When Catherine of Cambridge delivers unto this undeserving planet her third royal child, complete with halo and a retinue of adoring morning news anchoresses, she will do so in a hospital. That fact may not sound extraordinary, compared with, say, the amount of money the child will likely be worth one day. But it is.
It’s a relatively recent phenomenon, the British royal hospital birth. In fact, if we were hanging out at, say, Greenwich Palace in 1533, waiting around for the birth of Elizabeth I, the whole scene would look positively alien to most of us, and not just because of the lack of spinal taps and painkillers.
Royal births have come along way since the 1500s. A very, very long way.
Examples? Sure. If you can stomach them.
- The Royal Book, a sort of Emily Post guide for court etiquette, dictated how British royal babies arrived in the 1500s. The book insisted that royal births be preceded by, among other things, a ceremony, a Mass and a royal procession to the birthing venue.
- After her parade to the venue, the pregnant queen then had to enter the outer chamber of whatever suite had been set up for her, in whatever palace had been designated for the labor. Under the “cloth of estate,” the queen was supposed to drink wine before joining a final procession to the inner birthing chamber.
- The birthing chamber had to have a lower, false ceiling, plus tapestries and carpets brought in specially for the arrival of the baby. The hangings were meant to represent a safe and cozy space; fresh air and light were considered ill-advised.
- And oh: No images of people or animals on the hangings. The fear was that it could trigger weird visions in the Queen’s mind—fantasies that could lead to a deformed child.
- No men allowed in the birthing chamber. Nope. None.
- The birthing chamber had both a regular bed and a daybed. The queen was supposed to sleep on the big bed and birth on the daybed, because, rules.
- How long was a queen supposed to hang out in this little airless room before giving birth? As long as it took. Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s ill-fated second wife, supposedly gave birth 12 days after first entering her “confinement.”
- A month or so after birthing, a Tudor queen was expected to be “churched,” or “purified.”
Sounds kind of uncomfortable, right? Well, at least the queen wasn’t being stared at by dozens of courtiers. That’s the way it was for many royal mothers in the 1600s and 1700s.
- In 1688, Mary of Modena gave birth to James Francis Edward Stuart, an English pretender to the throne. To prevent rumors that the baby was a changeling, officials packed the birthing chamber with—wait for it—200 witnesses. The changeling rumors circulated nonetheless.
- Marie Antoinette of France, like most French princesses and queens of the era, also was expected to give birth in public. The reasons were the same: prevent rumors of a baby switch-out. There were a lot of people at her first birth.
- Like, way too many.
- Like, here’s what went down in 1778, when she gave birth to her first baby, according to a witness: “The etiquette allowing all persons indiscriminately to enter at the moment of the delivery of a queen was observed with such exaggeration that when the obstetrician said aloud, ‘The Queen is going to give birth!’, the persons who poured into the chamber were so numerous that the rush nearly killed the Queen. During the night the King had taken the precaution to have the enormous tapestry screens which surrounded Her Majesty’s bed secured with cords; but for this they certainly would have been thrown down upon her.”
All these women gave birth without painkillers, by the way. And they continued to do so, until …
- The year 1853, when Queen Victoria, having had enough of the whole birthing pain thing, asked her doctor for some chloroform, please. It was her eighth birth.
- That said, royal home births took a long, long time to go away. Even Prince Charles, father-in-law of Catherine of Cambridge, had a birth that would seem a little archaic today; his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, produced him not at a hospital, but at Buckingham Palace. The year was 1948.
- Charles’s son, William, was the first heir to the throne ever born at a hospital … in 1982.
It’s safe to say that when Kate, we mean Duchess Catherine gives birth to her third baby, it will probably be in a hospital, and there will be people in the room with her. But let’s hope it’s fewer than 200.