Studying Medieval Queens and (In)fertility

By Emma Trivett

Being a mother was a crucial role for medieval queens, and maternity continues to be a central theme in queenship studies. Scholars of queenship have explored how queens were able to exercise authority and influence through their role as mothers and, recently, Kristen Geaman and Theresa Earenfight have drawn attention to how queens without children cultivated alternative roles to biological motherhood by acting as religious patrons and political intercessors.[1] So far, historians have only really considered royal fertility when queens failed to have children. Yet, many of the medieval queens whom we might recognise as being successful mothers also struggled with fertility problems or experienced concerns and pressure to be fertile at some point in their lives. Historians need to take into account the realities of reproduction and uncertainties around fertility when we think about queens and the expectation of motherhood for queenship. 

Matthew Paris’ depiction of Henry III and Eleanor of Provence’s wedding in 1236 [source: Wikimedia Commons].

Eleanor of Provence, a thirteenth-century queen of England, had several children who survived to adulthood. Eleanor married Henry III of England in 1236 and the couple’s first child, the future Edward I, was born in 1239. Between 1239 and 1245, Eleanor had three more children. These children’s births were then followed by eight years during which we have no evidence of further pregnancies before Eleanor gave birth to her last child, Katherine, in 1253. Unlike many parents in the Middle Ages, Eleanor and Henry’s four eldest children survived infancy and childhood and lived into their adulthood. Sadly, though, their youngest daughter, Katherine, died in 1257 when she was just three. At the same time, modern historians also highlight how Eleanor’s success as a mother was key to her success as queen of England; she was close to her children and oversaw their upbringing. As queen dowager, she continued to hold considerable influence by maintaining close relationships with her adult children.

Henry III and the couple’s five children [source: BL Royal 14 B vi, membrane 7; made available under a Creative Commons Universal Public Domain Dedication].

However, there is more to say about Eleanor of Provence’s reproductive life. There is evidence that she experienced concerns about fertility, or at least felt pressure to produce an heir. In 1236 and then again in 1238, chronicler Matthew Paris recorded concerns that Eleanor might be infertile. He noted in his account for 1236 that it was still unknown whether the queen was fertile or barren (despite being only twelve).[2] In his account of 1238, he reported that ‘it was greatly feared that the queen was barren’.[3] The birth of Edward in 1239 proved that any fears were unfounded, but the king and queen’s concerns about pregnancy and childbirth, desire for another son, and gratitude for the successful births of all their children are visible in the contemporary sources. However, this side of Eleanor’s experience as a mother and queen is absent from the historiography and she is not one of the queens included in studies of infertility because she did not die childless.

Margaret—Henry and Eleanor’s eldest daughter—became queen of Scotland when she married Alexander III in 1251. Alexander was only ten and Margaret eleven when they married, and there seems to have been no pressure on the couple to produce an heir initially. After ten years of marriage, in 1261, Margaret gave birth to the couple’s first child: a daughter who was also named Margaret. In 1264, Alexander III and Margaret’s son, Alexander, was born, and eight years later they had their third and final child, David, in 1272. We know much less about Margaret as a mother than we do about her own mother, Eleanor. In her PhD thesis, Jessica Nelson argued that Margaret was only able to fully integrate into her role in Scotland when she had provided Alexander III with heirs and became the centre of the Scottish royal family.[4] Like studies of Eleanor of Provence’s queenship, Margaret’s queenship has been interpreted in light of her success as a mother.

A medieval depiction of childbirth (the birth of Moses) [source: BL Royal 2 B VII, f. 22v, available under a Creative Commons Universal Public Domain Dedication].

Margaret’s experience of (in)fertility has also evaded scholarly attention because she ultimately had children as well. The indications that Margaret faced concerns about fertility do not come from an explicit chronicler comment like the ones made by Matthew Paris about Eleanor, but they are still visible. In the autumn of 1260, Margaret and Alexander III travelled to England to visit Margaret’s parents. Margaret was pregnant at the time, and Henry III swore an oath to the magnates of Scotland promising that if Margaret gave birth in England, the Scottish queen and baby would be returned to Scotland as soon as possible. When Alexander went home, Margaret stayed at Windsor (where she had grown up) and gave birth to her first child in February 1261. The baby, a girl, was accepted as Alexander III’s heir and mother and baby were soon sent on their way home. The readiness to have a female heir seems less a sign of forward thinking in Scotland than of the considerable worry about the unsecured succession. Alexander III had no siblings, cousins, or uncles who could inherit the throne if he died prematurely, so the focussed attention on making sure that his queen and first child, no matter the sex, were quickly returned to Scotland gives a glimpse at the pressure on Margaret to have a child. The three-year wait for a son and then the further eight years before the birth of Margaret and Alexander’s last child are intriguing to think about as experiences of infertility.

Ultimately, scholarly interest in queens’ experiences of infertility has been determined by whether they ever had children and there is a tendency to only think about a queen’s fertility when she remained childless. This post has shed light on how queens who had ‘fertility success stories’ might still have experienced concerns about reproduction during their lifetimes. Concerns about fertility are hiding everywhere in plain sight, and taking a more expansive approach to the study of (in)fertility and including queens who also had children can add to our understanding of historical fertility, queenship, and motherhood.

Further Reading

Davis, Gayle and Tracey Loughran. ‘Introduction. Infertility in History: Approaches, Contexts and Perspectives’. In The Palgrave Handbook of Infertility in History, edited by Gayle Davis and Tracey Loughran. Palgrave MacMillan, 2017.

Fleiner, Carey and Elena Woodacre (eds). Virtuous or Villainess? The Image of the Royal Mother from the Early Medieval to the Early Modern Era. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Geaman, Kristen L. ‘Anne of Bohemia and Her Struggle to Conceive’. Social History of Medicine, Vol 29/2 (May 2016): 224-244.

Parsons, John Carmi. ‘The Pregnant Queen as Counsellor and the Medieval Construction of Motherhood.’ In Medieval Mothering, edited by John Carmi Parsons and Bonnie Wheeler, 39-61. Garland, 1996.

Tingle, Louise. ‘Pregnancy, Maternity and Childlessness’. In Chaucer’s Queens. Palgrave Macmillan, 2020.

Verskin, Sara. Barren Women: Religion and Medicine in the Medieval Middle East. De Gruyter, 2020.

[1] Kristen Geaman and Theresa Earenfight, ‘Neither heir nor spare: childless queens and the practice of monarchy in pre-modern Europe,’ in The Routledge History of Monarchy, (eds) Elena Woodacre, L. Dean, C. Jones, Z. Rohr, R. Martin (Routledge, 2019), 518-533.

[2] Matthew Paris, Chronica Majora, Vol. 3, ed., Henry Luard (London: Longman, 1872-83), 340.

[3] Paris, Chronica Majora, Vol. 3, 518.

[4] Jessica Nelson, ‘Queens and Queenship in Scotland, circa 1067-1286’, unpublished PhD thesis (King’s College London, 2006), 251.

One thought on “Studying Medieval Queens and (In)fertility

  1. I’m working on a project about Matilda of Scotland, wife of Henry I. She is intriguing in the sense that she was both a mother and cultivated her role as a religious patron and intercessor, founding several hospitals.


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