Childbirth in the Tudor Era – 5 Things To Know

For many women in the Tudor era, childbirth was an important, albeit dangerous, rite of passage. Although many would successfully give birth to live and healthy children, it could be a stressful and risky time for women, and different to modern experiences of pregnancy and childbirth in several ways.

“How so?” I hear you cry. Well, let’s find out shall we?

Childbirth in the Tudor Era

Tudor Era painting of a pregnant noblewoman. She is wearing a richly embroidered white and red gown and looks directly at the viewer, with her hand resting upon her pregnant stomach.
Gheeraerts the younger, Marcus; Portrait of a Woman in Red; Tate; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/portrait-of-a-woman-in-red-198898

Pregnancy was confirmed when the baby “quickened”

Although a woman might suspect she was pregnant through common symptoms like morning sickness, cravings or her periods ceasing, pregnancy in the Tudor era wasn’t confirmed until the first time she felt her baby moving.

The first few months of pregnancy were difficult to diagnose – there were concerns that perhaps she was just bloated or gassy which would be incredibly embarrassing to confirm and then have to take back. The link with periods and pregnancy wasn’t fully understood, and although some women must have noticed that their menstruation had stopped, this could have been down to other factors like poor diet.

There were tests that a woman could try, but helpful results were limited. Like modern pregnancy tests, they did include pee but it’s doubtful that they were particularly accurate. A woman could see if her urine was pale yellow to white with a cloudy surface, or drop a needle in to see if it rusts, but apart from that, there was little to offer proof of a baby.

The ‘quickening’ was when the baby first starts kicking. This was taken as the definitive proof that no only was a woman pregnant, she was also carrying a live child. However, this generally doesn’t happen until maybe four months in, it could be a stressful time waiting for that confirmation (especially if married to a man particularly desperate for an heir).

Tudor era pregnancy clothes existed…in a fashion

Most women didn’t own a huge range of clothes, and so would have adapted their existing clothing, rather than buying lots of maternity wear. The first step would simply be to unlace gowns to make them more comfortable and provide more space for the growing bump.

After that, women would adapt their clothes by sewing in extra panels to their dresses to accommodate their baby bump – even queens would let out their existing gowns. They could also make use of “self-grow” items like waistcoats and kirtles, specific maternity items designed to be let out as a woman grew larger.

Women wore plenty of layers in this period, which might have helped to hide a secret pregnancy if needed, especially if she was able to let her own clothes out and dress herself. It was also common for women to have a childbirth outfit of a hood with a shoulder cape.

Two Tudor era women holding their new-born babies in bed - the two women are wearing identical white ruffs and nightgowns and looking directly at the viewer, while the babies are in identical white gowns and wrapped in rich red cloth, looking up at their mothers.

Birth was a female-only affair

Noblewomen would have a ceremonial exit from the public world, labouring women would probably have just stopped working, but either way, both types of women would have retired from the public (male) world before having their baby.

Menstruation and childbirth was considered both unclean and a woman’s territory, in the Tudor era, so men wouldn’t have attended the birth, and even the most excited, loving and devoted fathers and husband’s would have stayed away from the birth itself. Childbirth was a female-only zone, and most women would have given birth with a midwife, rather than a male doctor.

The midwife herself would have been highly skilled, but she also had to be of good reputation – and especially not the kind of shady character who might keep anything from the birth process that could be used in witchcraft at a later date.

Pain relief wasn’t a thing

Pain relief was not part of the deal. The pain of childbirth was thought to be punishment from God for Eve’s sins, and so was something that women just had to bear. Contemporary writers also thought that the pain was also “proof” that women and their bodies were inferior to men.

To help cope with the pain and for reassurance, women would make use of relics and prayers. Women would hold onto amulets, or relics like holy girdles, or they would pray with the other women surrounding them. St. Margaret was the patron saint of women and childbirth, and early Tudor women would have prayed to her for guidance as well.

Women also had methods to help the birth along if all wasn’t progressing, including pessaries (powders or preparations wrapped up in wool and inserted), incense, herbal baths and lubricants. There’s no evidence of a caesarean being used on a living woman until 1580 (and not safely until the 20th) but midwives had a huge range of knowledge to help along a difficult birth.

There were also several different recommended positions for women in childbirth, from being on all-fours, to sitting in specially made birth stools.

Sketch of woman in the Tudor era giving birth on a birthing stool - a small wooden chair with the seat cut out.

Death was terrifyingly common

Childbirth was risky for both mother and baby. It didn’t matter whether you were rich, poor, young, older, healthy, ill, a first-time mother or had given birth every year for a decade – your chances of death during, and just after, childbirth were high.

Before birth, some women would write their wills, knowing that once they went into confinement, they might not come out. Tudor era noblewomen especially would have had an religious ceremony to get God’s blessing before their lying-in, whereas women further down the social scale might have also gone to church first for a blessing.  

Women feared their deaths in childbirth, and young girls would have grown up knowing women who did so. Women could die from a long and difficult labour, or from problems after, like infections – and although some women survived these, many were ill, or affected permanently (both mentally and physically)

So, as you can see childbirth was different in lots of ways – did any of these surprise you? Let’s chat below!

If you enjoyed this, why not check out A History of Contraception?

You can also head over to @historychatter on Instagram where I share lots more history and books about historical women!

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