The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have recently welcomed their third baby, Louis Arthur Charles, a brother for their two other children, George Alexander Louis and Charlotte Elizabeth Diana. While Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge has demonstrated a small deviation from some royal traditions, many of the age-old practices are still alive and well.
Expectant parents would typically keep the exciting news to themselves for as long as possible but as the Duchess was suffering from severe morning sickness and had to withdraw from some royal duties the parents to be announced the impending birth much earlier than they might otherwise have done.
Fortunately for any royal mom-to-be, the practices and traditions that surround their pregnancy and birth have become more ceremonial than practical. For example, there is a rule which says that the Queen must be the first person outside of the delivery room to be told of the birth and Prince William did so by calling his grandmother on an encrypted phone to share the good news.
It must be very daunting to know you will be leaving the hospital with your new baby via a photo session with the world's media but that is a small burden compared to some of the intrusions, discomforts, and indignities that were historical, considered necessary as part of royal birth.
15 No Quick (Ending) Announcement
While it is now traditional to wait until they had passed the twelve-week mark for the Royals to announce a pregnancy, it has not always been so. Most parents understand the reluctance to announce to the world that they are having a baby before the first trimester and the highest chance of miscarriage has passed. Some even consider it bad luck to share the news.
In times past the royal pregnancy would not be announced until the expectant mom had experienced “the quickening.”
Before the times of reliable pregnancy tests, you might suspect you were expecting, but there was no way of confirming a pregnancy was responsible for your period being absent. There was always the possibility that there was some other reason why you did not have your “monthly visit.”
Pregnancy would not be confirmed until the mother experienced the tell-tale flutters of the first movements of her child, then known as “The Quickening.” Once this had happened on some occasions, usually somewhere around the five-month mark, it would be considered safe to make the announcement. Any suggestion of a royal baby before this stage might whip the population up into a frenzy and then disappoint them if it turned out to be a false alarm.
14 By The Book
The rules for a royal pregnancy and birth in Britain were established by “The Royal Book.” This book outlined each and every one of the rules and restrictions for royal life from the time of conception to what would happen to a royal after they had died. The pregnancy and birth rules were written by Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII.
The book was written as both a guide for the members of the royal household to make sure that new employees and servants knew the “correct” way of doing things, and for the royals themselves to ensure that traditions have adhered too.
Women of the royal family were given little, if any, say in how their pregnancy and birth proceeded. They may have been the social elite, but women were still second-class citizens, and the Queens, princesses, and other royal women were seen primarily as vessels for producing another boy and nothing else.
There were no options for a pregnant member of the royal family to have any control over the birth. She would not have been able to go anywhere or do anything without prior approval, least she does some damage to the baby. Thus a royal pregnancy was initially a time of excitement and joy, but for the expectant mother, it quickly became a period of fear, in case anything should go wrong and she was blamed for depriving the King of an heir.
13 Celebrate The Good Times
Due dates were not used in the middle of the last millennium, instead, women were relied upon to work out their “expected date of confinement.” This referred to the time where she would be “confined” to her home to await the birth.
The confinement was met with grand celebration by the public and the royal court. The arrival of a new royal, hopefully, a boy, was an event of great excitement and importance, so the pregnant royal lady would be treated to an elaborate procession through the city so that everyone could see her in her expectant state. This parade reinforced the idea of the woman as the vessel for a royal heir and was seen as the last opportunity to see her before she was wrapped up tightly in her cocoon, held safe until she did her duty and delivered her child.
The mom-to-be would be carried aloft on a bed of thick pillows and tapestries through an ecstatic crowd who would be cheering her along the route.
The public element of the parade would end at the doors of the royal palace in which she would give birth. The Queen or princess would drink a cup of wine to ensure her good health and would then pass from the public to the private area of the palace.
