Life Cycles in England, 1560-1720: Cradle to Grave

By Mary Abbott | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3

Conception, birth, infancy

A MEANS OF CHEATING DEATH

In this uncertain world raising a child offered a means of cheating death 'by prolonging life into future ages and generations'. A son was the ideal channel through which land, a title, a trade, a faith, a family or a given name could be transmitted. Daughters, though legally and practically much less effective, made their contribution: the parson Ralph Josselin recorded the birth of 'a daughter intended for a Jane' in November 1645; in 1585 Henry Greaves, tenant of a very small holding in Cambridgeshire, left his property to his wife 'and after her death to my child, be it man or woman, if it please God she be with any'. For many getting a son was an agonisingly slow business. It took James II the best part of thirty years and fifteen pregnancies by his two wives to achieve a son and heir. The marriage of his elder daughter, later Queen Mary (born 1662), and her husband William of Orange was childless. The seventeen pregnancies endured by his younger daughter, later Queen Anne (born 1665), failed to yield a child who survived her. In such a climate infertility was a cause of misery and resentment. First marriages which were successful in spite of childlessness were noteworthy.

As Chapter 6 makes clear, few women entered their childbearing years before their middle twenties. The exceptions were the daughters of landowners and the richer merchants and professional men who tended to find (or be found) husbands when they were several years younger. Many first babies were conceived by the older plebeian brides during courtship but the overwhelming majority of births took place within marriage. Bastard bearing, and indeed extramarital sex, was an offence. So strong was the presumption that an unmarried mother would resort to infanticide 'to avoid shame and to escape punishment' that an Act passed in 1624 determined that, if her child was found dead, she should be executed for its murder unless she could produce proof that it was stillborn. For a variety of reasons, therefore, the sexually active population included some people who were desperate to conceive and others equally concerned to avoid pregnancy.

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