Princess Mary Tudor as Godmother and Benefactor of Midwives and Wetnurses

By Henderson, Frank | Magistra, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Princess Mary Tudor as Godmother and Benefactor of Midwives and Wetnurses


Henderson, Frank, Magistra


The liturgy of baptism is one aspect of the ritual life of the medieval church where women, as women, had a special role. One, two or three godmothers were indispensable in this liturgy (except in emergencies); as well, midwives also had a special part.

One individual godmother about whom there is quite a bit of information is Princess Mary Tudor, daughter of King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, and the future Queen Mary I; she was born 18 February 1515-16. So far as is known, Princess Mary first acted as godmother in 1522, when she was about seven years old. Based on financial records of the king, we are told that "In the course of this month [February], the Princess stood godmother to Mary, the infant daughter of Sir William Comp ton, Knight, and at the baptism the sum of 33 s 4 d was given to the Lady Maistress to distribute in reward."1

The "Lady Maistress" was the head of Mary's personal household, her governess. At the time of her birth, Mary's governess was Lady Margaret Bryan; how long she stayed in that post is not known. This record also introduces the subject of financial responsibilities, i.e. "rewards," associated with being godmother, which will be considered at length below.

The next relevant records that survive stretch from December 1536 to May 1538 and from December 1542 to December 1 544. In this period the princess was godmother to her stepbrother Edward and as well to twelve other children. Thus by the time Mary was about 28 years old she had acquired at least fourteen godchildren.

Three lenses or perspectives will be applied here to illuminate and recognize Princess Mary's role as godmother. These are (a) the text of the liturgy of baptism, (b) narrative descriptions of two particular baptisms by contemporary chroniclers, and (c) certain relevant financial records. Some of these records also show that she was present for, or had a serious interest in, still other baptisms in which she did not act as godmother. Finally, they shed some light on Mary's relationship to midwives and wetnurses and to the role of these women in baptism as well as in childbirth and nurturance.

Sources

One source used here is the text of the liturgy of baptism used in late medieval England. This is available both in the original Latin2 and in a modern English translation.3

A second set of sources consists of narrative descriptions of the baptisms of Prince Edward (the future Edward VI) and other nobility. These include "The birth and christening of Prince Edward," by John Strype;4 a chronicle by Thomas Wriothesley,5 and "The Christening of Prince Edward," by John Leland.6 The third source consists of financial records for Princess Mary's household beginning when she was about age 24 and, with interruptions, continuing until she was about age 28.7

Princess Mary as Godmother: the Liturgy of Baptism

The first lens or perspective is that of the liturgy of baptism itself. What does it say about what Princess Mary said and did as she acted as godmother? We may begin by recognizing the overall structure of this liturgy in late medieval England. It had three parts, the first of which was called "The Order for the Making of a Catechumen." This had to do mostly with the person who is to be baptized as well as godparents and presiding minister. The second part is called "The Blessing of the Font," and has to do with the water and font used in baptism. The third part is called "Concerning Baptism," that is, the baptism itself: the immersion of the child in water with the Trinitarian formula, followed by the raising of the child from the water. Finally, if a bishop is present, there is "The Confirmation of Children." The first part of the liturgy was celebrated "at the door of the church;" the second and third parts at the font; confirmation was celebrated, at least sometimes, at the altar.

When Princess Mary was godmother, she also acted in conjunction with several other persons, among whom was the priest or bishop who presided. …

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