10 of the Strangest Rules and Rituals for Royal Births Over the Centuries
10 of the Strangest Rules and Rituals for Royal Births Over the Centuries

10 of the Strangest Rules and Rituals for Royal Births Over the Centuries

D.G. Hewitt - July 9, 2018

These days, queens and princesses have their babies in the safest and most comfortable environments possible. They are also offered privacy for the occasion, even if there is huge public interest in the event. However, this was not always the case. Far from it, in fact. Indeed, for centuries, in royal circles as in society in general, a woman’s body was not really her own. Rather, it was owned by men, by the church or by the public.

This meant that, from the Middle Ages, through Tudor times and even past the Regency era in England, royal births were public spectacles. They would attract huge crowds, with many even witnessing the birth itself. What’s more, a royal birth was expected to follow strict traditions and protocols, not all of which had the mother and baby’s best interests at heart. As the years progressed, the stifling traditions gradually gave way to modernity. But still, progress was largely slow in coming. After all, Prince Charles, first in line to the British throne, was born in Buckingham Palace, as was the custom. It’s only very recently that royals have been having their babies in hospitals.

So, here we have ten of the strangest customs and traditions attached to royal births in centuries past:

10 of the Strangest Rules and Rituals for Royal Births Over the Centuries
Royal births were no private matter, they would be public affairs, with many witnesses to history. Hoydens & Firebrands

When it was time, there would be a royal procession to the birthing chamber

In centuries past, women – even queens and princesses with access to the finest medical minds of the time – could often be four, or even five or six, months’ pregnant before they knew they were expecting. After all, there were no home pregnancy tests in the Middle Ages, plus many of the symptoms normally associated with pregnancy might be dismissed as any number of common diseases or ailments. However, once it was known that a royal lady was with child, plans were put in motion for the birth – including all the pomp and ceremony that was to come even before she went into labor.

In 1500s England, for example, there was a Royal Book dictating what should be done in the build-up to a birth within the inner court. Even if the expectant lady herself was in pain or discomfort, procedures still had to be followed. So, Greenwich Palace was abuzz in 1533 as the queen got ready to give birth to the future Elizabeth I. As was the custom, around a month before she was due, the mother-to-be would attend a special mass in which the priest would ask for the birth to be blessed. After this, she would hide herself away from the public eye and even from the rest of the royal court in a process known as ‘lying in’.

The amount of interest in a royal birth is hardly surprising. After all, there could be a lot at stake: wars were fought when a queen gave birth to a girl rather than a boy, and any problems could also result in bloody dynastic struggles, with nobles and even commoners called up to fight. This idea of a royal birth being a public spectacle continued into the Regency period in England. Then, there was an expression for heading off to see the queen set off for her church blessing and begin her ‘lying in’ – people would “go to town” to try and catch a glimpse of the royal mother-to-be. Even today, royal births are announced to the public right away – in England, for example, courtiers still post hand-written notes in front of the gates of Buckingham Palace to announce a new addition to the Royal Family.

10 of the Strangest Rules and Rituals for Royal Births Over the Centuries
A queen or princess could expect a significant audience when she gave birth, including official witnesses. Pinterest.

The Queen could expect an audience when giving birth

Giving birth has never been a completely private affair for European royalty. Even today, the press and a large proportion of the public, scramble to learn every last detail when a princess or queen is expecting or in labor. But the royal ladies of today can count themselves extremely lucky. In centuries past (and, indeed, even within the past 100 years), giving birth to a child, especially one who might go on to inherit a throne, was no private matter. Rather, royal births attracted huge crowds, with dozens, if not hundreds of people crowding around the bed to watch the action unfold.

It wasn’t simply because they wanted to be witness to history that so many people flocked to see royal births. Nor was it due to some grim fascination with what would have been, in those days, most likely a painful, dramatic event. Instead, the main reason royal births had so many people in attendance was to remove any possibility that the baby presented as the heir to a throne had come from a different mother. Indeed, so prevalent was this fear of a ‘changeling’ infant being swapped for the real royal baby in the birthing chamber that several ‘official witnesses’ would often be appointed – and tasked with keeping a very close eye on every second of the birth. Marie Antoinette of France gave birth to her first child this way – there were fears her infant might be swapped for a changeling (with the real father and mother then emerging later on to claim the throne, so she was required to have her baby in public.

