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New surprising discoveries on Queen Victoria and the midwife who delivered her

I first encountered Marian Theodore Charlotte Heidenreich von Siebold back in 2018 when I was researching the birth of the future Queen Victoria, ahead of this year’s bicentenary. Madame Siebold was the skilled German obstetrician who by an extraordinary circumstance, assisted at the births in 1819 of both Princess Victoria and that of her future husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, a mere three months later. In the Hessian State Archives in Darmstadt, I discovered a remarkable gift that was given to Madame Siebold by a grateful Duchess of Kent for the successful delivery of her child. The present was uniquely touching in that it combined the hair of both the Duchess and the baby Princess Victoria in the form of a gold brooch set with blue and white lilies. Madame Siebold is still commemorated today in Darmstadt; the Heidenreichstrasse is named after her and the Charlotte Heidenreich von Siebold prize is awarded every two years in Darmstadt by the Entega Foundation. 

It is perhaps no surprise that the services of Madame Siebold were called upon by both the Duchess of Kent and the Duchess of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld because she enjoyed an excellent reputation at Europe’s royal courts for her considerable obstetric knowledge. For it remains an important fact that the two royal children were delivered by the same woman, thereby ‘pairing’ them further in their Coburg linkage.

Modern opinion regards Siebold as Germany’s first gynaecologist. She took her examinations in midwifery at the Grand Ducal Medicinal Collegium in Darmstadt in 1814 and was able to practise from that time onwards. Her doctorate was undertaken in Giessen, entitled Ueber die Schwangerschaft außerhalb der Gebärmutter und über Bauchhöhlenschwangerschaft insbesondere [On pregnancy outside of the uterus and on abdominal pregnancy in particular]. This doctorate enabled her to achieve the distinction of obstetrician. The best-known image of Siebold – an engraving by the artist Franz Hubert Müller – can also be found as a print in the collections of the image archive of the University Library and Archive of Giessen. The University of Medicine in Göttingen – where Siebold also studied – holds its own Heidenreich von Siebold Program in support of female scientists since 2006. So, Siebold is far from forgotten in medical and historical terms. But how is she royally remembered?

New research has enabled me to make further discoveries about the surprising connections between Madame Siebold and Queen Victoria’s family, which have hitherto received little attention. In 1845, Siebold founded a centre for obstetrics, designed to meet the needs of the young mothers that numbered amongst Darmstadt’s poor. Queen Victoria’s second daughter, Princess Alice married Prince Ludwig (‘Louis’) of Hesse in 1862 and went to live in Darmstadt, where already in the early years, she took an active interest in charitable works and nursing – something to which her correspondence with Florence Nightingale no less, readily testifies.

It was to be expected that Princess Alice should take on the patronage of numerous institutions and organisations in her new home in Hesse but one of these was of more long-standing significance. In 1864, Alice became the ‘Protectress’ of the Heidenreich Stiftung [Foundation] for women in childbed, founded after Siebold’s death in 1859 in Darmstadt. This means that Alice became patroness of a relatively new institution, which later became known as the Darmstadt Foundation for Charitable Works, or Darmstädter Stiftung für Wohltätigkeitszwecke. I even discovered that Queen Victoria – surely knowing the Siebold link – donated to this charity, although Alice does not mention the connection with her mother’s birth. She simply wrote to the Queen from Darmstadt on 5 March 1864: ‘I am the patroness of the ‘Heidenreich Stiftung’, to which you also gave a handsome present in the beginning…’ (Alice: Biographical Sketch and Letters, 68). What the present was, we do not know. 

Researching in Queen Victoria’s journals, I made a discovery. I had found earlier in the Queen’s journals a reference to a Mr Siebold whom the Queen met at Windsor in December 1867. He was an interpreter but as Queen Victoria noted – as a true granddaughter of George III, with his exceptional gift for remembering names – the great-nephew of Madame Siebold, whom she duly recalled as having assisted at her own birth.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, I also discovered astonishingly, did, in fact, meet Madame Siebold. The meeting took place on a Sunday in August 1845 at Frankfurt, whilst the Queen was on her own emotional expedition to Coburg – the place of Prince Albert’s birth. By a curious coincidence, the meeting took place on the Duchess of Kent’s own birthday. The Queen’s entry also expresses the circumstance as noteworthy, that this same woman delivered both herself and Prince Albert. The meeting seems to have been a short one, but it is indeed remarkable that it took place at all. A reason this meeting has perhaps received no attention is the fact that Queen Victoria named her not by her maiden name of Siebold but correctly, by her married name of Heidenreich. The Queen explains in her journal that Siebold attended both her mother the Duchess of Kent and Prince Albert’s mother, Duchess Louise whilst emphasising that Siebold had not seen either herself or Prince Albert since the births. 

