Britain Has Royal Baby Fever Like It's 1688

Cristen Conger

The Duchess of Cambridge politely holding a "Baby on Board" pin. (
The Duchess of Cambridge politely holding a "Baby on Board" pin. (
The Duchess of Cambridge politely holding a "Baby on Board" pin. ( © POOL/Reuters/Corbis)

The Western world is pretty much freaking out over the state of Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton's uterus. Reuters reports that royal baby fever already has netted the UK $380 million, thanks to sales of souvenirs and collectibles, tourism and party supplies for fake royal baby showers. There's even a Royal Baby App that promises users up-to-the-minute updates on the royal baby's crowning (kidding -- but it will send out alerts when the tiny he or she arrives), as well as photo opps of "first steps, public appearances, royal visits." Really, it seems like there hasn't been this level of public hubbub surrounding a royal birth since way back when in 1688.

After Mary of Modena, second wife of King James II, suffered several miscarriages, her birth to baby boy James Francis Edward Stuart was immediately suspect. Rumor had long brewed that Mary was faking her pregnancy, and even though 42 public figures were summoned to confirm Prince James' delivery, a popular conspiracy theory maintained that Mary had never been pregnant at all, and that James had, in fact, been smuggled into the delivery room in a bed pan. Speaking to the BBC, Cambridge Professor Mary Fissell called it "the first media circus surrounding a royal birth."

Prince James never had much luck, royally-speaking, as William of Orange seized the throne soon after his birth, deposing King James II to France. And although James was, in fact, the legitimate heir to the throne, the bedpan-smuggling rumor would follow him into adulthood and beyond. When he later tried unsuccessfully to reclaim the British throne, his critics dubbed him Old Pretender. And the historical nickname for his oldest son Prince Charles Edward Stuart? The Young Pretender, of course. Too bad they didn't switch their surname to Poseur while they were at it.

Likely due to the baby-in-a-bedpan rumor, British home ministers attended royal births for centuries afterward, "to evidence that it was genuinely a royal birth and that a baby hadn't been smuggled in," British home secretary Theresa May told the press this week, in response to the international headline-generating news that Prince William and Duchess Kate won't carry on that custom. Actually, it hasn't been followed for a while now, since the royal baby's granddad Prince Charles was born out from under a home minister's watchful eye. It would make little difference anyhow, since the royal baby already has become the most-watched prince or princess in modern history without even being born.