Sterility and Sovereignty: The Succession Crisis of the Late Valois Monarchy

Penny Roberts


No issue was of greater concern to sixteenth-century monarchs than securing their dynastic inheritance through the legitimate birth of a healthy male child. This consideration dominated policy to such an extent that it could result in the repudiation of wives, the annulment of marriages, and, most notoriously in the case of Tudor England, religious schism following the rejection of papal authority. This chapter explores the interrelationship of concepts of sterility and sovereignty in social and political responses to perceived failures of fertility among the Valois kings of France in the late sixteenth century, with special focus on Henry Ill (r. 1574-89). This examination demonstrates that perceptions of political legitimacy were closely tied to public demonstrations of the capacity for reproduction. The chapter first outlines how and why the stability of the succession became such a fraught issue in the tense religious and political context of late sixteenth-century France, places the fertility problems faced by Henry Ill and his wife Louise de Vaudemont-Lorraine against the background of those experienced by earlier Valois princes, and considers the relation between bodily and political weakness in contemporary discourse. The second half of the chapter discusses the different ways in which Henry and Louise attempted to boost their fertility, places their health-seeking behaviour in the context of contemporary religious and medical practice, and demonstrates how Henry Ill’s lack of popularity was not only inseparable from his apparent failures both as the putative father of a family and the actual father of the nation, but eventually contributed to his murder.

P. Roberts (*)

University of Warwick, Coventry, CV4 7AL, UK e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© The Author(s) 2017

G. Davis, T. Loughran (eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of Infertility in History, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-52080-7_9

Important themes emerge from this discussion of the political resonance of sterility during the era of the late Valois monarchy, including the relation of religion to medicine in attempts to regulate reproductive behaviour, and the complexly gendered nature of blame and responsibility for the inability to reproduce. With hindsight, it is clear that the ability of monarchs to reproduce successfully was greatly hampered by intermarriage within a restricted gene pool in combination with the high infant mortality of the period. For contemporaries, the causes and effects were much less clear. They focused, in particular, on the operation of divine providence; the birth of an heir was seen as a sign of God’s blessing on the monarch and the dynasty and so, conversely, the failure to reproduce served as an indication of divine disapproval. Yet, at the same time, contemporary medical manuals and treatises recognized that practical measures could be taken to encourage conception, successful gestation, and a healthy birth. Several of these manuals were written specifically with royal reproduction in mind and, along with traditional recourse to supplication to God and his saints and close attention to astrological charts, were keenly embraced by monarchs as well as their spouses and advisers in the hope of a successful outcome. As Henry III and his wife sought medical, religious, and astrological help to produce an heir, they drew on established methods for great houses to secure the succession.

Within discourses on sterility, it was common to focus on women as primarily responsible for progeniture. This reflected the gender politics of the age. French kings customarily took mistresses who, along with their children, often played a very public role at court, demonstrating the monarch’s sexual prowess and reproductive potential in a way that was simply denied to queens. In practice, however, the production of illegitimate children did not displace blame from unpopular male monarchs whose principal duty was to produce legitimate male heirs to secure the future stability of the kingdom. After all, a wife’s sterility could easily be interpreted as punishment for her husband’s sins. Equally, the customary portrayal of the French king as ‘father of the people’ problematized this relationship when the monarch in question struggled to fulfil the paternal role expected of him.1 The familial and political contexts were thus inextricably entwined in considerations concerning the fertility of the monarchy. A sterile sovereign engendered a sterile nation, beset by uncertainty and anxiety and, in the case of France during its religious wars (1562-98), laid waste by civil strife. There was an urgent need, therefore, to find a successful remedy for royal infertility and its destabilizing consequences.

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