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

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.