Royal Babies: A History 1066-2013 by Amy Licence (Review)

The future Empress Matilda was delivered by a team of monks in 1102. Edward II came into the world in a tent during his father’s Welsh campaign in 1284. Henry VIII and his elder brother Arthur were born surrounded by women in chambers specially arranged by their formidable grandmother, Margaret Beaufort. Queen Henrietta Maria’s doctors required parliamentary permission to cross the battle lines of the English Civil Wars to deliver Princess Henrietta Anne in 1644.

Queen Elizabeth II was delivered by caesarian section at her maternal grandfather’s London house. Prince William and his newborn son, Prince George of Cambridge were born in a hospital with the world’s media outside. In Royal Babies, Amy License, author of In Bed with the Tudors: The Sex Lives of a Dynasty from Elizabeth of York to Elizabeth I, Elizabeth of York: The Forgotten Tudor Queen and Anne Neville: Richard III’s Tragic Queen presents a history of Britain in 25 royal births, revealing the long and fascinating history of royal childbirth.

Licence places each royal baby in the context of his or her times, including a wealth of information from centuries of childbirth guides, revealing whether each expectant mother followed the advice of their day or made controversial choices in the delivery room. Numerous queens consort found it difficult to balance their duties as royal wives with motherhood. Edward IV’s consort, Elizabeth Woodville may have breastfed the future Edward V because she was confined to sanctuary in Westminster Abbey during the Wars of the Roses but numerous other Queens employed wet nurses, allowing them to resume public life and have another child more quickly.

Until the 20th century, mortality for mothers and children was high and royal women and children succumbed to illness and infection. The survival of certain royal babies profiled in Licence’s book would have changed the course of history. Henry VIII’s eldest son with his first wife, Catherine of Aragon died at the age of ten weeks, beginning the King’s long quest for a male heir. George IV’s only child, Princess Charlotte, died giving birth to a stillborn son, George, which allowed for the eventual succession of her cousin as Queen Victoria. Henry VIII’s mother, Elizabeth of York and third wife, Jane Seymour died of what was described at the time as childbed fever.

Royal Babies is not only the story of 25 princes and princesses but of their parents, revealing changing trends in royal marriage as well as childbirth. While the eighteenth century monarchs from the House of Hanover made purely dynastic marriages with varying degrees of success, a surprising number of medieval monarchs made marriages based on physical attraction or shared interests as well as political advantage. Henry I “long desired” marriage to Edith of Scotland, who shared his cultural interests. Henry II and John were drawn to the beauty of their respective wives, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Isabella of Angouleme rather than their wealth alone. Edward III chose Philippa of Hainaut as his queen over her sisters because she wept when he left her father’s court. The thousand year range of Licence’s work reveals the full scope of how royal domestic life changed over time.

With only 25 royal babies profiled in the book, however, there are omissions that leave gaps in the narrative. While the Queen, Prince William and the newborn Prince George each receive a chapter, the birth of Prince Charles is not discussed. His absence is surprising as he was the first direct heir since the Glorious Revolution who was not born with a member of the government close at hand. Henry III and his Queen, Eleanor of Provence were known for their close attention to their children, yet none of their babies receive a chapter. As the main text of the book is only 164 pages long, the inclusion of a few more royal babies would have allowed for more seamless transitions from one royal delivery room to the next. There are also some factual and proofreading errors that suggest Royal Babies was rushed to press for the birth of Prince George.

  Royal Babies is filled with fascinating details about royal births over the past thousand years, revealing the varied experiences of English and Scottish Queens in the delivery room. The arrival of Prince George this year in the same hospital where his father, Prince William was born in 1982 suggests that future royal births may follow an established pattern. In contrast to their predecessors, the wives of subsequent royal heirs may know exactly what to expect when they give birth to next generation of princes and princesses.

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