Hair of the Heir: Thoughts Inspired by the Birth of Prince George

The birth of Prince George Alexander Louis stirred up much celebrating, save for a few curmudgeons like Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of Russia’s Liberal Democratic Party, who rather excessively predicted that the little prince would  “suck the blood” of the Russian people by the middle of this century. Choice of the name George was particularly gratifying to those under the patronage of that saint.  He may well be the patron of more nations, provinces and institutions than any saint save Our Lady. The removal of Saint George to a third class minor saint by Pope Paul VI in 1963 was undone by Pope John Paul II when he restored him to the universal calendar and gave him special first class rank in England and India. George is the baptismal name of Pope Francis, and so April 23 will have special resonance during his reign.

Most iconography shows Saint George with thick curly hair, which is strange since his demotion in 1963 was because supposedly little is known about him.  Little Prince George Alexander Louis, like many babies, even royal ones, came into the world with fine but sparse hair.  Some of the press occupied airtime remarking that his father is balding. This is also the case with Prince William’s uncle, Prince Edward.  Prince Harry has thick red hair, encouraging gossips to claim that he is not royal at all.  Prince George’s maternal great grandfather, the 8th Earl Spencer, was pretty thin on top, as was the 2nd Earl, and his youngest son, the Venerable Ignatius Spencer, a Catholic convert and Passionist priest. Father Spencer collapsed and died in a ditch in 1864 in consummation of arduous preaching and begging for the poor.

The Queen has great hair and, being monarch of all she surveys and titular head of two billion people, she does not have any need to change styles. The first Elizabeth went bald and had at least eighty wigs, but she was a queen and not a king, and bald queens are not as handsome as bald kings. Louis XIII regretted his hair loss and affected wigs, and they became the fashion for a long time. Emperor Joseph abolished them as court dress in 1780 but the final blow was the French -Revolution when wigs were disdained as aristocratic symbols, and soon the guillotine saw to it that there were no heads to put them on. In the early days of the Church they were condemned as vanities:  St Cyprian said that wearing a wig was worse than committing adultery, and St. Clement of Alexandria held that when a blessing was given, it was blocked by the wig and did not reach the soul.  In the eighteenth century Clement XI forbade the wearing of wigs by local Roman clergy in the provincial councils of 1701 and 1706, and Benedict XIII ordered Cardinal Alberioni out of a procession for wearing one, but courtiers could wear them. Benedict XIV mitigated the strictures in 1725, and understandably so since he wore one in winter months. Curiously, wigs assumed an almost liturgical significance in the Church of England and were required for official acts; there was a special design for the clerical wig,  as there were for barristers and judges.  In the early nineteenth century in New York, a question arose among Episcopalians about the validity of their bishops consecrated without wigs.

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As for the hair of the Windsors, the roots go back well into Saxon mists, assuming that the most common form of male pattern baldness, androgenic alopecia, is hereditary.  This genetic tradition is, according to experts, “autosomal dominant with mixed penetrance.” I quote that without comment, since I do not know what it means, but I do know that bald royals tend to beget bald royals here and there. In the present case of the Mountbatten-Windsors, one might check out the Count of Flanders, Baudouin I, born in 864, who passed the gene through the Princess Elfridam of Wessex.  The present alopeciac Prince Edward is Earl of Wessex.  The saintly (later canonized) king of the Angles, Aethelberht, son of Eormenric, and the first English king to convert to Christianity, on his return with his son Alfred from pilgrimage to Rome where he bestowed on the Pope lavish gifts of Saxon gold, he visited the court of Charles the Bald, king of the western Franks. There he married Charles’s twelve-year old daughter Judith, his first wife Bertha having died. Bertha may have been key in persuading Pope Gregory I to send St. Augustine and his retinue to Britain.

Aethelberht divided the Kentish kingdom between his eldest son Aethelbald and his favorite son Alfred. Aethelbald (whose name has nothing to do with hair) married his step-mother upon the death of this father and was succeeded by Alfred. The new king commissioned a book of charms, that is, Latin verses describing medical cures, which had been passed along to him by Elias, the Patriarch of Jerusalem.  An extant version of the book is called “Bald’s Leechbook” for its owner, mentioned in a colophon at the end of the Leechbook:  “Bald habet hunc librum Cild quem conscibere iussit  (Bald is the owner of this book which he ordered Cild to compile.)”  In early Anglo-Saxon usage, “bald” meant bold or courageous, and only gradually in Middle English did it come to mean a lack of hair.  The Welsh equivalent for bold is “ddewr” and the word for bald is “foel.”  When the Saxon king Aethelstan took the throne in 924, he joined forces against the Scots with the Welsh ruler Idwal Foel (Idwal the Bald) but as that alliance ended on the death of Aethelstan, it cannot be proven that any genetic trait was passed through a royal marriage.  The present Prince of Wales is thinning, appropriately, on the crown of his head.

Fast forwarding through the royal ages, androgenic alopecia cropped up in the reign of George III.  His tenth child, Prince Adolphus, Duke of Cambridge, was totally bald and became the uncle of Queen Victoria who married the prematurely balding Prince Albert.  Prince Adolphus was also, through the Wurttemburg line, the grandfather of Mary of Teck, who became the queen consort of George V and the present Queen’s grandmother. Queen Mary’s brother took the name of his great great uncle as 1st Marquess of Cambridge and, as can be seen in a chromolithograph by Sir Leslie Ward, was bald at an early age.

One wishes the best for every baby, and it is certainly hoped that the newborn Prince George will not be like Absalom, the princely son of King David, with hair so long that it got caught in the branches of a terebinth tree, leading to his death.  What the Bible teaches us about all this, is left for dispassionate exegetes to tell.  We do know that God’s judgments are severe against those whose sense of humor is so primitive that they resort to telling bald jokes.  A crowd of boys jeered at the prophet Elisha on his way to Bethel, shouting: “Go up, baldhead!  Go up, baldhead!” The prophet cursed them in the name of the Lord. “Then two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the children to pieces” (2 Kings 2: 24). The meaning of this edifying scene is for those wise enough to understand.

  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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