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Royal Births Were Once Terrifying, Deadly and Watched by Huge Crowds

April 19, 2019 in History

By Hadley Meares

On November 1, 1661, Queen Marie-Therese, the shy, retiring Spanish wife of . “It was hoped that these Spanish sounds diverted the poor queen, who kept crying out in her native language, “I don’t want to give birth, I want to die.”

Her fears were not unfounded. Childbirth was a terrifying and deadly ordeal for women and their children in an era before modern medicine. Infection was common; one in three babies in France died before the age of one. And Marie-Therese was under overwhelming pressure to give the King a living male heir, thus ensuring the Bourbon succession.

After twelve hours of agony, the Queen finally delivered a healthy boy, who was named Louis de France. Courtiers in the inner rooms signaled the baby’s sex to those in outer chambers by hurling their hats up the air (arms were crossed if the baby was a girl). King Louis XIV, the flamboyant “sun king,” shouted out the window to his subjects packing the courtyard below, “The Queen has given birth to a boy!”

READ MORE: 7 Surprising Facts About Royal Births

For many royal women, the pressure to provide an heir started as soon as the wedding celebrations ended. According to Randi Hutter Epstein, author of Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank, the 16th century French Queen Catherine de’ Medici was so desperate to become pregnant she sought out folk healers who told her to “drink mare’s urine and soak her ‘source of life’ in a sack of cow manure mixed with ground stag’s antlers.”

Once pregnant, expectant royal mothers were under constant scrutiny. Perhaps no birth was more hotly anticipated than Queen Marie Antoinette’s first baby in 1778. Although her mother, Empress Marie-Therese, had done away with public births in Austria, Marie Antoinette was unable to change the entrenched ways of Versailles. Early in the morning on December 19, the Queen rang a bell, signaling that her labor had begun.

Versailles quickly descended into chaos, as “avid sightseers” hurried in the direction of the Queen’s apartments, Fraser writes in Marie Antoinette: The Journey. The crowds “were mainly confined to outer rooms such as the gallery, but in the general pandemonium, several got through to the inner rooms.” Some royal onlookers were even “discovered perched aloft in order to get a really good view.”

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