Of course, not even public births were always enough to keep the rumors at bay. When, in 1688, Mary of Modena gave birth to James Francis Edward Stuart, she did so in front of an incredible 200 witnesses. Nevertheless, rumors that he was not a ‘real royal’ followed the English pretender to the throne for years after. In fact, the alleged illegitimacy of the young James was one of the reasons William of Orange could win support for his attempted invasion and efforts to replace the Catholic monarchy with Protestant rule.

Genuine public births like the kind Marie Antoinette was required to endure died out at the start of the nineteenth century. And, as that century went on, the tradition of having witnesses present steadily died out too. But it didn’t disappear completely. Indeed, in England, the Home Secretary was required to be present – albeit stood outside the room – at every royal birth. So yes, that means a politician was there for the birth of Queen Elizabeth II, making sure that the future monarch was indeed legitimate.

10 of the Strangest Rules and Rituals for Royal Births Over the Centuries
Birth trays, usually laden with gifts, were extremely popular in Renaissance Italy. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

For her efforts, a queen could expect to receive a ‘birth tray’ of gifts

If, as a queen or princess, you managed to get through the trauma of pregnancy and giving birth, then at least you could look forward to being showered with gifts. One particular tradition was the gifting of ‘birth trays’ (or a desco da parto as such a tray was known in Renaissance Italy, where they really took off). Whether or not these treasure-laden trays were worth the pain and embarrassment of giving birth without pain relief and in front of an audience is debatable, however.

What was actually on a ‘birth tray’ varied widely, though there were some more common items. For starters, the tray itself would be an intricate, work of art in its own right. For queens or princesses, these would be specially commissioned and might be made of wood or precious metal, with either a biblical scene painted on or elaborate etchings included to add to the sense of occasion. And, of course, there was always space for a royal coat or arms or other symbol or seal. As might be expected, the trays were often used to glorify a king or prince, with the idea of male superiority very much enforced, for instance through paintings of important military victories or of historical (male) figures such as Alexander the Great or of the ancient Gods.

Upon these, the gift bearer would place a range of offerings both big and small. Almost all birth trays would come complete with ornate jars containing chicken broth and sweetmeats, designed to help the recipient get her strength back up after giving birth. Once the lady had eaten all the food, both the birth tray and the jars would be hung up on the walls of her chamber, a useful way of reminding her of the generosity of the people who sent the gift. These would then also become important royal keepsakes, and indeed many remain today and give a fascinating insight into royal births of centuries past, especially in Renaissance Italy.

Interestingly, birthing trays were not just for royals. From around 1600 onwards, they became fashionable among the nobility and even among the minor aristocracy. There was a lively trade in cheaper birth trays, with modestly-decorated wooden bowls especially popular with artisans, nobles and bankers looking to give their wife something special. However, the fact that a vibrant market in second-hand birthing trays emerged alongside this suggests that such gifts were only appreciated for a short time.

10 of the Strangest Rules and Rituals for Royal Births Over the Centuries
Birthing chambers were usually off-limits to men, even doctors and the king. Wikimedia Commons.

The birthing chamber was strictly a male-free zone

For centuries, every aspect of royal life in Europe was male-centric. The only real time and place where men’s concerns were secondary was when a mother-to-be was sealed off in her special chamber, ready to give birth. Once the doors to the chamber were closed and the ‘lying in’ process was underway, the room would become a female-only zone, with men only allowed in in exceptional circumstances.

The boss in the chamber was the midwife, who was always a woman. At this point, midwives probably knew far more about childbirth than doctors, many of whom were also priests or monks and so had little, if any, knowledge of the female body and childbirth. A queen or princess could, of course, count on the very best midwives around. They were tasked with overseeing every stage of labour and the birth, ensuring the safe delivery of the baby. While the mother’s health was important, it was a secondary concern to the wellbeing of the infant.

