Sunday, 10 November 2019

Joan Beaumont, Margaret Beaufort and historical notions of fertility

Since I started reading Dr Nicola Tallis`s fabulous new book on Margaret Beaufort, I have been thinking about Margaret, her extremely early pregnancy with the future Henry VII, as well as Francis`s mother Joan Beaumont and her similarly early pregnancies.

The trigger for all these thoughts, and for this article, was Tallis´s statement that though it is usually assumed that Margaret had no more children after Henry because her giving birth at only 13 years of age made her infertile, this is not actually proved, and there might have been other reasons for it.

Naturally, I have nothing to say against this statement. It`s indubitably true. There was no way, with the medicine known in the 15th century, to ascertain infertility, even less the cause of it, and so today, we can only guess about the issues that affected the men and women at the time. However, in the light of all this, the thoughts and opinions of people in the 15th century about fertility and extremely young births are interesting and very telling.

Famously, by law, the age of consent in the 15th century was 12 years for women and 14 years for men. It is sometimes assumed that because of this, sex at this very young age was common and accepted. This is not so; and though it was not punishable by law, society at large did not look kindly on such early consummation. [1] Margaret`s extreme youth when she became pregnant and her husband Edmund Tudor`s decision to consummate their marriage this early caused a lot of unfavourable comments in contemporary and early modern sources, and there is evidence she herself considered it far too early. Many years later, she would counsel her son Henry VII not to allow his daughter, her granddaughter Margaret, to be married too early, as it could "injure her health". Obviously, she had her own experiences in mind and did not consider these experiences as normal and expected.

Nor was Margaret a special case, who was commented on because of the high status she had and the even higher status she got in later life. Though her case was lesser known than Margaret Beaufort´s, for the simple reason than she was of somewhat lesser birth and status, her contemporary Joan Beaumont`s very early pregnancy was similarly regarded with disgust by those who knew of it.

Born two years before Margaret, Joan became pregnant at some point in late 1454 or early 1455, at the age of just 13. She was, therefore, only a few months older than Margaret was when she became pregnant. She gave birth either shortly before or - somewhat more likely - shortly after her fourteenth birthday, to a boy called John, after his father. Though this small boy`s birth did not cause the comments Henry Tudor`s birth did, Joan`s pregnancy was not greeted with joy by her relatives. Her father-in-law, already less than friendly towards his son, Joan`s husband John Lovell, in his will, added a codicil shortly before his death, by which time he must have known of his daughter-in-law`s pregnancy. In this codicil, John Lovell was all but disinherited, with his father making sure he would only receive a pittance of his large fortune, and almost nothing for nearly as long as it would take for Joan`s child to reach majority. It is hard not to see a show of his feelings about his then 22-year-old son`s actions in consummating his marriage with his barely teenaged wife in this, but Joan`s own father was to make his feelings even clearer. In his own will, written in 1456, by which time Joan, then 14, was already pregnant again, he left a small amount of money to his baby grandson, but stated that his daughter ("my daughter Lovell, my life") was "to the fury of God, wife of John my son". It is, therefore, quite clear that so early consummation was not something that was accepted and expected. Like Margaret advised for her granddaughter, with her own experiences in mind, it seems that Joan`s son, Francis Lovell, took his mother`s experiences to heart when contemplating marriages for his sisters. Both of them were only married after their sixteenth birthday - a clear sign that like Margaret, he didn`t want to take any chances.

However, there is an obvious difference in the cases of Margaret Beaufort and Joan Beaumont, which harks back to the original point of the cause of Henry Tudor remaining an only child. Though only a few months older than Margaret when she first gave birth, Joan remained very fertile. Within only a couple of months of her first birth, she was pregnant again, and the pregnancy was successful - doubly remarkable as this second pregnancy resulted in a twin birth, something that was even more dangerous at the time than a single birth. That Joan survived both those births, together with all three babies, and remained fertile even after this, giving birth twice more in the following ten years, could suggest that it was not Margaret`s extremely early pregnancy and birth that caused her apparent infertility after Henry`s birth.

