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Royal Wet-nurses

With the birth of a new royal baby, I would like to explore the history of royal wet-nurses. Why were they once a perceived necessity?

In historical terms, a wet-nurse would have been engaged for a royal baby and taken on as part of an official appointment. The wet-nurse might expect a pension or some kind of financial reward, and in some cases, her entire family could benefit. These appointments well illustrate the strict rituals in place at the very heart of a royal marriage’s most intimate aspects, the birth of children of dynastic marriages being a case in point. Children as heirs, spares and the means of forging later political marriages, meant that it was no surprise that from birth onwards the process of breastfeeding and weaning was subject to ceremony, like everything else.

A wet nurse breastfeeding the Duc de Bourgogne, grandson of Louis XIV, Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images/ Public domain, via CC BY 4.0

A royal mother could oversee the education of her offspring but would not have expected to rear them personally or become involved in any aspect of practical care; for this, there were nurses, maids and servants. The English royal palace at Eltham was regarded as something as an idyllic nursery palace because it was there that the future Henry VIII and his sisters spent many happy hours of their childhood. Queen Elizabeth of York, their mother, visited them there, and whilst this was often, they remained what they were – visits – typical of the very separate set-up for royal children, underlining the absence of regular, daily contact with their parents. In this, royal protocol was respected.

The fact that these babies were given over to wet-nurses further underlines just how much royal ceremony was at the heart of everything; royal childbirth – like sex – was, of course, an affair of state – and the royal nursery into a court in miniature. Margaret Beaufort, who gave birth to the future Henry VII at the age of just thirteen, was charged with perfecting the regulation of the Royal Household as earlier set out in the ordinances of Edward IV, and these also included the rules for the royal nurseries.

Royal women were not expected to breastfeed their own babies, as this was not in accordance with their high status. In this, the matriarchal Queen in her role of fertile mother – a powerful tool of imagery in royal propaganda portraits, ensuring the longevity of the dynasty – does not extend to the performance of its attendant physical functions, nor was it expected to. A Queen’s body was used for reasons of state in the process of childbirth, whilst the natural process of motherhood – feeding – was given over to others beneath her own exalted status. In practice, this made the Queen a figure of state, superior to her own natural bodily processes. All this would have been understood as an established ritual and have been viewed as entirely normal. Historically at least, the body of a queen was governed by ceremony, both in life and later, in death.

In the Tudor period, royal and aristocratic women did not breastfeed. Queens did not do so because this office was carried out by others expressly employed for this purpose. The Queen’s attention could thus be re-directed back to her official duties, chief of which was resuming marital sex with her husband. Before this, she had to be put through her customary process of ‘churching’, whereby her body was believed to be purified after the ordeal of childbirth. Breastfeeding was not regarded as a maternal duty, because a queen’s wifely duty was viewed to be already accomplished in the birth of the child, fulfilling royal expectations. Once delivered, the child was simply passed on to a wet-nurse as a matter of course. Freed of the practical care of her offspring, the royal mother – as a tool of dynasticism – could be ready to conceive again as soon as possible and this she would do quickly, especially if the contraceptive of breastfeeding was not open to her.

The wide belief that the practice of breastfeeding also acted as a contraceptive, in fact, proved true if it was maintained for up to two years (Ibid, 201; Lucy Worsley, Courtiers, 233). Wet-nurses meant that the contraceptive properties of breastfeeding were not open to a royal mother, thereby allowing her periods to return and with them, the possibility of more pregnancies, maximising the chance of prospective unborn heirs.

Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria with their eldest children: Charles, Prince of Wales (Charles II) next to his father and Mary, the Princess Royal, in the arms of her mother, by Anthony van Dyck (Anthony van Dyck [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons])

Inevitably, all this resulted in many royal children becoming more emotionally attached to their nurses (and later, English nannies) whom they saw regularly and had actual physical contact with. Royal children could feature as successful iconography in Royal Family showpiece groups such as those by Van Dyck, but it was unthinkable that the actual rudiments of caring for a royal baby would be carried out by anyone other than someone who had been appointed to the task in question. This reinforced the natural formality in the relationships between parents and children, aside from the matter of rank, as they would not have been expected to be involved with the tasks of caring for their offspring practically.

Importantly, this was at a time when a King and Queen would have seen little of their children in a domestic sense as most royal children had their own separate households and apartments, which distanced them literally – and emotionally – from their parents. Princess Mary – only surviving daughter of Henry VIII and Queen Catherine of Aragon – was not given her own separate household at birth, living at court for four years, with servants of her own, which included four rockers appointed to rock her cradle (Alison Weir, Henry VIII: King & Court, 202).

