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Madame Siebold, Royal Midwife: The woman who delivered Queen Victoria

One of the earliest names that occurs in the life of the future Queen Victoria is that of ‘Siebold’; although the name vanishes almost on the first mention. But no single name should be rendered insignificant just because it only occurs once.

This is undoubtedly the case with Madame Siebold or more precisely, Charlotte Heidenreich von Siebold (1788-1859). Madame Siebold was an accoucheuse who by an extraordinary circumstance, provides the first physical link between the future Queen Victoria and her consort, Prince Albert, although the same German blood that connected them, of course, flowed in their veins. She was the royal midwife who delivered them both in the same year, her skilled hands pairing them even as babies. First came Queen Victoria in Kensington Palace, followed by Prince Albert at the castle of Rosenau, near Coburg.

This remarkable woman died in Darmstadt, the city where Queen Victoria’s second daughter, Princess Alice would go to live – on her marriage to Prince Ludwig ‘Louis’ of Hesse, in 1862 – three years after Madame Siebold’s death. Alice’s children would grow up at the Neues Palais – the Hessian town palace in central Darmstadt – with pictures on the palace walls of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, placed there by Princess Alice; Princess Alix of Hesse, the future Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna. Hung two studies of the heads of her maternal grandparents in her sitting room, for example, as well as significantly, of the Duke and Duchess of Kent. Today, Madame Siebold is generally credited to be Germany’s first gynaecologist. She gave history Victoria & Albert.

Madame Siebold made a living, albeit invisible link in a small family circle, begun back in 1819 and which by the 1860s had become full, with Princess Alice living as future Hessian Grand Duchess in Darmstadt, where Madame Siebold died in 1859. A street in Darmstadt, the Heidenreichstrasse, is named after Madame Siebold. It adjoins the tremendous green lung of the city known as the Landgraben with the ‘Grosser Woog’; next to that is the Park Rosenhöhe, containing the Old and New Mausoleums of the Landgraves and Grand Dukes of Hesse, including that of Queen Victoria’s daughter, Grand Duchess Alice. It was not something which Alice appears to have known, or at least mentioned, in what we know of her surviving correspondence.

With her keen interest in any connection to the Queen, we must imagine that such a fact would have interested her highly, especially given her interest in nursing and subsequent association with Florence Nightingale. Madame Siebold’s grave – the woman who delivered the future Queen Victoria, no less – is to be found in the Alter Friedhof in Darmstadt (Old Cemetery).

She had been part of that extraordinary and somewhat eccentric caravan that shuddered across the uncomfortable roads of an early nineteenth century Europe. The Duchess was almost eight months pregnant at the time, when the party set out for England on 28 March. The Prince Regent had sent a royal yacht to meet his younger brother and new wife at Calais, together with their entourage. This would have been a somewhat amusing procession, which also comprised of a carriage in which travelled the Duchess’s pet cats, dogs and canaries, leaving us to imagine the sudden jolts of the birdcages over the bumps, barking mixed with song as well as the thud of boxes as the caravan teetered onwards, amidst the chatter – and clatter of the royal plate contained in the trunks.

Charlotte Heidenreich von Siebold, the midwife who attended at the birth of Queen Victoria in 1819, image ca. 1820 (By Franz Hubert Müller [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Madame Siebold travelled in the Duke of Kent’s barouche (Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria: A Personal History, 11) on this long journey of over 400 miles across post-Napoleonic Europe, from sleepy Amorbach in Bavaria’s Lower Franconia, to Calais. Her companion in the heavy, four-wheeled carriage was Baroness Späth, the Duchess’s lady-in-waiting. In front, Madame Siebold would have seen the ‘cane’ phaeton (A. N. Wilson, Victoria, A Life, 33) carrying the Duke and pregnant Duchess of Kent, the Duke driving himself, to save the money which he knew all too well how to spend. Behind the barouche travelled Princess Feodora – the beloved half-sister of whom the future Queen Victoria would become so fond – in a post-chaise with the English maids and her governess. These were followed by a cabriolet which carried the cooks; a carriage for the Duke’s valet and the Duchess’s footman, a second carriage for the clerks and a curricle for Dr Wilson, the Duke’s physician (Hibbert, 11).

But this was a caravan in a hurry, given the late moment that the Duke of Kent had chosen to depart from Amorbach. The rough winds at Calais delayed the yacht sent by the Prince Regent, so that the royal caravan did not sail for England until 24 April. Reading this, we have a sense of the Duke’s growing urgency, dynastically anxious for his baby to be born on British soil, having declared during the Duchess’s pregnancy that ‘the crown will come to me and my children’ (Quoted in Hibbert, 10). It was as if the royal race which had begun on the death of the Prince Regent’s daughter, Princess Charlotte, had now become a race to get to royal England.

Picturing the heavily pregnant Duchess with the anxious reins in the hands of the Duke, steadying his phaeton, we are compelled to will the caravan to get to Great Britain in time. Not have to repeat the agonising journey from Hampton Court to St James’s Palace made by Frederick, Prince of Wales – Queen Victoria’s paternal great-grandfather – and his pregnant wife, Augusta, whose waters broke on the nightmarish journey, causing her wet skirts to be stuffed with sheets. All so that his wife would give birth not so much on British soil, but in a British palace out from under the roof of his parents – George II and Queen Caroline, who detested him.

The Duke and Duchess of Kent did manage to reach Kensington Palace in time, although Madame Siebold – a qualified obstetrician who had studied as a surgeon at Göttingen, could have no doubt provided her services on route. The birth finally took place exactly a month after their landing, on 24 May 1819; history finally was given its future Queen Victoria. The robust baby girl that Madame Siebold delivered that early May morning at 4.15 am precisely was pronounced ‘a model of strength and beauty combined’ and was as ‘plump as a partridge’ (Hibbert, 12).