However, it is sheerest guesswork, and does nothing more than perhaps throw a doubt on this assumption. We know far too little to say that these cases were so similar that such a comparison makes sense. It is entirely possible that despite being nearly Margaret`s age, Joan was taller and stronger than Margaret, who was said to be very small even in her adult years, and therefore able to recover better from the births. It´s also possible, and in the case of her second pregnany, even likely, that Joan went into labour somewhat prematurely, and giving birth to therefore smaller babies did less lasting damage. All of this is possible, none of it is verifiable, and cannot therefore be used to debunk or confirm the cause of Margaret`s infertility, and Joan`s continued fertility.

It is notable, however, that Margaret herself apparently seemed to think that her early pregnancy and birth had caused her infertility, or at the very least contributed to it, as can be seen in her statement that if her granddaughter was married too early it could "injure her health". This is particularly interesting in that while it obviously assumed it was because of her that her subsequent marriages after her first husband`s death had not produced any children, she saw her first husband´s actions in making her pregnant so early as at least partly responsible. In an age when infertility was almost always seen as the woman`s fault, this is certainly remarkable. That Margaret`s son and daughter-in-law apparently agreed, both supporting her point of view about this and their daughter`s marriage, suggests that the connection between too early births and infertility was at the very least seen as logical and a risk not worth taking - in addition to the very real and provable risk to a mother and child`s life in the case of a birth at too young an age.

Of course, what really caused Margaret`s infertility cannot be ascertained, but she herself, and her contemporaries, seemed to connect it with her experiences and her too early pregnancy and birth. Joan Beaumont was lucky in that she did not suffer those consequences, but she faced other perils. Her husband John Lovell, apparently an unsavoury character, did not seem to treat her well, even apart from forcing her to become pregnant so very early. Nor did he seem to treat his twin children well, with his relationship to his first son, John Lovell jr, who sadly died in childhood, unknown. With the birth of twins being in several legends seen as caused by a mother`s sexual appetites, in some cases even casting doubt on the twins` paternity, it might have given John Lovell ammunition for his bad treatment. All that can be said is that, through no consideration of his own, he definitely did not destroy his young wife`s fertility, while in the case of Edmund Tudor, he very well might have, and was at least contemporarily thought to be responsible for destroying Margaret Beaufort`s chance of having more children.

[1] In fact, most people only married in their twenties. It was only nobility who married so very young in the first place.

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Stop treating Anne Lovell badly!

This is going to be another installment in something about which I have spoken before; my deep-seated problem with the horrible, historically inaccurate and very sexist way Anne Lovell is treated in fiction. Her portrayals in fiction are so nasty that the novels most friendly to her simply ignore her existence, while those in which she is mentioned seem to be vying for the best way to portray her as the most horrible person anyone has ever encountered, and the most horrible character in the entire novel. There are novels which are sympathetic to Richard which portray Anne Lovell with more vitriol than Henry Tudor.

Now, being all for historical accuracy, I don`t condone inventing any inaccurate portrayal of Henry Tudor, either. Of course, in a novel about Richard, he is by necessity not a sympathetic character, but there need to be no inventions for it. But it`s more than a bit weird that authors who choose to invent nasty qualities for characters would do so for the wife of Richard`s best friend rather than for someone who actually did something bad to Richard, in a novel sympathetic to him.

There are three ways in which Anne Lovell is treated in novels, and none of them is good.

(1) "Yesterday upon the stair, I met a girl who wasn`t there".*

This is the most wide-spread version in non-fiction, and in the more sympathetic fiction, as at least it doesn`t slander her. For non-fiction it is somewhat explicable, as even Francis is often barely mention. It is a missed opportunity, as it ignores Anne`s very likely participation in Francis`s rebellions, that she committed treason for him and was considered dangerous by Henry VII`s government, but it is only logical that such subjects will not be addressed in non-fiction which barely mentions Francis`s rebellions. (Or doesn`t mention one of them at all, as often happens with the 1486 rebellion). In fiction, it is somewhat more jarring, as in non-fiction it can at least be assumed he probably was married at some point, while fiction of that sort sometimes glosses it over so much even Francis never thinks about it. In some of these cases, he has affairs with or outright relationships with other women, without him, them, or anyone else ever thinking about his wife, or even the fact he had a wife, at all. For all intents and purposes in those novels, it is as if she never existed.

