St Agnes Day by Wendy J. Dunn
Within the huge stone hearth the fire blazed furiously, eating its way through wood as if with hunger of the famished. Even so, despite its heat, the young girl on the bed shivered, curling her body upon the bed in a tighter knot. But not as tight the knot of pain pulling across her swollen stomach, a pain soon an agony – an agony twisting around and around it every fiber of her being. Margaret gasped, moaned – and one of the women sitting near the bed reached across, taking her hand.
“The pains are coming close together, m’ lady – thank be God. You’ll be holding your babe very soon now – never you mind.”
Margaret turned her face, pressing it deeper into the pillow – ashamed she’d cried out aloud – ashamed of her tears. Realising someone lay a hand on her shoulder, Margaret wiped her cheeks on the pillow and gazed through the veil of her unbound hair at the midwife.
“I’ll be having a quick look, m’ lady – if you’ll be rolling onto your back. I’m thinking it’s time we take you back to the birthing-stool.”
Margaret did as the woman bid, closing her eyes to the indignities of the birthing chamber, concentrating hard on the prayer she muttered – desperately trying to block out the reality of hands examining her under soft pelts of animal skins.
She’d been in labour two days. A labour seemingly going no where, other than to take her down an agonised path – a path where there appeared no arrival, no escape. She was thirteen years old, orphaned long ago of her noble father and mother. Every day of her short life she had been considered a great heiress. So rich that Margaret’s guardian, the King, ensured an early marriage bed for her – marrying her to his own half-brother. Now, brought big belly to the safety of the stronghold of her brother-in-law and little more than a child herself, she laboured to bring forth her first child.
The women helped her out of the bed, one of them snatching a shawl to place around Margaret’s thin shoulders. The girl found herself nauseous and her body shook uncontrollably as she walked barefooted to the birthing-stool, placed not far from the fire. Just before she reached it, she grabbed the two women for support. An unmerciful giant slowly heeled his foot into her back, making her gasp for breath.
“Mother of God,” she cried, as the giant threatened to break her into half. When the pain began to recede, Margaret drowned in a moment of utter terror. Would she die, just like so many other women did in childbed? Oh please God – don’t let my poor child be bereft of both mother and father. She thought of her husband, the Lord Edmund, dead only twelve weeks ago, after his capture in a foray against York traitors. She shook her head. No, she would survive. She couldn’t leave her baby unprotected, and treated only as a powerless pawn, just as she had been treated ever since her third year.
Margaret sat in the birthing-stool, and one of the women put a goblet to her lips. Too exhausted to question, obediently she drank, a bitter taste making her mouth burn. The eyes the midwife raised to her were filled with compassion.
“That’ll help things along, don’t you fear, madam. I know m’job. it won’t be long now.”
Later in her memory, the time following the midwife’s words always remained as a series of disjointed, dream-like images, almost as if this time happened to someone else rather than herself. But one thing she would remember with clarity all her life – the moment one of the women placed into her arms a squirming, crying infant. A son. Her son. The midwife placed the child on Margaret’s breast, and he began to nuzzle, his young mother studying him more closely. So perfect – all of him – from his toes, to his hands, miniatures of her own – finely boned, fingers long, and tapering – to dark eyes now gazing at her as if he already knew her.
“I shall call him Henry, after the King. Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond,” she said to the smiling women. Then she looked down again upon her babe, whispering. “My son, I swear to you I’ll protect you. You and I – together – we shall be a force to be reckoned with.”
The following quote is from Antonia Fraser, The six wives of Henry VIII, 1992, unabridged, pp 29-30.
Where an heiress was concerned, her ‘spoiling’ by being obliged to have sex and bear children too young might have important consequences. The physique of the great heiress Margaret Beaufort was considered to have been ruined by early childbearing. She bore the future Henry VII when she was only thirteen, and never had any more children in the course of four marriages. Henry survived, but the existence of a single heir was in principle a great risk to any family in this age of high infant mortality, as the shortage of Tudor heirs would continuously demonstrate. Negotiations for the marriage of James IV King of Scotland and Arthur’s sister Princess Margaret had begun in 1498. The trouble was that the bride was only nine, while the King of Scots was twenty-five. Both Princess Margaret’s mother and her grandmother Margaret Beaufort – the latter with an obvious grim interest in the subject – worried about the age gap and pleaded for the marriage ceremony itself to be held off lest consummation follow: ‘they fear the King of Scots would not wait, but injure her and endanger her health.”
Margaret Beaufort seems a woman many people dislike. I, a true Libran, try to weigh up all the pros and cons before reaching a final decision. Even so, in regards to Margaret, one thing swaying my sympathy towards her – even though it happened often in these times – is the knowledge she was a ‘child-mother’. Giving birth at 13 not only damaged her body in such a way she would never bear another child, I believe it very likely that this event would have helped shape her into the woman she became.
As much an enigma in her own times as she is to ours, Margaret Beaufort was clearly ambitious for her only child born in the first of her three marriages. Margaret had a reputation for intelligence, and piety – after being widowed of her last husband she lived a life seemingly devoted to religion – founding several religious houses as well as colleges at Cambridge. Separated from her son early in his life, during the reign of Richard III she always acted with one goal in sight- her son would wear the crown of St. Edward.
- Star-Crossed Lovers Week: Elizabeth Woodville and Edward IV (andreacefalo.com)