For as long as it's been in existence, the royal world has been special, elevated above the mediocrity of regular life and filled with the pleasures and privileges of divine power and influence. And even though the practical function of the monarchy has become mostly symbolic, the public fascination with its office certainly has not. So, for example, when Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, gave birth to the newest members of the English monarchy, public curiosity about her experience was boundless. But alas, the details were not so thrilling, as she and William apparently greeted their precious new bundles much like any average citizen – in the privacy of a clean and well-lit room with just a few medical attendants nearby.
And so it seems the royal rituals for labor nowadays are a far cry from the darkened, smoky bedrooms of the past, when the birth of a monarch was steeped in endless tradition, superstition, and more than a little fear. The age-old practice of bringing life into the world has always varied widely between cultures, but when it came to the secrets of the royal bedchamber, there were none quite as strange and disturbing as those created for new mothers.
The birth of a royal was not just any old day - it was a political event that could have deep implications for an entire nation. It was an event that could signal the future success or failure of a monarchy, so people were pretty concerned with its outcome. As a result, it was not regarded as a private affair, but rather as a moment of significant public concern. Would it be a boy? A future king? As a future ruler, the child belonged more to the people than to the queen herself. And so she gave birth in front of many spectators, all of whom watched the process carefully to confirm the sex and health of the baby and avoid any foul play.
When Marie Antoinette of France gave birth in 1778, there were 200 people in her bedchamber to witness the event. In fact, the exact moment of a royal birth was so important, the obstetrician would yell out "The Queen is going to give birth!" - at which point hundreds of courtesans would pour into the darkened room. The rush of people was so extreme, the king had ordered the enormous tapestries around her bed be secured with cords so they wouldn't accidentally be pulled down by the frenzied crowd. The scene was so overpowering, it is said Marie Antoinette fainted from the heat while onlookers scrambled up on furniture to get a better look at the birth of a monarch.
About a month before the queen was due to give birth, she withdrew from life at court and was moved to a special chamber where she would remain until her big day.
Taking to one's bed before giving birth was not a particularly pleasant experience for a royal mother. Despite the luxury of her apartments, the rules for her "lying-in" strictly dictated all windows were to be shut and covered with tapestries, allowing almost no fresh air to enter the room. Light was also considered dangerous, as it might hurt the eyes of the queen. The bedchamber would be hung all about with calming tapestries depicting serene religious scenes and landscapes - all images intended to ease the mother rather than upset her and to protect the unborn child. It was believed wall hangings showing people or animals could trigger strange visions in the mother-to-be and possibly lead to deformities in the child.
The idea was to re-create the safety, darkness, and peace of the womb itself, so the queen could birth a monarch in ideal comfort. Regardless of the season, a roaring fire would be lit, and the room would be attended by women who spoke only in a whisper. Fresh rushes and herbs would cover the floor and be replaced daily to keep the room smelling clean. If the queen became overwhelmed by the smoke and darkness, some candles might be lit around her stately bed to give her a bit of light.
Because the room itself symbolized a womb, barriers that kept it closed were often undone, especially if labor proved difficult. Cupboards would be opened, hairpins removed, knots untied - anything to invite the flow of energy outward. Women would often chant around the queen, calming her with their voices and prayers to St. Margaret, who was supposedly issued spat from the mouth of a dragon.
Although giving birth today is seen as a celebratory time of family bliss, this was not always the case. Throughout history, Christians saw the pain of childbirth as necessary because the Bible states God told women, "In pain you will give birth to children." In devout Christian countries, be they Catholic or Protestant, the suffering of labor and delivery were seen as an innate part of a woman's experience. The agony she would suffer was closely associated with the fall of Eve in the Garden of Eden and symbolized the magnitude of her original sin. This was the primary reason painkillers were often frowned upon, even for royals.
As a result, queens often clutched holy relics and amulets during labor, even tucking little prayer rolls into the folds of their nightclothes. The church approved of such practices because they asked for God's protection and would likely help a mother find success during her darkest hours.
Royal women were used to a certain standard of living, and the pain of childbirth was not a welcome change from their usual comforts. Throughout history, giving birth was assumed to be a terribly painful process and one that could not be avoided, but not all queens accepted this fate.
Born in the early 1800s, Queen Victoria (who gave birth to nine children) began a campaign to make pain relief for royal mothers available and acceptable. For the birth of her eighth son, Prince Leopold, she found a doctor who would use chloroform to give her a reprieve from the mind-blowing pain. "'Oh, that blessed chloroform,' she wrote afterwards, 'soothing and delightful beyond measure.'"
But asking for pain relief from childbirth was no simple task, as it sometimes flew in the face of the moral belief that women deserved the pain of childbirth - it was simply their lot in life. But after the protestations of Queen Victoria, the outlook began to change, and royal women began politely requesting the Anaesthesia de la Reine during labor - otherwise known as ether.
This shift in thinking not only relieved many a royal, but it also opened the floodgates of medical approaches.