Royal Fertility Fears in Thirteenth-Century England

Scholars have long acknowledged the importance of producing an heir and securing the succession for medieval kings and queens. More recently, there has been interest in how royals who struggled to have children negotiated their roles and managed childlessness. Thinking about royals’ experiences of infertility, we might ask what sparked concerns about fertility in the first place? Was it a certain number of childless years? Why was there fear that a couple would never have children in some cases but not others? There is a puzzling contemporary claim that a thirteenth-century queen of England, Eleanor of Provence, was feared to be barren. This post suggests that while the comment only mentions the queen, to understand the concern about royal fertility, we must also consider the king.

Henry III of England (r. 1216-1272) married Eleanor of Provence in 1236, when he was twenty-nine and she was twelve. Within their first year of marriage, the chronicler Matthew Paris mentioned the queen’s fertility. In his account of 1236, Paris commented that, because of Eleanor’s age, it was ‘still unknown if the queen is fertile or barren.’[i] Just two years later, in 1238, Paris claimed that ‘it was greatly feared that the queen was barren’.[ii] Why was there concern that a fourteen-year-old queen was infertile after only two years of marriage?

Matthew Paris’ depiction of Henry III and Eleanor of Provence’s wedding in 1236
(Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Marriage_of_Henry_III.jpg)

The concern about the queen’s fertility in 1238 is difficult to understand because she was so young and only recently married. Was it usual for a 12- or 14-year-old queen to experience such pressure for fertility in the thirteenth century? According to medieval canon law, twelve was the minimum age at which girls could marry and it was not uncommon for royal brides to be in their early teens, or even younger when they married. Crucially though, there seems to have been no expectation to produce children immediately –the consummation of such young marriages was typically delayed for several years, or at least until the queen had reached puberty.[iii] Indeed, many thirteenth-century commentators on Aristotle’s foundational work agreed that while marriage might become possible for girls from twelve, it was not the best time and certainly it was too young for producing children.[iv] One of these thirteenth-century writers, Giles of Rome argued that intercourse and childbearing was unhealthy for the growing bodies of both young men and women.[v] A version of the Trotula, acompendium of texts on women’s medicineadvised women to wait until at least fifteen before having intercourse or they risked infertility.

If medieval queens were not expected to have children at 12 or even 14, or as soon as they married, why was there such focus on Eleanor of Provence’s fertility in 1236-1238? It is worth mentioning that Paris’s comments about Eleanor are unique and I have found no similar expressions of concern about other young royal brides’ fertility. For example, Joan Plantagenet, Henry III’s sister, married the king of Scots when she was eleven and her fertility was not really mentioned by in the chronicles.[vi] Eleanor and Henry III’s daughter, Margaret, married Alexander III of Scotland when she was eleven and they had their first child a decade later, but no chroniclers worried that she was infertile. The concern about fourteen-year-old Queen Eleanor’s fertility is strange.

Could the king be the key to understanding Paris’s comments? In 1216, Henry III became king at the age of nine. His minority ended around 1227-8, and he assumed his position as an adult king. Reaching the age of male adulthood was significant because it carried expectations of social behaviour. Despite his chronological age and political maturity in the 1230s, Henry struggled to execute key functions associated with masculine adulthood: in 1230, he was persuaded to reclaim French lands from Louis IX, but he avoided battle and returned to England having accomplished very little.[vii] In 1232, a leading noble from Henry’s minority tried to strip his rival’s supporters of their lands. Other nobles objected to this and accused Henry of failing to protect their rights.[viii] In sum, in the first years of his adult reign, Henry struggled to shake off the influence of mentors from his minority, he faced the threat of serious revolt from his nobles because he had followed poor advice, and he failed to prove himself as a strong warrior king. Holding a political position was associated with medieval masculinity, but kingship itself was not enough to differentiate Henry III’s maturity because he had assumed the role as a child. He had therefore not undertaken a position of responsibility or achieved anything that signalled his adulthood when he reached a chronological age associated with manhood.

It is possible that the king’s age and need to demonstrate masculine maturity contributed to the pressure for fertility experienced by the queen in the late 1230s. Henry was 31 in 1238, an age associated with male adulthood, yet he had failed to perform many of the social functions that marked masculine maturity, such as success in battle, level-headed leadership, and legitimate fatherhood. As such, by the late 1230s, the roles of husband and father were crucial for differentiating Henry’s adulthood and mature kingship from his minority and childhood. The age of adulthood was also associated with physical perfection and the end of growing in the life course. Remaining childless when the male body was at its most perfect sent a worrying message about Henry’s social and reproductive abilities; if he did not produce a legitimate heir now, then when?

Ultimately, fertility is nothing without both partners and the point here is that we must think about the king and queen when researching (in)fertility. Chroniclers typically only mention queens when they comment on royal reproduction. How they wrote about royal fertility was gendered but looking carefully, we can see how perceptions of the king and circumstances of his reign might have influenced attention to royal fertility, even if only the queen was explicitly mentioned.

By Dr Emma Trivett, independent scholar.

Emma Trivett finished her PhD in medieval history at the University of Edinburgh in 2022. Her thesis, titled ‘It was greatly feared that the queen was barren’: Perceptions and Management of Royal Fertility in Thirteenth- and Fourteenth-century England and Scotland’ is a gendered analysis of royal couples’ experiences of infertility, including childlessness and other problems with fertility. More broadly, she is interested in royal couples’ joint management of fertility and particularly, the significance of (in)fertility for masculinity and kingship.


[i] Matthew Paris, Chronica Major, ed. Henry Luard (London: Longman, 1872-83), iii, p. 340.

[ii] Paris, Chronica Majora, iii, p.518.

[iii] Kim Phillips, Medieval Maidens: Young Women and Gender in England, 1270-1540 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), p. 26, 35-36. John Carmi Parsons, ‘Mothers, Daughters, Marriage, Power: Some Plantagenet evidence, 1150-1500,’ in J.C. Parsons (ed.), Medieval Queenship, ed. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1998), p. 67-68.

[iv] Peter Biller, The Measure of Multitude: Population in Medieval Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 336-8.

[v] Phillips, Medieval Maidens, p. 26.

[vi] There are no explicit concerns or comments about her fertility, even though Joan and Alexander do not seem to have conceived a child together and Joan died childless in 1238.

[vii] He arrived in Brittany in 1230 but avoided engaging in battle. When he made it to Gascony, he and Louis IX agreed on a truce until 1234 without fighting.

[viii] David Carpenter, ‘King Henry III and Saint Edward the Confessor: The Origin of the Cult,’ English Historical Review CXXII (498) (2007), p. 867. Huw Ridgeway, ‘Henry III (1207-1272),’ ODNB.



Cite this blog post
courtstudies (2023, October 4). Royal Fertility Fears in Thirteenth-Century England. The Court Observer. Retrieved June 21, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/n6uv

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