On this day in Tudor history, 26th August 1533, in the reign of King Henry VIII, the king’s second wife, Queen Anne Boleyn, prepared for the birth of her first child by “taking her chamber” at Greenwich Palace.
The baby was born on 7th September and was, of course, the future Queen Elizabeth I.
Tudor women would take to their chambers for the last few weeks of their pregnancy. Let me explain all of the rituals and traditions involved, and tell you what Anne Boleyn’s chamber would have been like…
Lady Margaret Beaufort, King Henry VII’s mother, wrote some guidelines for the birth and christening of a royal child and you can find out more about these in a talk I did for the Tudor Society – click here.
On this day in Tudor history, Tuesday 26th August 1533, at Greenwich Palace, Queen Anne Boleyn, second wife and queen consort of King Henry VIII, prepared for the birth of her child by “taking her chamber”, i.e. entering a female-only environment, for the final weeks of her pregnancy.
It was usual for a woman in those times to take to her chamber four to six weeks before the due date of her baby, but 26th August was actually less than two weeks before Anne’s baby, the future Queen Elizabeth I, was born.
Chronicler Edward Hall records that in the summer of 1533 “the king kept his progress about London, because of the Queen” and we know from contemporary records that carpenters carried out work on Greenwich Palace to prepare the Queen’s chambers for her confinement. Historian Professor Eric Ives notes in his book on Anne Boleyn that “details of the arrangements were handed on from one royal confinement to the next” with William Mountjoy, Catherine of Aragon’s lord chamberlain, writing to Thomas Cromwell on 24th July:
“I send you certain remembrances of things to be provided against the Queen’s taking her chamber, of which I had experience when I occupied the room.”
On 19th August 1533, George Taylor, Anne Boleyn’s receiver general, wrote to Lady Lisle in Calais of the arrangements for the queen’s confinement:
“The King and Queen are in good health and merry. On Thursday next they will come by water from Windsor to Westminster, and on Tuesday following to Greenwich, where the Queen intends to take her chamber.”
On 26th August 1533, the queen attended a special mass at Greenwich Palace’s Chapel Royal and then processed with her ladies to the Queen’s great chamber. Before retiring to the special chamber, Anne and her ladies enjoyed a refreshment of wine and spices and then Anne’s lord chamberlain prayed that God would give the Queen a safe delivery. The queen and her ladies then entered her chamber to await the birth of Anne’s child.
The fifteenth century “Royalle Book”, and the ordinances added to it by Lady Margaret Beaufort, Henry VII’s mother, stipulated that the birthing chamber should:
- Be carpeted
- Have its walls, ceilings and windows covered with blue arras – These beautiful tapestries were to have calming and romantic images
- Have one window slightly uncovered to let in light and air when needed
- Be furnished with a bed for the Queen and a pallet at the foot of it – The Queen would give birth on the pallet and it was set at a height appropriate for the midwife. It was set up close to the fire and away from cold draughts.
- Have soft furnishings of crimson satin embroidered with gold crowns and the Queen’s arms
- Have an altar
- Have a tapestry covered cupboard to house the birthing equipment and swaddling bands
- Have a font in case of a sickly baby needing to be baptised straight after the birth
- Have a display of gold and silver plate items from the Jewel House – It was important for the Queen and her baby to be surrounded by symbols of her wealth and status.
Birth rooms were fastened up against fresh air, which was thought to be harmful, candles were lit in the darkened room and special objects to speed delivery were brought in – objects such as amulets, relics of saints and herbs. It was thought that this womb-like chamber would protect the baby from evil spirits as it came into the world. The woman was advised to remove all types of knots, fastenings, laces, buckles and rings so that she wouldn’t be restricted in any way and so that they wouldn’t get in the way. This was also a symbolic gesture with their removal being seen as promoting an easier birth.
Although “taking her chamber” is often referred to as “confinement”, the woman was not actually alone. Men were banned from the chamber, but close female friends and relatives joined the woman there and a Queen would have a certain number of her ladies. It was a social occasion and when the labour began the ladies would spring into action helping the midwife and making the caudle, which was a spiced wine or ale that was given to the woman during labour to give her strength.
The birthing chamber, which sounds as if it would have been rather stifling in a hot August, was to be Anne Boleyn’s home until she was churched thirty days after the birth. Fortunately for Anne, her baby came sooner than expected and she gave birth to a girl, the future Elizabeth I, on the 7th September 1533.