Not only did royal midwives have to be knowledgeable and competent, they also needed to be highly trustworthy, too. Such was the fear – often quite justified – that things from the birth, including the umbilical cord or placenta, would be smuggled out of the chamber and sold or used in potions for witchcraft, midwives were obliged to swear an oath that they wouldn’t take anything out of the room. In a highly notable break from the accepted gender roles of the time (and indeed, very much against the religious norms of today even), the midwife was allowed to baptize the baby in extreme circumstances. This was permitted if it looked like the infant was very sickly and unlikely to survive for long. By delivering the blessed sacrament, the royal family could rest assured that the infant’s soul was saved and he or she would go to heaven.

The barring of men from the birthing chamber continued well beyond Tudor times. In fact, it was only in the mid-19th century that men began to be present at royal births. This was when Prince Albert joined Queen Victoria as she went into labor, staying right until the end. The Queen wrote that “there could be no kinder, wiser, nor more judicious nurse,” than her beloved husband, setting a trend for men to be beside their wives as they gave birth. Slowly, it became increasingly acceptable for male doctors, witnesses and even relatives to be present, ending the centuries-old matriarchal dominance of royal deliveries.

10 of the Strangest Rules and Rituals for Royal Births Over the Centuries
Citing the Bible, royals regarded pain during childbirth as something to be not just endured but embraced. Wikimedia Commons.

Pain was seen as natural and even a good thing

The popular and enduring image of Queen Victoria of England is mainly that of a grumpy, dowdy and archly-conservative middle-aged or elderly lady. While this may be true for her later years, such an image does a disservice to Victoria. After all, this was the monarch who revolutionized royal childbirth. The queens and princesses of today have her to thank for breaking with the centuries-long tradition of seeing pain as a good and noble thing. Thanks to Victoria, while royal births may still cling on to some old traditions, the ladies may now accept, or even embrace, pain relief.

In the Middle Ages above all, what limited pain relief there was available was seen as unnatural and against the will of God. This was especially true in the case of royal births. After all, in the Bible, it’s stated that “in pain, you will give birth to children”, and kings and their advisers expected the royal women to make sure this was indeed the case. So, anything that might ease the pain of childbirth, including alcohol and other natural anesthetics were strictly forbidden. Indeed, legend has it that, in the year 1591, a woman of high social standing was burned at the stake for having the temerity to request pain relief in the midst of a difficult birth of twins.

Even when chloroform and ether became commonplace in surgery by the nineteenth century, the pain of childbirth was still seen as something to be not just endured but even embraced, especially for the ladies of royalty. It was only in 1853 that this situation changed. Having already given birth to seven children. Queen Victoria went into labor with the future Prince Leopold. Struggling with the pain of labor, she asked the royal physician, Dr John Snow, to help. And he did indeed do his duty to his queen. A cloth soaked in chloroform was pressed against Her Majesty’s mouth and did the trick. After the birth, far from keeping it a secret, Queen Victoria was enthusiastic in her praise of pain relief. From then on, drugs were seen as a blessing for women in labor, and for both commoners and royalty alike.

10 of the Strangest Rules and Rituals for Royal Births Over the Centuries
Childbirth could be deadly, so a queen was required to make a will before going into labor. Netudgaven.dk

Even a queen was advised to get her affairs in order… just in case

Giving birth in centuries past was not just painful and uncomfortable, it was potentially deadly, too. What’s more, a royal woman would not be expected to run the risk of childbirth just once or twice. From the start of the Middle Ages onwards, European royals usually married between the ages of 15 and 19, with the optimal childbearing time for young women between 20 and 24. Since new babies were looked after by wet nurses, a lady, even a queen, could expect no real break between children. Indeed, according to the statistic, the average number of children born to a royal lady during the Renaissance was around six – that is, if they lived that long, of course.

Such were the risks associated with childbirth that royal ladies were advised to write a will and generally get their affairs in order once they learned they were pregnant. Plus, of course, a queen or princess was expected to ask for God’s protection, both during their pregnancy and during the birth. Catholic royals would take communion on almost a daily basis. But still, this was not enough to keep them safe. Indeed, even though they had the very best medical attention of their time, many female royals died in the birthing chamber.

Without the benefits of modern medicine, many royals died from bacterial infections or from puerperal fever. In many cases, the fatalities were entirely avoidable. For instance, ladies-in-waiting would not be required to wash their hands before helping with a birth, while the use of forceps in the birthing chamber would often be nothing short of barbaric.

