The Lives of Tudor Women by Elizabeth Norton – ‘Of Babies and Bellies’

The Lives of Tudor Women by Elizabeth NortonThe Tudor period continues to fascinate – a period dominated by so many larger-than-life, charismatic, powerful, fearful, proud and dangerous personalities, male and female. But what was life like for a Tudor woman away from the public eye, in those major life-changing moments, such as marriage, giving birth, widowhood, but also in her daily life? In The Lives of Tudor Women, Elizabeth Norton presents the seven ages of the Tudor woman from childhood to old age, from the first years of the Tudor period to its end in 1603, through the examples of a number of very different women, ranging from the royal to the merchant’s wife to the peasant and servant. Their stories highlight many aspects of the Tudor age, including the intimate and homely as well as the religious and the unconventional.

To celebrate the publication of The Lives of Tudor Women this month by Head of Zeus, I’m delighted to host a special post. Below you’ll find an extract from Chapter 1 – of Babies and Bellies – in which Elizabeth of York, Henry VII’s queen, faces the anxiety of pregnancy and childbirth.

The Lives of Tudor Women – Book Extract from Chapter 1: Of Babies and Bellies

Towards the end of January or early February 1492, Queen Elizabeth of York, felt a familiar fluttering in her womb – a fluttering that provided proof that she had conceived for the fourth time.

Henry VII’s queen was, by then, close to the midway point of her pregnancy. But in the first months of pregnancy, the condition was notoriously difficult to diagnose. Could her symptoms merely be ‘her natural sickness or store of water’? Alternatively, could her increase in girth be due to ‘some windy matter’ rather than an expected baby? There were signs, of course, which could indicate pregnancy; but few physicians were prepared to confirm their diagnosis until the child actually began to stir in the womb. A mistake could be highly embarrassing for all concerned, and so for months women were left on tenterhooks.

The first gentle movements, when they came, were testament to the fact that a new life had begun. For as far as most Tudors were concerned, life did not begin at conception. The man’s seed entered ‘the woman’s privitie’ as one physician coyly called the neck of the womb, there to be met by a matching seed, released by the woman. To contemporaries, these were the raw materials for a child.

Even before conception, most Tudor parents had a preference for boys. They were then anxious for some hint that their wish had been gratified. It was theoretically possible, asserted some physicians, to tell the sex, since boys occupied a right chamber to a sub-divided womb and girls the left. This segregation was, of course, a myth (‘but dreams and fond fantasies’), as others rightly realized. Life itself was deemed to begin when the soul entered the fully formed foetus, which occurred at 46 days for a boy and 90 days for a girl. A Tudor girl was thus nearly three months in the womb before her contemporaries considered her to be a living person.

The question of gender still gnawed at the minds of many Tudor parents as the mother’s sickness subsided and her stomach began to swell; and most Tudor mothers wanted a son. The wealthier sort of parents could interrogate their physicians on the sex, their questioning filling the doctors with despair. ‘It is very hard to know at the first whether the woman be with child or no,’ complained the French royal physician, Dr Guillimeau, towards the end of the sixteenth century, and ‘so by great reason must it needs be far more difficult to discern and distinguish the difference of the sex, and to determine whether it will be a boy or a wench’. They were not miracle workers. But even Dr Guillimeau believed there were certain signs a mother could look for. Everyone knew that men were hotter than women, which gave them strength, intelligence and vigour. It stood to reason then that younger women, who became hotter than their seniors, would bear boys.

There were, it was thought, some helpful things prospective parents could do to better their chances of conceiving the right gender. Those most anxious for a boy should refrain from sexual intercourse when the wind blew southwards, since this was almost sure to result in a girl. The pregnant woman could also scrutinize her reflection – was her complexion clear? If so, it could be a boy. Carrying a girl was harder work, and so the mother would have ‘a pale, heavy, and swarth countenance, a melancholic eye’. Boys reputedly lay higher in the wombs than girls – again due to their heat – while a girl would lie ‘at the bottom of the belly, because of her coldness and weight’. Carrying a girl was even believed to affect a mother’s health more adversely than carrying a boy.

In early 1492, at least Queen Elizabeth of York could content herself that she had already fulfilled her dynastic duty, with the births of two fine sons – even though death could strike down seemingly healthy children at any moment.

Once pregnancy was established, it behoved a mother to ensure the health of both herself and her child. Spending her time in ‘good tempered air’ was particularly important, as was a good diet. Pregnant women also had to think about clothing, since few women owned an extensive wardrobe. Even queens adapted their existing clothes, with extra panels added to their dresses. They could supplement them with more-specific maternity wear, such as ‘self grow’ waistcoats, kirtles and gowns, which could be let out as the wearer’s pregnancy advanced. To begin with, gowns could first be unlaced to make them roomier, before more drastic changes were required. Women would also think about clothes for the birth itself. It was common for Tudor women to wear a hood with a shoulder cape in which to give birth.

Elizabeth of York may initially have had concerns over her fourth pregnancy, because she had conceived only three months after the birth of her second son, Henry, on 28 June 1491. Her husband, heir to the House of Lancaster, had won his crown on the field at Bosworth in August 1485 – inaugurating the Tudor dynasty. His marriage to Elizabeth, who was the eldest daughter of the Yorkist King Edward IV, had helped cement his position by unifying the houses that had fought for decades. To the royal couple, who were frequently surrounded by proud demonstrations of the new dynasty, each of their ‘issue lawfully born’ helped to symbolize their union and their hold on the throne. Nonetheless, such a rapid new pregnancy in 1492 – almost certainly an accident – was a cause for concern, given the very real dangers that threatened women in pregnancy and childbirth.

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