The room where this happened at Kensington Palace, today is aptly known as the ‘Birth Room’, may be seen and appropriately contains much relating to Queen Victoria’s early childhood, including her original dolls’ house. The bedroom of the Duchess of Kent had been given white curtains, and the bed was covered with white cambric (A. N. Wilson, 36). The Duchess would famously share a bedroom with her daughter Victoria until she became Queen; Queen Victoria later recalled that the ‘Birth Room’ – which she revisited in May 1899, two years before her death – was later used by the Duchess of Kent.

We can only surmise as to how the Duchess of Kent met Madame Siebold. She would not have assisted at the births of the Duchess’s two previous children from her first marriage, Prince Carl and Princess Feodora of Leiningen – born 1804 and 1807 respectively. This was because Madame Siebold did not attend the University of Göttingen until 1811 and was only able to actively administer midwifery on the successful passing of her exams on 12 November 1814 at the age of twenty-six, conducted at the Grand Ducal Medicinal Collegium. In 1817 – two years before the Duchess of Kent gave birth – she rose to prominence through her important doctorate, ‘Über die Schwangerschaft außerhalb der Gebärmütter und über Bauchhöhlenschwangerschaft insbesondere‘ – of which two copies survive in the Darmstadt archives. As a consequence of which, she was given the title of Doctor of Midwifery.

It seems that Madame Siebold may have gone to study at Göttingen because it was the place where her stepfather, Damian von Siebold – Darmstadt’s resident doctor – was initially from. Damian von Siebold adopted the little Charlotte and her sister Therese, on his marriage to their widowed mother, Josepha. Significantly, Josepha supported the work of her second husband in his practice, receiving an honorary doctorate in midwifery in 1815. This must have been a critical period for both mother and daughter, the former receiving her distinction a year after her daughter qualified.

It seems possible, therefore, to suppose, that Madame Siebold’s excellent reputation must have spread by word of mouth amongst the vast, shared network of Europe’s ruling houses. Midwifery was an understandable subject of intense royal concern, for on the outcomes of successful deliveries depended the fervent hopes of the great monarchies of Europe down to the most minor of impoverished princelings, so the stakes were enormous. Onto the fragile task of midwifery was loaded the heavy expectation of the successful births of these dynastic children, many of whom were born as the result of political marriages, the childbed designed to follow on from the marriage bed. Much was dependent on the methods of the midwife as earlier, Tudor history has demonstrated, puerperal fever being a sad but all too frequent occurrence because of the lack of proper obstetric hygiene attending the birth.

In some ways then, the fact that Britain had Queen Victoria at all, is a debt to Madame Siebold. The German obstetrician, who delivered her after a relatively uncomplicated labour of just over six hours, at which the Duke of Kent was present and who later wrote to his mother-in-law, the Dowager Duchess of Coburg: ‘It is absolutely impossible for me to do justice to the patience and sweetness with which [the Duchess] behaved’ (Quoted in Hibbert, 12). The Dowager Duchess sighed with evident relief back in Coburg at the success of the birth: ‘I cannot find words to express my delight that everything went so smoothly…’ (Quoted in Ibid).

To Madame Siebold, however, must also be added the equal importance of the successful delivery at another birth. Princess Victoria’s cousin and beloved future husband – a baby boy who was born at the end of August 1819 at the summer residence of Schloss Rosenau near Coburg, who was shortly afterwards christened Franz August Carl Albert Emmanuel, Prince of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and eldest son of the reigning Duchess Louise of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. As the Dowager Duchess of Coburg informed the Duke and Duchess of Kent of this birth, we must assume that she was by now well acquainted with the considerable skill of Madame Siebold; so appropriately, the shared midwife was maybe just another example of how much these things were kept within the (German) family. Prince Albert took Queen Victoria back to Schloss Rosenau to visit his birthplace in 1845, where they also celebrated his birthday.

Madame Siebold went back to Darmstadt at some point after Prince Albert’s birth and spent her time teaching and also raising money for the hospital in Darmstadt, marrying the military doctor August Heidenreich in 1829. She founded an institution to aid the childbearing for the womenfolk of Darmstadt’s poor in 1845, by which time the two royal babies she had delivered, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, had a growing family of their own, their second son Prince Alfred, being born at Windsor Castle in 1844.

There is no real further mention of Charlotte Heidenreich von Siebold in any life of Queen Victoria. That was how it was supposed to be – she was no nanny – the royal midwife just assisting the newborn child into the world and performing a service.

She vanishes – almost. With her remarkable memory for names, however, Queen Victoria does mention a Siebold in her journal for 1867 and describes the connection with the Madame Siebold who assisted at her birth, an extraordinary discovery for me when I found the entry.

A foundation known as the Heidenreich-von Sieboldsche Stiftung zur Unterstützung von armen Wöchnerinnen – for the support of mothers in childbirth – was later amalgamated into the Darmstadt Foundation for Charitable Causes. The University of Göttingen has run a programme named after her since 2006.

So Madame Siebold is far from forgotten. I wonder how many pedestrians walking down the street in Germany named after her know that it is named after the remarkable accoucheuse who delivered a future British Queen and her German Prince Consort. Perhaps instead her very significant medical legacy is remembered instead.

But thanks to the excellent skills of this German woman, history gained two great stars in its royal galaxy, Queen Victoria – and her husband prince.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018

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