Was Being a Medieval Queen Hazardous to Your Health?

medieval-childbirth-lying-in-chamber

Was being a medieval queen was hazardous to your health? Given the push for queens to have many babies, did most medieval queens die in childbirth? To find out, I put 139 years of late medieval and Tudor English queens — from 1400-1503 – in a table to compare their causes of death.

Depending on how you slice and dice it, the answer is: Yes. (But, the usual disclaimers apply.)

Baby machines

It is no secret that medieval queens and noblewomen were baby machines.

In general, the average medieval peasant woman appears to have born roughly 4 to 8 children. In contrast, it is not unusual to see medieval queens and noblewoman who bore over ten children. Elizabeth Woodville bore 12 children. King John’s wife, Isabelle of Angouleme, birthed 14 children. And, Edward IV’s maternal grandmother, Joan Beaufort, also bore 14 children.

Compared to the average (peasant) woman who typically married much later — on average at age 23 (if at all), the typical medieval noblewoman married in her teens and appears to have given birth to significantly more children.1  I write appear because medieval birth, census, and archaeological records are not strictly reliable; events relating to women were underreported and archaeological issues persist.

Although having lots of children created problems (for example, between rival “second sons” and the need to find good marriages), having lots of children appears to have been a goal. Wet nurses were employed, in part, to shorten the time it took for elite women to re-conceive.

Still childbirth was a dangerous business. In medieval Florence, roughly 20% of mothers died as a result of childbirth.2

Late medieval queens and their cause of death

Only five English queens in this period died of natural causes such as “old” age or for reasons other than child birth. Their average age was 48.6 years, but some like Henry IV’s second wife, Joan of Navarre, lived to be as old as 67. Richard III’s wife Anne Neville was the youngest queen to die from natural causes, at 28. (Anne of Cleves was the next youngest and she died at 40.) Incidentally,  an old person in late medieval England could be considered anyone over roughly 433 , and I’m using the term “old age” as a catchall for age and natural causes since the reasons queens died often were not recorded.

birth

A typical medieval birth scene.

Out of thirteen queens, nearly 40% died during or immediately after childbirth. Out of the queens who died directly from childbirth or its after effects, only one died during childbirth and the other four died in the days following it from puerperal fever (also known as “childbed fever” or genital-tract sepsis).

If you include childbirth-related causes, this number jumps as high as 54%.  It is pushing the envelope, but you could argue that Anne Boleyn and Anne Neville also died of issues indirectly related to childbirth, which increases the total to half. (In Anne Neville’s case, the envelope might rip since I’m speculating she acquired tuberculosis from her sister, who may have contracted it during pregnancy.)

The trend of medieval queens dying in childbirth does not hold true, however, if you include English queens from before 1409. From 1291 to 1369, no English queens died from childbirth and two lived into their sixties.

 

Late Medieval Queens: Age and Cause of Death

Queen Age      Date of Death Cause # of Births
Isabela_richard2Queen Isabella. Wife of Richard II; Charles (Duke of Orleans). 19 13 September 1409 (aged 19) Childbirth (died during birth of first child)  1
joan-of-navarreQueen Joan (or Joanna) of Navarre. Wife of John V (Duke of Brittany); Henry IV. 67 10 June 1437 Old age? 9
catherine-of-valoisCatherine of Valois. Wife of Henry V; partner of Owen Tudor. 35 3 January 1437 Childbirth (died shortly after birth of sixth or seventh child) 6 or 7
Margaret-AnjouMargaret of Anjou. Wife of Henry VI. 52 25 August 1482 Old age 1
elizabeth-woodville-eye-colourElizabeth Woodville. Wife of Edward IV. ~55 8 June 1492 Old age 12
Anne_Neville_portrait-fullAnne Neville. Wife of Richard III. 28 16 March 1485 Tuberculosis (aka “consumption”) 1
Elizabeth_of_York-croppedElizabeth of York. Wife of Henry VII. 37 11 February 1503 Childbirth   7

 

 

