This week, royal watchers around the world await the imminent arrival of the first child of Britain’s Prince William and Kate Middleton, aka Catherine, duchess of Cambridge. The couple wed in a pomp-and-circumstance-filled ceremony at London’s Westminster Abbey on April 29, 2011, and the duchess’s pregnancy was publicly announced on December 3, 2012. Find out how the newest heir to the throne’s debut will be steeped in—and could break with--ancient traditions, and get the facts on other royal bundles of joy.

William and Kate’s firstborn will be third in the line for the throne, regardless of its gender.

Until recently, centuries-old laws of succession gave male heirs priority and required that the crown be passed to a monarch’s sons, in order of birth; a daughter could only inherit the throne if she had no male siblings. However, in 2011, leaders of the 16 Commonwealth nations of which the current queen, Elizabeth II, is head of state agreed to revise the rules so that a monarch’s male and female offspring have an equal right to the throne, and a younger boy could not jump ahead of his older sister in the line of succession. The new rules also will allow a future heir to the throne to marry a Roman Catholic, something that hasn’t been permitted in the past. However, the ban preventing a Catholic from becoming monarch won’t be lifted, as loyalty to the pope could conflict with the monarch’s role as supreme governor of the Church of England.

William is the first direct heir to the British throne who was born in a hospital.

The son of Prince Charles (who was born at Buckingham Palace in 1948) and the late Princess Diana (born in 1961 at a home leased by her aristocratic parents in the English village of Sandringham), William was delivered at London’s St. Mary’s Hospital on June 21, 1982. His arrival was announced with a proclamation signed by his doctors and placed on an easel in the forecourt of Buckingham Palace. The same easel will be used to inform the public about William and Kate’s baby, who also is expected to be born at St. Mary’s, in a private wing. Additionally, for the first time in royal history, an official announcement about the baby’s entrance into the world will be made via social media. It is anticipated that the little prince or princess eventually will be baptized with water from the River Jordan (where, according to Christianity, Jesus was baptized), like a long line of royals before him or her.

list royal births

Prior to Prince Charles’ arrival in 1948, it was customary for the British home secretary (a high-ranking government official) to attend royal births.

In one notable instance, Home Secretary John Robert Clynes traveled to Scotland in 1930 to witness the birth of Princess Margaret at Glamis Castle. Margaret, the daughter of the future King George VI and sister of Elizabeth, the future queen, was born two weeks after her due date but Clynes had to remain in Scotland on alert until she made her debut.

William and Kate’s baby will be the third great-grandchild for Queen Elizabeth II (1926-), whose reign is currently the second-longest of any British monarch.

The queen’s first two great-grandchildren are the offspring of Peter Phillips, the son of Princess Anne (1950-), the second of Elizabeth’s four children. Peter and his wife Autumn have two daughters: Savannah Anne Kathleen, who will turn 3 in December, and Isla Elizabeth, who turned 1 in March.
Queen Elizabeth’s third and fourth children, Prince Andrew (1960-) and Prince Edward (1964-), were the only babies born to a reigning queen since Queen Victoria delivered her last child, Beatrice, in 1857. Andrew and Edward were born at Buckingham Palace, like their older brother Charles. Anne and Charles arrived when Elizabeth still was a princess; she ascended to the throne in 1952, following the death of her father, King George VI.

Queen Elizabeth’s great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria (1819-1901) had nine living children but hated pregnancy and childbirth.

Victoria’s road to motherhood got off to a rocky start in 1840, when, four months into her first pregnancy, an unemployed Londoner named Edward Oxford attempted to assassinate her while she was riding in a horse-drawn carriage with her husband Prince Albert. (Victoria escaped unharmed and Oxford, the first of at least seven people who tried to attack or murder the queen, later was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to a mental institution.) Victoria went on to become the first monarch to give birth under the influence of chloroform, whose anesthetic effects were discovered in the late 1840s and which her physician administered when Victoria delivered her eighth and ninth children, Prince Leopold, born in 1853, and Princess Beatrice, born in 1857. The queen’s experiences helped popularize the use of anesthesia among London’s upper classes. However, Victoria maintained a sour attitude toward pregnancy, which she derided as an “occupational hazard” of being a wife, and labeled her own babies ugly and frog-like and refused to breastfeed them.

Royal babies have been a source of public fascination for centuries.

In one historic example, James Francis Edward, prince of Wales, was a topic of controversy from the time of his birth in 1688. Until James’ delivery, his mother, Mary of Modena, the Catholic second wife of King James II, had suffered a number of miscarriages and was childless. Following James’ arrival, rumors circulated widely that Mary was never pregnant to begin with (or had experienced another miscarriage) and snuck an imposter baby into her bed via warming pan, in an effort to produce a Catholic male heir, an alarming prospect to England’s Protestants. That same year, James II was ousted and Mary fled the country with their son. As an adult, the prince (whose royal blood proved legitimate, despite the conspiracy theories) tried unsuccessfully to reclaim the British crown and was dubbed the Old Pretender.

England’s King Henry VIII (1491-1547) famously married six different women, in part due to his quest to produce a son who could succeed him.

Although Henry fathered three legitimate children who survived—daughters from his wives Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, and a son, Edward, by Jane Seymour (who died shortly after the boy’s birth), Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn also experienced multiple miscarriages and stillbirths, leading experts to believe Henry was the source of the fertility troubles. Syphilis once was speculated to be a factor in the king’s reproductive issues; however, this theory has been discounted and more recent research suggests a blood group incompatibility (involving the Kell antigen) between Henry and his wives might have been at the root of his problems.