12 Where There’s A Will
Historically, birth has been a dangerous process for women. Until modern medical knowledge evolved to the stage where the process of infection was understood, “childbed fever” was a regular killer of women, no matter what their social status. Women from the royal family were no exception. In fact, it could be argued that in some ways the birthing royals were more likely to succumb to death due to childbed fever merely because they had many more people than average in the chamber where the child was born and consequently many more sources of bacterial with which they could be infected.
The desire for an heir would also mean that if the mother were to have a difficult birth the health of the baby would always be the priority. In these cases, it was not unknown for the mother to be allowed to die so that the baby could be delivered rather than risk the baby to save the mother's life.
So high was the likelihood that she might die either during the labor or in the first week or so afterward, the royal mother-to-be was required to make out her last will and testament well in advance of the expected time of the birth.
11 The Cocoon
The pregnant woman would then be passed into the royal delivery chamber where she would stay until after the birth. The room would be kept dark, and a fire would burn in the fireplace, no matter what time of year it was, keeping the chambers as hot and stuffy as possible.
The birthing chamber would have a lowered ceiling, and every window and door would be covered up with luxurious tapestries. Even the keyholes were blocked in case any fresh air, which was considered bad for the mom-to-be, got into the room.
The whole idea was to create a warm, comfortable place where the baby would enter the world. This space had to be warm and dark so that the transition from the womb to the outside world was as smooth and unsettling as possible for the new baby.
The chamber would have plenty of soft chairs for the queen to rest on and two beds. One bed was for sleeping on and the second, daybed, was for giving birth on. This may seem especially odd but the “night bed” would have been an expensive, high-quality wooden affair with luxurious furnishings, something on which you did not want to get the fluids of childbirth.
10 Odd Beliefs
Among the many bizarre beliefs that surround births at the time was the one that believed you could influence the gender of the bay by what you did during your pregnancy. It was understood that the act of sex was what created a baby but beyond that their knowledge was sketchy at best. There was no understanding of how the child’s biological gender was determined, and the prevailing belief was that the gender was not set in stone until the time of birth.
This is another reason why the bedchamber was kept soft dark and stuffy; it was believed to increase the chance of a boy being produced.
Another detail of the birthing chamber that seems silly to us today is what was allowed to be depicted on the tapestries hanging in the room, on the walls, and around the bed. These heavily embroidered cloths usually described historical scenes or pictures created biblical passages. Consequently, more often than not, they were full of animals and people. However, it was believed that animals and people on the tapestries would give the mother-to-be “disturbed dreams” which would consequently result in the death or deformity of the baby.
No over-stimulating pictures for these moms; just simple flowers, trees, fruits, and patterns. Goodness knows what they would think of our internet browsing and Netflix watching habits during pregnancy today!
9 The Holy Birth Girdle
Noble women, in general, had the option of wearing a “holy girdle” during the laying in and birth and the Queen would have been given the choice of wearing one.
At Rievaulx Abbey, Yorkshire, England, monks guarded the holy girdle of St Aelred as it was known to be helpful to ladies “lying in.” In a book written at the time “The Sickness of Women, “ the author wrote of a beneficial girdle made of a hart's skin and also wrote of jasper being beneficial. Mentioned in an English woman's will dated 1508 is:
“Also, one small girdle harnessed with silver and gilt which is an heirloom, called Our Lady's girdle, for sick women with child, I will that it be delivered to my son Roger, to remain as an heirloom.”
When Henry III's pregnant queen Eleanor was due with her fourth child, she borrowed the Virgin's Girdle and then had a thousand candles lit around her husband's tomb. The baby boy was christened Edmund because “the antiphon of St Edmund” was being chanted on Eleanor's behalf at the time of the baby's safe delivery.
The picture above is a 1365 fresco by Da Milano called The Birth of The Virgin. In it, you can see a new mother being attended by her ladies-in-waiting and midwives who are washing her new baby while he special girdle is handed off to another woman for cleaning.
8 The Gender Gap
The queen would be looked after by an entire team of attendants throughout her period of “laying in.” These servants and helpers would be exclusively female; it was a strict rule that no men were allowed in the birth chamber, for any reason, at any time. The one exception to this was, of course, the King who was the boss of everything and could do whatever he liked, rules be damned. Not that he was likely to bother coming to see his queen.
