Royal Birth Rituals | Audiences and desires at birthplaces
The queens of the past gave birth in front of dozens of people
These included royal officials and servants to ensure there was no scandal surrounding the delivery. In 1778, Marie-Antoinette did it in front of a maximum of 200 people. According to her maid: “When the obstetrician says out loud: ‘The queen is going to give birth!’ so many people flocked to the room that the rush almost killed the queen. Two chimney sweeps, adds the maid, “climbed onto the furniture to see better”.
Royal mothers were given “birth trays” – but not for the reasons you might think
In 14th-century Italy, to celebrate a successful birth, new mothers often received elaborately painted “birth trays” (desco da parto), decorated with religious, mythological or literary themes. After childbirth, the exhausted mother received the tray, which was covered with a protective cloth and loaded with nourishing foods and sometimes small gifts.
The platters – many of which were specially ordered – could then be hung on the wall as a treasured work of art and to celebrate a healthy birth. The Florentine sovereign Lorenzo de Medici kept his, illustrated with the “Triumph of Fame”, in his private quarters until his death.
Food cravings were always a problem, but no problem either
Pregnant women are known for their weird food cravings, but for a future royal mom, the world was your oyster when it came to getting your heart’s – or stomach’s – desire. Jane Seymour, the third wife of Henry VIII, apparently developed a craving for quail meat while pregnant with the future Edward VI. Anxious to keep his pregnant wife happy, a devoted Henry dispatched the Calais delicacy to meet her demands.
Before pregnancy tests, there was urine
It was difficult to determine pregnancy before the advent of accurate testing, and some women did not know they were waiting until they felt the baby move for the first time – a “rush”. In Tudor times, it was believed that urine that was colored between pale yellow and white, with a cloudy surface, could indicate pregnancy. Other tests involved leaving a needle in a woman’s urine to see if it rusts or observing what happens if you mix wine with urine.
“Instant gifts” are not a modern phenomenon
So-called “push gifts”, which see fathers rewarding their partners with gifts after childbirth, are actually not such a modern phenomenon. When Napoleon’s second wife, Marie-Louise, gave birth to a son, the emperor allegedly gave her a necklace adorned with dozens of diamonds. Edward IV was also said to have been delighted with the birth of his first child, albeit a little girl, and sent his wife Elizabeth Woodville a set of jewelry.
Only royal mothers could access sacred belts
Childbirth was a dangerous undertaking in medieval times, and the process was rooted in ritual as a way to protect both mother and child. Birth belts bearing charms and prayers were common at all social levels, but only royal mothers could access the holiest of them – the Virgin belt, held in St Peter’s Westminster, and the belt of St Ailred at Rievaulx Abbey.
In 1242, the Westminster belt was sent to the wife of Henri III Aliénor de Provence, in preparation for the birth of their daughter, Beatrice. Supposedly blessed by the Virgin Mary, the relic was believed to reduce pain in childbirth and strengthen contractions when needed.
Laying down was a big deal
But not in the modern sense of the word. Royal and noble women of the medieval period closed themselves off from the world for a time before giving birth – a process known as ‘sleeping in’. The birthing chamber was created as a kind of “second womb”, designed to give the new baby as peaceful an entry into the world as possible.
Fires were lit, windows were closed and covered with soothing tapestries – regardless of the weather – and religious artifacts were strewn for spiritual reassurance. It was believed that the light damaged the eyes of a pregnant woman, so the room was dark and calm. She would stay there until the baby was born.
Many royal children were illegitimate
Throughout history, kings have produced illegitimate children: the 15 children of George III produced 56 illegitimate descendants among themselves. But being illegitimate didn’t always mean living in shame. Henry VIII was so in love with his illegitimate son, born to his mistress Bessie Blount in 1519, that he named him Henry Fitzroy and made him Duke of Richmond and Somerset. Fitzroy was the only one of Henry’s illegitimate children he had ever officially recognized.
Choosing a name was a particularly delicate matter
Choosing a baby’s name is never easy, but choosing a royal baby’s name is fraught with potential pitfalls. Tradition has seen the reuse of many royal names – Elizabeth, George, Henry – but some names are avoided for luck or bad comparisons. It’s hard to escape the legacy of “bad” King John, as Cromwell’s overthrow of the monarchy in the 17th century makes Oliver an unlikely choice for a future royal heir.
Delivery rooms were female-only areas
This was the case for centuries, and even in the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was unusual for fathers to be present for the birth of their children. Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, was an exception – he was said to have been present when several of her children were born. “There could be no nicer, wiser or more judicious nurse,” Victoria later wrote of her husband.
Midwives did not appear until the 1700s
Prior to the 18th century, childbirth was an all-female affair, but the 1700s saw an obstetric revolution and the emergence of fashionable, male-midwives known as the midwives. Men charged higher fees than women, so having a man present at birth was indicative of a family’s wealth, while developments in medical technology were also widely seen as ‘a men’s business’. In 1764, the royal family had allowed men to enter the birth chamber, with William Hunter being appointed royal obstetrician to Queen Charlotte.
Royal mothers generally did not breastfeed their children
Instead, a nanny was hired to feed their offspring. Breastfeeding was generally viewed with disgust, but in practical terms it was a form of contraception – for a queen, whose job it was to give more heirs, breastfeeding just wasn’t a practical option if she wanted to conceive again quickly. It was also believed that breast milk would curdle if marital relations resumed before weaning, and that colostrum was harmful to the child.
Nannies often developed close relationships with their caregivers, especially since children were typically breastfed longer than they are today – boys often up to the age of two. Breastfeeding a royal baby could be a lucrative business. Henry VIII’s nanny, Anne Oxenbridge, received £ 10 a year for her duties, over £ 5,000 in today’s money. Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun loved his nurse, Maia, so much that he built an elaborate tomb for her after her death.
Royal parents weren’t expected to give up their sleep
It almost goes without saying that royal parents were not supposed to look after their children at night, and the royal nursery had a multitude of servants responsible for looking after the needs of their young children. Tidy in one of its two cradles – one of which was covered with a crimson cloth of gold – baby Henry VIII was cradled by two official “royal cradle rockers”. The women, Frideswide Puttenham and Margaret Draughton, received salaries of £ 3, 8 shillings and 8 pence each for sending the young prince to the land of the nod.
Many medieval royal children are said to be raised in one place – Eltham Palace
Between the 14th and 16th centuries, Eltham Palace in Kent was traditionally used to raise royal children, with Edward III and Henry VIII spending much of their childhood and youth there. The palace became a favorite royal residence during this period, with Henry IV spending ten of the 13 Christmases of his reign under its roof.
Male heirs no longer have priority over sisters in Britain
The English (and later British) monarchy has seen only six “official” queens reign in its long history. Male-preference primogeniture, which allows a woman to ascend to the throne only if she has no living brothers or surviving legitimate descendants of deceased brothers, was practiced in England from the Norman Conquest in 1066 until 2013 , when the Succession to the Crown Act was passed. From now on, the royal sons no longer take precedence over their female brothers and sisters.
What if they were twins? Only the oldest inherit
If twin heirs were born, the same rules of primogeniture would apply to them as to an older brother and a younger brother. Even if he only aged a few minutes, the older twin would inherit the throne. This has not yet taken place in England, but Scotland has seen royal twins: James II of Scotland (born 1430) had an older twin brother, Alexander, who died before his first birthday.
Charlotte Hodgman is the editor of BBC story revealed
This article first appeared in the April 2018 edition of BBC History Revealed