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.)
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.
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
Tudor Queens: Age and Cause of Death
- See Judith M. Bennett, Ruth Mazo Karras ed. The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe p. 187. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]