(2) "She wasn`t there again today. Oh how I wish she`d go away."

This is a more common take in fiction; of Anne Lovell who is mentioned in passing as being Francis`s wife, but whose existence then never influences the plot, Francis`s actions, or even his thoughts and feelings again. Usually, this is explained by casual mentions of Anne being horrible, but at least it isn`t expanded upon and her supposed horrible horribleness made a plot point. A typical example is one novel in which it is claimed that her mother would not let her live with Francis as man and wife. This baffling statement is never explained, and in the whole rest of the novel, Anne is only brought up occasionally to be quickly dismissed (at various points as "weepy", "limp" and similar adjectives) and provide an excuse why Francis can`t marry his OC mistress, the author obviously being angry her existence stopped such a plot development. Another typical novel has Francis bring her up shortly to say his marriage isn`t as good as the supposedly perfect one of Richard and Anne Neville, and she`s never mentioned again. 

(3) "And every tale condemns me for a villain."

This is the worst, and sadly the most wide-spread version of Anne Lovell in fiction: a horrible woman who has all the bad qualities the author can think of. Various novels have called her ugly in colourful (and massively sexist) language, have insisted she is "unlikeable", "one of those miserable creatures who is happiest when pulling another soul to pieces" and other completely far-fetched and historically inaccurate claims. (And to make this whole thing even worse, more often than not, such qualities are told, not shown, which makes it seem like an excuse by the other characters for their relentless bullying of Anne Lovell.) Fairly often, this also comes at the expense of actual facts about Anne. Many novels age her up so Francis can state at a time when she was twelve in real-life that his marriage has failed, even that it is "hell". One claim that is found especially often is that she is frigid and sexless, and/or that she is so horrible Francis can`t bring himself to consummate the marriage, to explain why she and Francis had no children, as if infertility was an invention of the 20th century. (See below.) Also found often is the claim that she is so very religious, which somehow makes her bad. It`s all absolutely nasty (and this doesn`t even go into the implications of a woman apparently being bad when she doesn`t want sex for some reason).

Now, all of this would be bad enough if this was all there was to Anne`s portrayal in fiction. But it is not, because a lot of these portrayals do not only try and fill gaps in our knowledge in the worst possible way for Anne and based on no evidence, a lot of them actually take things we do have evidence for and which show her in a very good light, and claim the opposite.

The most obvious example for this is her and Francis`s childlessness. The most obvious explanation for this would be that one or both of them were infertile, and that it had absolutely nothing to do with the quality of their marriage. With a fair bit of digging, however - or reading my book, which I just mentioned here to advertise it and which of course couldn`t be done until three months ago - it becomes clear that Francis somehow knew it was his fault they couldn`t have children (which, given the lack of exact knowledge about reproduction at the time, almost certainly means he and Anne had to stop having sex at some point, possibly because of sickness or trauma), that she wanted children and that he was very sorry about this. It is perhaps expecting too much of novelists to do that much digging about what is essentially a side-character, but it also means that when these novels portray their childlessness as caused by Anne being horrible, they take an issue that was obviously painful for her and her husband, that was caused by something nasty for Francis and during which Anne supported her husband and stood by him, and use it as evidence she was horrible.

It`s similar with her being so religious and therefore horrible. It is not only offensive in itself, as if religiosity was somehow inherently wrong, it not only imposes modern values on medieval characters, whose understanding of and attitude towards religion was completely different to ours, it takes a sign of Anne`s love and loyalty to her husband and somehow turns it into the opposite. At some point before December 1489, age just 29, Anne took a religious vow of some sort, which meant she would never be able to marry again. It came after years of Anne committing treason to find Francis, committing treason to help Francis`s rebellions, standing by him through difficult time and being known to be an influence on him, and therefore clearly meant she didn`t want to be married to anyone but Francis. This is not as hard to find out as the issue with fertility above, and yet, somehow, her effectively making it clear that she did not want any other husband but Francis, gets presented as proof she hated him and didn`t want to be married at all.

The bottom line of all this is, I`m really sick of Anne Lovell`s portrayal in fiction.

*Yes, I know, it`s "man who wasn`t there", but it made neat headlines for these two subsections of poor Anne`s treatment in fiction.