Medieval Royal Babies of England
Births of royal babies today are celebrated throughout the country and the media as an occasion of great joy. This happiness brings people together as they offer up good wishes for the infant’s future health and happiness. But what was it like for the English royal babies born in the Middle Ages and their parents?
For a medieval English queen, the pressure was on. Her success defined by her ability to produce healthy male heirs for her husband the king and her country. If a medieval royal couple proved to be infertile, the blame was placed on the mother and her imprudent behaviour. In an age when the queen was portrayed to the people as a paragon of womanly virtues, this could be judged as anything from eating the wrong foods to disobeying her spouse.
This was a time when religion played a big part in royal lives. England was a Catholic country and a queen who could not bear children was proof God’s favour had been withdrawn from the royal family and the country at large. A royal woman who did not provide the requisite heir would be marginalised and pushed out, as was seen in the later Tudor period with Henry VIII’s struggles to have a son.
However, the Church did not regard infertility as a good enough reason to annul a marriage. Other ways had to be found to put a barren wife aside. It was also a time that the succession ran through the male line. Even if he had older sisters, the throne passed to the eldest surviving son. That is not to say baby princesses were unwelcome. They were valuable political pawns, but only if they had brothers.
To have a large, healthy brood was a symbol to the whole country all was well and the fates and God were smiling on England. The Plantagenets were a remarkable dynasty, generation after generation their queens did their royal duty and produced healthy male heirs. The only exceptions being Richard I and Richard II.
History turned on these royal births. The story of England would have been very different if more of these medieval queens produced no children or only daughters. These royal women knew their duty. Knew their power and position depended on being the mother of the next king; their survival depended on it. Of course, the king also had an important part to play in this. Medieval royal marriages were not based on love or even physical attraction; they were political unions, designed to improve the power, wealth and political reach of the king.
Often, the royal bride was a foreign princess who would be sent to England as a young teenager. Not only would she have to create a relationship with a husband she barely knew but would also have to adapt to a new culture and way of life. Daughters were traded to the highest bidder, an opportunity to forge new diplomatic alliances. Whether these royal marriages flourished was down to luck as to whether the couple were suited in temperament and physically compatible.
Of course, even a large crop of healthy sons did not ensure the path to the throne was straightforward. Infant mortality was high in the Middle Ages and royal children died as easily and often as those of their subjects. Miscarriages were also common, blighting the hopes for a healthy, full-term child. These were also turbulent times, with wars, rebellions and power struggles at court. Sickness was common, with plagues such as the Black Death, sweeping across Europe, and a future king could die before he had his chance to wear a crown.
One such is William, Count of Poitiers the eldest son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, who died at the age of three, leaving two of his younger siblings, Richard the Lionheart and King John to follow his father on to the English throne. This was also a time when many women died either in childbirth or shortly after from puerperal fever. A royal prince could also die through accident as happened to the seventeen-year-old son of Henry I and Matilda of Scotland, William Adelin, who perished when the White Ship sank in 1120.
For a woman during pregnancy and in labour in the early medieval period much of the medical care available came from monks and friars, as they were among the few people who could read and had access to medical texts. It was only later the birthing room became a female only environment. With none of our modern medical technology, all they could offer were herbal remedies, religious amulets and relics and prayer. Queens of this period probably delivered their children in a sitting or squatting position, rather than lying flat on their backs. Ropes or sheets hung from the ceiling, so the woman could pull herself up. It was also likely a large fire would be lit; they thought the heat was good for a woman in labour and would help keep the new born warm.
Not all royal babies arrived in the luxury of the queen’s private apartments in a royal palace either. Eleanor of Castile, the wife of King Edward I, travelled with her husband everywhere he went, and they were a close couple. Unlike most other medieval monarchs, Edward I, was unusual in that he did not keep mistresses and fathered no illegitimate children. In the course of their lives together they travelled around Britain, through the continent and as far as the Holy Land for the Ninth Crusade.
Eleanor bore Edward sixteen children during these travels, at a time when travelling was not comfortable or safe, even for royalty. They were to lose ten of their children in childhood, one, Prince Alphonso, being eleven when he died. So, it was her last-born Edward, who would go on to be his father’s ultimate heir and sit on the English throne as King Edward II. When Eleanor died in 1290 in Harby near Lincoln, Edward I was so heartbroken he had a series of stone crosses erected on the route her funeral procession took to Westminster to mark each stopping point. These became known as the Eleanor crosses, the most famous being the one erected at what is now known as Charing Cross.
If a woman could not conceive there was little the medical practitioners of the day could do to help. Aside from herbal remedies, such as henbane boiled in milk, prayer was the only answer. A queen desperate to present her royal husband with a healthy heir would pray to the patron saint of infertility, St. Anne. She might go on pilgrimage to one of the shrines in England associated with answering women’s prayers for children, such as the shrine at Walsingham dedicated to the Virgin Mary, or drink from or bathe in water from one of the sacred springs dedicated to a saint.
Once born, the infant prince would be handed over to the care of a wet nurse. Medieval royal women did not suckle their own babies, and princes would often be raised in their own households by nurses, tutors and servants, while his parents travelled around the country and the continent administering the realm and fighting wars.
