Since the beginning of civilization, the royal world has always been special, elevated above the mediocrity of regular life and filled with the pleasures and privilege of divine power and influence. After all, a king and queen were not simply elected to their posts—they were chosen by most discerning judge all, God. This notion alone was enough to propel their lives into a constant state of frenzied admiration, a reality that eliminated most of their privacy. And even though the practical function of the monarchy today has dwindled almost entirely, the public fascination with its office certainly has not.
When Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, gave birth a few years ago to the newest members of the English monarchy, public curiosity about her experience was boundless. The tabloids and papers were filled with speculation about her birthing process, her health risks, and her physical recovery. It would seem the act of delivering a child had placed her, at least momentarily, back on earth with the mere mortals who brought their children into the world in precisely the same way. And while this was likely comforting on some level, royal observers seemed to long for nothing more than a glimpse of the golden aura surrounding her moment of delivery. But sadly for them, modernity and pragmatism had robbed the mystique from the entire process, making it all rather anticlimactic. It would seem the young royals had greeted their precious new bundle much like any average citizen— in a clean and well-lit room with just a few medical attendants nearby. There were no royal horns to announce the event, no courtiers whispering behind bejeweled hands, and no loyal subjects angling for a better look. Kate and Willaim simply went home.
The entire affair lacked the drama of their predecessors and was a far cry from the darkened, smoky bedrooms of past centuries when the birth of a monarch was steeped in endless tradition, superstition, and more than a little fear. The age-old practice of bringing life into the world has always varied widely between cultures, but when it came to the secrets of the medieval bedchamber, there were none quite as strange and disturbing as those created for royal mothers.
Throughout the centuries, the birth of a monarch was not just any old day—it was a political event that could have deep implications for an entire nation. It could signal the future success or failure of an entire empire, so people were pretty concerned with its outcome. As such, it was not regarded as a private affair, but rather as a moment of significant public concern. Would it be a boy? A child king? As a future ruler, the offspring belonged more to the people than to the queen herself. And as a result, she gave birth in front of many spectators, all of whom watched the process carefully to confirm the sex and health of the baby… and to avoid any foul play. When Marie Antoinette of France gave birth in 1778, there were 200 people in her bedchamber to witness the event. In fact, the exact moment of a royal birth was so important, the obstetrician yelled out “The Queen is going to give birth!” —at which point hundreds of courtiers poured into the darkened room. The rush of people promised to be so extreme, the king had ordered the enormous tapestries around her bed be secured with cords, so they wouldn’t accidentally be pulled down by the frenzied crowd. The scene was so overpowering and chaotic, it is said Marie Antoinette fainted from the heat while onlookers continued to scramble up the furniture to get a better look at what was happening.
About a month before the queen was due to give birth, she withdrew from courtly life and was moved to a special chamber where she would remain until her big day. But taking to one’s bed before delivery was not a particularly pleasant experience for a royal mother, mostly because she had no say in it. Her body was no longer hers—it belonged to the people. Despite the luxury of her apartments, the rules for her “lying-in” strictly dictated all windows were to be shut and covered with tapestries, allowing almost no fresh air to enter the room. Although natural, the light was also considered dangerous, as it might hurt the queen’s eyes or possibly tempt her into leaving her protected domicile in search of some breathing room. The bedchamber would be hung all about with calming tapestries depicting serene religious scenes and landscapes —images intended to ease the mother-to-be and protect the sensibilities of the unborn child. Wall hangings showing people or animals were believed to be capable of triggering strange visions in the queen, hallucinations even, and could possibly lead to deformities in the child.
The general idea was to re-create the dark safety and peace of the womb itself so the queen could birth a monarch in ideal comfort. Regardless of the season, a roaring fire would be lit, and the room would be attended by women who spoke only in a whisper. The fresh rushes and herbs covering the floor would be replaced every day to keep the room smelling clean despite the heavy odors everywhere. If the queen became overwhelmed by the smoke and darkness, some candles might be lit around her stately bed to give her a bit of light. But general darkness was encouraged, mostly because the room itself was meant to symbolize the womb. In keeping with that idea, barriers that kept it closed were often undone as an invitation for an unimpeded delivery. Cupboards would be opened, hairpins removed, knots untied —anything to encourage the flow of energy outward. Women would often chant around the queen, calming her with their voices and prayers to St. Margaret, who had supposedly been spat from the mouth of a dragon.
Today, people typically try to make the overall experience of childbirth as pleasant and comfortable for the mother as possible, but this was not always the case. In the past, the pain of childbirth was seen as a necessary part of the process because, in the Bible, God told woman, “In pain, you will give birth to children.” And so, the agony was not only accepted, it was embraced. In devout Catholic and Christians settings, the suffering felt during labor and delivery was seen as an innate part of a woman’s experience and the price she must pay for Eve’s original sin. Even though many forms of painkillers were available in the dark ages, they were frowned upon for one reason—they would deprive a birthing mother of the inherent pain she was destined to face. As a result, queens often clutched holy relics and amulets during labor, even tucking little prayer rolls into the folds of their nightclothes—anything to give them strength. The church generally approved of such practices because they asked for God’s protection and would likely help a mother find success during her darkest hours.
