Babies in the Tudor Era

The painting to the right is a very interesting artifact of the Tudor era. According to the Latin inscription in the upper right corner, it's a portrait of Cornelia Burch, age two months. It was painted in 1581 by an unknown artist.

We don't know who Cornelia was. It's been theorized that she was the daughter of Thomas, Lord Burgh, who was the English ambassador to Scotland, but there's no proof of it.

The painting is interesting for several reasons. Relatively few Tudor era infant portraits survive. Only about half of Tudor children survived to adulthood; a quarter of children did not reach their first birthday. And so commissioning an artist to paint an infant, especially an oil portrait such exceptional quality, was rare. Did little Cornelia survive to adulthood? There's no way for us to know.

Cornelia's family was obviously wealthy. The little cap on her head is frilled with fine, goffered linen. She holds in her hand a gold rattle with a polished tooth at the end. Her cradle is elaborately carved and she rests against a fine pillow. Her sleeves are of velvet, piped with gold. Her swaddling bands are silk, bound with gold cord.

But here's another interesting aspect: Cornelia is only half-swaddled. Her arms are free. Whether this was done simply for the portrait or whether it was her parents' choice to leave her arms unswaddled is unknown.

Parents swaddled their infants as their incomes would allow, but wealthy infants usually would have each limb individually wrapped in linen or silk, passing over the top of the head to keep it immobile, and then wider bands of cloth wrapped horizontally around their body. The child was unwrapped a few times a day to change their diaper, but otherwise handled as little as possible. It was thought too much attention would spoil them.

The portrait to the left is of the newborn Federigo di Urbino by Fiori Barocci, 1605. The baby's silk swaddling bands are embroidered with cloth of gold, and they wrap him from toe to shoulder like a little mummy. His head rests on a pillow decorated with pearls.

The two children to the right date to 1671, and are of a bit more modest means. They are bound up from head to toe in their swaddling bands, dressed over that in chemises with lace-edged collars, and then wrapped in white linen cloth, tucked neatly around their forms. Research into the family history of the infants suggests that they were twins, and unfortunately did not survive their first year.

The last portrait of swaddled infants I want to share with you is a very unusual image called The Cholmondeley Ladies, 1600-1610.

The image shows two ladies reclining in a bed, fully dressed in embroidered stomachers, sleeves with rosettes and pearls, elaborate ruffs, and jeweled necklaces. Both ladies hold a swaddled baby wrapped in a red christening gown. An inscription in gold lettering in the bottom left says the two women were sisters, born on the same day, married on the same day, and gave birth on the same day. An event worthy of being immortalized in oil paint, that's for sure!

Babies from wealthy families were usually given over to wet nurses to feed soon after the christening. Sexual relations were forbidden while a woman was nursing, and nursing naturally reduces a woman's fertility. Women of the day wanted to become pregnant again as soon as possible. There's an apocryphal story that Anne Boleyn wanted to breastfeed Elizabeth I, but her request was denied by Henry VIII. It's unlikely she would have asked.

The character of the wet nurse was very important, because negative character traits were thought to be transmitted in the milk. Nurses whose own children had been boys were favored. The milk of a woman who'd had a boy was thought to be more wholesome. She was to be given a rich diet foods, though with little spices, and red wine - thought to be strengthening. Sometimes, a wardrobe or other material goods were supplied to her. Elizabeth I's astrologer, John Dee, sent candles and soap to his child's wet nurse.

The image to the right is of Gabrielle d'Estrées, mistress of King Henry IV of France. A nurse is behind her, feeding Gabrielle's swaddled infant son César, born in 1594.

Children were generally nursed until the age of two, though I've seen mentions of children being nursed as late as five years old in the Tudor era.

They wore the long robes (christening gown length) until they were able to walk, when the child was officially "short coated." Both boys and girls wore gowns similar to adult women's clothing, and so it can sometimes be difficult to determine a child's gender in a portrait.

As soon as the child was old enough to walk and talk, they were old enough to begin the next stage of life, their education.

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