The list of royals who died in childbirth is very long indeed. Just a few notable examples include the case of Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales, the only child of King George IV and Caroline of Brunswick. Since both her father and grandfather were regarded as insane and were hugely unpopular with the English people, hopes were high that she could restore faith in the monarchy. However, she died in 1817, at the age of just 21, less than two years into a happy marriage to the future King of the Belgians. Other notable tragic deaths included that of Maria Anna of Spain, who died in 1646 while giving birth to her sixth child at the age of 39, as well as that of Maria Leopoldine of Austria who was just 17 when she died in childbirth in August of 1649. More recently, Alexandra of Greece and Denmark died in September of 1891 after going into premature labor – though her son, Dmitri Pavlovich would not only survive but go on to make history by being one of the disaffected Russian nobles who killed Rasputin.

10 of the Strangest Rules and Rituals for Royal Births Over the Centuries
The birthing chamber was designed to be as cosy and soothing as possible. Wikimedia Commons.

The birthing chamber was designed to resemble the womb

Rather than being admitted to hospital in the closing days of her pregnancy, a female royal in centuries past would be expected to give herself up to ‘lying in’ up to a month before her baby was due. This was a special, rigidly-structured procedure in which the mother-to-be was isolated from the outside world for several weeks. While this was done with her – and the baby’s – wellbeing in mind, it would have been extremely tedious and uncomfortable, despite all the effort that went into mollycoddling the expectant royal.

Before the queen or princess entered the designated room for her ‘lying in’, the chamber was carefully prepared. All the walls were covered in calming tapestries. These would depict serene biblical scenes and landscapes. Images of animals or people were off-limits since it was believed that such sights could frighten the mother-to-be and could even lead to hallucinations and birth defects, including physical deformities. A false ceiling might also be installed, to create a cosier enclosed space reminiscent of the womb in order to add to the feeling of relaxation and comfort.

Fresh air and natural light were seen as harmful rather than beneficial. As such, if the chamber had any windows, these were to remain covered until after the birth. Only candles were permitted, with the attendants warned that any glimpse of natural sunlight might harm the expectant mother’s eyes. What’s more, a big fire would be lit in the room – even if it was summer – and anyone in the room was forbidden from raising their voices above a whisper. And the superstitions didn’t stop there. In some countries, Tudor England included, anything that was closed would be opened so as to ensure that all energy flowed outwards. So, as well as cupboard doors being opened, knots and even hairpins were undone. Nothing was left to chance.

10 of the Strangest Rules and Rituals for Royal Births Over the Centuries
It was believed that the sex of a baby could be decided right before the moment of birth – and a boy was preferred to a baby girl. The Loop.

Every effort was made to ensure the baby was a boy

The ‘lying in period’ was not just dedicated to ensuring the mother-to-be was kept calm, comfortable and guarded against harmful forces like natural light and noise. The month leading up to a royal birth was also regarded as being hugely important, above all since it could be when the gender of the child would be determined. Indeed, in Medieval and Tudor times, even the most advanced of physicians would have subscribed to the belief that the sex of the infant was not decided until almost the very moment before birth. This meant it could be influenced – and, of course, every effort was made to ensure the baby was born a boy.

Above all, it was believed that the expectant mother’s imagination could influence the sex of her baby. That’s why queens and princesses were encouraged to think about baby boys rather than girls. To help them stay focused, any images of biblical scenes or of nature would not only be calming, they would also be male-dominated. Likewise, ladies-in-waiting were required to keep the mother-to-be’s mind firmly focused on the idea that she was going to have a baby boy.

Once the royal baby had been born, there was no time to waste when it came to confirming the sex. Straight away – before the mother had even had the chance to hold her infant – it would be announced whether it was a boy or a girl. Witnesses would be on hand to confirm this and to ensure that a girl was not quickly and secretly replaced with a boy, and then the king or other royal father would be informed. The birth of the new prince or princess would then be announced publicly.

10 of the Strangest Rules and Rituals for Royal Births Over the Centuries
Alcoholic caudle was believed to help prevent women dying in childbirth like Jane Seymour sadly did. Wikimedia Commons.