The royal marriages were usually arranged according to who was trying to be friends with who at the time and the royal bedchamber, where the baby was conceived was considered to be a place of the state. The king would carry on his extra-marital affairs but not in the official royal bed, THAT would be wrong.
The women who attended the pregnant royal became known as “gods siblings” because they were doing God's work by looking after the soon to be born child. This label is thought to have evolved into “Gods Sibs” and, eventually gossips because of the amount of time these women spent sitting around talking about people. I can only imagine the stories circulating in a room full of the same group of women for over a month.
7 Still Going Strong
One element of the historic royal births that is still alive and well today is the use of midwives. In times past, the royal mom-to-be would be attended by a team of midwives. These would be women who had experienced the birth of their own children first and then gone on to support other birthing mothers.
Potential royal midwives went through a rigorous selection process which primarily looked at the outcomes of previous births they had attended.
A woman who had been present at births where the child had been a girl instead of a boy would have been less desirable as they would have been considered to have failed to create a boy during the lying in, period.
The loss of the mother of a child might not have meant an immediate exclusion if it could be shown that the child had survived and that the child had been a boy. The death of a male child would have meant that particular midwife would have been stuck off of the list.
Today, royal midwives still attend the birth, although their track record of producing healthy boys is no longer an issue. The Duchess of Cambridge is said to have had a team of three midwives who attended her throughout her pregnancy and were present to help her through the births of all three of her children.
6 Promises, Promises
Today the royal midwives are sworn to secrecy over what happens during the pregnancy and birth. Quite right too. I don’t think any of us would want details of our medical histories, blood tests, pap smears or any other such personal information discussed on Twitter let alone having an internet debate over the length of our labor, the position we took or if we had any stitches to repair things down in the lady garden.
Back in the 1500s and 1600s, midwives had to be of impeccable character for other reasons. As well as their capability to tend to the queen and produce a healthy heir they had to be of good nature. This was important from the small things such as them slipping a silver goblet into the folds of their dress and taking it home to sell to the big things like being trusted not to betray the queen or her baby.
Just as important as not being a crazy person was that the midwife be able to prove she was not a witch.
Until this stage midwives and certain women in society held a great deal of traditional knowledge and hence importance and respect. The church began to frame this knowledge as witchcraft because they did not want the community relying on anyone other than the church, so midwives had to promise not to steal the umbilical cord or placenta for the purpose of skullduggery. Not a worry for the Duchess of Cambridge I assume.
5 Crowded House
All of this decorum and the strict restrictions on who and what was and was not allowed went straight out of the window when the queen was in the final stages of labor. Gossip and rumors, along with a heavy dose of politics and enough double-crossing shenanigans to fill an episode of Game of Thrones would accompany a royal birth.
Those who wanted to undermine the new baby and their potential wealth and influence would circulate rumors that the Queen's pregnancy had been faked or that a male baby had been brought in to replace a female child.
So to prove that the heir was a true heir the unfortunate queen would have to give birth with up to two hundred witnesses, all observing as the baby crowned, she pushed it out, and the midwife confirmed the sex.
Not only was the unique and usually private moment of birth turned into a three ring circus but the queen would also have the pleasure of knowing everyone she made eye contact with in court had seen her va-jay-jay.
It was so bad for Queen Marie Antoinette of France that when she gave birth to her son in 1788, it is said that she was nearly killed in the crush of people trying to witness the birth of her son.
4 Queen Vic's Major Royal Upheaval
The royals of the world were always the historical version of rock stars or famous actors. They were the ones people looked up to and aspired to be like, and they were able to set the trend in a way nobody else at the time was able to.
Until the reign of Queen Victoria British women followed the same kind of basic routine that royal moms did, without the parades and bedchambers, but with the midwife and no man in the room. Queen Victoria changed all of that when she insisted that her husband, Prince Albert, be with her during her labor. For the birth of her first child, Victoria had 12-hour labor and by her own account "suffered severely." Prince Albert was at her bedside almost the entire time.
