Preparing for your Royal Baby – Medieval Style!
It’s with happy news that we learn the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are expecting their second royal baby. Her Royal Highness will give birth to her new baby surrounded by the very best doctors with care in one of the best hospitals in London. But how different childbirth was for her medieval royal counterparts of centuries ago.
Back then, labor and childbirth were the exclusive realm of women. No doctors attended. No men attended. Instead women relied on a ‘midwife’. The name roughly translates to “somebody amid the wife ready to deliver her.” She received no formal training as we would think of it today. Instead, the midwife most likely learned her skills by assisting experienced, older midwives. She was paid for her services.
Noble women, especially queens were expected to give birth by following a long list of elaborate royal protocols.
For instance, about a month before she was due to give birth, the queen withdrew from public life and her husband, and was moved to a “lying-in” chamber. She stayed there for six weeks after giving birth until she was “churched” and could resume her public life, including relations with her husband.
The queen could choose her lying-in chamber. It was typically different than her bedchamber. In preparation, the windows were shuttered. No fresh air was allowed in. (That could harm the baby.) Rich tapestries depicting pious or serene scenes were hung on the ceiling, walls and windows. The room was kept dark. A roaring fire was lit regardless of the temperature outside. Fresh rushes and herbs covered the floor to keep the room smelling nice. It must have been stifling! (A bit of fresh air would have done wonders.)
To ease the darkness, a tapestry could be removed from one window if the Lady wished for a bit of light. Otherwise, a lamp was used. The bed was to be splendid enough to acknowledge the rank of the lady.
An elaborate ceremony accompanied the noble lady’s entry into her lying-in chamber. Mass was conducted in the palace chapel which she attended. She was given communion. In the Middle Ages, lay people did not regularly receive communion. In fact, they only received it on Easter Day or if their life was in peril.
Since childbirth was considered perilous, the noble lady would have received communion at this Mass. It’s estimated that 1 in 5 women of the Middle Ages died while giving birth or from childbirth fever. One in ten children was stillborn and one in six died before their first birthday. And one-third of children born in the Middle Ages died before their fifth birthday.
For example, Mary de Bohun, Henry IV’s first wife, died shortly after childbirth… and she had given Henry six healthy children.
Perhaps the biggest loser in the childbirth roulette game was Henry VIII. His mother, Elizabeth of York, died giving birth to her fifth child who was stillborn, shortly after her eldest child, Arthur, had died. Henry was only 14. Henry’s first wife, Katherine, suffered six pregnancies, losing four to stillbirth or miscarriages, losing a son at 6 weeks of age and only one daughter grown to adulthood, the ill-fated Mary I. His second wife, Anne Boleyn, had one daughter and 2 miscarriages. His third wife, Jane Seymour died from childbed fever just 12 days after giving birth to Henry’s longed-for son, Prince Edward. Even his widow, Catherine Parr, died giving birth to Thomas Seymour’s baby.
After the Mass, the Lady retired into the lying-in chamber with the midwife and a few of her female companions to await the birth. It was actually usual for a number of a high-ranking woman’s female friends and relatives (including, frequently, her mother and mother-in-law) to share and assist in the lying-in. The outer door was locked. Food and drink were delivered. The priests were ordered to pray for a safe delivery and the King waited for his son and heir.
When labor began, the midwife would rub the mother’s stomach with a balm to ease the birth. As labor progressed, the Lady moved to a birthing stool and eventually had her baby sitting up. After the birth, the midwife would tie the “naval-string”, clean the baby, and anoint him with salt and honey. If the baby was stillborn or dying, a midwife had the church’s authority to baptize him or her.
Once the baby was born, a high-born lady was sent to tell the king the news of hopefully the safe delivery of a healthy son. Children were usually christened days after birth. Mothers did not usually attend their child’s christening. That’s because the new mother was required to stay in her lying-in chamber for another six weeks until she was “churched”, which can be described as a church ceremony essentially “cleansing” a woman after the messy and unclean process of giving birth.
Fortunately for history, most of the Plantagenet queens were an incredibly fertile lot.
- ► Eleanor of Aquitaine gave birth to 10 children – 3 sons were crowned King and her daughters married Kings, Dukes and Counts throughout Europe.
- ► Isabella of Angouleme who married King John at age 12 gave him 5 children and then remarried after his death. She was 30 at the time. She returned home to marry Hugh de Lusignan and had nine more children!
- ► Philippa of Hainault, wife of Edward III, gave him 9 children, including 5 sons who planted the seeds for the Wars of the Roses.
- ► Cecily Neville, mother of Edward IV had 7 children … and Edward’s wife, Elizabeth Woodville, gave him 8 children after she already given birth to two sons by her first husband, John Grey.
We’re fortunate to know so much of childbirth in the Middle Ages, thanks mainly to Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother-in-law to Elizabeth of York. Even though Margaret had only one child, Henry Tudor (Henry VII) at age 13, in order to prepare her daughter-in-law, Elizabeth of York, for the all-important birth of the Tudor heir, she wrote down the childbirth practices for royalty in a Book of Ordinances which survives today.
Obviously many of these medieval practices are no longer observed by expectant royal mothers. It’s true, modern queens and princesses no longer retire to a lying-in chamber. But it’s worth remembering that Prince William was the first heir to the British throne to be born in a hospital. That was in 1982.
And while I wouldn’t want to be shut up in an airless, smoke-filled stuffy room for 2 ½ months, the idea of a month off to ‘lie around’ before giving birth is very appealing.