Royal women were used to a certain standard of living, and the pain of childbirth was not a welcome change from their usual comforts. While some suffered in silence, others could not come to grips with this loss of physical control and found it to be untenable. Born in the early 1800s, Queen Victoria, who gave birth to nine children, began a campaign to make pain relief for royal mothers available and acceptable. For the birth of her eighth son, Prince Leopold, she found a doctor willing to dose her with chloroform as a way to escape the mind-blowing pain. “‘Oh, that blessed chloroform,’ she wrote afterward, “soothing and delightful beyond measure.'” While this may seem simple enough, asking for this type of physical relief from childbirth was no simple task, as it flew in the face of the moral belief that women deserved the pain of childbirth. It was a perspective not often questioned by anyone. But after the protestations of Queen Victoria, this dim outlook began to change, and royal women began politely requesting the Anaesthesia de la Reine during labor, otherwise known as ether.
This shift in thinking not only relieved many a royal mama, but it also opened the floodgates of various medical approaches. Doctors began offering expecting mothers all sorts of remedies—nitrous oxide, quinine, opium, even cocaine. By the end of the 19th century, the universal outlook had swung completely in the opposite direction, as royal and noble women alike were now seen as being far too delicate to bear the pain of labor without a “mommy’s little helper” from the medical world. Women of privilege had the option of delivering a monarch in a drug-induced stupor if they chose to. For those who wanted an even more extreme release, doctor’s began to offer a drug cocktail called “twilight sleep” that would sedate the mother to the point where she remembered nothing. She would just wake up and hopefully find a baby next to her. But because the narcotic also brought on hallucinations, doctors were sometimes required to blindfold or even restrain the expecting mother for her own safety. It would seem delivery table was destined to be one of extreme measures.
Because the pain of childbirth was so greatly feared among royal women, a special girdle was created to offer them extra support during their darkest hours. This elegant garment, often hemmed in silver thread, was created with the purpose of reducing the pain of childbirth and should, of course, be imbued with God’s blessing of strength. Sometimes known as a “holy girdle” or “Virgin’s Girdle,” the article of clothing was worn during the lying-in period and sometimes contained bits of Jasper around the band to promote a healthy offspring. This specialized garment dates back to the early 16th century and has been memorialized in various historical texts and artistic depictions. When Henry III’s pregnant queen Eleanor was about to have her fourth child, she wore such a girdle as a way to ensure her son Edmund would be born successfully. In a 1365 fresco by Da Milano called The Birth of The Virgin, a new mother is shown being attended by her ladies who are washing the new baby and handing off the special girdle for cleaning.
Of course, many men deliver babies these days, but a few hundred years ago? Never. Until the middle of the 17th century, royal births were considered a female-only affair, overseen by nurses, midwives, and ladies-in-waiting. These women who helped the queen during her hours of need were known as “God’s siblings” and were the protectors and handlers of anything related to the royal birth. Men were entirely forbidden.
Because there were no heart monitors or medical equipment to evaluate the mother’s progress, expertise was based solely on the experience of the local women who had given birth before. Midwives did all the heavy medical lifting, and doctors were rarely called in unless the situation became dire. As birthing experts, midwives had to be both knowledgeable and of good character—a woman who could be trusted with the life of the future monarch. When attending a royal mother, the midwife was required to take an oath not to keep anything from the birth itself, such as the placenta or the umbilical cord, both of which could be used for the purposes of witchcraft. This matriarchal dominance continued until Prince Albert insisted on attending the labor of his wife, Queen Victoria, in the mid 19th century. She was grateful for the familial support and wrote, “There could be no kinder, wiser, nor more judicious nurse.” By this time, male doctors were slowly being allowed into the royal birthing room with strict instructions to only touch their patients and to never, ever look directly at them.
Medieval beliefs regarding the female reproductive system were nothing short of—well, medieval. Many people, especially men, believed a woman’s genitalia were actually male organs turned inside out. According to this theory, the female uterus and ovaries were the cognates of the penis and testicles and inverted in women’s bodies so they could bear children. But at the end of the day, these organs were still male in origin. This belief allowed men to justify their views on women as being a subordinate and inferior version of men. After all, their male organs were stunted, not fully formed, and (sadly for them) without penile capabilities.
Not surprisingly, the knowledge around procreation was shaky at best. People did not yet understand how a baby’s gender was dictated by the chromosomes of the male sperm and always blamed the birth of an unwanted female on the mother. Pre-modern thinkers also believed the gender of an unborn child could be influenced by certain foods or medicinal potions. Experts on the subject of royal bedchambers (yes, they are a thing) describe the process of “lying-in” for royal mothers as a way to ensure a male heir. According to these beliefs, the sex of a baby was not determined until the very moment of birth, so it was always possible to influence the divine decision during pregnancy.
