The Duchess of Cambridge – aka Kate Middleton – can thank her lucky stars. Despite the intrusions of the paparazzi, and idiotic Australian radio presenters, she will give birth in a hospital in relative privacy, and with adequate pain relief. She can also expect that both she and her baby will emerge from childbirth safe, and that this firstborn, either boy or girl, will become the heir.
It hasn’t always been so.
Giving birth to the heir to the throne was once a very public act, because both these issues were critical. In times when childbirth was much more dangerous, there was always room for suspicion that a live baby might be substituted for a dead one, or a boy might replace an unwanted girl.
Usually the ladies of the court would act as witnesses to the birth, but occasionally, the men would be invited in as well. When the security of the monarchy was at stake, politics trumped privacy every time.
In 1688, Mary of Modena, the second wife of James II of England (and James VII of Scotland), was expecting her 5th child. James already had 2 adult daughters by his first wife, Anne Hyde, but her sons had all died. These 2 daughters were both Protestant, and married to Protestant rulers in the Netherlands and Denmark. Mary of Modena’s children had also died, so this pregnancy was critical. A son would take precedence over his half-sisters, and the Protestants in England feared that he would be brought up Catholic.
So when Mary went into labour on 10 June, she did so in the presence of witnesses. The number varies a little, according to source – and since some later prevaricated as to whether they had actually seen anything, it’s a bit hard to do a definite count – but there were perhaps 42 eminent men and women, Protestant and Catholic, brought in to watch the show.
Despite so many witnesses to the fact that Mary had given birth to a son, James Edward, rumours soon started surfacing that somehow a baby boy had been smuggled in to replace a dead, or a female, baby. Within weeks, the country was in uproar, and by November, James II’s son-in-law, William of Orange, had invaded from the Netherlands.
There are, of course, many reasons for any revolution, some more glorious than others, and the story of the substitute baby smuggled into the Queen’s bedchamber in a warming pan was just the symptom of a deeper malaise. But it was serious enough for James to order the Privy Council to examine all the witnesses in late October. Their accounts are fascinating, for as well as emphasising that yes, this was a live baby boy that emerged from the body of the Queen, they tell us quite a lot about childbirth at the time – though most women, mercifully, didn’t have so many witnesses to the event.
Anne, Countess of Sunderland, told how
After some lingering Pains, the Queen said, She feared she should not be brought to Bed a good while; but enquiring of the Midwife, she assured Her Majesty, That she wanted only one thoro[ough] Pain to bring the Child into the World; upon which the Queen said, It is impossible, the Child lies to[o] high, and commanded [Anne] to lay her Hand on Her Majesty’s Belly, to feel how high the Child lay…
The midwife was right, and the baby was delivered soon after. Lady Sophia Bulkely heard the Queen ‘say to the Midwife, Pray, Mrs Wilks, don’t part the Child (which signifies, don’t cut the Navel-string, until the After-birth is come away) … a little later after the Midwife said, All is now come safe away.’
At this point, the King said ‘my Lords come and see the Child’, and the men in the room came closer to see the baby – ‘that it was a Prince’ – still attached to the cord. The midwife then cut the cord, and Mary Anne Delabadie, the dry nurse, took the baby away to wash and dress him. Before then, however,
…the Midwife came and took the Prince from [Mary Anne], and ask’d for a Spoon, for to give it Three Drops of the Blood of the Navel-string, which the Midwife cut off by the Advice of the Physicians, who said, it was good against Fits, that [she] held the Spoon when the Midwife dropt the Blood into it, and stirr’d it with a little black Cherry Water, and then it was given to the Prince.
Where were the men during the labour? Possibly not close enough to see what was going on, for their reports emphasise sounds rather than sights. Nobody fainted, so far as we can tell, but there is a distinct sense of foot-shuffling discomfort in some of their reports. This was women’s business, they seem to be saying, and we would rather have been somewhere else.
The Queen’s ‘Crys were so Vehement, and especially the last, that [Henry Lord Arundel, Lord Privy Seal] could not forbid himself the being concerned for her great pain.’ Charles, Earl of Middleton, stood at the foot of the bed ‘where he heard the Queen’s Groans, and presently after several loud Shreeks; the last, [he] remembers continued so long, that he then wondred how any Body could hold their Breath so long.’ When James showed him the baby – drawing back the linen with a triumphant ‘There’s what you wish to see’ – poor Charles ‘looked upon the Child at the same Time, which appeared to be very foul. [He] desireth Pardon if he doth not know the proper Expression, but hopes his Meaning is Plain.’
He wouldn’t be the first man to be appalled by how awful a newborn baby can look, but there’s probably never a proper way to express this. Prince William, be warned.
Depositions taken the 22d. of October 1688. Before the Privy-Council and Peers of England; Relating to the Birth of the (Then) Prince of Wales. Published at His Majesty’s Special Command (in Early English Books Online)