Queen Victoria’s journal entry in which she describes this meeting exists in both Princess Beatrice’s copies and in the Queen’s original draft. The draft is more interesting because we have it in the Queen’s own handwriting, written down later that evening at Mainz, where she and Prince Albert were staying from 16-17 August en route, at the Hotel de l’Europe. She would describe the Hotel de l’Europe as ‘a very nice hotel’ but ‘the noise was very great in the streets‘ (cit., HRH The Duchess of York and Benita Stoney, Travels with Queen Victoria, 78). Perhaps the fact that the meeting with Siebold took place on Sunday was significant because the royal couple had allowed themselves a day of rest (Ibid, 78). It was a day it seems, for old connections, because after this Queen Victoria met Miss von Uttenhofen, who had been attached to one of her aunts for twenty years, and it would appear, had also been attached to her grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Coburg. Princess Beatrice’s copies miss the strength of Queen Victoria’s personality on paper where, in the original, she underlines the references to both Duchesses and the births, as well as curiously, the fact that Siebold is a doctor in her own right.

This last point is an important one as Queen Victoria by irony, strongly disliked the idea of female doctors even though she was delivered by one. She seems, however, to have made something of an exception on the point of female obstetrics within her prejudice (Elizabeth Longford, Queen Victoria, 22). The conflict that is Queen Victoria was able to reconcile in the same person, the formidable regal female figurehead of both nation and Empire who remained personally hostile to women’s rights. Therein lies the fascinating divide in the Queen’s personality, with her literally embodying the shifting attitudes of the era across which she reigned. In keeping with this, she expressed her strong views on women in the ‘Medical Line’. In 1870, she wrote to Gladstone – a Prime Minister whose views she seldom shared – of ‘what an awful idea this is – of allowing young girls & young men to enter the dissecting room together…’ (cit., Longford, 431). 

This is something illustrated in a letter written from Balmoral to one of her favourite grandchildren, Victoria, Princess Louis of Battenberg, on the matter of doctors. In 1894, Victoria’s sister-in-law, the young Grand Duchess of Hesse, Victoria Melita (‘Ducky’), was pregnant with her first child and the Queen was discussing the doctors and nurses for the birth in Darmstadt. Queen Victoria held surprisingly strong views on the subject even though, as we know, she was delivered by a skilled female obstetrician: ‘Whilst German Oculists & even Surgeons are cleverer than ours, – there is not a doubt that in the particular line of childbirth & women’s illnesses the English are the best in the World, more skilful & much more delicate…’ (ed. Richard Hough, Advice to a Granddaughter, 126). 

Queen Victoria had a naturally protective interest in this matter, not least because of the precarious nature of childbirth and the danger to the mother that it engendered. A chief example of this was the excruciating delivery in 1859 of Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter Victoria, Princess Royal and Crown Princess of Prussia, with the birth of her eldest son, the future Kaiser Wilhelm II.

It will be remembered that it was the shock death in 1817 of Princess Charlotte – only legitimate daughter of the Prince Regent – after having given birth to a dead child, which ultimately paved the way for her own place in the line of succession when all other superior claims were excluded. Among Siebold’s most important legacies must surely number her successful delivery of two royal children who would marry in 1840 and ensure the survival of the British monarchy to the present day.

For all history’s what-ifs, without the skill of Siebold, British history might never have had its Albert or its Victoria, and Britain would never have had the entire Victorian era, at least, in the way that we know it. 

Siebold’s name is far from forgotten in Germany. Through Victoria and Albert – whom she helped to deliver – she surely has her due British appraisal. 

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.