A boozy drink called caudle may have prevented royal deaths

On October 24, 1537, Henry VIII’s third wife, Jane Seymour died just two weeks after the birth of her only child, a boy who would go on to rule as King Edward VI. She passed away as a result of postnatal problems, and more specifically from puerperal fever, a septic infection of the reproductive organs. Now, of course, King Henry quickly got over this, moving onto wife number four. However, Jane Seymour’s passing helped highlight the risk every woman took in having a child, forcing the physicians of the time to find ways of keeping new mothers safe.

One of the most popular solutions was a drink called ‘caudle’. This was a deeply unpleasant concoction, made by combining eggs, cream and porridge. As well as being thick and gloopy, it smelled as bad as it tasted. Nevertheless, it was seen as an effective way of keeping an expectant lady’s strength up when she went into labour. What’s more, since it also contained alcohol, usually from the addition of wine or ale, it could help a royal mother-to-be cope with the pain of childbirth.

Notably, caudle was to be taken after the birth as well. It was seen as an effective restorative, helping a new mother get her strength back up and guarding against puerperal fever, the condition that killed Jane Seymour. Well into the Regency period in England, physicians and midwives advised that caudle should be consumed immediately after the delivery of a child, with regular doses to follow. According to Dr Edmund Chapman, a renowned childbirth expert of 18th century England, “white wine caudle” was particularly effective if a woman had lost a lot of blood during childbirth. Then, if the problem persisted, he advised switching to red wine caudle.

Whether or not caudle helped reduce the risk of potentially-fatal bacterial infections is debatable, especially when it was drunk in such unsanitary conditions. However, the alcohol would have certainly helped, especially at a time when even queens and princesses were strongly discouraged from using any form of pain relief when giving birth.

10 of the Strangest Rules and Rituals for Royal Births Over the Centuries
Even Queen Victoria needed to be blessed and purified before returning to her royal duties after giving birth. Wikipedia.

A lady needed to be ‘cleansed’ before resuming her royal duties

Even when she had finally given birth, the ordeal wasn’t over for the new mother. In Tudor times in particular, great emphasis was placed on the idea of ‘cleansing’ – that is, on making sure the queen or princess was not only physically ready to leave her sealed-off chamber and return to court life, but emotionally and spiritually ready too. As with the ‘lying in’ state, this final stage could take several weeks, and it would undoubtedly have been a tedious and frustrating time for the new mother, especially since she would have been separated from her child.

According to most historians, the ‘cleansing’ stage lasted between four and six weeks. During this period, the new mother was expected to stay in bed and rest. Moreover, she was also expected to pray regularly – this was especially the case in 15th and 16th century England, where the royals were expected to be extremely devout and pious. This was because it was generally accepted that women were ‘unclean’ after giving birth and so a queen or princess needed to be ‘cleansed’ before she could return to her royal duties.

During the cleansing period, it was expected that the father – in many cases, the king – would take on the woman’s royal duties, even looking after domestic affairs of the court. Once the designated period had come to an end (at least two weeks for the birth of a girl, double this for a boy), the new mother would be brought to church or to the royal chapel and then blessed by the priest. She was now spiritually renewed and able to get back to her royal duties, which usually meant ready to give her husband another child! Often, of course, this meant that the mother missed the first few weeks of her child’s life, including their baptism and presentation to the court and to the public.

Notably, this idea of cleansing a royal lady after she had given birth was not confined to the Medieval and Tudor periods. Famously, Queen Victoria of England was required to wait through month-long confinements four times. What’s more, the legendary monarch was also required to be blessed and purified by a priest after the births of all four of her children. By this point, however, the process of ‘churching’ had become largely symbolic and was more a question of tradition than superstition – after all, it would have taken a brave priest to keep Victoria from returning to work.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Royal Baby Traditions You Didn’t Realize Existed”. CAROLINE PICARD. Good Housekeeping. May 6, 2019

“Childbirth in Medieval and Tudor Times.” Sarah Bryson, The Tudor Society.

“Why Giving Birth to a Monarch Was a Queen’s Darkest Hour.” The Raven Report, August 2017.

“Was Queen Victoria Really “Purified” After Giving Birth? This Religious Ritual Has A Long & Complicated History.” Leah Thomas, Bustle.com, January 2018.

“Warm Caudle: A Potion for Regency Women in Childbed.” Diane Morris, Moorgate Books, November 2014.

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