Tudor Queens: Age and Cause of Death

Queen Age Date of Death Cause # of Births
Catherine_aragonQueen Catherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII. 50 7 January 1536 Heart cancer, poisoning, or old age (embalmers discovered her heart was black) ~6, only 1 survived
Anne_boleyn_faceQueen Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII. ~28-35 19 May 1536 Execution. Indirectly, childbirth – “failed” to give king a son 2 (one survived) and one miscarriage
Jane_SeymourQueen Jane Seymour, third wife of Henry VIII. ~28-29 24 October 1537 Childbirth (puerperal fever) 1
Anne_of_Cleves,_by_Hans_Holbein_the_YoungerQueen Anne of Cleves, fourth wife of Henry VIII. Anne outlived the rest of Henry’s wives. 40 16 July 1557 Death after a long illness. Possibly cancer. 0
katherine-howardQueen Katherine Howard, fifth wife of Henry VIII. 19 13 February 1542 Execution 0
Catherine_ParrQueen Catherine Parr, sixth wife of Henry VIII. 36 5 September 1548 Childbirth, died six days after from puerperal fever 1

 

 

  1. See Judith M. Bennett, Ruth Mazo Karras ed. The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe p. 187. []
  2. Fourteen percent of mothers died during childbirth itself; however, maternal mortality increases when you add complications following the birth. See Barbara Hanawalt’s Growing Up in Medieval London p. 43 and 234, as cited in “The Medieval Child” by Melissa Snell. []
  3. Life expectancy was about 43 in medieval England, provided you reached 21. See Expectations of Life: A Study in the Demography, Statistics, and History of by H.O. Lancaster. []

Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."

15 Comments

  • Reply December 29, 2014

    Grant

    Rather small sample, but the basic argument that noblewomen were pressured to have more children and so took on more risks sounds fairly strong.

    • Reply December 30, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      Agreed about the sample – it is pretty puny. Re: risk It would be interesting about the psychology of it. Did medieval noblewomen know about the risks of older pregnancies? Did they embrace the risks that would come from having so many pregnancies (i.e., frequency of being in a dangerous situation)? Did being part of a military caste create a “buck up and be brave” culture? E.g., don’t fear childbirth when you’re men are dying in battle? I don’t know.

      • Reply December 31, 2014

        Grant

        They must have known that having many children could be dangerous and it’s probably a good bet that they would have seen some link between age and successful pregnancy. For the exact psychology, that’s very hard to say considering we’re talking about dozens of nationalities over many centuries. There were probably many factors. Being in a male-dominated system that needed heirs for political stability, the serious dangers children faced that meant that many in a family might not survive childhood, the human instinct to reproduce etc. all must have played varying roles in different places at different times.

        As for the suggestion below about the possibility of climate or bathing choices, they may have had an appreciable impact but you’d need some very specialized knowledge, equipment and access to useful corpses to even start to find out and after all this time it might simply be lost to history.

  • Reply December 30, 2014

    Jun

    With the modern advances in medicine, we have forgotten what a dangerous and life-threatening undertaking childbirth was until only a century or so ago. This is a fascinating topic. Thanks, Jamie!

    • Reply December 30, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      You’re welcome. You made me wonder if there is a correlation between the movement away from bathing in Henry VIII’s reign – they favored clean linens over washing their bodies with water – and a possible rise in puerperal fever. I say possible because this is very speculative on my part. Or, perhaps even colder weather (LIA) resulted in a decline in hygiene. This is pure speculation, but at least in terms of queens more survived childbirth in the warmer fourteenth century than the chillier fifteenth and sixteenth.

      • Reply January 2, 2015

        Watcher on the Couch

        I was fortunate enough to win a copy of “The Medieval Housewife” from a comment on Olga’s site (using another of my online aliases) in December and I was reading there that in fact people in the middle ages were not so stinky as they are sometimes rumoured to be these days. Then it was a coincidence to see Jamie’s remark above. It must have been a strain even as recently as 100 years ago or so (before running water was plumbed into houses anyway – so it might be a little longer ago than 100 years). Imagine going to a pump, having to haul the water home and then heat it up either for a bath or a strip wash. I know the Romans (the richer ones anyhow) had central heating of a sort. You could have a point about cold weather. We had some Boxing Day snow in the UK midlands and it was tempting in the evening to have a “lick and a promise” sort of a clean up. (I suppose the saying means that the “lick” is a perfunctory wash down and the “promise” is a promise to have proper ablutions in the morning! The snow has gone now – though I know sometimes people from other countries despair of the British and their attitude to snow. I used to work with a young woman from Michigan whose husband was English and can remember her saying “My parents went to work through eight feet of snow” and being exasperated that the British public transport system couldn’t handle a fall of snow, which albeit was quite severe for Britain was a lot less than was the norm in winter in her home State.

