Tuesday, November 3, 2020

No Reasonable Expectation of Privacy

 by Michael Paul Hurd

A kraamkamer (birth-room). Watercolour. [Wikimedia Commons]
CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)

In the United States, the United Kingdom, and other developed countries, childbirth has only recently become a family event. Parents, grandparents, and even future siblings are all involved in the process. Of course, not all of them are in the birthing room without permission from the mother – but less than a century ago, childbirth was a very public event for royal families, especially when the baby would be in the line of succession.

Before the 20th Century, infant and maternal mortality rates were quite high, with little improvement having been realized over the previous several hundred years. It wasn’t until the early 1900s when the medical community began treating childbirth as a medical event rather than “women’s business” that the statistics switched in the other direction and improved survival rates for both mothers and their babies. It was during this time that the childbirth process moved from the mother’s home to a hospital setting, making technology of the day readily available to the attending physician – who was quickly replacing the midwife in most non-rural settings.

Let’s move the clock back several hundred years, to the time of Henry VIII. For commoners, childbirth was a private and dangerous affair. Pregnancy tests and prenatal care were non-existent. Maternal and infant mortality was high, with one in three women dying in childbirth and babies dying before their first birthday a frequent occurrence.

Royals, and especially the wives of reigning monarchs, had a totally different experience with pregnancy and childbirth, most notably in situations where the birth could potentially produce an heir to the throne. Royal or noble women had “pampered pregnancies” and as their postulated delivery date approached, began a period of “lying in.” Sadly, women in the lower social classes did not have this luxury as they needed to work right up until their labor pains started and delivery was imminent.

During the Tudor “lying in” period for royals and nobility, no men were allowed in the Lady’s (or Queen’s) chamber and the expectant mother was only attended by other women. The birthing room was decorated to resemble a womb (darkened and relatively quiet), and a midwife generally cared for the mother unless extreme difficulties arose that required a physician -- whose own knowledge and understanding of gynecological issues likely was limited and nowhere near that of the midwife’s.

Regardless of who assisted with or attended to a royal birth, public speculation likely abounded during Henry VIII’s reign about the royal marriages’ abilities to produce a viable male heir. Henry’s first three wives (Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, and Jane Seymour) bore only three children who survived to adulthood out of at least twelve pregnancies between them. Repeated miscarriages and stillbirths may have been the foundation for a requirement that English royal births be observed by outside parties to ensure that there was no “baby swap” of a viable male infant for a stillbirth or female child shortly after birth. Unfortunately, there is no written record of this requirement, and was over 100 years and three Civil Wars later before there was any record of a potential heir-producing royal birth being observed in England and elsewhere by outside parties.

It should also be noted that it was also customary for the consummation of royal marriages to be ceremonialized. Most European cultures had a “bedding ceremony” where royal and noble newlyweds were escorted to the marital bedchamber for their first… encounter… as man and wife. It was unlikely that the actual act was observed; rather, that the newlyweds were encouraged to do the deed once the bedcurtains were drawn closed and the well-wishers dispersed. In Germanic traditions, the couple was even expected to return to the wedding celebration after consummation. 

By Simon Pietersz Verelst -
Public Domain - Wikimedia Commons

Mary of Modena, second wife and Queen Consort to King James II/VII, reportedly was on public display in 1688 for the birth of the child that would later become known as “The Old Pretender,” claiming the throne as James III/VIII in the controversial Jacobite line of succession. Of the Queen Consort’s ten previous pregnancies, only one of the children lived past their first birthday. That one child, a girl named Isabel, died before her fifth birthday. James II/VII and his first wife, Anne Hyde (a commoner) already had a record of infant or childhood mortality. She was known to have been pregnant eight times; only Mary and Anne lived to adulthood, both with Anglican upbringing as demanded by their uncle, King Charles II, before his death and James II/VII’s accession.

The June 1688 birth was fraught with scandal in its own right. James II/VII had converted to Catholicism after Anne Hyde’s death, and as long as he produced no Catholic heir, Protestants tolerated his government as a temporary inconvenience. It was the popularly-held Protestant opinion of the day that the baby who would have become James III/VIII was smuggled into the birth chamber as a surreptitious substitute for a stillborn baby – which had some specious merit based on the devoutly Catholic Queen Consort’s gynecological history. However, the birth process was widely attended by over 70 witnesses, and the room was full almost to the point of overcrowding. Among them were the Lord Chancellor, the entire Privy Council, James’s mother, court ladies, and royal physicians. There really was no way that a “baby swap” could have taken place without being observed. The entire situation was extremely embarrassing to the Queen, as all of the Privy Council was reportedly at the foot of the birthing bed in observation.

The birth of a son to two Catholic parents should have excluded the Anglican Princess Mary from the line of succession. However, Mary and her husband, William of Orange, were offered co-regency following James II/VII’s deposition in the Glorious Revolution – and restored Anglicanism as the prevailing religion of England. 

Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and the Royal Family,
By Lytton StracheyArtist F. Winterhalter -
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Queen Victoria and her consort, Prince Albert, were lucky in comparison to many of her predecessors. She was pregnant nine times, carrying each of them to term. Victoria made no secret of her enjoyment of the act of getting pregnant, but she seemed to detest everything associated with pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding. By her eighth pregnancy, chloroform had come into vogue for pain relief during childbirth, even with religious opinions to the contrary. Regardless, all nine of Victoria’s births were attended by her husband, Prince Albert, physicians James Simpson and Charles Locock, and nurse Mary Lilly. Outside the birthing room, with the door left open for a good view, were senior British statesmen of the day, including the Home Secretary.

Prince Charles was the last British heir-apparent in direct line of succession, born on 14 November 1948, who was not born in a hospital. The Prince’s birth was a relatively private event: it was the first line-of-succession birth not attended by the Home Secretary since the inception of the Cabinet post in 1782. Even the Duke of Edinburgh was in another part of the palace, reportedly playing squash with his private secretary. By the time Prince Edward was born in 1964, Prince Philip was present in the delivery room – at Her Majesty’s request. She had reportedly become fascinated by the very modern idea of involving fathers in childbirth.

It was actually a carry-over courtier from King George VI’s reign, Tommy Lascelles, who pushed for an end to the archaic practice of outsiders observing line-of-succession births. However, Queen Elizabeth II felt it was important that the Home Secretary be “in attendance” when Charles was born. The issue came to a close when Lascelles offered a counterpoint to the Queen, claiming that the British Dominions (Canada being one) had as much interest in the forthcoming heir as did subjects in the British Isles. Lascelles reportedly argued that if the ritual of observed birth was enforced, there would be no less than seven government ministers sitting in the passage outside the Queen’s bedroom. Buckingham Palace announced an end to the archaic custom that very day; when Charles was born, only the Queen’s medical staff attended.


Michael Paul Hurd
 was born in Michigan in 1959. During his formative years, Michael Hurd lived in Michigan, Virginia, and New Hampshire. Hurd is a veteran of the United States Air Force, serving from 1978 until 1992, and while on active duty, he earned a Bachelor's Degree from the University of Maryland/European Division during an assignment to England. Once honorably discharged, he was employed for another 26 years as a civilian employee of the United States Government and retired in 2018. It is during this time that Hurd developed a love for the written word and work on Lineage started in late 2018 and was completed in February of 2019, with a Second Edition being released in May, 2019. As of October, 2020, three more books have been released in the Lineage series and a fifth book is a work in progress, with publication likely before January 2021.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.