As the nation awaits the news of the arrival of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s first baby, I’m going to share with you some royal birth traditions.
We know rather a lot about royal birth traditions from the past. These were very well documented. In comparison, we know very little about the experience of women from the lower classes. You can imagine the two experiences to have been very different!
Preparing for a Royal Birth
In the medieval period and into the Renaissance era, a month prior to giving birth, a Queen would take to the birthing chamber. She would be expected to rest here until the birth of her baby. This was known as ‘lying in’ or ‘taking to her chamber’. This was an extremely private room, even the King would not be expected to enter. All windows were to be closed. The windows would be covered with tapestries depicting religious scenes. Any depictions of animals were said to stir something strange into the imagination of the Queen. This could result in a deformity in the royal baby.
Throughout the medieval period, the royal delivery room was designed to resemble the womb as much as possible. It was an enclosed space with very little light. This must have been rather depressing for the mother. But intended to soothe the royal baby as he entered the world! This womb-like resemblance was also created to comfort the mother too!
During the birth, especially if giving birth was proving difficult, the midwives would open doors in the room – such as cupboards or drawers. They would untie any knots. This was said to increase the energy in the room and allow the safe passage of the baby into the world.
Witnessing the Royal Birth
In the medieval period, the act of giving birth was a rather private affair. Men (even the father) would not have been permitted to enter the royal birthing room. The only people permitted into the birthing room would have been midwives and other women who were experienced or who offered comfort to the Queen.
By the 17th-century royal birth traditions began to change. It was more common for Queens to give birth in front of an audience!
Queen Mary of Modena, the wife of King James II gave birth to their son, James in 1688. She did so not in the privacy of a bedchamber, as her predecessors had done, but in front of over 40 people. Not only was she attended by her midwives and ladies in waiting, but statesmen had come along to witness this important birth.
There were questions regarding the legitimacy of James, he was not as popular a king as his father, Charles II had been. Furthermore, the couple had suffered a string of miscarriages. Fears began to circulate that if the child were stillborn, an imposter would be smuggled into the birthing chamber in a bedpan. An audience was invited to attest to the legitimacy of the birth. The audience was also intended to squash any rumours that had suggested Mary wasn’t even pregnant.
By the 18th century, it had become common practice for important people to bear witness to the birth of a royal baby. This was a significant event – a royal birth was not only a gift to the royal couple, but the royal baby secured the dynasty. Thus, the baby was a gift to the nation, it represented prosperity, security and undoubtedly created a sense of national pride.
Queen Marie Antoinette
Queen Marie Antoinette and her husband, King Louis XVI of France were married in 1770 but by 1777, they had still not consummated their marriage. They finally announced Marie Antoinette’s pregnancy in 1778 to the relief and excitement of many in France.
Queen Marie Antoinette gave birth to her eldest child, Marie Thérèse of France in 1778 before an audience of around 200 people. Not only was the birth significant in dynastic terms, but given their unwillingness to consummate the marriage for so long, there were doubts cast over the couple and their ability to produce a child. The birth was such a public affair that the Queen was said to have fainted from the heat of dozens of people rushing towards her as she gave birth.
A Change in Tradition: Witnessing the Royal Birth
In fact, from the 17th-century, it became common practice in Britain for senior politicians and the Archbishop of Canterbury to witness a royal birth. The purpose of which was presumably to ensure the royal baby was ‘genuine’ and hasn’t been swapped at birth.
The Archbishop of Canterbury along with other senior politicians reportedly arrived late for the birth of Queen Victoria’s eldest son, Albert in 1841 and missed the birth.
In more modern times, the birth of our Queen, Elizabeth II on 21st April 1926 was witnessed by the Home Secretary, Sir William Joynson-Hicks. The practice of a senior politician attending a royal birth was abolished in 1948 when Elizabeth gave birth to Prince Charles.
Fathers and Royal Births
The notion of fathers attending the births of their children (royal or not) is a rather modern phenomenon. Until the 1970s and indeed in some parts of the country, even beyond, fathers were not expected to be in the delivery room.
During the birth of Prince Charles in 1948, Prince Philip played squash with his Private Secretary. He was present for the birth of his fourth child, Edward in 1964 and became the first royal father in modern times to do so. Prince Charles was the first royal father to be present at the birth of both in his children (William and Harry).
The dangers of giving birth in pre-modern times were very real. In the medieval period, one in three mothers died in childbirth. Giving birth was such a dangerous business that royal women were instructed to write their wills before they took to the birthing chamber.
Infant mortality was also extremely high. Between the years 1500-1800, it has been estimated that for every 1,000 live births, 140 babies died within their first year. (Lynda Payne, “Health in England (16th–18th c.),” in Children and Youth in History, Item #166, (accessed May 2, 2019).
In the Middle Ages and beyond, many women and children died during childbirth from an infection called ‘Puerperal Fever’ – an infection of the reproductive organs. This illness was believed to be responsible for the death of Henry VIII’s third wife, Jane Seymour in 1537 within 2 weeks of giving birth to the future King Edward VI.
