In the second part of her ‘Marriage at Court’ series, Laura looks at the pressures faced by young royal brides to start paying their ‘marital debt’, and its potentially life-threatening consequences.
Royal princesses usually journeyed to meet their future husbands with a grand household, attended by many of the family’s most trusted servants. But most, if not all, of this entourage would be required to formally depart: sometimes at a mid-point between the kingdoms, sometimes a few weeks or months after the wedding itself. Left alone in a foreign country, and perhaps not yet speaking its language, it could be very difficult for a young bride to resist starting to pay her ‘marriage debt’. This medieval term for conjugal relations brings us back to the transactional nature of such alliances. The modern marriage ceremony still includes the words, ‘to have and to hold’. It might sound romantic, but the phrase habendum et tenendum is found in every medieval deed marking the transfer of property between two owners.
When Richard II agreed to marry a seven-year-old French princess, neither he nor anyone else was expecting him to start having full sexual relations with his new wife. He would have to wait until Isabella was of full adult age, which medieval canonists placed at between the ages of 12 and 14, the age when infancia ended and adolescentia began. In an era when you could be classed as ‘old’ by thirty, teenage pregnancies were positively encouraged. Yet childbirth was a dangerous business in the Middle Ages. Not all twelve or fourteen year olds might be physically mature enough to safely carry a pregnancy to its full term. Margaret Beaufort gave birth to Henry Tudor when she was thirteen (and already married to her second husband, who was twelve years older than her). It is possible that she was seriously injured in the process, for despite two more husbands, she never had another child.
Eleanor of Castile, the wife of Edward I, also gave birth to her first child when she was thirteen. Although she went on to have many more children, she also seems to have found the experience a troubling one- for when it came to the marriage of her own royal daughters, she was extremely reluctant to let them leave the safety of their father’s court until they were past their early teens. She probably knew from experience that royal brides could be put under intense pressure to start producing the all-important royal heir.