19 June marked a sad date in Henry the Young King and his wife, Marguerite’s life. On this day in 1177 at
queen gave birth to their only child, William. Born premature, the child died soon after. Interestingly enough, there are two different versions
describing the event and apparently some controversy arose over it at the time.
Roger of Howden, for instance, noted that: Paris
… queen Margaret, the wife of the king, the son, being pregnant, went to her father [Louis VII], the king of
France, and, on arriving at , was delivered of a still-born son. The Franks, however, asserted that this son of the king was born alive and was baptized, and named William. (The Annals, Vol I, p.456) Paris
I assume that in this case the Franks must have been in the right. After all theirs was the first-hand information.
In her wonderful novel The Greatest Knight, Elizabeth Chadwick poignantly described baby William’s arrival into this world and his quiet passing shortly after (excerpt quoted with Elizabeth Chadwick’s kind permission):
“The men were leaving the field when a herald came running towards them, waving his arms. ‘Sire, my lord, the Queen is delivered of a son!’ he cried, his face shining with the joy of the news he carried.
Henry shouted a thank you to God and whirled to William, grey eyes fierce with triumph. ‘Do you hear that, Marshal? A son, I have a son!’ He fisted William’s arm hard enough to bruise, even through gambeson and tunic.
‘That is great news, my lord!’ William fisted him back, although without quite as much force. ‘How is the Queen?’ he enquired of the messenger.
‘The women say very tired but joyful, sir.’
‘I must see him!’ Henry’s expression was incandescent as he spurred for the stables, pulling up in the yard so fast that the horse skidded on its haunches. Flinging from its back, he ran into the palace. William followed at a more sedate pace, a burden lifting from his mind. Marguerite had survived the ordeal and the sight of his young lord’s energy and eagerness gave him hope that everything might yet turn out for the best.
‘The heir to
now has an heir of his own,’ said Baldwin de Béthune, riding up beside William,
his lips parted in a white grin. ‘That’ll change him.’ Normandy
Marguerite gazed at the baby sleeping in her arms. He had been tightly bound in swaddling so that he resembled a little parceled-up fly in a spider’s larder. His eyes were closed and the tiny lashes glittered as if dusted wit gold. Delicate blue shadows lay beneath them and his skin had the pale hue of lavender flowers. His breathing was so silent that she could hardly hear it, or feel it confined within the shroud-like layers of swaddling.
‘William,’ she whispered his name to herself and the speaking of it warmed the cold place in her heart. He had been named for his three times great-grandfather, the Norman duke who had conquered England, and for Henry’s small brother who had died whilst still an infant and who would have been the ‘Young King’ had he lived. But there was another named William in their lives too, whose presence perhaps mattered more.
She thought of the joy on her husband’s face as he entered the birthing chamber, his pride as he held his newborn son and the way that he had shown the child to all in the room in the same way that he would enthuse over a new piece of harness or jousting equipment. It was the first time in their marriage that he shown such a spark when it had a direct connection to her. It had made her feel sad and overwhelmed with happiness at the same time.
With a soft rustle of movement a midwife parted the half-closed bed curtains. The wet nurse who had been engaged to suckle the baby stood little behind her. ‘Is our princeling ready for a feed yet?’ The midwife held her arms for the baby. ‘He should be by now.’
Awkwardly, Marguerite gathered his little body and handed him to the midwife, who cradled him gently across to the wet nurse. The women exchanged glances. ‘What is it, what’s wrong?’ Alarmed, Marguerite pulled herself upright on the bolsters and felt the hot trickle of blood between her thighs. ‘Please…’
‘Nothing, madam, calm yourself, nothing is wrong. Your son is just tired after his hard passage into the world. Come now.’
A second midwife arrived to tend to her. The blood-soaked clothes between her legs were checked and changed. The woman gave her a bitter-tasting potion to drink and plumped the pillows. Beyond the curtains she heard the rapid whispering of the women like leaves chased before a storm. She knew something was amiss and struggled to rise from the bed, but exhaustion and loss of blood made her weak and when she set her foot on the floor there was no strength in her limbs and she collapsed. Her women came running and, with cries of consternation, put her back to bed.
‘My son,’ she wept, ‘where is my son?’
‘Hush now, madam, hush now. Do not trouble yourself. He is in good hands.’ Cool fingers stroked her brow and the soporific they had given her made her lids heavy. She fought sleep, but it came anyway on rolling dark waves. The last she heard was the soothing murmur of her women, soft but treacherous as the sea, and not a single gull-like mew of a newborn infant. As she sank fathoms deep into slumber, forced beneath the waves like a broken ship, her son breathed softly once, twice, and with a gentle shudder in the nurse’s arms, died.”
The Greatest Knight, pp. 172-175
Had William survived he might have changed his father into a responsible, energetic man, who would not have got himself involved in one more rebellion against his father and brother. If the young William had outlived his father, and ascended the English throne upon his grandfather ’s death,
would not have had to wait five hundred years for its William III to arrive. Let
me add that the Angevin William III might have turned out to be his father’s
alter ego… tall in stature and distinguished in appearance, … fair among the
children of men, …courteous and cheerful, … gracious to all, … loved by all. As
for acute political judgment and inborn intelligence, I would have him molded out
of the same clay as his grandfather, Henry II had been. With a little help of the loyal advisers - I am
certain that William Marshal would have done for the Young King’s son what he
actually did for John’s son- his accession to the throne might have marked the
beginning of a peaceful and prosperous reign. This is the optimistic version. On the other
hand, we cannot forget of William’s uncles, Richard Duke of Aquitaine, Geoffrey
Duke of Brittany and the youngest John, who might have not been so eager to
help their twelve-year-old nephew (at the time of Henry II’s death in 1189,
William would have been twelve) peacefully ascend the throne. To the contrary,
they would have probably sought their own fortune and reached for the crown, especially Richard,
second in line… England
We can only guess…