Louise Mountbatten-Windsor, daughter of Prince Edward and his wife, Sophie, was baptized in 2004. Queen Elizabeth II had her dresser, Angela Kelly, make a replica for subsequent christenings. It got its first outing in 2008 at the christening of Edward and Sophie’s son, James.

Along with the gown, Victoria and Albert started another tradition for their daughter’s christening when they ordered a new baptismal font, made of silver gilded with gold and decorated with water lilies and putti with harps. During that ceremony at Buckingham Palace, on Feb. 10, 1841, the little princess didn’t cry when her forehead was wetted by the archbishop of Canterbury. “Albert & I agreed that all had gone off beautifully & in a very dignified manner,” Victoria recorded. The font, which is displayed with the rest of the Crown jewels at the Tower of London when not needed by the house of Windsor, has been used at every subsequent royal christening. And, by tradition, the holy water comes from the Jordan River.

Aside from those constants, the rest of the day’s details are left up to the personal tastes of the parents. While nearly every royal residence has hosted a christening, Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace have been the most popular venues. After the London residence’s chapel was destroyed by the German Luftwaffe in 1940, the Queen’s three eldest children were baptized in its ornate music room, as was Prince William. (Edward and Prince Harry were baptized at Windsor.)

But the locales are not always so grand. In April 2011, days before William and Kate’s wedding, an amateur photographer happened to be passing by the Anglican church in Avening, Gloucester, when he recorded the departure of Queen Elizabeth II and family members after the baptism of her first great-grandchild, Savannah, daughter of Peter Phillips and his Canadian wife, Autumn. And the Sandringham estate church in Norfolk was the scene of the first public royal christening in 1990, for Prince Andrew’s daughter, Eugenie. Delayed because Andrew, then a Royal Navy helicopter pilot, was on active service, it took place two days before Christmas. To hide the fact that the back of the tiny outfit couldn’t close around the nine-month-old Eugenie—and to keep her warm in the chilly temperatures—her mother, Sarah, wrapped her baby in a shawl.

The venue chosen by William and Kate is the Chapel Royal. Originally a travelling body of priests and singers to “serve the spiritual needs of the sovereign,” the royal website explains, it was eventually converted into a physical building, eventually placed at St. James’s Palace by Henry VIII in 1531. Though altered over the centuries, and benefitting from a rich musical tradition—George Handel was an organist—it remains a small, intimate space. The coffin of Diana, princess of Wales lay there before her funeral in 1997.

While the christening of Princess Eugenie was public, most Windsor baptisms are strictly private, attended by family, close friends and, of course, the godparents. The Church of England has some specific requirements when it comes to being a sponsor. Given that the responsibility involves “helping a child to come to know God, encouraging them in their spiritual life and supporting them in their membership of the local church,” the church delicately suggests, “Godparents must have been baptized themselves, and it’s best if you are also confirmed.”

If the past is any guide, there will likely be six godparents, three men and three women. And they will be a cross-section of personal friends and relatives. For Prince William, they ranged from the exiled King Constantine II of Greece and Princess Alexandra of Kent to Charles’s favourite philosopher, Laurens van der Post, and the Queen’s friend and lady-in-waiting, Lady Susan Hussey. The officiant will be the new archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, since this baby will one day inherit the regal title of “defender of the faith and supreme governor of Church of England.”

Once the religious part of the christening is over, there will be the obligatory photo-op and a celebratory lunch. But even then tradition plays its part. As is custom, Kate and William saved the top two layers of their wedding cake to serve at the christening of their first child.

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