16 things you (probably) didn’t know about the rituals behind royal births, from the medieval era to the present day

Being a royal didn’t make childbirth any easier – if anything, these rituals made it all the more challenging. From lie ins to push presents, Charlotte Hodgman explores the myths and rituals linked to pregnancy in monarchies

Pregnant woman before giving birth in the 13th century
1

Queens of the past gave birth in front of dozens of people

These included royal officials and servants to ensure that there was no scandal around the delivery. In 1778, Marie Antoinette did so in front of an audience of up to 200. According to her chambermaid: “When the obstetrician said aloud, ‘The Queen is going to give birth!’ the persons who poured into the chamber were so numerous that the rush nearly killed the Queen’.” Two chimney sweeps, the chambermaid adds, “climbed upon the furniture for a better sight”.

Advertisement
2

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 were often given elaborately painted ‘birth trays’ (desco da parto), decorated with religious, mythological or literary themes. After giving birth, the exhausted mother would be presented with the tray, which was covered with a protective cloth and laden with nourishing food and sometimes small gifts.

The trays – many of which were specially commissioned – could then be hung on the wall as a piece of treasured art and in celebration of a healthy birth. Florentine ruler Lorenzo de Medici kept his, illustrated with the ‘Triumph of Fame’, in his private quarters until his death.

3

Cravings were still a problem, but also no problem

Expectant mothers are known for their strange food cravings, but for a royal mum-to-be, the world was your oyster when it came to obtaining your heart – or stomach’s – desire. Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s third wife, apparently developed a craving for quail meat whilst pregnant with the future Edward VI. Anxious to keep his expectant wife happy, a devoted Henry shipped the delicacy from Calais to fulfil her demands.

4

Before pregnancy tests, there was urine

Determining a pregnancy was difficult before the advent of accurate testing, and some women didn’t know they were expecting until they first felt the baby move – a ‘quickening’. In Tudor times, urine that was coloured between pale yellow and white, with a cloudy surface, was thought to possibly indicate pregnancy. Other tests involved leaving a needle in a woman’s urine to see if it rusted, or observing what happened if you mixed wine with urine.

5

‘Push presents’ are not a modern phenomenon

Today’s so-called ‘push presents’, which see fathers rewarding their partners with gifts after they have given birth, are actually not such a modern phenomenon. When Napoleon’s second wife Marie-Louise gave birth to a son, the emperor allegedly presented her with a necklace embellished with dozens of diamonds. Edward IV, too, was reportedly delighted at the birth of his first child, despite it being a baby girl, and sent his wife Elizabeth Woodville a jewelled ornament.

6

Only royal mothers could access the holy girdles

Giving birth was a dangerous undertaking during the medieval period, and the process was embedded in ritual as a way of protecting both mother and infant. Birth girdles bearing charms and prayers were common across all social levels, but only royal mothers could access the most holy of these – the girdle of the Virgin, held at St Peter’s Westminster, and the girdle of St Ailred at Rievaulx Abbey.

In 1242, the Westminster girdle was sent to Henry III’s wife Eleanor of Provence, in preparation for the birth of their daughter, Beatrice. Supposedly blessed by the Virgin Mary, the relic was thought to reduce pain in childbirth and strengthen contractions if needed.

7

Lying in was a big deal

But not in the modern sense. Royal and noble women in the medieval period would close themselves off from the world for a period of time before giving birth – a process known as ‘lying in’. The birthing chamber was created as a type of ‘second womb’, designed to give the new baby as peaceful an entry to the world as possible.

Fires were lit, windows were shut up and covered with calming tapestries – regardless of the weather – and religious items were scattered around to give spiritual reassurance. Light was believed to harm an expectant mother’s eyes, so the room was dim and quiet. There she would stay until the baby was born.

8

Many royal children were illegitimate

Throughout history, kings have produced illegitimate children: George III’s 15 children produced 56 illegitimate offspring between them. But being illegitimate did not always mean living in shame. Henry VIII was so enamoured 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 that he ever formally acknowledged.

Portrait of Henry Fitzroy
It wouldn’t have mattered if Fitzroy was legitimate, as he died at 17. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
9

Picking a name was an especially delicate matter

Choosing a baby’s name is never easy, but choosing the name of a royal baby is fraught with potential pitfalls. Tradition has seen the re-use of many royal names – Elizabeth, George, Henry – but some names are avoided for luck or poor comparisons. The legacy of ‘Bad’ King John is hard to escape, while Cromwell’s overthrow of the monarchy in the 17th century makes Oliver an unlikely choice for a future royal heir.

10

Delivery rooms were women-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, consort to Queen Victoria, was an exception – he is said to have been present when several of his children came into the world. “There could be no kinder, wiser, nor more judicious nurse,” Victoria later wrote of her husband.

11

Male midwives didn’t make an appearance until the 1700s

Before the 18th century, childbirth was an all-female affair, but the 1700s saw an obstetric revolution and the emergence of man-midwives, fashionably known as accoucheurs. Men charged a higher fee than women, so to have a man present at the birth was indicative of a family’s wealth, while developments in medical technology were also widely considered to be ‘men’s business’. By 1764, the royal family had allowed men into the birth chamber, with William Hunter appointed royal obstetrician to Queen Charlotte.

12

Royal mothers didn’t usually breastfeed their children

Instead a wet nurse was hired to feed their offspring. Breastfeeding was generally viewed with distaste, but on a practical level, it acted as a form of contraception – for a queen, whose job it was to provide more heirs, breastfeeding simply wasn’t a practical option if she wished to conceive again quickly. It was also believed that breast milk would curdle if marital relations were resumed before weaning, and that colostrum was harmful to a child.

Wet nurses often developed close relationships with their charges, particularly as children were generally breastfed for 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 wet nurse, Anne Oxenbridge, received £10 a year for her duties, more than £5,000 in today’s money. The Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun loved his wet nurse, Maia, so much that he built her an elaborate tomb after her death.

13

Royal parents weren’t expected to give up their sleep

It almost goes without saying that royal parents weren’t expected to tend to their children at night, and the royal nursery boasted a host of servants tasked with seeing to the needs of their young charges. Safely tucked in one of his two cradles – one of which was covered with crimson cloth of gold – the baby Henry VIII was rocked to sleep by two official ‘rockers of the royal cradle’. The women, Frideswide Puttenham and Margaret Draughton, were paid salaries of £3, 8s and 8d a year each for sending the young prince off to the land of nod.

14

Many medieval royal children would be raised in the same 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 childhoods and youths there. The palace became a favourite royal residence during this period, with Henry IV spending ten out of the 13 Christmases of his reign under its roof.

15

Male heirs no longer have priority other their sisters in Britain

The English (and later, British) monarchy has seen just six ‘official’ queens regnant in its long history. Male-preference primogeniture, which sees a woman accede the throne only if she has no living brothers or surviving legitimate descendants of deceased brothers, was practised in England from the Norman Conquest in 1066 until 2013, when the Succession to the Crown Act was passed. Now, royal sons no longer take precedence over their female siblings.

16

What if it’s twins? Only the oldest inherits

If twin heirs were born, the same rules of primogeniture would apply to them as to an older and younger sibling. Even if older only by minutes, the elder twin would inherit the throne. This has yet to happen 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 History Revealed

Advertisement

This article was first published in the April 2018 edition of BBC History Revealed