For the past two years, I’ve been working on a database that documents maternity and paternity among the royal families of medieval Europe. This fall I will work with someone far more knowledgeable than I am to translate a mountain of raw data from Excel to a relational database, so for now it’s just a lot of data. But a quick look reveals a lot more than just mothers. There are a lot of childless queens, a lot more than I expected. This flies in the face of what queenship scholars have long taken as a given Janet Nelson’s observation in “Inauguration Rituals” that “royal maternity was the matrix of future kings, pregnant queen was the guarantor of the realm’s survival and integrity and so of peace and control.” John Carmi Parsons agreed, noting that a queen’s “sexual role was of central importance to the realm [. . .] pregnancy was “a powerful image of male versus female [. . .] that forcefully opposes the power to give life and the power to take it away—a conflict as epochal and eternally tragic as that of Cain and Abel.” For many queens, the maternal duty was part of the coronation oath, as was intercession, which was explicitly linked to maternity (“The Pregnant Queen as Counsellor and the Construction of Motherhood,” 1998).
Yes, pregnancy and motherhood were integral to the political rhetoric of queenship. And yes, the consequences of a childless queen could be dire, and the fear was not just of civil war. It was about the identity of the realm, with the king and queen reflecting what was considered god’s blessing and the proper ordering of society. But monarchies did not necessarily descend into chaos and war when the royal couple did not have children, and childless queens did not necessarily suffer rejection, divorce, or worse. It wasn’t the end of the world.
I knew this because the first queen I studied, María of Castile, was married for 43 years and was probably never pregnant. Her husband, Alfonso V of the Crown of Aragon, fathered three children with two other women, and the couple spent 28 years of marriage apart—she stayed in Spain and governed as queen-lieutenant while he went off to conquer and govern Naples. Only very late in his reign did Alfonso consider a divorce, and only then under pressure from a mistress. Pope Calixtus III told him to stop being ridiculous, his Catalan subjects told him to come home and stop leaving his realms “like a widow,” and mirabile dictu, there were no threats to the realm. What I found especially interesting was that nobody said anything bad about María just because she was not a mother. She skillfully governed the Crown realms in Spain and that was just fine.
I’ve been thinking about queens for a long time, since my dissertation and then a book on María and another on queenship, and the fact of regal childlessness kept bugging me. So in 2012 I began work on the maternity/paternity database to get some solid numbers for comparison. I owe a mountain of thanks to four wonderful student research assistants who will agree with me that it’s time consuming to comb through genealogies, many of them annoyingly incomplete and patently misogynistic. It would appear from older genealogies that most kings were motherless, that they sprang up spontaneously from the loins of their fathers. This biological impossibility is depicted without wit or irony, but honestly, you have to laugh when looking at all those Philips in the genealogy of the Capetians in Robert Fawtier’s 1969 book, The Capetian Kings of France. For comparison, look at the genealogies in Suzanne Fonay Wemple’s Women in Frankish Society (1981) and you can trace the development of church-sanctioned monogamy (bye bye concubine, hello serial marriage) while marveling at the fertile abundance of Merovingian and Carolingian families.
But the work is rewarding. Tucked away in these tangled branches of kinship are startling empty spaces where either children are not recorded or where childless couples reside. Some are queens considered “barren,” who suffered a heartbreaking string of miscarriages and stillbirths like Catherine of Aragon who was pregnant six times with Henry VIII’s children, but only one lived to adulthood. That child, Mary Tudor, (1516–1558) married Philip II of Spain when she was 38 (he was 27) and she had no children. Her maternal history is controversial: she was nearing menopause when she married and we don’t really know for sure if she was really ever pregnant or if a chronic cancer caused her periods to stop and if this made her appear pregnant. We know, or we think we know, that Mary’s marriage was not a chaste marriage, like that of Edith, wife of Edward the Confessor. They married when she was 20, he was 42, and either really did not have sex or did but used the idea of chastity to explain their childlessness.
Some, like the marriage of Richard II of England and Anne of Bohemia, were fruitless love matches. Or maybe sex was just not in the cards. Richard II’s second wife, Isabelle of Valois, was only six when they married, but he was deposed and died before Isabelle was old enough to have sex. Jaume II of the Crown of Aragon was married four times and three unions were childless: Isabel of Castile (she later married Jean III de Brittany, but had no children with him, either), Marie of Lusignan, and Elisenda de Montcada. But we can’t blame Jaume entirely: His second wife, Blanche of Anjou, bore ten children. But what about other childless couples? Blanca de Bourbon, first wife of Pedro I of Castile? Beatriz of Naples, twice married (Matias Corvino of Hungary and Vladislav II of Bohemia and Hungary), but had no children. Joan of the Tower and David of Scotland? And so many more . . . stay tuned for the database. Or just drop me an email and I’ll give you what I’ve got in its raggedy state.
I hesitate to use the term “infertility” although some queens may have had medical problems, which means we all need to dive into the history of medicine for answers. María of Castile suffered from serious medical ailments that may have impaired her fertility, but maybe the problem just was a rocky marriage and decades of separation. But I want to know a lot more about medieval medicine before I call her “infertile.”
With a few notable exceptions—Urraca of León, Berenguela of Castile, Isabel of Castile, Mary I Tudor, and Elizabeth I Tudor—marriage made a queen. But pregnancy, maybe not. A queen-consort was expected to have children, preferably boys. But the evidence so far suggests that motherhood may not have been the make-or-break event of a queen’s marriage. Let’s take another look at the narrative of the queen-as-mother and broaden our understanding of how maternity and mothering fit into the institution of monarchy.
Susan Abernethy said:
Fascinating work Theresa. Looking forward to your interpretation of the results.
Zita Rohr said:
Brilliant, and thought provoking.
Kathleen heath said:
Theresa. I am a professor of Anthropology and have addressed this question and also have a large data base. Who are you going to work with? Hope we can stay in touch. Best of luck. Dr. Heath.
Theresa Earenfight said:
I’m delighted someone else is working on this. Tell me more about who you’re including on your database. For now, mine is mostly medieval Europe (ca. 400-1600) and mostly the ones with the best documented families (France, England, Spain, some Germany, some Scotland).
Hello, I am a bit late for the discussion. I got here by coincidence (alucky one) looking for data on percentage of childless people in medieval period (not royalty, just general). If you coudl spare time to point me to sources or if you have some data, I would be thankful.