On the 18th March Mary Tudor, daughter of King Henry VII and Queen Elizabeth of York was born.
Before the birth Margaret Beaufort had outlined a strict set of protocols and necessities required for Elizabeth of York’s labour and birth. These protocols covered everything from the number and rank of the women allowed within the chambers, to the number and even the colour of the cushions used by the queen! Approximately one month before the child was due to be born, it was customary for the queen to withdraw from the world. After a church service in which people prayed for the safe delivery of the child, Elizabeth retired to a series of rooms known as the ‘lying-in chamber’. The purpose of these rooms was to recreate a womblike effect, warm, safe and shut off. To do this, thick tapestries depicting happy images so as not to upset or distress the mother and in turn harm the unborn child, were hung on the walls and over the windows. Only a single window was left open to allow in fresh air as it was believed that bright light could bring in evil spirits. Carpets would have been placed over the floor and a fire would have burned constantly.
Elizabeth may have also have had two beds, one in which she could rest and sleep in before the birth and a second in which to give birth. This second bed would have been full of pillows and covered in crimson satin, the colour helping to hide any blood stains. A birthing stool may have also been provided as another means to give birth. The queen would have been accompanied by her female servants; men − including male physicians − were strictly barred from the lying-in chamber. Elizabeth’s mother, Elizabeth Woodville, had supported the queen during her first three pregnancies, but she had died on 8 June 1492, before Mary was born.
During her labour Elizabeth would have trusted in her Catholic faith. It is known that she asked for the Girdle of Our Lady to be brought to her from Westminster Abbey. The girdle would have been laid over Elizabeth’s stomach while she and her ladies prayed for the Virgin Mary to help the queen’s labour pains and to bring about the safe delivery of her child. Elizabeth may have also called on St Margaret, the patron saint of pregnant women and childbirth, to aid her in her labour and the birth.
It is quite probable that Elizabeth of York’s midwife for Mary’s birth would have been Alice Massey, who was also the midwife for her previous pregnancy as well as her last pregnancy (which would take place in 1503). Friar Bartholomew wrote that a midwife….
‘takes the child out of the womb, and ties the navel-string four inches long. She washes away the blood on the child with water, anoints him with salt and honey (or salt and roses, pounded together) to dry him and comfort his limbs and members, and wraps him in clothes. His mouth and gums should be rubbed with a finger dipped in honey to cleanse them, and to stimulate the child to suck.’
A midwife had to be ‘pleasant and merry, of good discourse, strong’ and have a good reputation. The profession of midwifery was not taught at schools, but rather by time and experience. Women would have learnt the trade from other women, and by assisting a midwife attending a woman in labour. Since childbirth was such a dangerous time for both mother and baby, the midwife was also granted by the Church the ability to baptise a baby should it appear that it would not live. Therefore the midwife had to be a good Catholic woman, dedicated to Christ and the Church.
The little girl Elizabeth of York gave birth to was named Mary, possibly after the Virgin Mary as she was born so close to the Tudor New Year, 25 March, known as Lady Day or the Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin (the date that Mary was told she was pregnant with Jesus). The date of her birth was recorded by Elizabeth in her psalter. Margaret Beaufort recorded Mary’s birth in her book of hours. Next to 18 March Margaret wrote: ‘Hodie nata Maria tertia filia Henricis VII 1495’, ‘Today was born Mary, the third daughter of Henry VII 1495.’
Image from the British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts
Margaret recorded the date as 1495 because during the early Tudor age, the new calendar year did not start until Lady Day, 25 March, so we would say that she was born in 1496, referring to the modern Gregorian calendar. Henry VII states that Mary was born in 1495 when he wrote to the Duke of Milan on 2 March 1499 rejecting a marriage proposal between Mary and the duke’s son. Mary was only three at the time; having not quite reached her fourth birthday.
Shortly after her birth, Mary would have been christened. It was vitally important that a new-born baby be christened since it was believed that an unchristened soul would forever be stuck in limbo. A baby could be christened a few minutes after birth, or even during the birthing process should the midwife believe that there was a chance it may die and the midwife was able to touch any part of the child, such as the top of its head or a limb.
Although not the last child born to Elizabeth of York and Henry VII, she would be the last child that lived to adulthood.
Beaufort Book of Hours Royal 2 A XVIII f. 29, Calendar page for March with an added date of the birth of princess Mary, daughter of Henry VII, viewed 18 March, <www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/ILLUMIN. ASP?Size=mid&IllID=33306>.
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Croom Brown, Mary, Mary Tudor Queen of France (London: Methuen, 1911).
Guillemeau, Jacques, Child-birth; Or, The Happy Delivery of Women: Wherein is Set Downe the Government of Women … Together with the Diseases, which Happen to Women in Those Times, and the Meanes to Help Them. With a Treatise for The Nursing of Children (1635).
Licence, Amy, In Bed with the Tudors The Sex Lives of a Dynasty from Elizabeth of York to Elizabeth I (Gloucestershire: Amberley Publishing, 2012).
Medieval Lives: Birth, Marriage and Death (Scotland, BBC, 2013).
Norton, Elizabeth, The Lives of Tudor Women (London: Head of Zeus, 2016).
Ormen, Nicholas, Medieval Children, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).