Queen Anne Boleyn did not breastfeed the future Elizabeth I, although she appears to have wanted to do so (Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, 260). The order for Princess Elizabeth to be weaned (by a wet-nurse) at the age of thirteen months was granted by Henry VIII and came ‘with the assent of the Queen’s grace’ (cit., Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, 253). In the future Elizabeth I’s case, this clearly emphasises the proper regard for ceremonial ritual concerning a child that the King wished to be accorded full royal status, even if his baby daughter were not the long-expected prince. When that much-awaited prince did arrive with the birth of Prince Edward in 1537, Queen Jane Seymour assigned her son – the King’s child – to his own apartments and attendant team of wet-nurses, nursemaids and servants (Weir, Six Wives, 368).

In 1566, the future James VI of Scotland and I of England – following his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots’ difficult labour at Edinburgh Castle – was given over to a wet-nurse, Lady Reres, on whose breast, Killigrew, the English ambassador, first saw him (Antonia Fraser, Mary, Queen of Scots, 331).

A generation earlier, Henry VII had been understandably concerned over the wet-nurse of his precious son, Arthur, Prince of Wales, whom he named ‘the jewel of his household’. Weaning would have taken place when he was about two years old, whereupon Henry VII ordered that ‘it must be seen that the nurse’s meat and drink be essayed [for poison] during the time that she giveth suck to the child’, further commanding that ‘a physician do stand over her at every meal, which see what meat or drink she giveth the child’. (cit., Alison Weir, Elizabeth of York, 236). Henry VII and Elizabeth of York’s daughter, Princess Margaret, was breastfed in 1491; after which her wet-nurse, Alice Davy, was let go (Ibid, 287).

The future King Charles II received the expected wet-nurse as well as dry-nurse, a nurse who was duly engaged to meet the other needs of the new baby. His foster-sister, Elizabeth Elliott later recalled, writing during the Restoration, of her joy at having been able ‘to suck the same breast with so great a monarch’ (cit., Antonia Fraser, King Charles II, 16). She clearly wanted recognition of that exalted honour, because she also petitioned for some kind of fiscal acknowledgement of it (Ibid, 16).

he future ‘God-given’ Louis XIV and his nurse, Longuet de La Giraudière, a painting at the Palace of Versailles (Palace of Versailles [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons])

In the seventeenth century, breastfeeding was preached as something of a Puritanical ideal, although evidence suggests that practice was otherwise (Antonia Fraser, The Weaker Vessel, 95). The concept was already in place that marital sex was ill-advised whilst breastfeeding, but one Anne Newdigate did breastfeed her first child and went on to do so for a further four babies, for which reason she was briefly considered as a candidate wet-nurse to the children of James I and his queen, Anne of Denmark, among which was the future Charles I (Ibid, 95). The noblewoman Elizabeth Knyvet, wife of the third Earl of Lincoln, appealed to mothers to breastfeed themselves, in a treatise called The Countess of Lincoln’s Nursery, published in 1622 (Ibid, 96).

Breastfeeding in the eighteenth century was thought to be a practice that destroyed the shape of the bosom, rendered so visible in the costume of the period (whatever the corsetry) and was disliked by the French King Louis XV precisely for that reason (Antonia Fraser, Marie Antoinette: The Journey, 4). A fitting pet-hate for the prurient monarch who famously later asked the Austrian ambassador, of the state of his granddaughter-in-law, the future Dauphine Marie Antoinette’s bosom: ‘That’s the first thing I look at’ (cit., Ibid, 76). Britain’s Queen Caroline, consort to King George II, had a spectacular bosom, but would never have considered the need to breastfeed. Rousseau preached his own philosophical praise for natural motherhood (Ibid, 201) in this same century, although admittedly, he was not exactly speaking to royal ears.

The future Marie Antoinette was weaned by Constance Weber, the wife of a magistrate, at her birth in 1755. Constance was still nursing her own three-month-old son, Joseph when she was given the appointment, and this was a position if the wet-nurse performed successfully, she could then expect to receive a generous pension and security for her family, in the way that Elizabeth Elliott petitioned. In Constance’s case, this was certainly true, as she received a pension as well as her other children. Empress Maria Theresia even personally visited the Weber family to give presents to them (Ibid, 5). When Marie Antoinette’s turn came, with the birth of the first Dauphin, Louis-Joseph, the wet-nurse was the formidable ‘Madame Poitrine’, who sang to the baby prince the little rhyme ‘Malbrouck s’en va-t-en guerre’, about the great English general, John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough (Ibid, 230).

