Royal babies get so many gifts from well-wishers and members of the public that thousands of kids could probably play with them, as Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, and Prince Harry are finding out on their Australia-New Zealand tour. Prince George, when he was an infant, received everything from a pair of mukluks from Canada to a wagon from the Obamas, all as part of a very long tradition of royal baby gifts reaching back hundreds of years. Tiny heirs to thrones have always been given phenomenal and sometimes ridiculous gifts from ambassadors, kings and governments who are trying to forge a good relationship with their parents. These royal baby gifts from history may have symbolized the union between two countries, cement a diplomatic alliance, or cause mortal offense.
The first child of Meghan and Harry — who won’t be a prince or princess unless the Queen changes the rules — will doubtless continue to receive a flood of strange and wonderful items from all over the world. However, they probably won’t have to cope with huge chests of jewels, supposedly medicinal rattles, or tureens the size of small baths. And live exotic animals, once considered the height of politeness for adult royals to gift one another, are decidedly out of fashion these days. Let’s hope the upcoming royal baby wasn’t hoping for a cheetah.
Gifts for European royal babies have often been hugely symbolic parts of their christening, given by godparents of stature and importance. By the Tudor period in England, it seems the most popular gift, for nobles and wealthy gentry alike, was silver spoons with apostles on top of them. If you were low on the social ladder you might only receive one or two spoons, but the royal baby would usually receive a set of all 12 apostles, plus another spoon with Jesus depicted on top. Why spoons? Why the apostles? Nobody has any idea.
This doesn’t exactly qualify as a child-friendly gift, but it was certainly popular among the adult members of the royal family. Medieval royal gifts at a prince or princess’s baptism could be extraordinarily lavish, filling huge chests with gold, silver and precious stones. Silver ewers and basins were in fashion by the time Queen Victoria was on the throne — she had a lot of godchildren and sent many of them silver cups — but centuries beforehand, a single piece of silver would have been considered a horrible affront. The motto was go big or go home.
During the Tang Dynasty in China, when a royal concubine would produce an heir, attendants would compete for “bathing money,” coins given as a reward for ceremonially washing the baby for the first time. The money was often given by the emperor himself, and wasn’t just a payment; it was meant to be symbolic protection for the new royal baby against the dangers of spiritual interference and harm.
Had enough of giant displays of wealth yet? You’re clearly not ready to be a royal baby. A giant silver tureen was gifted to a Lady Emilia Lennox in 1733 that was possibly big enough to fit several babies inside — and it also featured handles made in the shape of lions and unicorns, the symbols of Britain. Christening gifts were all about reinforcing royal power, so this display of patriotic symbols isn’t really surprising.
This is an area in which Australia and New Zealand truly excel. Prince George was “gifted” a bilby named after him and a small crocodile born on the same day Kate announced her pregnancy by different states in Australia, and it wouldn’t be surprising if other animals followed once Meghan and Harry’s baby is born. At least these aren’t actually kept in the royal house; Queen Elizabeth I was given her first dog when she was three, and actually evacuated a much-loved family Shih-Tzu called Choo-Choo from London during the Blitz.
In one of the best cases of “royal baby gifts that are not for babies,” Pope Francis gave Queen Elizabeth II a gift ostensibly for Prince George in 2014 that is both extremely expensive and totally child-unfriendly. The present was a lapis lazuli orb decorated with the silver cross of Edward the Confessor, which sounds spectacular but perhaps not very good for babies.
There’s a long tradition of popes giving royal babies interesting gifts, though; in 1662 Pope Alexander VII gave Louis XIV of France’s baby personally blessed swaddling clothes, known as fascie benedette. The trend for giving clothes to royal babies actually got the Papacy into trouble once, when the Pope gave royally blessed swaddling to Charles Edward, Stuart Pretender.
British royal babies of the past often show in portraits wearing coral necklaces or chewing coral rattles. There’s a reason for that, and it’s not just that coral is pretty and expensive. Coral rattles with gold or silver bells were supposed to scare off witches and sorcery, and from the medieval period onwards coral was regarded as strongly medicinal and protective, helping cure and treat many different ailments. Coral also has a serious meaning in Christianity, in that it’s meant to symbolize the blood of Christ. What a charming gift for a small baby.
If you feel like sending a gift off to Harry and Meghan to cheer up their upcoming new arrival, it’s possibly worth considering whether it’s worth it. After all, when the Pope is likely to be sending a present too, can you really compete?