‘The great daunger of childbyrth’

While not an absolute rarity, portraits of pregnant women were not common in the Renaissance period. Surprisingly, there are  a number of late Elizabethan and early Jacobean portraits of women at an advanced stage of pregnancy, sometimes surrounded by their children, sometimes alone. Many of these were painted by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. When I first noticed these paintings, I assumed that they were the result of coincidence, that the women just happened to be pregnant at the time the portraitist arrived to paint them. It would seem, however, that this may not be the case but rather these portraits were intended to capture the image of a woman at a time before she entered upon ‘the great paine and peril of childe birthe ‘(1). As such, they can be seen in some ways as similar to the photographs of Great War soldiers taken before embarking for overseas; for many this was the first photograph they had ever had taken. The photographs were a memento for those left behind, especially if the soldier did not return.

With the pregnancy portraits, some of the sitters did not survive childbirth and the portraits were completed posthumously. The dangers of childbirth are something that, for the most part, we in the technologically advanced West give little thought to. The maternal death rate in a country like Australia is 7 deaths per 100,000 compared to the estimate for Early Modern England of  2,500 deaths in 100,000 (2). For women in the past  (and in many parts of the world today) childbirth was an ordeal as fraught with danger as any battlefield. All would have known women who had not survived childbirth, or having survived and given birth had died soon after of childbed fever. The women in the portraits are all looking towards an unknown future, perhaps not daring to imagine beyond the birth itself. Realizing this makes these portraits particularly moving, the eyes of the women hold something of trepidation they must have felt. For those who survived, the words of thanksgiving found in the Churching ceremony in the 1559 Book of Common Prayer would have been heartfelt.

FORASMUCHE as it hath pleased almyghtye God of hys goodnes to geve you safe delyveraunce, and hath preserved you in the great daunger of childbyrth: ye shal therfore geve heartye thankes unto God and praye.



Anne, Lady Pope with her children, by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, 1596. Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Anne (Hopton), Lady Pope (1561-1625), Wife of Henry, 3rd Baron Wentworth and later of Sir William Pope of Wroxton, later 1st Earl of Downe, with her three children, Thomas, Henry and Jane, from her first marriage to Henry, 3rd Baron of Wentworth.


Portrait of an unknown lady dated 1595, traditionally called Elizabeth Throckmorton, circle of Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

(c) Valence House Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Portrait of Anne Fanshawe (1607–1628), by Marcus Gheeraerts the younger, c,1628. The daughter of Sir Giles Allington and Lady Dorothy Cecil, married Thomas, 1st Viscount Fanshawe in 1627,  died in childbirth the next year. This portrait is believed to have been completed after Anne’s death.

(1) The Thankesgevinge of Women After Childe Byrthe, Communeley called the Churchynge of Women  from the Book of Common Prayer 1559
(2) Maternal Deaths in Australia 2008-2012. Estimated are similar for other developed countries.
Early Modern estimates  from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7047937
This article on the history of Midwifery is also well worth reading http://www.faqs.org/childhood/Me-Pa/Obstetrics-and-Midwifery.html

8 thoughts on “‘The great daunger of childbyrth’

  1. What a fabulous post! I had no idea portraits of pregnancy existed, least of all in the Tudor period. I’m supposedly a trained art teacher. 🙄😬. This is fascinating and the portraits, so beautiful. I think we so often take for granted the benefits of our country of birth and wonderful healthcare in Australia. I think most in the western world do.

    Liked by 1 person

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