Marie Antoinette had breastfed her first daughter Marie Therese in the early period after her birth, hence the words ‘You shall be mine’ (Ibid, 201). In royal France at least, the perception was that a Dauphin would have been handed over to a wet-nurse, as a ‘child of France’, as was indeed the case on the birth of the first Dauphin, Louis-Joseph. Marie Antoinette probably also had a secondary wet-nurse on hand for Marie Therese but must have continued the practice because four months after the birth, she wrote to her mother, Empress Maria Theresia, that she was still lactating (Ibid, 202).

When Marie Antoinette’s British contemporary, Queen Charlotte, consort of George III, engaged a wet-nurse for her first daughter, the Princess Royal, she was merely following established royal protocol. The Princess Royal had been handed over to a wet-nurse and mother-of-two, a Mrs Muttlebury, who had been assessed beforehand by a small circle of intimates, including the royal governess Lady Charlotte Finch, the royal obstetrician, Dr Hunter and the King’s own Serjeant-Surgeon, Mr Caesar Hawkins. This assessment involved bringing her own child she was then breastfeeding and her eldest child, who had received this same treatment at birth. Mrs Muttlebury was hired for six months and engaged at a salary of 200 pounds, with a further 100 pounds for life afterwards (Flora Fraser, Princesses, 7). A limner’s or painter’s wife’s milk was also available, in case of Mrs Muttlebury’s milk not be immediately available, when the royal baby arrived (Ibid, 7).

Visit to the Nursery’ by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, 1775, (Jean-Honoré Fragonard [Public domain])

This was clearly, a closed world of honour. In Mrs Muttlebury’s lonely case, she was not allowed visitors whilst she suckled the royal baby, which she duly did on the attic floor of the Queen’s House, later to become Buckingham Palace (Ibid, 7). She had to supply her own maid and in the words of the royal governess’s daughter, Sophia: ‘she had not the least notion of anything she was to do’ (cit., Ibid, 7). A dry-nurse for the Princess Royal was engaged, named Mrs Chapman (Fraser, 9).

Queen Victoria had decidedly strong views on the subject of breastfeeding, although she herself had been breastfed by her mother, the Duchess of Kent in 1819, a circumstance apparently approved of by the Duke and Duchess of Kent, although Princess Victoria grew up to be far closer (for many years) to her beloved German governess, the Baroness Lehzen. In a winning illustration of how Queen Victoria could herself be highly conservative and yet break entirely with tradition, she was the first member of the Royal Family to be vaccinated – sometime after birth – (Elizabeth Longford, Queen Victoria, pp. 19-20) and controversially took to using chloroform at the birth of her youngest son, Prince Leopold in 1853. She clearly had her own fully-formed ideas as to matters medical and gynaecological, despite the fact that she had been delivered by the celebrated German female obstetrician, Madame Siebold.

Victoria abhorred the practice of breastfeeding (Matthew Dennison, The Last Princess, 10), famously disliked pregnancy but was herself not disinterested in babies, telling her eldest daughter, the Crown Princess of Prussia: ‘You are very wrong in thinking that I am not fond of children… I admire pretty ones immensely’ (cit., Ibid, 11). She did not care for what she described as ‘that terrible frog-like action’ and certainly did not breastfeed her own children. When her first child, a daughter, Victoria, the Princess Royal, was born on 21 November 1840, a wet-nurse was engaged for the baby princess, ‘a Mrs Ratsey, a fine young woman, wife of a sail maker at Cowes, Isle of Wight’ (cit., A. N. Wilson, Victoria, 107).

A caricature in the Royal Collection, Preparing for an Interesting Event, Choosing the Wet Nurse, ca. 1850 shows Queen Victoria selecting a wet-nurse from a group of buxom young women, with Prince Albert and the Duke of Wellington looking on, approvingly.

The attitude towards breastfeeding, however, was changing, symptomatic of the age over which she presided; as in the nineteenth century, the practice was gradually being adopted by upper-class women. The Queen was particularly shocked when this change became apparent in her own family and was embraced by several of her daughters and granddaughters.

A drunken wet-nurse, about to give the Prince of Wales a drop of alcohol as Queen Victoria and Prince Albert burst in horrified, in a lithograph (Wellcome Images/[CC BY 4.0 (])

After first experimenting with wet-nurses, the Queen’s two eldest daughters, the Princess Royal and Princess Alice, who both married into German royal houses – Prussia and Hesse respectively – took to breastfeeding themselves, including occasionally helping each other out if they were both lactating at the same time, according to the War Diary of the Princess Royal’s husband, the Crown Prince of Prussia and later Emperor Frederick III (Duff, 15). Queen Victoria roundly declared with disgust that they were making ‘cows of themselves’ (cit., Ibid, 15) and a black Angus heifer at Balmoral was duly christened ‘Princess Alice’, showing that the Queen considered her daughter to be like a cow, giving milk (Ibid, 15). Characteristically, this was in line with her having considered herself far more like a cow or a dog when she had been heavily pregnant (Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria: A Personal History, 149).

