Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, was born on Sunday, 7 September 1533 at 3 o'clock in the afternoon. It was an easy birth: mother and daughter were well and the child took after her father with his fair skin and long nose. But she had her mother's coal-black eyes.
These are the ordinary, human details that might characterize the birth of any baby. But Elizabeth was royal. That meant that her entry into the world was vested with ceremony and hopes that went far beyond the ordinary. Indeed, as far as the hopes were concerned, they went far beyond what was usual even for a royal birth.
Royal births, like other royal events, great and small, from marriages and deaths to dressing and dining, were the object of an elaborate ceremonial. This was set out in the handbook of court etiquette known as The Royal Book. The ceremonies were already old when the Tudors came to the throne, though with his love of display, Elizabeth's grandfather, Henry VII, had added a few finishing touches. The result combined religious and courtly ceremony; it hid the pregnant queen like a mystery and it paraded the new-born infant like a pageant. For successive generations of Plantagenets, Yorkists and Tudors, this entry into the world had lent a little magic to even the briefest royal lives. In the case of Elizabeth, it formed a magnificent prologue to the superb royal performance that was to be her reign.
The preparations had got underway in earnest in early August when it was decided that the birth would take place at Greenwich. This was the lovely, Thames-side palace where, forty-two years before, Elizabeth's father, Henry VIII, had been born. It was the favourite palace of his mother, Elizabeth of York, and it was to become his and his daughter's favourite too.
First, the Queen's bedchamber was prepared for her confinement. The walls and ceiling were close hung and tented with arras--that is, precious tapestry woven with gold or silver threads--and the floor thickly laid with rich carpets. The arras was left loose at a single window, so that the Queen could order a little light and air to be admitted, though this was generally felt inadvisable. Precautions were taken, too, about the design of the hangings. Figurative tapestry, with human or animal images, was ruled out. The fear was that it could trigger fantasies in the Queen's mind which might lead to the child being deformed. Instead, simple, repetitive patterns were preferred. The Queen's richly hung and canopied bed was to match or be en suite with the hangings, as was the pallet or day-bed which stood at its foot. And it was on the pallet, almost certainly, that the birth took place.
Carpenters and joiners had first prepared the skeleton by framing up a false ceiling in the chamber. Then the officers of the wardrobe had moved in to nail up and arrange the tapestry, carpets and hangings. At the last minute, gold and silver plate had been brought from the Jewel House. There were cups and bowls to stand on the cupboard and crucifixes, candlesticks and images for the altar. The result was a cross between a chapel and a luxuriously padded cell.
By the third week of August all was ready, and on the 26th there took place the ceremony of the Queen's 'taking her chamber'. First, she went in procession to the Chapel Royal and heard mass. The company then returned to the Queen's great chamber, which was the outermost room of her suite. There, standing under the cloth of estate or canopy that was the mark of her rank, she took wine and spices with the assembled company. Her lord chamberlain now called on everyone present to pray that 'God would give her the good hour', that is, a safe delivery. Another procession formed and accompanied the Queen to the door of her bedchamber. At the threshold, the males of the court took their leave of her and only her women entered.
Her confinement had now begun. The Victorians used the word as a euphemism, but the etiquette of the English court confined a pregnant queen indeed in a sort of purdah. Thenceforward, until the birth and her 'churching' thirty days after, she dwelt in an exclusively female world, attended solely by women.
These ceremonies were ambivalent. They emphasized that childbirth was a purely female mystery. And they paid the tribute of the dominant male world to that mystery. But they did so on strict conditions: the queen, literally, had to deliver. They also underscored how inconceivable, how monstrous even, was the notion of an unmarried and childless queen. For a queen was a breeding machine, or, as the Spanish ambassador put it only a little more elegantly, 'the entire future turns on the accouchement of the queen'. Elizabeth's career was to mount a magnificent challenge to this received wisdom; her mother's, on the other hand, was to be an awful example of its truth.
But at least on this occasion, Anne Boleyn did deliver, going into labour less than a fortnight after having taken to her chamber. Immediately, work was started to prepare the very different stage -- set that was needed for the christening. This was as public as the confinement was private. It was to take place, not in the Chapel Royal, which lay at the east end of the river facade, but in the Church of the Observant Friars, which was situated at some distance from the main palace, to the northwest. Once again Elizabeth was following in her father's footsteps, as this was also where he had been christened. The chosen route, which led from the great hall to the west door of the church, was turned into an outdoor corridor. Holes were dug for posts on which were mounted frames and rails and the whole was hung with tapestry. In view of the distance, hundreds of pieces must have been used...(Continues...)