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Born to Rule

This summer, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge (Kate, to us rabble-scrabble bloggers) is due to give birth to a child that will be heir to the British throne. Poor mite. The due date is, of course, a carefully guarded secret, but I am reliably informed by the Journal of Popular Culture – otherwise know as People Magazine – that it is the second week of July. The press is, of course, going wild about the whole thing. Kate’s maternity fashions! Kate’s morning sickness! Boy or girl?! I therefore, thought I’d add to the hype with a special blog on interesting royal pregnancies of the past. Replete with all the fun historical factoids you might want to zing out, should you be invited to the royal baby shower.


That cod piece is not fooling anyone

Henry VIII – fertility struggles

Henry VIII might be best known for his truly heinous marital relations with his six wives (“Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived” as the rhyme goes) but his efforts to beget an heir were almost as dramatic. For Mr Potent, as he liked to think of himself (witness the VAST codpiece in his famous portraits), actually getting a healthy child was a massive struggle. Of his first three wives—the three that he was mostly sexually active with—between them they had at least 6 miscarriages, five children who were stillborn or died within weeks of birth, and just three children who lived beyond early childhood and all took a turn as reigning monarch. (Mary I, Elizabeth I, and Edward VII, a sickly child who died at age 15 and whose mother, Jane Seymour died bearing him.)

Historians have argued about why Henry VIII had such struggles with getting children. (Even adding in mistresses, Henry still wasn’t the super-stud his portraits presented him as. He had one acknowledged bastard son who lived to adulthood although there were also other suspected illegitimate children.) The older view was that Henry had contracted syphilis, which would have affected his fertility, as well as contributing to all the miscarriages his wives had. But this idea has largely been debunked, mainly because Henry didn’t show any syphilitic symptoms other than the fertility thing.

A more recent theory is that Henry may have had a particular blood variety, called Kell positive, and his unlucky wives a different blood group, Kell negative. A Kell negative woman can produce a healthy baby with a Kell positive man the first time she becomes pregnant to him, but that first pregnancy causes her to develop anti-bodies that will attack any subsequent Kell positive fetus. A fetus of a Kell positive man and a Kell negative woman has a 50-50 chance of being Kell positive. So one would expect 50% of later pregnancies to end in miscarriage. This blood group explanation accounts for the number of late-term miscarriages that Katherine of Aragon especially and Anne Boleyn suffered, but does rely on the assumption that Mary I (who was not Kathryn of Aragon’s first pregnancy) “must” have been Kell negative. Still, it’s a theory. The monarch’s fertility was such an issue—politically, religiously, socially—that even 500 years later we are still speculating as to reasons for this monarch’s droopy performance.

Warming pan

Fit a pretender to the throne in here?

James II and Mary of Modena – legitimacy

There were 42 eminent public figures in the birthing room when James II’s wife, Mary, gave birth to their first son (also James). Yep, for the royal court, it was the place to be on the morning of 10 June 1688. No “I’m washing my hair” excuses allowed. (Especially since the Stuarts like everyone else in the 17th century weren’t much into hair washing anyhow.) But, yes, along with about 15 of Mary’s ladies in waiting and senior women of the court, the King and important men also can along. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury showed up to hang out and watch the action.

Why the massive audience? Well, partly, it was in fact usual practice to invite along helpers to a birth—especially female helpers—and when a royal baby was born, this would also include statesmen who would look to certify the birth and be witness to the legitimacy of the offspring. That act of bearing witness to the royal birth carried with it the sense of certifying the continuity of rule and the stability of the state. But in this case, there was even more reason for the worthies to amass and lend their imprimatur to the occasion.

And that reason was that the Baby Daddy was not popular. Despite having only been on the throne for three years, James II was a deeply unpopular monarch—overbearing with Parliament, Catholic in his religion—and there was a growing movement to oust him. Part of this attempt to give him the boot was raising doubts about the line of succession, and behind closed doors there were whispers and allegations. So all those people in the birthing room were there as insurance against gossip and tattle that the baby wasn’t legit.

Didn’t work. The baby wasn’t really the king’s—went the marketplace gossip. The queen hadn’t even really been pregnant. The baby was smuggled into the birthing room in a warming pan! (A metal container with a long handle that you could put hot coals in to warm a bed. An early hot water bottle. See the nice picture.) Or maybe there was a secret trapdoor in the bedhead and the baby was popped through this. Or maybe Mary was actually pregnant and did give birth, but the baby wasn’t the king’s. It was a miller’s baby—an apparently particularly lusty profession for the 1600s. Those randy millers.

