Viewers of the BBC’s White Queen series will have become accustomed to the regular pregnancies and deliveries of its eponymous heroine Elizabeth Wydeville. The programme has recreated some of the extreme conditions under which she gave birth during the 1460s and 70s, which give a fair introduction to the differences between the arrival of medieval heirs and modern ones. We have seen the queen and her rivals deliver virtually alone and friendless in sanctuary and aboard ship, struggling with difficult labours, lack of pain relief and the tragedy of infant loss. As dynastic vessels, there was also considerable pressure on them to bear at least one son. Amid all this, the relentless climate of political change surged forward, taking little account of the suffering and needs of its expectant royal mothers. How different from this July, when the world’s media trod water for days, in anticipation of the Duchess of Cambridge’s birth.
Catherine, HRH Duchess of Cambridge’s pregnancy was announced in early December 2012, probably before the couple had anticipated doing so. Her extreme morning sickness, hyperemesis gravidarum, necessitated her admittance to hospital at around twelve weeks or slightly under. There was a hurried exchange of phone calls and emails to ensure the immediate family were aware of her condition before the news was broken. Weeks before, Catherine would have already taken an over-the-counter test, which clarified her conception within minutes. Back in early 1470, when Elizabeth Wydeville conceived, there was no such certainty and no easy, reliable test. Some mothers were often not completely sure they were expecting until the baby quickened, around twenty weeks. The cessation of the menstrual cycle was not a guarantee of pregnancy and could be caused by a number of illnesses. Sometimes women turned to superstitious methods, such as watching needles rust in urine or sprinkle it with sulphur, in the hope that worms would appear, which was believed to indicate the presence of a foetus.
By the time Elizabeth Wydeville conceived her first son by Edward IV, she would have known what to expect. Already the mother of two boys from her first marriage and three princesses, she could anticipate her requirements and follow established protocol for her sixth pregnancy. Usually, medieval queens would spend their final trimester resting, eating well while avoiding certain foods and resting in preparation for the birth. As with her previous confinements, Elizabeth readied a suite of rooms into which she would retire and be attended by a midwife and other wise women in her circle. Modern gynaecological understanding no longer requires mothers to sequester themselves away and the Duchess of Cambridge continued to appear in the public eye, as well as taking gentle exercise, walking her dog and taking yoga classes. From early on, she was monitored by the Queen’s doctor, Marcus Setchell and Alan Farthing. No men would have been allowed to attend a medieval queen, being kept firmly outside closed doors.
All went smoothly for Catherine, who had planned to give birth in the Lindo Wing of St Mary’s hospital, Paddington. Opened in 1937, the rooms, priced in the tens of thousands, offer the best possible medical attention and had witnessed the arrivals of Princes William and Harry and other royal babies of their generation. In addition, the Duchess would have enjoyed such facilities as internet access and satellite television, as well as a fridge in the room and champagne list, with which to toast the child’s arrival. Back in 1470, Elizabeth Wydeville equipped a suite in the Tower of London with bed linen, tapestries, carpets, cushions and religious icons. Her women would have kept her regularly supplied with fire wood, food and drink, water and any other necessaries; she anticipated enjoying the best the era could offer. However, as it transpired, she would not give birth there.
Catherine, HRH Duchess of Cambridge’s delivery was described by her doctor as “textbook.” Admitted at around 6 in the morning of July 22, she delivered her son, Prince George, at 4.24pm after a natural labour. Even if the baby had been a girl, the recent alterations to the line of succession overturned centuries of male precedence, allowing for an eldest female child to inherit. Nothing was that straightforward for her medieval counterpart, whose life took a dramatic turn shortly before her due date arrived.
With her husband in exile and his adversaries taking the throne, Elizabeth Wydeville fled from the Tower into the cramped and insanitary conditions of sanctuary in the precincts of Westminster Abbey. Not knowing whether the King would ever return, she went into labour with only her mother and a handful of attendants. In “scant state,” in conditions of poverty, she bore a healthy boy on 2 November and named him Edward, after his father. It was a momentous occasion, with the birth of a male heir for the York dynasty and should have secured its survival. However, the next few months were to prove harrowing. Whilst the modern royal couple, the Duke and Duchess, get used to sharing their new parenthood in privacy, with the support of their families, Elizabeth’s future looked uncertain. Little Prince George, born this July, has a clear future mapped out for him. As third in line to the throne, he will one day rule this country. The prospects for Elizabeth’s son did not seem so certain.
Fortunately, the following spring, the Yorkist regime was re-established and the King was reunited with his wife and new-born son. For the first twelve years of his life, this little Prince was trained to take over the reins of government, established in his own household at Ludlow and tutored in the arts of kingship. Both his parents were involved in the plans for his regime, including the nature and length of his lessons, meal times and recreation, trying to ensure the best upbringing for their boy within the perimeters of the day’s customs. The politics of the day though, were to turn the wheel of fortune against him and his father’s premature death led to his incarceration in the Tower. Prince Edward, then briefly King Edward V, is now known to history as the elder of the Princes in the Tower.
With the new royal baby, Prince George, set to take more than his fair share of media attention in the coming years, his parents will no doubt be as protective as Edward and Elizabeth were. As a devoted, loving couple, the Duke and Duchess will try their best to provide him with as “normal” an upbringing as possible, in preparation for the public role he will play. Fortunately for them all, times have changed. A reflection of events surrounding the arrival of royal babies over the past five centuries shows just how significantly the role of royal mothers and the practical and political circumstances of birth have changed. One day, our children or grandchildren will be watching little Prince George in his coronation robes.