7 September 1533
It must have been miserable.
Anne Boleyn “took to her chamber” on August 26, 1533 to be sequestered away from the world until after the birth of her child, as was customary for Tudor queens. It was the hottest part of the summer, and she would be sealed inside a room with every window covered tightly to keep out fresh air which might bring in “foul miasmas” that could harm her baby. Everyone expected this to be the king’s longed-for prince, and so every precaution was taken.
Anne 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 would have 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 covered 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.
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. She would only be informed of what Henry was doing through gossip, and there would have been a concerted effort to keep her from finding out anything that might be upsetting and thus harmful to the child she carried.
Anne had a chapel set up in her chambers, complete with a baptismal font in case the infant was dying and needed emergency baptism, which the midwife – in lieu of a male priest – was authorized to do. As she prayed for a safe delivery, did Anne’s eyes drift to that grim reminder of possible 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.
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 on September 7, the baby was born, and to everyone’s dismay, she was a girl. She was strong and healthy, but a girl just the same. Anne must have been crushed.
Someone was sent out to inform the king of this troubling development. Henry must have been stunned. He had been smugly certain the baby was a boy, which would have been proof to all the naysayers of God’s approval on Henry’s actions of putting aside Katharine of Aragon to marry Anne. Every soothsayer (but one) had said it was a boy Anne carried.
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.
Chapuys crowed about the king’s embarrassment, but in public, Henry gritted his teeth and smiled. The child was healthy; the next one would be a boy. But Henry’s faith in his marriage to Anne Boleyn had been badly shaken by this event.
They named the child 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. Proclamations went out around England announcing the birth of Henry’s first legitimate child, and churches around the nation sang Te Deum in celebration and thanks to God.
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.
During those forty days, did Anne fret over what the baby’s sex meant for her future, or did she accept Henry’s reassurances he didn’t mind and the next baby would be a boy? Was she too wrapped up in bonding with her infant to worry?
Other stories tell us of Anne’s love for Elizabeth. It’s said she kept the baby with her during the first few months of Elizabeth’s life, lying on a cushion next to her instead of shut away in the nursery.
Elizabeth was sent away to her own household at Hatfield on December 10, 1533. We can only wonder how Anne felt about this, but she did her duty. Nobles of the era did not raise their own children. Anne had done what she could in choosing the best people to take care of her baby. Many of them were her relatives by blood or marriage.
Perhaps she did not know that the seeds for her destruction had already been sown in Henry’s mind.