This week, new details emerged about the upcoming birth of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s first child. The baby will be born in St. Mary’s hospital in Paddington, London, where Prince William and Prince Harry were born in 1982 and 1984 respectively. The royal parents-to-be have chosen not to find out the baby’s gender before the birth. The Queen’s former gynecologist, Dr. Marcus Setchell, will come out of retirement to deliver the baby, assisted by the Queen’s current gynecologist Alan Farthing. Catherine plans to have a “natural” birth rather than an elective cesarean section and William will take two weeks paternity leave after the baby arrives.
These announcements have ended speculation that Catherine intends to give birth at the Royal Berkshire Hospital near the Middleton family home and shown the emergence of new traditions regarding the setting and medical staff at royal births. Prince William was the first direct heir to the British throne to be born in hospital and St. Marys may remain the location of royal deliveries for the next few generations. Over the centuries, the royal delivery room has transformed from a secluded female space, to a comparatively public space monitored by government officials to the current hospital setting.
Before the reign of the first Tudor King, Henry VII, there was no written protocol governing royal delivery rooms, nurseries and christening ceremonies. Queens of England secluded themselves with their ladies-in-waiting and midwives during the weeks prior to the birth. Since dukedoms – or even titles such as Prince or Princess – were rarely granted to younger royal children before the reign of Edward III (r. 1327-1377), the newborn child would be known by their name and birthplace. Before becoming King, Edward III was called Edward of Windsor and his siblings were John of Eltham, Eleanor of Woodstock and Joan of the Tower.
King Henry VII’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, established the first formal ordinances “against the deliverance of a queen” for the arrival of her grandson, Prince Arthur, in 1486. Margaret drew upon precedents set by previous royal births to create a formal protocol that would govern all Tudor royal births. The ordinances stated, “Her Highness’s pleasure being understood in what chamber she will be delivered in, the same must be hanged with rich cloth of Arras, sides, roof, windows and all, except one window, which must be hanged so as she may have light when it pleaseth her.”
Despite the darkness of the Tudor delivery room, Margaret’s ordinances decreed that the decorative tapestries must show only pleasant scenes to prevent the Queen and her child from being “affrighted by figures which gloomily stare.” The Queen’s birth attendants remained exclusively female during Tudor times.
The introduction of male physicians in the royal delivery room began during the reign of Charles I as the King insisted that his doctor, Theodore de Mayerne, attend his consort, Queen Henrietta Maria, for her births. The Queen herself preferred the care of her French midwife, Madame Peronne and these two figures therefore worked together to deliver the nine royal children. Henrietta Maria’s partiality for her midwife did not reverse the trend toward male physicians presiding over royal births and the royal delivery room became increasingly medicalized from the seventeenth century.
English and Scottish royal babies were born in comparatively privacy until the reign of James II. James and his second wife, Mary of Modena had lost all their children in infancy until the arrival of their son, James Edward Francis in 1688. Throughout the pregnancy, the Roman Catholic King expressed confidence that the child would be a healthy boy, prompting rumours in Protestant circles that a baby would be smuggled into the delivery room in the event of a daughter or stillbirth.
James responded to these rumours by allowing more than forty courtiers into the delivery room. Despite the presence of witnesses, the infant Prince was rumoured to have been smuggled into the bed in a warming pan. The King’s daughter from his first marriage, the future Queen Anne, was instrumental to these rumours by publicly claiming that her stepmother had never allowed her feel the baby kick inside the womb. James Edward Francis lost his succession rights during the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and became known as “The Old Pretender” in exile. For all future births of royal heirs until the arrival of Prince Charles in 1948, a government official had to be present to certify that an authentic royal birth had taken place.
Queen Victoria made further changes to the royal delivery room. Her consort, Prince Albert was the first British royal father to be present for the birth of his children. Victoria also popularized the use of childbirth anesthetic by requesting the newly invented chloroform for the arrival of the eighth of her nine children, Prince Leopold. The Queen was pleased by the comparably comfortable births of her two youngest children and sent bottles of chloroform to her daughters and granddaughters when they were expecting children of their own, transforming royal delivery rooms across Europe.
The birth of the future Queen Elizabeth II marked a further advance in royal delivery room medical procedures. The baby was breech, necessitating a cesarean section at 17 Bruton Street, the London home of the Bowes-Lyon family where the birth took place. The surgeon’s report did not detail the circumstances, stating only that “a certain line of treatment was successfully adopted.” The future Queen’s younger sister, Princess Margaret also arrived in complicated conditions. The Princess was two weeks late, requiring the Home Secretary to spend much of August, 1930 in Scotland, awaiting the birth at Glamis Castle. The future King George VI and Queen Elizabeth were advised by their doctors not to have further children after these two difficult births.
With the arrival of Prince Charles in 1948, King George VI abolished the requirement that the Home Secretary certify royal births. Queen Elizabeth II decided to give birth to all four of her children at home, to allow greater privacy for mother and child. In 1982, Diana, Princess of Wales, changed the setting of the royal delivery room by insisting that her child be born in hospital. Diana had been married to the Prince of Wales for less than a year at the time of William’s arrival and was uncomfortable giving birth in a palace setting. Prince Charles made his own contribution to the changes to the royal delivery room by being present for the sixteen hour labour, the first royal father to witness the birth of his child since Prince Albert.
The innovations introduced by Charles and Diana created new traditions for the royal births. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s first child will be born at St. Mary’s like the previous generation of royal children. William will undoubtedly follow the example of his father and be present in the delivery room. There is currently speculation that the Duchess’s mother and sister may be present for the birth just as Elizabeth of York’s female relatives supported her in Tudor times. The revival of the custom of female relatives gathering for the birth may be the Duchess of Cambridge’s contribution to the continuing transformation of the royal delivery room.