In this context, we can surely say that Queen Victoria’s love of milk was best suited to the Minton-tiled dairy at Frogmore or as an addition to her tea. She had drunk milk from earliest childhood, remembering much later – in her private memoir – that she took it with bread in a silver basin; she sipped it in the last days before her death.

The Queen’s nineteenth-century contemporary, the legendarily beautiful Elizabeth, Empress of Austria, was similarly not permitted to breastfeed her only son, Austria’s Crown Prince Rudolf, born in 1858. That this was symptomatic of the strict Spanish court ceremonial in place at Vienna should not surprise, because it meant that it began literally, at birth. The Crown Prince was fed by a Moravian wet-nurse named ‘Marianka’, who was an ‘exceedingly beautiful’ peasant woman. As a result, the young Empress suffered from milk retention, because she was not allowed to nurse the baby prince (Brigitte Hamann, The Reluctant Empress, 82).

Perhaps the Queen’s attitude towards children was due to the fact that she had been an ‘only’ child, with the exception of her beloved half-sister, Princess Feodora, at Kensington. Her father, the Duke of Kent had, of course, died in 1820, before she was even one year old. As Queen, she wrote to Princess Augusta of Prussia: ‘I have grown up all alone, accustomed to the society of adult (& never with younger) people’. (cit., David Duff, Hessian Tapestry, 15). Given the strong opinions the Queen held on the subject, one slightly feels that her intense dislike of the practice was down to personal distaste, as opposed to adhering to prevailing social mores.

In 1897, Queen Victoria wrote disapprovingly to one of her favourite grandchildren, Victoria, Princess Louis of Battenberg on the subject of her younger sister, Alix, now Tsarina of Russia, already the mother of two girls, Grand Duchesses Olga and Tatiana: ‘I hear Alicky is grown very large. Does she still go on nursing. I think it a great mistake in her position’ (cit., ed. Richard Hough, Advice to a Grand-daughter, 139). This clearly meant that the Grand Duchess Tatiana, the imperial couple’s second daughter, born 29 May 1897, was being suckled when Queen Victoria wrote her letter in November.

The Tsarina had breastfed her first daughter, Grand Duchess Olga in 1895, as Tsar Nicholas II wrote to his brother, Grand Duke George: ‘Alix is herself feeding our dear little daughter, and has turned herself into a veritable “goat”. Feeding was quite difficult for the first few days, but now happily the baby has got used to it…’ (cit., Andrei Maylunas and Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion, 132). The Tsar confirmed this in his diary, the day before: ‘I managed to have tea with Alix, who was just feeding the little one at that time’ (cit., Ibid, 132). Alix’s elder sister ‘Ella’, Grand Duchess Elisabeth Feodorovna, wrote to Queen Victoria in 1895: ‘Alix is looking well and her nursing the Baby does her the greatest good possible…’ (cit., Ibid, 131). The Tsar wrote to Queen Victoria: ‘She finds such a pleasure in nursing our sweet baby herself. For my part I consider it the most natural thing a mother can do and I think the example an excellent one!’ (cit., Ibid, 131). Q

Queen Victoria’s response to this is not recorded, at least amongst published letters. There had been some initial problems because a wet-nurse had been called in case, following the birth, as the Tsar’s sister, Grand Duchess Xenia recorded in her diary: ‘Alix started feeding herself. During dinner, the wet-nurse’s son started to take her breast, and we all took turns to go in and watch the spectacle! The wet-nurse stood next to her, looking very satisfied!’ (cit., Ibid, 130). The Tsar wrote in his diary, three days after Olga’s birth: ‘Thank God all is well; but the baby does not want to take her breast, so we had to call the wet-nurse again’ (cit., Ibid, 130).

So for the Queen clearly, the old-held attitude towards breastfeeding and social status, still prevailed, even at the end of her own long reign. Breastfeeding, royalty and wet-nurses reflect changing attitudes in changing ages.

In the Picture Gallery at Buckingham Palace is a charming sculpture of one Mrs Jordan with a baby in her lap and an infant by her side, by Sir Francis Chantrey. This is Dora Jordan (Dorothea Bland), the long-term mistress of the Duke of Clarence, Queen Victoria’s uncle, later William IV, who had at least ten children by Dora, all known as the Fitzclarences. It was commissioned by William IV in 1831 and completed in 1834. It passed to the 1st Earl of Munster; Lord Munster bequeathed the statue to Queen Elizabeth II in 1975. With her classical costume revealing a bare shoulder and partial breast, Mrs Jordan looks as if about to feed the baby in her arms.

©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.