September 7, 1533: The Birth of Elizabeth I

It must have been miserable!

Anne Boleyn had "taken to her chamber" on August 26, 1533 to be sealed away from the world until after the birth of her child. She was led in a solemn procession to her chamber door, where she drank a goblet of spiced wine, and then proceeded inside with her ladies. The door was sealed shut; no men could enter until after the birth of the new heir.

Anne had no choice but to obey the conventional rules for royal childbirth. They had been codified by the king's grandmother, Margaret Beaufort, when she wrote Ordinance as to What is to be Made ​​Preparation Against the Deliverance of the Queen, as Also for the Christening of the Child of Whom She Shall Be Delivered for the delivery of the child of her daughter-in-law Elizabeth of York, wife of Henry VII.

The Ordinance is minutely detailed, down to specifying the colors of the fringe on the bedspread of the queen. You can read the whole Ordinance here.

The walls - and even the ceiling - were covered with tapestries, and the floors were laid with layers of rugs. All of the tapestries were required to have pleasant scenes, because if the expectant mother saw an ugly or deformed face, it was believed her child could be born with the same deformity.

Every window was covered over with a tapestry nailed down to keep out the foul "miasmas" in the air, except for one tapestry left partially unfastened, so the queen could lift the corner to allow in some daylight when it pleased her. Even the keyhole on the door was covered.

Anne followed these rules obsessively, not just because of her queenly status, but because if something went wrong, she would have been blamed for it, and any deviation cited as the cause.

It was late summer, and since the windows were sealed against any cooling breeze, it must have been stifling. The incense and heavy perfumes - thought to purify the air of foul miasmas - probably didn't help.

Boredom had to have set in, as well, though the women played cards, read, played musical instruments and embroidered while they waited for the birth. Anne had to be anxious - kings usually took a mistress while their wives were expecting. Sexual intercourse during pregnancy was not only considered sinful, it was thought to induce miscarriage.

Anne had a chapel set up in her chambers, complete with a baptismal font in case the infant was dying and needed emergency baptism. As she prayed for a safe delivery, did her eyes drift to that grim reminder of mortality?

Traditionally, a woman went into confinement about a month before the child was due, and remained inside the lying-in chamber until she was "churched" about forty days after the birth. Fortunately for Anne, her confinement was much shorter than expected. Everyone was shocked when she went into labor a scant two weeks after taking to her chamber.

The birth itself went well. Like almost every other aspect of life, Tudor royal births were semi-public events. All of Anne's ladies in waiting and maids of honor watched as she was settled on a cot where most of her labor would occur.

There were no painkillers available to Tudor women. Wealthy ladies used to send for relics of the saints which were said to reduce the pain of childbirth and ensure a healthy child. Henry's mother, Elizabeth of York, sent a girdle (belt) to a church to be wrapped around the statue of a saint. When the labor began, it was taken off the statue and brought to her, and she laid it across her belly.

But by this time, many of the famous relics had been denounced as frauds and removed from the churches. Anne had only the prayers of her ladies for assistance, and her "gossips," who told entertaining stories to try to distract the laboring woman from the pain.

When the actual birth itself was near, Anne was transferred to a "groaning chair." It was a slightly-slanted wood chair with a cut-out seat. The midwife held her hands below to catch the emerging child.

At three o'clock, the baby was born, and to her parents' dismay, she was a girl. Henry must have been stunned. For Anne Boleyn, he had destroyed a thousand years of English religious tradition and defied the crowned heads of Europe, only to get another worthless girl. So confident was he that Henry had birth announcements drawn up, announcing the arrival of his prince, with only the date left blank for later insertion. He had believed God would show his approval of Henry's actions by sending him his heir, and he had believed what the fortune tellers promised him. Later, he would tell the Imperial ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, that those soothsayers' predictions had induced him to marry Anne, and when their prognostications turned out to be false, he thought it meant his marriage was null and void.

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There must have been many who laughed behind their hands at this outcome. All this for another girl! But Henry gritted his teeth and smiled. The child was healthy; the next one would be a boy. They named her Elizabeth, after her grandmothers, Elizabeth of York and Elizabeth Howard Boleyn.

The celebratory jousts were cancelled, and the birth announcements were altered. A tiny "s" was slipped in to turn the word "prince" into "princes," an acceptable spelling of princess at the time, though people must have squinted to read it.

Anne was tucked into a great bed of estate, covered with cloth of gold and ermine. There, she would receive the congratulations of the court and foreign dignitaries. She would still have to remain in seclusion until after she'd been "churched," ritually blessed and allowed to rejoin court life.

Neither of her parents attended Elizabeth's christening three days after her birth. You can read a first-hand account of the christening here. The Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, Agnes Tilney Howard, carried the baby into the chapel of the Observant Friars in Greenwich Palace, accompanied by a huge procession of the highest nobles of the land, bearing torches and candles. The baby wore an elaborately embroidered gown made for her by her mother. It supposedly still survives at Sudeley Castle, having been given to Kateryn Parr and passed down through her descendants.

A wetnurse was selected for the baby. There's an apocryphal tale that Anne Boleyn wanted to nurse the baby herself, but the king refused. I included it in Under These Restless Skies, but it's likely not factual. Anne would have wanted to become pregnant again as soon as possible, and nursing was known to reduce fertility.

Selecting a wetnurse was a difficult task. She had to be of fine moral character, because vices were thought to be transmitted through the milk. It was better to have a nurse who had given birth to a boy herself, because it was believed the milk a woman produced for a boy was of better quality. Her diet had to be carefully monitored to ensure she made the best milk possible.

The baby would have been tightly swaddled and dressed in fine clothing, miniature versions of the bejeweled gowns worn by the lords and ladies of the court. Her rattles would have been made of solid gold and ivory. Tiny rings would have adorned her fingers, and pearls gleamed from the brim of her cap.

The baby was soon sent off to her own household in the country, complete with hundreds of servants as befitted the royal heir.

Anne kept close tabs on her daughter, visiting her as frequently as possible, and writing every day to her nursemaids to see how she fared. She sent the baby sumptuous gowns, likely made by her own hands. Historians note Anne seems to have been very affectionate and attentive to her baby, more so than usual.

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