  • Reply December 31, 2014

    Susan Abernethy

    Under the Late Medieval Queens section, I think you mean Joan of Navarre’s husband was King Henry IV, not King Edward I. Edward I’s wife Eleanor of Castile had many children but died of either TB or malaria at the age of 49.

    • Reply December 31, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      Hey Susan, Yes, that’s exactly what I meant. Thanks! (The first draft of this article included a table for the queens in Edward I’s era. ) Sorry about that folks; I’ll correct it. Thanks again, Susan!

      In case anyone is wondering, I omitted Henry IV’s first wife (Mary de Bohun) because she was never technically queen, even though she was Henry V’s mother. (Mary died roughly five years before Henry Bolingbroke seized the throne in 1399.)

  • Reply January 1, 2015

    David May

    Quite an interesting topic. Thanks you for your work!

    • Reply January 4, 2015

      Jamie Adair

      Thank you for reading! I’m glad you enjoyed it. (I just did the comparison to satisfy my own curiosity, but then I thought other people might find it interesting so I decided to post it.)

  • Reply January 2, 2015

    Jun

    I am reminded of another factoid I read somewhere — unconfirmed though — that noble girls tended to reach puberty at an earlier age than lower class, presumably because of better nutrition, which may explain the younger age of marriage. The average woman in the medieval period had first period at around 17 maybe? Modern females get their first period around 12, thanks (?) to better nutrition, higher body fat content, and less physical labor.

    • Reply January 4, 2015

      Jamie Adair

      I think you’re right. When I was reading in (maybe Ruth Karras’ book on medieval sexuality?) about the ages of medieval towns women when they married, I think they mentioned that the typical medieval woman (towns woman, peasant) menstruated later like you say.

      Just yesterday I was reading in Nicholas Ormes book “Medieval Children” that the medieval church considered marriage valid (binding) after 12 for women and 14 for men. It was 12 for women because it was assumed that they would have gotten their period by then — bear in mind that it was mainly nobles, gentry, and the merchant class whose children had childhood marriages. Ormes also stated that this age was chosen because the Church didn’t consider a marriage to be binding until it was consummated and puberty was the age that it could be.

      • Reply May 1, 2015

        denisejhale

        I saw a programme on anorexia, and it mentioned menstruation, which sometimes ceases. Basically girls only start to menstruate when they reach around 7 and a half stone. If they drop below, periods can stop. It also explains why girls are menstruating younger with children tending to eat more now. As Jun said it’s diet related.
        I also read that although marriages were arranged at younger ages for girls it was not acceptable for the marriage to tell place till the girl ‘had proved herself a women’.
        Interesting article but I do not think dying in 50s was old age, more likely women’s problem with menopause, there were no hysterectomies then.

        • Reply May 3, 2015

          Jamie Adair

          Thanks. Well, dying in your 50s was or could be “old age” in the Middle Ages. Depending on the period, life expectancy was in your 30s. However, this was more of a statistical life expectancy I think. I think women definitely died of gynecological problems, but they also died of cancer and many other ailments. I used the term old age to really mean “causes other than childbirth.” Even with queens, sometimes the information recorded about their deaths is relatively scant. I think I read in that Holy Anorexia book that menstruation often ended earlier in places like medieval Italy because it tended to start later — apparently, there is a correlation. I didn’t know it was triggered by reaching a certain weight though. That’s quite interesting.
          “Proved herself a woman” — Good turn of phrase. 🙂 It wasn’t socially acceptable for people to consummate marriages until girls had “bled” – and preferably were older. The Church frowned on consummating them earlier than menstruation.

  • Reply January 7, 2015

    Ben Bradshaw

    Fascinating. Thank you for posting the data you collected.

Leave a Reply