A closer look at pregnancy, midwifery, and breastfeeding in the Tudor period

Depiction of pregnancy and childbirth in The expert midwife
Jakob Rüff. The expert midwife, 1637. Folger STC 21442

What was everyday life like for women throughout Tudor society? Elizabeth Norton, a historian of the queens of England and the Tudor period, shares stories on the Folger’s Shakespeare Unlimited podcast about the restrictions, but also some of the surprising freedoms, that touched these women’s lives.

The excerpt below from our Shakespeare Unlimited interview with Norton contains fascinating insights about pregnancy, midwifery, and breastfeeding in Tudor life. Norton is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

BOGAEV: Let’s talk about pregnancy, because the rituals around pregnancy for the ruling class were different than for common folk, as is the case in most things. So, tell us about the “Girdle of Our Lady.”

NORTON: So, pregnancy was just about the most dangerous time in a woman’s life, and women were aware of this. Painkillers were limited. There wasn’t very effective medical treatment. So, naturally, women turned to other avenues for pain relief and also assistance to try and guide them through the dangers of birth. And one of those is the “Girdle of Our Lady.” That was called for in some of Queen Elizabeth of York’s pregnancies. She was the mother of Henry VIII, the wife of Henry VII. She would summon the girdle from Westminster Abbey and then it would be brought to her and used during her confinement as a way of protecting her and also easing her pains during childbirth. We know that the girdle was used in previous royal births since the medieval period, so it was obviously seen as very effective. Poorer women had their own ways of seeking spiritual assistance in birth. We know that the women of one town would run to church and then tie their shoelaces in the church, which is apparently supposed to help them survive birth. So, there were many of these religious items, even after the Reformation.

BOGAEV: Well, pregnancy encompasses a large body of work in your book, because you’re not only talking about women who were pregnant, but also the women who catered to the women who were pregnant, the Tudor midwives. And you call midwifery one of the most important occupations that a Tudor woman could pursue. Granted, there were not many occupations that Tudor women could pursue, but it was the most important. And, that they were entrusted with baptizing babies, not just after but actually during the birth. So, how does that work? And don’t you need a priest to do that?

NORTON: In general, you need a priest to carry out a baptism, but there was a real danger that an infant who wasn’t baptized couldn’t go to heaven. At best, it’s envisaged that they would stay in a kind of limbo place in between heaven and hell, but they couldn’t go to heaven. And you can only carry out a baptism on a child that is breathing. Because of that, the church permitted midwives to carry out the sacrament of baptism if it looked like the child wouldn’t survive labor.

BOGAEV: Oh, so it’s, what, like one of those get-arounds, like a dispensation?

NORTON: That’s right. And it was accepted that a midwife could do it and that such a baptism was entirely valid. And it’s an enormous concession. It’s the only example of a woman being permitted by the church to carry out one of the sacraments. Another factor is that caesarian sections would occasionally be carried out in the period, but only on a mother who had died. And again, the reason behind doing that was to attempt to baptize the baby while it was still breathing. But you needed to have a priest to certify that the woman was, indeed, dead before the surgeon would attempt to retrieve the baby.

BOGAEV: Wet nurse was another well-respected occupation for Tudor women. Did all royal and noble women employ wet nurses? I mean, was breastfeeding only for underclass mothers?

NORTON: Breastfeeding wasn’t entirely for underclass mothers, but it was viewed as quite strange if a woman wanted to breastfeed. Right at the end of our period there was a countess of Lincoln who in the early 17th century wrote a manual on breastfeeding for her daughter-in-law, and in it, she said that she should have breastfed, and it was a God-given duty to breastfeed her children, but that she’d been persuaded otherwise because it was “noisome” to someone’s clothes, and it made the mother “look old,” apparently, she said that, and it was generally hard work, so she was told that she shouldn’t do it. And she later really regretted that she didn’t breastfeed her children, which is why she wrote this manual. But it was very, very rare for an upper-class woman to breastfeed her children, although members of the gentry certainly did. We know that because they served as wet nurses to royal babies, so they must have been breastfeeding their own infants.

BOGAEV: Why would a well-off, or a woman from the gentry, become a wet nurse?

NORTON: It was absolutely a way to gain status to become a royal wet nurse. Henry VIII’s wet nurse, for example, was given a personal invitation to his coronation by the king when he became king at the age of 17. So, absolutely, this woman who had nursed him was obviously still in touch with him and he obviously still thought fondly of her. The absolute best-case scenario for a royal wet nurse was that you would nurse the future king. But also, even if you didn’t nurse the future king, having a royal, and someone, a baby that you nursed, who was royal could be hugely beneficial. Henry’s sister, Margaret: once Margaret was weaned, the wet nurse became one of Margaret’s ladies-in-waiting, for example. A position that she probably couldn’t have hoped to have achieved apart from the relationship with Margaret. Margaret obviously wanted her still around her.

BOGAEV: Yes, when I was reading this chapter, I was thinking of Juliet and her close relationship between her and her nurse.

NORTON: Absolutely. I mean, Elizabeth I, actually, made a comment in later life where she said that she was more bound to those that brought her up than to her parents, because her parents just did what was natural but those that brought her up raised her. It’s the same with wet nurses, so with Juliet and her nurse. It was very, very common for a nurse to remain close to the child that they wet nursed. And in fact, there are accounts of some rivalry between the wet nurse and the mother. The scholar Erasmus, for example, who wrote on wet nursing and breastfeeding, actually says a mother who doesn’t breastfeed only deserves to be called “half-mother” by her offspring.

BOGAEV: Harsh.

NORTON: Very harsh.

BOGAEV: People also believe that the character of the wet nurse was imparted to the baby?

NORTON: Yes, wet nurses were very carefully chosen. The royal commissioners who would go and choose a wet nurse would look at the woman’s older children, particularly the baby that she was then nursing, to make sure that they were well-behaved and that generally they were the sort of family that you would want to be involved in the nursing of a royal baby.