Monday, 18 December 2017

Francis, Anne Neville, Edward of Middleham and illnesses in the late 15th century

A while ago, I spoke about the possibility that Francis was prone to sickness or had some sort of illness or physical condition which affected his life and movements. While he did participate in battles in his life, and in the last two years of his life engaged in doubtlessly physically strenuous rebellions, it is quite notable that those were exceptions, and that for most of his life, he seemed to avoid taxing activities. He did not seem to travel more than he had to, not even going to see the lands he had been granted by Richard after the 1483 rebellion, nor attempting to strengthen his power base there. It is also recorded that in several instances, he was not where he would have been expected to be. An obvious example of this is his unexplained failure to "attend the king" in early summer 1482, which he wrote to William Stonor he had intended, as well as his absence in the beginning of the fights against the Scottish that year. Notably, in that same year, he also does not seem to have stayed until the end of those Scottish campaigns, despite having expressed an intention to do so. There are other examples, detailed in the earlier article about his health.

Naturally, as stated there, there can be other explanations for all of the above-mentioned oddities, although taken together, they do point towards him having a rather fragile health. As has recently been pointed out to me by the wonderful Kathryn Warner, his actions and lack of travelling is quite similar behaviour to that of Edward II`s cousin Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, who equally appears to have had some sort of physical condition that often prevented him from travelling. Though more is known about Thomas`s actions and movements than Francis`s, and therefore a conclusion about his health can be reached with more certainty, the similarities to Francis are there.

In Francis`s case, whatever his physical condition was might have had other impacts on him and his life than just difficulties travelling and potentially attacks of illnesses. It is very notable that on 10th June 1485, probably in the face of the upcoming battle, he arranged for his wife Anne to receive some manors in the event of his death. As I have pointed out before, he arranged it so she was not just allowed keep them for the rest of her life, but would own them and be able to pass on to her descendants after her death, suggesting very clearly that despite their childlessness, it was not her fault and that she could have children. Since this arrangement could have disadvantaged any children Anne had by him, giving their half-siblings she potentially could have had by another man after Francis`s death a claim to these manors, it seems he thought or knew that their childlessness was his fault. This might have been directly due to an illness he had, of course, potentially making him unable to have sex. Horribly, it might also be connected to something that happened in his childhood, perhaps explaining his apparent hatred for his father. However, it could also be that abstinence from sex was advised by physicians as a way of treatment for a condition he had.While there were different views on sexual activity and health during the 15th century, an widespread opinion seems to have been that too much sex could be detrimental to physical health. For example, when Prince Juan of Asturias, son of Isabella of Castille and Ferdinand of Aragon, died, stories circulated that this was his cause of death, and supposedly there had been concern about it even in his own household before his death. If such concerns and fears were also known in England at the time, it might therefore be that Francis did not want to risk already frail health, or was advised not to.

This is, of course, only speculation. While there is quite some circumstantial evidence in regards to Francis`s (ill?-)health, just what exactly he had, what effects this had and how exactly it affected him is something that it is unlikely will ever be known for certain, just as it will never be known for certain just why he seemed convinced he could not have children. 

Nowadays, with our advantaged knowledge of medicine, we know of course that illnesses can affect fertility, but while it is hardly impossible that it was an observation also made by medieval physicians, it is not something anyone could have had certainty of without a modern fertility test. However, in hindsight, a lack of children in a historical figure is sometimes assumed to have been due to reduced fertility because of illness, such as in the case of Anne Neville.

Richard`s wife and queen, she is often assumed to have been sickly and the fact she and Richard had only one child together attributed to this. However, while naturally it is completely impossible to diagnose anyone`s fertility or lack thereof and its reasons over a time of 500 years, for Anne there is no evidence she was possessed of a frail health or ill at any time before she contracted the illness that killed her, often assumed to have been tuberculosis, probably around three or four months before her death in March 1485.

Naturally, this does not mean that she did not have some sort of condition affecting her fertility; all it does mean is that if so, she was probably herself unaware of it and that, from all we know, it never affected any of her actions and movements. In contrast to Francis, whenever we actually do know of her movements, which sadly is not very often, they suggest nothing unusual and there are no known instances of her not being somewhere she was expected to be or even had expressed an intention to be. She was not noted to be frail or have a history of ill-health by anyone who met her, such as the Spanish ambassador who travelled with her from Windsor to Warwick in summer 1483, and seems to have fulfilled her duties as duchess and queen without any troubles.

In fact, there is even some evidence that Anne was not worried about her health even when she was pregnant with her son Edward, which she most likely would have been had she known to be prone to illnesses. In such a case, it is most likely she would have chosen to remain where she was and, if possible, avoid travelling during that time, for fear of something happening that might harm both her and the baby, or even trigger a miscarriage. However, Anne did not do so, suggesting she had no such fears. As Annette Carson and Marie Barnfield point out, in around mid-February 1476, Anne was in Durham, where she was "granted consorority by the Priory and Chapter of Durham Cathedral on the 14th of that month in thanks for her devotion and benefactions to the monastry". (Carson, Barnfield "Edward of Middleham`s BIRTH") She would have been around four or five months pregnant then, so her making a journey then suggests she had no worries, despite her condition, very clearly indicating there were no problems with her health and she also did not have a history of health problems. It also suggests that despite what is often assumed, Anne most likely did not have miscarriages before she had Edward, since travelling while pregnant was thought to put a woman more at risk of having one and Anne would have been unlikely to put herself and her baby at risk if she had already suffered miscarriages.

