On the afternoon that I visited the Museum of London, there were signs up reminding that it was 99 years since the First World War was declared. In 1913, of course, Britain’s monarch was one King George V, the current Queen’s grandmother, who ruled until 1936.
Nearly a century later and everyone is talking about the next monarch who will bear that name. No matter that he’s just a few weeks old, we want to know everything about young George Alexander Louis: what he’s wearing, who is visiting him, what nicknames he’ll be known by. And to mark the historic birth of our future king (Republican aspirations of overthrow aside), the Museum of London has put on a tiny slip of a display looking back at the young prince’s predecessors.
The exhibit includes a pleasantly coherent family tree that traces the royals as far back as King James I, the royal who succeeded the first Queen Elizabeth (although it’s not all encompassing; interestingly, although the Queen Mother appears next to King George VI as his consort, Wallis Simpson – whose love inspired Edward to abdicate and changed the path of British history – is conspicuously absent). In a stroke of fun, they have also listed how these long-dead monarchs are related to baby George, so we learn, say, that Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg, who died in 1772 and was married to Frederick, Prince of Wales, would have been his eight times great grandmother.
Among the few (as I said, this is only a baby-sized exhibition, barely a wall’s worth of memorabilia) items on display are shoes from the mid-19th century, worn by Queen Victoria’s offspring. Prince Albert Edward’s tiny black boots are there, in an impeccable condition that suggests the young royal was not permitted to engage in much outdoor play. Meanwhile only one of Prince Leopold’s shoes is on show, leading you to speculate what the punishment might have been for a royal who misplaced his possessions.
There’s also a dress and cap worn by the future King Edward as a baby in the early 1840s, when his mother had been on the throne just four years. The dress is embroidered with three sets of ostrich feathers, which apparently signify that the wearer is one day to inherit the throne. And there’s an uncomfortable looking cap worn in infancy by the future King Charles I. Although slightly stained, it’s in fairly good shape considering it dates back to 1600.
If nothing else, this is a touching reminder that even our great statesmen and women were babes in arms once, dressed in fussy outfits by their adoring parents. Kate and Wills, being the trendy sort, might choose to dress their son in more modern garb, but it’s curious to think that in a few centuries little George’s Boden jackets or baby Hunter wellies could be displayed in a glass case at a museum.
Given the brevity of the display, I wouldn’t recommend making the trip just for this, but it’s certainly worth stopping off at en route to one of the museum’s other summer shows (among them the fascinating London Cycles, which looks at the capital on two-wheels, and another exhibition that celebrates 90 years of the Radio Times by showcasing its most memorable covers). And if you got a spare 15 minutes in the area, it’s well worth taking a peek. Young eyes will be fascinated by the royal timeline and may even be driven to find out more about these doughty kings and queens; the rest of us will recall that for all the talk of an unprecedented media circus around George’s arrival, curiosity about the royals has been part of our country’s heritage for a long time.
A Royal Arrival, free display, 28 June – October 2013, The Museum of London