The queen was said to be grateful for the family support and wrote, "There could be no kinder, wiser, nor more judicious nurse."
By this time, male doctors were allowed into the royal birthing room with strict instructions to only touch their patients and not look at them.
From then on it was not routine for a man to be with his wife, Prince Phillip was playing squash when Queen Elizabeth gave birth to Prince Charles, but thanks to Queen Victoria it was no longer forbidden.
3 A Big Thank You For This Mama
Until the 19th century the pain of childbirth, in many cultures was seen as Gods punishment. Eve had eaten the fruit of the tree and as such had disobeyed God. As a consequence, she, and all women from thereon in would have to pay the price for this treachery through the pain of childbirth. This seems a bit unfair and excessive to me, but fortunately, Queen Victoria also thought this was unfair.
There were no anesthetics until a dentist, William Morton developed the use of ether for dental surgery. Sit Jame Young introduced Chloroform as an anesthetic during childbirth in 1847, and Queen Victoria caught a whiff of the rumor of pain relief when she was pregnant with her eighth child.
The royal doctor, Dr. John Snow, no not the one from Game of Thrones, administered chloroform to Victoria during the births of Prince Leopold and Princess Beatrice, with Queen Victoria herself calling it" that blessed chloroform" and its effect "soothing, quieting and delightful beyond measure.”
Dr. John Snow wrote about the ninth birth: "At 11 o'clock I began to administer chloroform. Prince Albert had previously administered a very little chloroform on a handkerchief, about 9 and 10 o'clock. I poured about ten minims of chloroform on a handkerchief, folded in a conical shape, for each pain."Her Majesty expressed great relief from the vapor. Another dose of ergot was given about twelve o'clock, and the pains increased somewhat about 20 minutes afterward. The Queen, at this time, kept asking for more chloroform, and complaining that it did not remove the pain."
2 Secret Techniques
The birth of a royal child, or to be exact the death in childbirth of a Queen and her stillborn baby are responsible for the widespread availability of forceps for delivery.
Forceps themselves had been invented by the Chamberlen family in the late 1500’s. Nobody is sure which one of them brought the device to England, but they kept their specialist tool secret so that the Chamberlen midwives became the attendants of choice for 17th laboring mothers.
The men were able to keep their device secret for 200 years, mainly because they would work under sheets, so they were not in too direct contact with the women's lady parts.
The device was finally made public in the early 18th century, but some thought that they killed more babies than they saved.
This attitude changed when, in 1877 Princess Charlotte, who was dearly loved by the public, died while giving birth to a stillborn son. Charlotte endured an excruciating 50 hours of labor before giving birth to her stillborn son, and within 24 hours, she too was dead after painful hemorrhaging caused by the doctors' mismanagement of the delivery. The doctor responsible later killed himself after medical opinion claimed if he had used forceps both mother and child would have been saved.
This led directly to the acceptance of forceps becoming an essential tool for some deliveries.
1 Random Stats
Let’s wrap up with some interesting random stats. We all love to compare details of weight, length of labor and unusual birth stories so let's do the same with some royal births.
The shortest recorded royal birth was the birth of Princess Augusta Sophia, born to Queen Charlotte and George III in 1768. The entire labor took a mere 90 minutes from start to finish. Lucky Lady.
It is a mystery where the Queen Mother was born. Some claim she was born in the back of an ambulance while her mother was being taken home to give birth. Others say she was born at her parents’ townhouse in Grosvenor Gardens, in London’s Mayfair. However, her father Lord Glamis wrote her place of birth as the family home, St Paul’s Walden Bury, in Hertfordshire, on the birth certificate.
References: ph.ucla.edu, historyextra.com, theloop.ca, uk.businessinsider.com, royalcentral.co.uk, telegraph.co.uk, theguardian.com, dailymail.co.uk, rosaliegilbert.com
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