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Queen Elizabeth’s Royal births: transforming the monarchy

By Dr Jenny Hall, Midwifery editor, Maternity and Midwifery Forum and Matflix

This week the UK is celebrating 70 years of Queen Elizabeth II on the throne. In this article Dr Jenny Hall, Editor, MATFLIX briefly examines the births of the royal children in the context of the time, and challenges others to take up researching history.


In this week in Britain Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, reaches an incredible milestone of 70 years on throne, a platinum jubilee. At the age of 96 she has lived and reigned the longest as a British monarch as well as the longest reigning monarch globally.  As such she has lived through a lot of change within our world. Within that she has also seen change across our health service and has made personal choices for her care. In this short article I am going to touch on some of information that is in the public domain about the births of her four children from 1948 to 1964.

Prince Charles, the current heir to the throne, was born in November 1948, a year after his parents were married. To place this in context, at the time the UK was in post- second world war austerity. Rationing of food was still in place and rebuilding of Europe was slowly taking place. Maternity services at that time were just moved into the NHS which commenced on July 5th in that year.  Maternity care no longer needed to be paid for and county health committees became responsible for domiciliary (community-based) midwives (Allison 2021). The Queen at that time was still Princess Elizabeth, and heir to the throne. Prior to his birth it had been Royal protocol since time of King James II in 1688 for a senior politician to be present at the birth to ensure the legitimacy of the baby, and that it had not been swapped for another! King George VI, Queen Elizabeth’s father, insisted this protocol should be stopped for his grandchildren.

It is stated in various internet sources that the Queen was in labour for around 30 hours, using the pain relief “Twilight sleep” (actually sedation with scopolamine and morphine). “Twilight sleep” was controversial as women would be sedated throughout labour and then be delivered by forceps. Often they would wake up and not even be aware they had given birth. In the UK it would have been the wealthy who would have paid for this form of extreme pain relief, or within certain hospitals, though in the 1930s onwards it was more common in the US (Cassidy 2006). The highest proportion at that time gave birth at home. It is indicated the Queen used this for the first three births, and then chose differently for Prince Edward.

Eventually Charles was born by a Caesarean section in a music room in Buckingham Palace which had been converted into a theatre. She was attended by Obstetricians Sir William Gilliatt and Sir John Peel, and also midwife Helen Rowe, who was thought to be present for all the births. Caesarean sections were also less common in the general public at that time; in the 1950s only around 3% were caesarean section. It would have been of some concern that the Queen required one. It is known Prince Philip was not present for this birth, playing squash with his private secretary until he received the news. It was usual for partners to not be present during labour and birth; it was not until 1960s that this became more accepted.

The public in London would have only found out about the birth via a notice placed on the gates of Buckingham Palace and a gun salute in Hyde Park. Others would have heard via radio and newspapers, or through news bulletins at the cinema. In our internet-based, instant world this seems very strange now!

There is less information available about Princess Anne’s birth, the second born in 1950. As second in line, perhaps this was less of interest, though it is clear many were waiting outside Clarence House, where they were staying at the time with the Palace being renovated after the war. The information may have been less forthcoming as between 1949- 1951 as  Prince Philip was stationed in the navy in Malta and the Queen (princess at the time) spent a lot of time there as well. For the birth the Queen was thought to have been given “Twilight sleep” drugs as previously, but how the princess came into the world is not clear. She weighed 6lb, where Charles was 8lb in weight. Followers of the TV series “Call the Midwife” will be more aware of the practice of midwifery outside the Royal world, as it starts in 1957 and moves through into the changes of the 1960s. Home birth with midwives was still the norm, though this was all about to change.

It was another 10 years before the arrival of Prince Andrew in 1960. By this time the princess had become Queen in 1952 following the death of her father, King George V1. The birth of the prince marked the first birth to a sitting monarch in 103 years. The baby was 7lb 3oz and born in the Belgian suite in Buckingham Palace. Once more it was believed the Queen used the “twilight sleep” drugs. Sir John Peel had become the lead Obstetrician, with John Brudenell assisting. The presence of the midwife Helen Rowe is also recorded in this news reel.

It is known the Queen was more involved with the care of Prince Andrew, and subsequently Prince Edward, as they were growing up. As Queen she was breaking through protocols and changing centuries old practices. No more so than in the birth of her final child Prince Edward in 1964. It is reported that the Queen made choices about this birth she had not been able to for previous ones. Having read women’s magazines of the day about fathers being present, she was keen for Prince Philip to be there, and he held her hand as the baby was born. It is not believed she used the “twilight sleep” method and instead had a physiological birth. The prince was 5lb 7oz in weight.

The midwife Helen Rowe was known to be present as letters written to her by the Queen were discovered after her death. In effect the Queen had a ‘home birth’, though Sir John Peel was also present.

There is an irony in this as, in 1970, he was lead author of the report “Domiciliary midwifery and maternity bed needs”, which recommended 100% of births should be in a hospital. I wonder if his anxiety over this last royal birth influenced his thinking? The story of this birth is presented in Season 2 episode 10 of the TV series “The Crown”. It is further portrayed imaginatively by the photographer artist, Natalie Lennard, in her series, “Birth Undisturbed”. Called “Royal Blood” it presents the rawness of birth within the confines of a royal room. With this birth the Queen challenged the increasing medicalised approach at the time.

There have been considerable changes that have taken place in maternity services since the births of the Queen’s children. The accessibility of research and information is only one thing! The Queen, in all her experiences as a woman and mother in the role, has paved the way for royal births to be different and opened the door for many of her subjects to challenge the status quo at the time. The importance of looking back in history to see how we have got to where we are should not be overlooked and I challenge others to investigate history of our profession over the past 70 years.

Congratulations to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth.








Dr Jenny Hall

Midwifery editor, Maternity and Midwifery Forum and Matflix

All photo are from Dr Jenny Hall’s personal collection.