Meghan Markle and Prince Harry are playing their cards very close to their chest with regards to whether they’re having a boy or a girl – but if one thing is clear, it’s that they’re going to be absolutely thrilled with either.
This is a relatively new phenomenon for the British Royals, who for centuries felt that the birth of a daughter in the absence of a male heir weakened the family’s grip on the crown. Female heirs were only permitted to take the throne in the direst of circumstances, and were seen as a surefire means of achieving political discord and instability.
At a time when science had not yet advanced enough to establish the sex of a child in utero – or even to understand that sex is determined prior to delivery – the Royals and their entourage went to considerable (and, in hindsight, quite bizarre) lengths in an attempt to ensure the arrival of a male heir.
Some of the medieval customs geared towards choosing a child’s sex revolved around practices intended to take place even before the point of conception. Diet was a prominent and oddly specific aspect, with many believing that husbands should dine on a meal of red wine and fresh rabbit’s womb prior to marital relations taking place. Others instead – or perhaps even additionally – believed that the man’s face should be turned eastwards during lovemaking.
There was, however, a more specific set of rules for Royals which, were established in the 15th century by Margaret Beaufort – mother of King Henry VII. Although Henry VII was her only child, she formalised some extremely prescriptive measures for increasing the chances of a male heir.
As demonstrated in the above image by Lady Beaufort, an expectant Royal mother was to be kept shielded from sunlight at all times. Windows would be shuttered and keyholes blocked up to prevent any natural light from reaching the mother-to-be, even to the extent of keeping the fireplace lit at the height of summer, should illumination be needed.
The Queen – like many noblewomen – would essentially be closed off from the rest of the world for a good while prior to giving birth, in a process that was described as ‘lying in’ or ‘taking her chamber’. From this point onwards, no men were to be permitted; the experts in childbirth – and everyone else who attended to the Queen – would be female. The idea was to make the room as womb-like as possible – dark, warm and calm – and that this would not only ensure a healthy baby, but would provide the highest likelihood of producing a male.
It must have worked for Henry VII’s wife – and the first Tudor Queen – Elizabeth of York, as she gave birth to four male children, one of whom went on to become King Henry VIII. His reign was defined by a far more direct approach to producing a male heir than the curious practices adopted by his grandmother Lady Beaufort; in fact, Henry VIII’s determination to sire a son would end up having a major impact on the fabric of British society.
Henry VIII famously married six women, with the first three under an immense amount of pressure to give birth to a boy. This dynamic played a huge part not only in the divorce of his first wife – Catherine of Aragon – but in the creation of the Church of England in order to make that divorce possible, and clear the way for his marriage to Anne Boelyn. By the time Henry found Anne, Catherine had given birth to just one surviving child: a daughter named Mary.
Anne Boelyn’s success with childbirth was limited, too, again providing Henry VIII with only one daughter – Elizabeth – and no male heir that made it past infancy. Soon, Anne was out of favour too, and Henry had turned his attentions to Jane Seymour. After a concerted campaign to defame Anne Boelyn – and an even more concerted campaign to remove her head – Henry VIII was free to marry Jane Seymour, and she rewarded him with a long sought-after son: Edward VI.
Edward VI was a sickly boy, however, and died at the age of 15, only six years after becoming King. This left the monarchy in what could most certainly be described as ‘the direst of circumstances’, and so Edward’s brief tenure was followed by a succession of women on the throne – the first, disputedly, being Lady Jane Grey, followed closely (and indisputably) by Mary I and Elizabeth I. In the end, both of Henry VIII’s daughters made it to the throne, their reigns spanning a period of bloody struggle between Roman Catholicism and the Church of England.
These strong, uncompromising Queens blew apart the conventional idea of what it meant to be a monarch, and the years after their reign would see far less resistance to the idea of women on the throne. However, it wasn’t until the Succession to the Crown Act of 2013 that male-preference was abolished from the line of succession, meaning a Royal’s eldest child would always be heir apparent – regardless of sex.