In the light of this, there is the question of why she and Richard only had one child. It is, naturally, a question to which no more answer can be found, though there are plenty of possibilities ranging for her not being particularly fertile and not spending enough time with her husband to become pregnant often despite this to there being a gynological issue that caused her no pain or noticable trouble and could not be discovered with the medicine of the time. However, as Annette Carson points out, "doctors would have been called in immediately upon little Edward [of Middleham]`s death to examine the worrying matter of whether [Anne] would ever bear another child. The stars would have been consulted and horoscopes cast." (Carson, Richard III: The Maligned King, 292). It seems that at least at that time, there was no concern that Anne could not have another child. Even the most hostile sources only mention Richard`s supposed impatience with her to have taken place around Christmas 1484, several months after his son`s death. The suggestion is that at least immediately after his death, she was not thought to be unhealthy, frail or unable to have more children. 

However, at some point between Edward`s death, which was very likely in mid-to late April 1484, and Christmas of the same year, Anne fell sick with the illness that would kill her on 16th March 1485. It is not definitely known what it was, only that it appears to have been a wasting sickness of some sort, though usually it is assumed that it was tuberculosis - which Henry VII also supposedly died of and which, while, as most illnesses, even more of a risk for men and women not of the nobility and royalty, clearly could hit everyone.

Little is known how Anne was treated for her illness, be it tuberculosis or something else, but it seems to have been accepted as early as two months before her death that she would not recover, and there is evidence her husband was sounding out his possibilities of remarriage upon learning this, before she died - which sounds extraordinarily callous for modern ears but would likely have been seen as a necessity for a childless king. 

There is little evidence, in fact, as to what his personal feelings may have been about Anne`s illness, which is not from very biased sources. However, one tidbit from the Crowland Chronicle, which suggests that Richard was hoping to speed her demise along, might give an intriguing glimpse of how Anne`s illness was seen. In a rather confused narrative which pronounced Richard at first as waiting for Anne`s death and then as her only being made sick by his supposed plans to marry his niece Elizabeth of York - which has been spoken about at length by people cleverer than me - it is then said that Anne`s "illness was supposed to have increased still more and more, because the king entirely shunned her bed, declaring that it was by the advice of his physicians that he did so." (Translation from the original Latin by Henry Thomas Riley.) Of course, whether this statement was ever actually made by Richard is unknown and it should be treated with extreme caution, given the unreliability of the source regarding the details of Anne`s illness and death, but if so, it suggests that it was known that whatever illness she had was contagious and could be passed on by airborne infection. 

Sadly, we do not know much more about the course of her illness, only that after around three or four months during which her state seems to have rapidly become worse, she died on 16th March 1485. She was just three months shy of her 29th birthday, but despite her early death, it does not seem that she suffered from ill-health during all her life or at any other point but her last few months.

Nor, in fact, is there any such evidence for her and Richard`s son, Edward of Middleham. Even less evidence survives for him than for his mother, but a lot of what has traditionally been taken as a sign that he may have been of ill-health does not necessarily have to mean it and often hinges on a mistaken belief about his birth year, which was long assumed, for example by Paul Murray Kendall, to have been in late 1473, but which was almost definitely only in summer 1476. This difference of two and a quarter years explains some of the behaviour Kendall, for example, found strange, such as the fact that on his way from Middleham to York to be invested as Prince of Wales, the child travelled in a litter and not on a horse. However, for a child of only just seven years old, it might have well been a too long distance to ride, while perhaps a nearly ten-year-old might have been able to ride that long. 

Equally, the fact he was only about to turn seven when his uncle Edward died and his cousin Edward was thought to be crowned soon presumably explains why he did not join his mother when she came to London in early June 1483 for her nephew`s coronation. By the time it became clear that his parents would be crowned instead of his cousin, it may well have been too short notice to rush a just seven-year-old from Middleham to London and he may have been regarded as too young to attend the ceremony in any case.

Naturally, like with his mother, it is possible that he had problems we have no longer evidence of, but the surviving evidence does indicate nothing of the sort. At no point when he was in the public eye, such as when he was invested as Prince of Wales, was there ever a suggestion made by anyone that he was not well. In fact, his death was reported by the Crowland Chronicle as coming after "an illness of but short duration", with no indication that he had been often ill or this was in any way a result of a longer-lasting condition which culminated in a fever.

There is no indication what this short illness was, but without modern medicine, even illnesses today regarded as little more than a nuisance could be lethal, and child mortality, even in the circles that could afford the best doctors and medicines there were, was horrifyingly high. Edward`s own cousins Mary of York and George of York died of the plague, at the age of 14 and 2 respectively. It is possible that so did he, though of course there is a sadly long list of other illnesses that could have killed him, even if he was a healthy child until he contracted it.

Being ill in the Middle Ages was, arguably, even more dangerous than today, and a lot depended on fate, or luck. It was possible to survive childhood and lead a normal life even while being possessed of a fragile health, as Francis seems to have done, but equally it was possible that an illness killed a previously healthy person unexpectedly.


  1. Love this! This is very interesting for everyone who likes the characters from the War of the Roses (some of them are often forgotten). Do you mind if I share this on my social media?

    1. Thank you. :)
      Not at all, please do! Just say where it is from.

  2. Of course! ��