Royal baby: how the traditions of royal births have changed over the centuries
If she had been carrying a future monarch 500 years ago, superstitions and royal edicts would have demanded she lie in a darkened room for weeks on end, with a roaring fire in the grate regardless of the sweltering July temperatures.
And in the past up to 70 people would be present when future monarchs were born, so that they could verify there had been no skulduggery such as an infant impostor being substituted in the royal bedchamber.
Archbishops, Cabinet ministers and courtiers were among the dignitaries who would be expected to witness royal births in times past, but when the Duchess of Cambridge (formerly Kate Middleton) gives birth she will only have her husband and a handful of medical staff with her.
Tracy Borman, joint chief curator of the Secrets of the Royal Bedchamber exhibition at Hampton Court Palace, said that for centuries, royal mothers-to-be were confined to darkened rooms for the last month of their pregnancy because of long-held beliefs it would bring a male heir.
She said: “In the 15th century Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII, laid down a set of rules that said royal mothers had to be secluded for at least a month before the birth.
“She could only be served by women, no natural light was allowed, so all the windows were shuttered and even keyholes were blocked up. Fires had to be lit, even in the middle of summer. The rules were followed for centuries, because it was believed that this would not only result in a healthy baby, but also a boy.
“In those days people believed that a child’s sex was not determined until the moment it was born, so they thought they could influence the baby’s gender during the pregnancy.”
Throughout history, royal births have been anything but private (at one time courtiers even witnessed the consummation of royal marriages) and no-one suffered worse indignity than Mary of Modena, wife of King James II.
When she gave birth to her son James in 1688 the country was awash with rumours that she was not really pregnant and that a baby had been smuggled into her bed in a warming pan or through a secret panel in the headboard. An alternative theory was that her baby had been stillborn.
In an attempt to put paid to such gossip, 70 of the most eminent figures in the land attended the birth in St James’s Palace, so that their testimonies could be published. In the event, James was never accepted by the public because he was born a Catholic, a fact that contributed to the Glorious Revolution which put William III and his wife Mary II (James II’s Protestant daughter by his first wife) on the throne in 1689.
The tradition of having senior dignitaries present at the birth continued well into the 20th century.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of London and the home secretary of the day were expected to witness the birth, and while the idea of bishops being present died out at the turn of the century, home secretaries witnessed the birth of the Queen and Princess Margaret.
When the Queen was born in 1926 Sir William Joynson-Hicks broke off from his ministerial duties to attend the birth, and his successor John Robert Clynes was detained in Scotland for two weeks in 1930 while he waited for the overdue arrival of Princess Margaret at Glamis Castle.
The Queen’s cousin, Princess Alexandra, was the last royal baby born with a Home Secretary as a witness.
Ironically, the baby’s father would not necessarily have been among the multitude of witnesses at previous royal births, particularly if they were the king. The presence of fathers at births is a thoroughly modern idea – when the Prince of Wales was born in 1948 the Duke of Edinburgh was playing squash.