The discovery of a queen’s pregnancy was always a cause for excitement, anticipation, and curiosity, but it also called for a certain measure of caution. In the 1500s, British royal babies were always preceded by a religious ceremony initiating a regal procession to the birthing venue. So, when the Queen entered her final weeks of pregnancy, she would be paraded through public view and into the place where she would rest until the much-anticipated arrival. The procession was formal and well-attended, marking the official start to a new monarch. Back by the royal emblem, or “cloth of estate,” behind her, she would acknowledge her admiring public, sip a bit of much-needed wine, and eventually enter the darkened chamber that would be her home for many weeks. Once settled, she would likely have been given a special present known as a “birth tray.” These decorative pieces were usually adorned with pictures of biblical births and celebrations and were usually presented to women around the time of their lying-in. They were laden with jars filled with different delicious things like chicken soup and sweetmeats. Once the food was eaten up by the hungry mother-to-be, the trays were then hung on the wall as decorations and became valuable keepsakes for the royal family.
Back in the Middle Ages, the notion of cleanliness and personal hygiene was almost non-existent. Even the most opulent queens often gave birth in unsanitary conditions, creating a serious health risk to both mother and child. A sickness known as puerperal fever—a septic infection of the reproductive organs—was common in those days and always resulted in the death of the mother and sometimes the child. In the 16th century, Jane Seymour died from this illness, leaving Henry VIII a widower, but as we know, he was quick to rectify that dire situation. To prevent such maladies, herbal remedies were created, most notably a drink called “caudle,” which was a fortifying combination of egg, cream, porridge, and alcohol used to keep up a mother’s strength during labor. It was thick, smelly, and tasted positively wretched, but the alcohol was a welcome additive for the pain.
After a Queen’s procession, lying-in, and birthing process, she was expected to hide out for a bit longer until it was seemly to reintroduce her to society. While the baby was celebrated and instantly received by the public with a formal christening, the mother herself was not allowed to attend. Given the “uncleanliness” of her physical and moral condition, she was required to remain in her bedchamber for another six weeks until she could be properly “churched,” or blessed and purified by a priest before returning to her royal duties. This “cleansing” was necessary after such a messy process and ensured she was spiritually, emotionally, and physically ready to reassimilate.
Even though the royals often gave birth in front of an audience, the notion of pregnancy was still shrouded in considerable mystery and fear. The loss of the queen or (even worse) the baby was the biggest fear surrounding the event. From Katherine of Aragon, who lost four pregnancies and one infant, to Anne Boleyn, who had two miscarriages, to Princess Charlotte of Wales who died at just 21, a queen faced many potential dangers during her quest for motherhood. Any pregnant royal would have received communion regularly and vigilantly to ask for God’s help with her condition. In 1533, when Queen Elizabeth I was born, the practice of giving birth was considered so dangerous, all royal women were encouraged to write their wills before “lying-in.”More than one in three women died during childbirth during this time, as medical knowledge was not very grounded in science, often bowing instead to superstition and baseless rituals. Nowadays, images of pregnant woman are everywhere and the process of birth is well-understood and accepted, but this has not been the case throughout much of history. Giving birth in the middle ages was a risky endeavor, as all mothers (both rich and poor) faced the possibility of complications or even death.
Many women during this time would not have even known they were with child until they felt the first flutters of movement around five months. Although this “quickening” would mark the half-way point of their pregnancy, the mother could still not be entirely sure of her condition or when the child would be born. Because legit pregnancy tests did not exist, royal women would often seek the advice of a doctor who could learn more about the situation by examining their urine. For the sake of the nation, it was important to have this information as quickly and reliably as possible. If the urine was whitish or pale yellow with a cloudy surface, the woman was thought to be pregnant. This result, combined with the absence of menstruation, would be enough to start the planning for a royal birth. According to historians, “Other tests involved examining a needle left in the woman’s urine to see if it rusted, or seeing what happened when wine was mixed with the woman’s urine.”
But sometimes a Queen’s biggest challenge was not the danger or the pain, but the gossip. Even if a queen bore a healthy child, malicious rumors could bring about a number of problems for the royal family. When Mary of Modena, wife of King James II, gave birth to her son James in 1688, the country was rife with tales that she had not really been pregnant and had tried to trick the public by smuggling an infant into her bedchamber through a secret panel in the headboard of her bed. Other citizens said her baby had actually been stillborn and she’d switched out the infants. In an attempt to stifle such vicious rumors and reinstate the sanctity of the event, 70 eminent figures were asked to attend the birth in St. James Palace so their eye witness accounts could be recorded. As it later became known, the baby James was the victim of malicious gossip because he had been born a Catholic, and some in the land sought to tarnish his name before he could rise to power. And the rumors worked—he was never really accepted by the public, eventually losing his throne to William III and his wife, Mary II, in 1689. It would seem one solid rumor mill could ruin a monarch’s shot at power if it wasn’t effectively handled.
While it’s true the Queen’s office holds little power in today’s world, this modern development has at least salvaged her ability to give birth in dignified comfort, free from the trappings of medieval sexism and fear. So, the next time you wish to yourself that royalty still had some level of mythical strength, just remember those poor mothers who bore the brunt of the crown in the most unpleasant ways.
And the rest is history.