In order to prevent this infection, royal mothers would be given a beverage known as ‘Caulde’. Caulde was made with eggs, cream, porridge and alcohol and the mother would drink this concoction throughout labour.
Queen Victoria was the first royal to take advantage of more modern pain relief methods during childbirth. She recommended the use of chloroform to all royal women following its use during the birth of her 8th child, Leopold in 1853. In her personal journal, she described the drug as ‘that blessed chloroform’.
Breaking the News of a Royal Birth
As tradition dictates, the Queen is to be the first person to be given the news of the arrival of a royal baby.
The news is broken to the public by the placement of an announcement in a frame upon a golden easel in front of Buckingham Palace.
A Gun salute is used to celebrate the birth of a prince or princess.
Royal Birth Traditions – Naming the Royal Child
Royal parents usually choose at least 3 names for their royal babies. For instance, Prince William and Kate Middleton’s youngest child is named Louis Arthur Charles.
Louis = Prince Philip’s late Uncle. Also, a middle name given to his father, William.
Arthur = the legendary king of the Britons and a name used by many royals throughout the ages. For instance, Henry VII’s eldest son was named Arthur.
Charles = Prince Charles. And also the name of 2 Stuart Kings.
Prior to 1917, the royal family did not use surnames. Their last name referred to the house or dynasty they belonged to. For instance, The Plantagenet dynasty was founded in 1154 when King Henry II came to the throne. He succeeded his mother’s rival, King Stephen of Blois. Henry’s last name was used to designate a change in the monarchy, he was known as ‘Henry Plantaganent’. Thus when one family faction succeeded a rival to the throne, we see a change in the last name of the monarchy.
The Wars of the Roses (22 May 1455 – 22 Aug 1485) saw two rival branches of the Plantagenet dynasty fight for the crown. The Yorkists and the Lancastrians. King Edward IV who became king in 1461, was of the House of York, he was known as ‘Edward of York’. His rival predecessor, King Henry VI (reigned 1422 to 1461 and again from 1470 to 1471) had been of the House of Lancaster. and thus is designated as such.
In 1485, a new dynasty was established when Henry VII or Henry Tudor became king. His son (Henry VIII) and grandchildren (Mary I, Edward VI and Elizabeth I) also bore the Tudor name. And then James I established the Stuart dynasty who ruled England from 1603 until 1714.
In fact, our own surnames usually derive from place names or occupations, e.g. Smith = Blacksmith, Green = lived by the village green etc. So the royal family’s practice of taking their last names from their house or dynasty makes sense!
In 1917, King George V changed this royal birth or naming tradition. He decreed that all his male descendants and unmarried female descendants shall bear the surname Windsor.
In 1960, Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Philip made a slight amendment. They declared that their own descendants (males and unmarried females) are to use the surname Mountbatten-Windsor (to incorporate Philip’s surname). However, members of the royal family still belong to the House of Windsor.
The ‘Churching’ of the Queen
The act of ‘Churching’ or purifying a mother following childbirth is a practice that goes back centuries and remained a fundamental royal birth tradition until the Victorian era. In the Bible, the process of purification or ‘Churching’ is explained as it was practised in the Jewish tradition:
4 Then the woman must wait thirty-three days to be purified from her bleeding. She must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary until the days of her purification are over.
5 If she gives birth to a daughter, for two weeks the woman will be unclean, as during her period. Then she must wait sixty-six days to be purified from her bleeding.
6 When the days of her purification for a son or daughter are over, she is to bring to the priest at the entrance to the tent of meeting a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering.
Leviticus xii: 4-6
The essence of the ritual is that women are deemed ‘unclean’ following childbirth. They have committed a sin by engaging in sexual intercourse and must be cleansed.
Although Leviticus sets out a specific time period, by the early medieval period, the ritual was rather more relaxed. The ritual usually took place a month after childbirth. This was considered the average time a mother would finish bleeding following childbirth.
Women were not supposed to enter a church following childbirth until this purification blessing had been completed. It was a means of re-introducing her to the Church. Royal women were not exempt from this practice either. In fact, Queen Victoria is said to have undergone this ceremony after giving birth to each of her 9 children.
Baptising Royal Babies
In the medieval period, babies were often baptised immediately after birth (this made sense given high infant mortality rates). In the medieval period, it was common for fathers to baptise their children within days of their births. Usually on the same day of the birth! In fact, the Christening of Henry VII’s eldest son, Arthur was delayed for 4 days after his birth to allow time for the godfather to travel to the Church. It was common practice for royal mothers not to attend their babies Christenings as they hadn’t been ‘purified’ by this point.
Since 1841, royal babies have worn the same Christening gown (or at least a replica of the original one). The original gown was born by Princess Victoria, the eldest child of Queen Victoria. For almost 200 years, replicas have been made of this original gown to dress royal babies for their baptisms.
I hope you enjoyed these royal birth traditions as we await the arrival of the 7th in line to the throne!