Regardless, the “warming pan baby scandal” put a permanent question mark over the legitimacy of Mary and James’ son. He never did become king. Mary and James fled from England when their baby son (the miller’s baby son?) was just five months old, to a life in exile in Europe. All that insurance in the birthing chamber came to nothing.


The results of bliss

Queen Victoria – fun in the bedroom, anesthesia in the delivery room

Queen Victoria delighted in sex. Yes, ironically, for the Queen whose name is synonymous with an era of buttoned-up, laced-down, lie-back-and-think-of-England frigidity, she loved the ‘ol bedroom capers. She even had a switch installed in her and Albert’s bedside tables which would throw the door locks, should they be embarking on a bout of “bliss beyond belief” (as she described their wedding night.)

And very productive bliss it was, too. Their first child, also Victoria, was born precisely 9 months after their first encounter. But all this majestic romping did have a consequence: Victoria had nine children, averaging one every two years, and may conceivably have had more had Albert not died in 1861. (Although, by this time, Vicky was 42, so it may have been pushing it. Their last child was born in 1857, when the queen was 38.) She hated being repeatedly pregnant “more like a rabbit or a guinea pig than anything else and not very nice”, she wrote in her diary. Breast-feeding was ”disgusting” and babies, even pretty ones, were “frightful when undressed”. No, Mater Britannia didn’t much like the mater bit. Sex, yes. The results, not so much.

Victoria, however, did spark a trend amongst upper class women in England after she received chloroform during labour for her eighth and ninth deliveries (Prince Leopold and Princess Beatrice.) Her doctor was John Snow, most known for his classic epidemiological study where he traced an outbreak of cholera to a particular water pump—and ended the epidemic by having the pump’s handle taken off. The use of “the blessed chloroform”, as Vicky called it, declined after 1870 however, as evidence grew about how difficult it was to get a safe, but effective dosage. (The line between anesthetizing and killing was a very narrow one where chloroform was concerned.) Still today, mothers face complex decisions about birth and pain, with the search still on for perfectly safe means of delivering birthing women from pain.

Prince Phillip and Prince Charles – Dads in the delivery room


Here for this bit

Although, as we saw, James II was in the bedroom when his wife Mary was giving birth, royal husbands of modern times have not been around. For the past two centuries, most royal papas have been no-where near the delivery room. Prince Phillip played squash with his private secretary during the birth of his son Charles in 1948.

But that, it should be said was entirely usual – fathers of that era did not front up for the births of their children. The idea that fathers can—or even should—be in the delivery room is a very recent development. Until the 1970s, most fathers were banished from the room to roam corridors or hang out in the pub until it was all over. Nowadays, there is a considerable expectation that soon-to-be-Dads should be toughing it out by the bedside and if all the bones in their hand gets broken…well, it took two to tango.

The BBC recently featured comments from fathers about their thoughts and experience on “being there” and it shows there is a big divide in opinion about this new role, from “I think the man should stay away until its all over. Give the nurses time to clean up the child, and give time for the wife to tidy up and get some make-up on” to “it’s amazing…I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.” Have a read – boys are so funny.

Anyhoo, back to the royal thing. Prince Charles is the first royal daddy of the past two centuries to be in the delivery room for the births of his sons, William and Henry. And those births were also the first royal births to take place in a hospital, rather than at home – another major transformation of childbirth in this century.

So we come to the end of our own romp through past royal births with the observation that, for the historian, royal births can be like wayposts, signing developments in medical care and changes over time. Since they are often well documented, they can be some of the best sources of information about what has been considered good care and appropriate behavior surrounding pregnancy and birth at different times in history. While historically royal births have been events that have engaged the nation (and sometimes shaped it as well), they are also very human endeavors. Take away the fact that Her Royal Majesty is doing the pushing, and what’s left are people trying to build a family.

Interested? Want more?

* Two great sources for information about Henry VIII’s fertility struggles and the warming pan scandal are the public lectures organized by moi: Henry VIII: The Quest for an Heir, by Peter Jones and Mary of Modena: A Royal Scandal, by Mary Fissell. The lectures are available in podcast here.

* The paper that suggests the Kell Positive blood group explanation for Henry VIII’s fertility woes is Whitely, Catrina Banks and Kyra Kramer, (2010). “A new explanation for the reproductive woes and midlife decline of Henry VIII”, The Historical Journal, Vol 53, Iss 4, pp.827-848

* Queen Victoria’s Journals are online here.

* History of anesthesia:

Snow, Stephanie, (2008) Blessed Days of Anesthesia: How anesthetics changes the world, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Specifically on the history of pain control during child birth:

Wolf, Jacqueline H. (2009) Deliver me from pain, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

* A good presentation on fathers in the delivery room is here by historian Laura King (2010) “Hiding in the pub to cutting the cord?”