When the Duchess of Cambridge gave birth to Charlotte Elizabeth Diana this weekend, she had privacy, a sterile environment and the best medical care. However, not so long ago, a Royal birth might be very different: public, dirty, and protracted, says Robert Hume
When they heard “the Queen is about to give birth!”, a great crush of people poured into the royal bedchamber at Versailles.
Giving birth in public was standard for royalty, to prevent a substitute male baby being smuggled into the room in a warming-pan, as some believe happened to Mary of Modena, in Britain, in 1688. Marie Antoinette’s bedchamber was filled with “so motley a crowd” that one might have been at a circus. The market-women were there; so were the ladies of the court.
Scores of poor people from the streets had snuck in, standing on tiptoe, craning their necks for news. Two young chimney sweeps climbed on top of furniture to get a better view. Hundreds more jostled for space on the grand staircase. According to Marie Antoinette’s chambermaid, “the rush nearly killed the Queen”, who lay on a camp bed before the fire.
At last, the baby was born. People kissed each other, and cried with joy. Marie Antoinette fainted. “Air! Hot water!” ordered the male midwife. The drafty windows had been sealed for winter, but the king forced one open.
The bedchamber was cleared, valets having to drag out by the collar “such inconsiderate persons as would not leave the room.” Marie Antoinette at last saw her baby, and gasped. It was a daughter — not the hoped-for son.
When 29-year-old Jane Seymour was expecting in 1537, prayers were offered in every London church for the safety of mother and child. At Hampton Court Palace on Friday, October 12, following a long labour, the Queen gave birth to a healthy, fair-haired boy. Church bells rang out, bonfires were lit in the streets, and housewives hung garlands of flowers above their doors. After waiting 27 years, King Henry VIII finally had his son — the boy who was to become Edward VI.
As there was plague in London, Henry ordered that every room in Prince Edward’s apartments be scrubbed with soap and swept daily, and that his clothing, bed linen and toys be kept clean. No such precautions had been taken over Jane’s welfare during the birth. Everything seemed to have gone well and Edward was christened three days later. But next afternoon, Jane suffered diarrhoea. She was sick during the night, and her condition caused concern.
By Friday, she had grown delirious, and Henry was summoned to her bedside. Early on Wednesday, October 24, 12 days after giving birth, Jane died from a fever.
At the time, many blamed her attendants for indulging her with the rich food she craved. But it is now believed that Jane died from septicaemia. Unaware of the importance of clean hands and scrubbed fingernails, her six midwives had passed on a fatal infection.
Charlotte, daughter of King George IV, had miscarried twice. When she was about to bear a third baby, in October, 1817, obstetrics specialist, Sir Richard Croft, took sole responsibility for her care. The pregnancy had been uncomplicated, though her grandmother thought she looked “unnaturally immense”.
Charlotte prayed she might “survive the hour of approaching danger”. Croft bled his patient regularly, imposed a diet of fluids, and allowed no-one else into the room. When Charlotte complained of a slight headache, he drew blood from a vein in her hand. Her labour began on November 3. It continued for 50 hours. Croft and two colleagues admitted it was “very slow”, but thought best to let nature take its course. No anaesthetic was available; and he did not attempt to use forceps. Charlotte accepted her suffering, saying: “I will neither bawl nor shriek”.
Around 9pm, on November 5, she gave birth to a nine-pound baby boy, George. Tragically, the child was dead — he would have ruled instead of Queen Victoria. At midnight, the mother complained of a “singing in her head” and feeling cold. She drank chicken broth, but it made her sick. When Croft was summoned, he found her bleeding, her pulse rapid and irregular. He placed bottles of hot water and warm flannels in her bed, and poured brandy and wine down her throat.
“Is there any danger?” she asked softly. Croft told her not to get agitated. Next moment, she suffered convulsions. Becoming calm, she gave a gentle sigh.
It was to be her last. The public blamed the death of the 21-year-old princess on the bungling Sir Richard, who shot himself three months later.
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