Throughout the 19th century, midwives were depicted as incompetent slatterns in both popular imagery and medical literature. We examine how, between 1500 and 1800, midwifery was regulated by a combination of formal licensing by the Church and informal oversight within the community. We argue that episcopal licensing demanded that midwives demonstrate knowledge and competence in midwifery, not only that they were spiritually fit to baptise dying infants. Although episcopal licensing lacked statutory authority, the symbiosis of formal and informal systems of regulation ensured good midwifery practice and midwives were regarded as experts in all matters relating to childbirth. The Midwives Act 1902 introduced statutory regulation of midwives, restoring their ‘professional status’ if in a subordinate role. We show that the history of the regulation of midwives across four centuries casts light on the interplay between formal and informal regulation and matters of gender and professional status.