Thursday, October 16, 2008

Question from Elizabethan - Elizabeth of York's pregnancy with Arthur

Hi, I was wondering if there has ever been any suggestion that Elizabeth of York was already pregnant when she married Henry VII, given that she gave birth to Prince Arthur barely 8 months after the wedding? Or is it just accepted that Arthur was premature? Thanks for any help you can give.


Anonymous said...

Something to consider in relation to this question is the difference in marriage law in the late 15th century versus today. It was much more complex in the 1400s, with far more "grey area" and qualifying conditions.

Under church or canon law, which governed marriage in England in the pre-modern period, persons were able to engage in sexual relations without incurring the taint of sin once a marriage contract had been agreed to and initial promises had been sworn to marry at some future date. In other words, couples were not religiously required to wait until after the ritual wedding ceremony itself before having sexual relations. For purposes of sexual relations, being "betrothed" or "engaged" was enough to ammeliorate any potential sin of fornication. And once a "betrothed" or "engaged" couple actually had sexual relations, the "marriage" was considered fully valid and could not be annulled or divorced, even if the sexual relations occurred before the ritual wedding ceremony.

So it is entirely possible that Henry VII "bedded" Elizabeth of York after the marriage contract had been agreed to but before the actual ritual wedding ceremony. And if he did so, very few would have commented on it since it was not considered a sinful or illegal act. There would have been no shame in Elizabeth's giving birth to a child less than 9 months after the wedding ceremony, as long as it was not also less than 9 months after the contractual betrothal.

And canon law actually required a time-gap between the betrothal and the actual ritual wedding ceremony anyway. That gap was usually about one month, during which "banns," or public announcements of the intended marriage, were "posted" or called out in church over at least three successive weeks. This gave the community time to "speak now or forever hold their peace" and to reveal any previously unknown reasons why the couple should not wed.

The betrothal-to-wedding gap could sometimes be longer than a month, especially if certain religious observances fell in the interim. Weddings were not usually held during Lent, for example.

In the case of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, he had publicly sworn in December 1483 that he would wed her (her consent was assumed ... women in this period seldom had the genuine ability to object). But the wedding ritual did not occur until Janaury 1486. That means they were "engaged" for a little over 2 years. However, Henry needed a papal dispensation to marry Elizabeth, because they were too closely related in blood. Fornication while awaiting a dispensation was enough to void the dispensation, so he probably waited until receiving the Pope's blessing before bedding Elizabeth. But once the dispensation was in hand, there was no prohibition in canon law to prevent Henry bedding Elizabeth in the days or weeks before the wedding.

It is therefore entirely conceivable (poor pun intended) that Henry quietly bedded Elizabeth in the weeks before the wedding occurred on 18 January 1486. If so, Arthur was born full term exactly nine months after that pre-wedding-bedding, on 20 Septmber 1486.

Mike said...

Very fascinating!

Foose said...

David Starkey (and I mention him cautiously in this forum) suggests that Henry VII's determination to have his son born at Winchester (because he was planning to name him Arthur, and Winchester was believed to be the site of King Arthur's capital, with the Round Table still extant) that he transported the queen over 60 miles there when she was heavily pregnant, and the rigors of the journey may have brought on the birth prematurely.

Anonymous said...

Foose, I have to ask, since I do not know from which text you are citing Starkey: Does he offer a footnote to some kind of documentary evidence for this colorful story? While I can almost see Henry VII pulling such a stunt, I can also imagine Starkey going on a purely imaginary tangent.

I might note that the supposed "Round Table" at Winchester has incontrovertibly been shown to be a forgery, albeit an OLD forgery.

Foose said...

Yes, I knew you would be suspicious, that's why I offered Starkey's name with apprehension. I'm reading "Virtuous Prince"; it's on page 42 of the U.K. edition, Chapter 3 "The Heir," endnote 4 referring to the Collectanea IV of Leland (De Rebus Britannicis Collectanea), 204, 206.

It's not a source I'm extensively familiar with, although it dates from the 18th century so it might not have the value of a 16th-century source. What's your opinion?

(Also, Starkey in the same book says that Richard of York, Edward IV's father, adopted the surname Plantagenet after 1448; Cokayne's Complete Peerage of England, Scotland, Ireland etc. Extant, Extinct or Dormant is the source. I've added the remark to this blog's original query a few months ago on royal surnames, since it contradicted what I had thought about the usage of Plantagenet in the 15th century; but I'd welcome hearing your views on this, too.)

Actually, would you mind if I occasionally brought up Starkey's latest opinion in this blog's query responses as I go through the book? I think the community here would appreciate and benefit from hearing what you think of Starkey's conclusions and why they are erroneous. I know I certainly would.

Lara said...

Foose, re: Starkey's new book - Would you like for me to make an open thread (on this blog instead of the general one) for the new book? It's going to be ages until I get a copy so I wouldn't mind hearing about it!

Foose said...

Lara, that would be fine with me. I would be happy to see what others think of this book. The only reservation I would have is that maybe a lot of people here are waiting for the U.S. edition to be published, and some of those who are reading the U.K. edition might "spoil" it for them. Although I guess we all know how the basic story goes. But I thought it might also be good supply the occasional flabbergasting Starkey argument from the book to the regular queries to see what phd historian and others have to say.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Foose, for supplying Starkey's source for the story. Leland is a fairly credible source, if used properly. The 18th century volume of Leland's work is actually an edited version of the original 16th century manuscript notes Leland (ca. 1503-1552) made while traveling around England and Wales in the 1530s and early 1540s. So it is actually a primary source for the Tudor period.

I say "if used properly" because it appears to me that Starkey may have been a little misleading in his footnote, especially if he cites Volume 4 of the original 1715 edition of Leland's De Rebus Britannicis Collectanea as the source for the story that Henry sent Elizabeth to Winchester for the birth in anticipation of naming the child Arthur and creating a closer association between the nascent Tudor dynasty and the Arthurian legends.

On page 190, Leland begins a very detailed description of the coronation of Elizabeth. There follows a lengthy panegyric poem to Henry VII that compares him to every Biblical and mythological savior-king and warrior imaginable. Leland then describes Henry's progress through Hereford and the attendant pageants, and his subsequent move onward to Gloucester and Bristol (p.199). There he is received by a person portraying Justicia who delivers a lengthy speech that Leland records. From there, he returned to Westminster on 5 June (p. 202). Then on page 203:

"And sone after the King departed from Westminster towarde the West Parties, and hunted, so to Wynchester, where on St Eustachius' Day the Prince Arthur was born."

There the chapter ends. The following chapter begins with a lengthy description of the christening of Arthur.

In short, Leland makes absolutely no mention whatsoever of any effort on Henry's part to send Elizabeth to Winchester in order to associate the birth of Arthur with the Arthurian legends. Elizabeth is not even referred to after page 192. Instead, Leland makes it fairly clear that Henry was himself already in the area on a kind of restful hunting holiday following what was no doubt an arduous official progress through the west country. It would appear from Leland that Arthur was born in Winchester simply because the king just happened to be there when Elizabeth reached her term, not because of some colorful attempt to recreate King Arthur in the infant being born.

Starkey was no doubt citing Leland as a source of evidence that Arthur was born in Winchester. He cannot have been legitimately citing Leland as a source for the Arthurian-Round Table story.

Anonymous said...

I am curious, at what point did the church decide to change this law? When did it change to fornication before the wedding night? So, Anne Boleyn was probably pregnant with Elizabeth I when she wed Henry VIII. Correct?