This separation might seem cold-hearted to our modern minds, but it was done to keep the prince from the infections that raged in the towns and the rigours of travel. Future kings would be given extensive military training and be schooled in their future state duties and how to govern their subjects. Their younger brothers would also learn the arts of war and how to run their great estates, or maybe be educated for a career in the church. Princesses in the Middle Ages were sometimes more literate than their brothers, as they learned how to take charge of large households permanently on the move and court diplomacy
One such royal infant was the future Edward V, one of the famous ‘Princes in the Tower’. Edward was born during the troubled times of the War of the Roses in 1470, while his mother Elizabeth Woodville was in sanctuary in Westminster and his father Edward IV was in exile in the Low Countries. His father returned in 1471 to reclaim his crown and the young Prince Edward was sent to Ludlow on the Welsh Marches to be educated and be titular ruler of Wales in 1473.
He spent much of his brief life there, mentored by his maternal uncle, Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers. When King Edward IV died unexpectedly in 1483, a frantic Elizabeth Woodville, who had once more retreated to the sanctuary at Westminster, requested her brother to escort the heir to the throne to London. Earl Rivers, by agreement, met with Edward’s paternal uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, named as Lord Protector of the Realm by his brother, on 29th April at Northampton, but sent his nephew on to Stony Stratford.
Richard of Gloucester arrested Anthony Woodville along with two others and had them sent to Pontefract Castle, where they were executed for treason on 25th June. Richard then accompanied the young king to London and installed him in the Tower of London. This is not as sinister as it may seem, as the Tower was traditionally where monarchs went to prepare for their coronation. Richard persuaded Elizabeth Woodville to relinquish Edward’s brother Richard of York into his care and the two young boys were seen playing in the Tower gardens.
Richard seized the throne in June 1483, after information came to light that his brother’s children were illegitimate as his brother Edward IV had contracted a marriage to Eleanor Butler, before he married Elizabeth Woodville. The two princes dropped out of sight over that summer and rumours started they had been murdered. Controversy has raged ever since as to what happened to the boys dubbed ‘the Princes in the Tower’.
Many condemned their uncle Richard III as the villain of the piece, others their future brother-in-law Henry VII and some say it was the work of the Duke of Buckingham. There have also been stories handed down at least one of the brothers survived and Henry VII spent the early part of his reign putting down rebellions raised in favour of Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck.
There were sons born into the royal family who never expected to be king, raised not as the heir to the throne but more as a prominent member of the nobility. One such future king was Henry IV, the son of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and his wife, Blanche of Lancaster. He was born in Bolingbroke Castle in Lincolnshire in 1367 and, as his father had elder brothers with children, had little prospect of succeeding to the throne. His cousin Richard II became king after the death of their grandfather, Edward III and it looked likely Henry IV would live the life of an important noble at his cousin’s court.
However, the cousins fell out and Henry exiled to France for ten years. Richard II later extended Henry’s exile to life and seized his lands. When Henry’s father died in 1399, Henry returned to England to claim his inheritance, but instead duped Richard II and made himself king. Richard II was imprisoned in Pontefract Castle, where he died in February 1400, probably of starvation.
There were also medieval queens who, it was whispered, did not follow the strict rules of behaviour expected of a great lady. Whose son was rumoured to have been fathered by a man not her husband. Margaret of Anjou had been married for eight years to her royal spouse King Henry VI before she presented him with a much longed for heir in 1453. Henry VI was a pious, prudish, monarch, so infrequent visits to the marital bed may have been the reason for the delayed conception.
His mental health was fragile and shortly after Queen Margaret eventually became pregnant, Henry VI had a complete breakdown, where he could not talk, eat or even recognise his wife. The king was moved back to Westminster, where his only son, Edward of Westminster, was born. Henry did not respond when shown the baby, and when he recovered his senses seemed bewildered that he had a son and muttered he must have been fathered by the Holy Ghost. His courtiers, however, had other ideas and rumours flew that Margaret had taken a lover and Prince Edward was sired by either Edmund Beaufort, 1st Duke of Somerset or James Butler, Earl of Wiltshire, both favourites of the queen.
Gossip surrounding his illegitimacy followed Prince Edward throughout his short life. His father lost his throne to the Yorkist Edward IV, and Margaret of Anjou was forced to take him into exile in France. In 1470, Margaret of Anjou formed an alliance with her old enemy Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, and sealed the deal by marrying her son to Warwick’s daughter, Anne Neville. Warwick sailed to England to fight to place Henry VI back on the throne, followed later by Margaret of Anjou, Prince Edward and her army. Her dreams were never to be realised, as the Earl of Warwick was killed at the Battle of Barnet in April 1471 and her precious son was killed at the Battle of Tewkesbury in May 1471, King Edward IV regaining his crown.
Prince Edward’s widow, Anne Neville, went on to marry Richard Duke of Gloucester, later becoming queen when her husband seized the throne. Her only child too, Edward of Middleham, died young in 1484, leaving Richard III, the last Plantagenet king of England, to be killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 without an heir. The Plantagenet dynasty, once so vigorous, was at an end. Many more royal babies were to be born in England, and as medical knowledge advanced, their chances of survival improved. But the Middle Ages were over, and the stories of all those medieval royal babies at an end.
Royal Babies – Amy Licence
William, Count of Poitiers - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_IX,_Count_of_Poitiers
Shrine at Walsingham - http://www.walsingham.org.uk/a-brief-history
Medieval infertility - http://www.medievalists.net/2016/03/infertility-in-the-middle-ages/
Eleanor of Castile - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eleanor_of_Castile
Richard III - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_III_of_England
Edward of Westminster - http://www.philippagregory.com/family-tree/edward-of-lancaster
Raising Medieval Royal Children - http://www.medievalists.net/2017/06/medieval-kings-queens-raised-children-interview-carolyn-harris/
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