On October 24, 1537, Jane Seymour died of childbed fever. This sickness, properly known as puerperal fever, was often caused by unsanitary conditions during the delivery of a child. The fever was a fact of life until the advent of modern medicine, and was just one of many complications that could go wrong with the birth of a child. Today, Jane’s death should serve as a reminder of the perils women faced during pregnancy, and of the need to express thanks for those who made it through the myriad of troubles that could occur during childbirth. For such women, the month following a birth was a joyous time of thanksgiving, and a time to be removed of “uncleanliness.” What became known as “the churching of women” was an ancient practice within England (and indeed, one that existed throughout early modern Europe) that dated well before pre-Reformation times. The process was based upon Leviticus 12: 2-8,
2Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, If a woman have conceived seed, and born a man child: then she shall be unclean seven days; according to the days of the separation for her infirmity shall she be unclean.
3And in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.
4And she shall then continue in the blood of her purifying three and thirty days; she shall touch no hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying be fulfilled.
5But if she bear a maid child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her separation: and she shall continue in the blood of her purifying threescore and six days.
6And when the days of her purifying are fulfilled, for a son, or for a daughter, she shall bring a lamb of the first year for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon, or a turtledove, for a sin offering, unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, unto the priest:
7Who shall offer it before the LORD, and make an atonement for her; and she shall be cleansed from the issue of her blood. This is the law for her that hath born a male or a female.
8And if she be not able to bring a lamb, then she shall bring two turtles, or two young pigeons; the one for the burnt offering, and the other for a sin offering: and the priest shall make an atonement for her, and she shall be clean. (KJV)
and Luke 2: 22-40
22And when the days of [Mary’s] purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord;23(As it is written in the law of the LORD, Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord;)24And to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.25And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him.26And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.27And he came by the Spirit into the temple: and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him after the custom of the law,
28Then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said,
29Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:
30For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
31Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
32A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.
33And Joseph and his mother marvelled at those things which were spoken of him.
34And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against;
35(Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.
36And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser: she was of a great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity;
37And she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day.
38And she coming in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem.
39And when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city Nazareth.
40And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon him. (KJV)
These passages formed the basis of women ceremonially being removed of impurity and of women giving thanks for their safe delivery. Although the Book of Common Prayer did not exist while Jane was Queen, it did come into being during her son Edward’s time as King. The following is the text for the churching of women from the 1549 version of The Book of Common Prayer.
The Order of the Purificacion of weomen.
The woman shall come into the churche, and there shal kneele downe in some conveniente place, nygh unto the quier doore: and the priest standyng by her, shall saye these woordes or suche lyke, as the case shall require.
For asmuche as it hath pleased almightie god of hys goodnes to geve you safe deliveraunce: and your childe baptisme, and hath preserved you in the greate daunger of childebirth: ye shal therefore geve hartie thankes unto god, and pray.
Then shall the prieste say this psalme.
I have lifted up mine iyes unto the hilles, from whence cummeth my helpe?
My help cummeth even from the lord, which hath made heaven and earth.
He will not suffer thy foote to be moved, and he that kepeth thee wil not slepe.
Beholde he that kepeth Israel, shal neither slumber nor slepe.
The lorde himselfe is thy keper, the lorde is thy defence upon thy right hande.
So thatthe sonne shall not burne thee by daye,neyther the moone by nyght.
The lord shal preserve thee from al evil, yea it is een he that shal kepe thy soule.
The lord shal preserve thy going out, and thy cumming in, fromthis tyme furth for evermore.
Glorye to the father. & c.
As it was in the beginning. & c.
Lord have mercie upon us.
Christ have mercie upon us.
Lord have mercie upon us.
Our father whiche art in heaven. &c.
And leade us not into temptacion.
Answere. But deliver us from evil. Amen
Priest. O lord save this woman thy servaunt.
Aunswere. Whiche putteth her trust in thee.
Priest. Bee thou to her a strong tower.
Aunswere. From the face of her enemie.
Priest. O lord heare our prayer.
Aunswere. And let our crye come to thee.
Let us pray.
O Almightie God, which hast delivered this woman thy servauntfrom the great payne and peril of childbirth: Graunt we beseche thee (most mercifull father) that she thorough thy helpe may both faithfully lyve, and wlake in her vocacyon accordynge to thy will in thys lyfe presente: and also may be partaker of everlastyng glorye in teh lyfe to come: through Jesus Christ our lorde. Amen.
The woman that is purifyed, must offer her Crysome, and other accustomed offeringes. And if there be a communion, it is convenient that she receive the holy communion.
Although the Elizabethan Book of Common Prayer of 1559 would, as a whole, reflect the “religious settlement” that we connect to Elizabeth’s reign, the prayers said during the churching of women remained largely the same, although in the place of women coming “nygh unto the quier door” of the church, they came “nyghe unto the place where the table standeth”. Another major difference was an alteration of focus on “purification” and “thanksgiving.”
For example, the opening:
The Thankesgivinge of women after childe byrth, communelye called the Churchynge of women.
And then the closing:
The woman that commeth to give her thanckes, muste offer accustomed offerynges, and if there be a Communion, it is convenient that she receive the holy Communion.
The difference that ten years and the reign of a female monarch can make!
The text cited from The Book of Common Prayer 1549 and 1559 both come from The Book of Common Prayer: The Texts of 1549, 1559, and 1662, edited by Brian Cummings and published by Oxford University Press. It was released this month, and is a useful source for comparing the three versions of The Book of Common Prayer found within it.