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.