A Brief Overview of Henry VIII’s Many Wives, But Shockingly Few Children

(aka; Pregnancy and Childbirth in the 1500’s or Giving Birth While Rich and Unhygenic or I Swear It’s a Son!)

Let’s talk about pregnancy and the bizarre medical beliefs that were around in Britain’s Tudor era, specifically within the Tudor family themselves since we have so much recorded about the royal family. To help you understand the lack of understanding in Britain about women’s health I want to share with you this story of Henry VIII’s first wife Catherine of Aragon, and her first pregnancy which ended in miscarriage and a cover up. It was reported by her confessor, Fray Diego, that “instead of Catherine’s belly diminishing with the delivery, the swelling continued and increased enormously.’ Probably this was the result of infection. But, disastrously, her physician persuaded himself that ‘the queen remained pregnant of another child” (Starkey. 2003), and this was something that people actually believed! Even when Catherine’s period came back. Now, that being said, we are dealing with a powerful and wealthy royal family. It can be hard to decipher if physicians were really lacking understanding or if they were just desperate to stay in good favor of the king, especially as it became increasingly apparent that it would be an uphill battle for Henry to get the son he wanted. Lying to the king or blaming it on the woman was an easy out, frankly, especially when it was so common for physicians and midwives to predict the biological sex of the child (which of course they had no guaranteed way of doing). Catherine would go on to have eight recorded pregnancies in 9 years, only three of which would result in live children, and two of those would die before reaching three weeks of age. Only Mary survived.

There are several theories for why his second wife, Anne Boleyn, failed to produce an heir; the most popular, and most scientific, being the idea that she could have been rhesus negative (Weir. 1991). Rh disease “happens when the Rh factors in the mom’s and baby’s blood don’t match” or if the baby and the mother have different blood types (Bowers & Freeborn). “The Rh negative mom’s immune system sees the baby’s Rh positive red blood cells as foreign. Your immune system responds by making antibodies to fight and destroy these foreign cells. Your immune system stores these antibodies in case these foreign cells come back again. This can happen in a future pregnancy. You are now Rh sensitized” Luckily, “Rh sensitization normally isn’t a problem with a first pregnancy. Most issues occur in future pregnancies with another Rh positive baby. During that pregnancy, your antibodies cross the placenta to fight the Rh positive cells in your baby’s body” (Bowers & Freeborn). This would explain why Elizabeth was born with no recorded difficulties but every pregnancy Anne had following resulted in miscarriages and stillborns. If you know the history of Henry VIII and his wives, you know that a huge factor in Anne Boleyn’s beheading was due to her failure to produce a male heir. The possibility of her being Rh negative would mean that there was nothing she could have done to give Henry a son, that her body would never have been able to produce again, especially with the limited medical knowledge at the time. The condition wasn’t even known of until 1940.

(Before we talk about his third wife and final child, I would like to mention that there is large amounts of evidence that the main issue Henry VIII had was actually his own virility. He consummated his marriage with 5 out of 6 wives, two of which never had a recorded pregnancy. He had two recorded mistresses, but only one of them produced a bastard (Henry Fitzroy, born to 19 year old Elizabeth Blount in 1518). However, notice that he was with Lady Elizabeth for five years, with only one child to show for it. There were frequently rumors that “the king was ‘no good in bed” (Wilson. 2009), and he was insistent that a new wife needed to “incite his passion. This was unusual in an age when kings tended to regard sex with their wives as duty and with their mistresses as pleasure” (Wilson. 2009), so it is very likely that he had a difficult time fulfilling his side of the job and that that decreased their chances of pregnancy. I haven’t even  mentioned the impact of  the stress and anxiety both he and his wives faced after years desperately wanting a son.Consider those psychological impacts.. Ok back to pregnancy.)

Since there were no reliable tests at the time, most women didn’t know if they were pregnant until about five months in (some women were known to “show earlier” like Catherine of Aragon). “a women’s lack of regular menstruation could be related to several factors including illness, breast-feeding, excessive fasting or even a poor diet.” (Bryson. 2016) so missing a period wasn’t even a reliable clue. Some odd tests that did exist but were unreliable include examining the color of the woman’s urine, or “examining a needle left in the woman’s urine to see if it rusted, or seeing what happened when wine was mixed with the woman’s urine” (Bryson. 2016). Lots of interest in pee….

Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, would bring Henry the son he needed. Jane’s pregnancies seem to have the most recorded information, either because the outcome deemed her worthy of keeping history of, or historians are biased and just talk about her more. We’ll never know. In mid-july at six months pregnant, Jane had a massive craving for quail’s eggs, which were of course out of season and had to be shipped in. Makes you wonder what the lower class might have craved, not having access to such luxuries (the original tale of Rapunzel comes to mind… anyway). In September, Jane went into three weeks of “confinement” (Starkey. 2003) before going into labor.

Confinement, or “lying-in” was a common practice for women of noble birth. They would seclude themselves from the world and essentially just wait to give birth, and then again after giving birth. Procedures had been set by Lady Margaret Beaufort, Henry’s paternal grandmother, many years previously that dictated what the furnishings looked like and where they went; what types and colors of fabrics were used; but mainly that an expecting mother was to withdraw from court a month before labor. “Fresh air was not considered necessary, indeed it was thought to be dangerous, but one window was left uncovered to admit light to the chamber” (Weir. 1991), so there’s a nice stuffy visual for you. “The idea was to recreate the womb: warm, dark and quiet.” (Bryson. 2016).

However, it is during this lying in time that they were most susceptible to puerperal fever, considerably so after the birth. Poor Queen Jane, after labor that reportedly lasted three days and three nights, she finally gave birth to a healthy baby boy, Edward, only to die shortly after.. There were reports that Queen Jane underwent a c-section, fabricated by Catholic writers looking to erk Henry; we know that “The earliest explicit description of a Caesarean is from the 15th century” (Renfeld. 2015), and was generally only done if the mother died in childbirth in efforts to save the baby (Bryson. 2016). If Jane had gone through such a procedure, it likely would have led to a swift death, but instead she lay in delirium for three days, and then passed away nine days after giving birth to the first and only legitimate son of Henry VIII. Puerperal fever was a common fate that mothers faced after childbirth, and it was caused by infection. It’s frequency was dramatically decreased once people started washing their hands, as it is thought that is was passed onto mothers from the hands of midwives, and general lack of hygiene that people had back then.

Pregnancy and childbirth was no joke in these times. It is speculated that “more than one in three women died during their childbearing years” (Bryson. 2016), but it was relatively unavoidable for the average woman. And since childbirth wasn’t considered medicine by Western doctors, physicians were only brought into the birthing chamber if there were complications that required more expertise than a midwife might have. Not to mention that midwives were only available to women who had the funds or a family friend. We don’t have very much information on what the average Tudor woman dealt with while she was pregnant, but considering their status and the already strenuous feat that pregnancy was, we can imagine it was no fun at all.

I wrote the above mini essay for my psychology class. We were to look into a time period of interest and how they treated and viewed pregnancy and childbirth. Being a total Tudor nerd, I went with my gut instinct and actually learned a couple new things about my favorite family.

If you find some of the above information to be incorrect and would like to have a discussion about it, I would be more than happy. I am providing a works cited so that you see I didn’t pull anything out of my ass. If I am wrong about something I swear its the fault of the authors and/or doctors below. But also I love the Tudor family in general and am always up for a chat about one of the most dramatic families in history (shockingly they were not related to Zeus, but you might think otherwise).

Also if you want any recomendations on good historical fiction on this family, I’d be happy to send some your way.


Works Cited:

> Bowers, N., RN, BSN, MPH, & Freeborn, D., PhD, CNM, FNP. (n.d.). Rh Disease. Retrieved May 29, 2017, from https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?ContentTypeID=90&ContentID=P02498

> Bryson, S. (2015, August 27). Childbirth in Medieval and Tudor Times by Sarah Bryson. Retrieved May 31, 2017, from https://www.tudorsociety.com/childbirth-in-medieval-and-tudor-times-by-sarah-bryson/

> Norton, E. (1970, January 01). Elizabeth Norton Historian and Author. Retrieved May 31, 2017, from http://elizabethnortonhistorian.blogspot.com/2013/07/margaret-beauforts-ordinances-for-royal.html

> Renfeld, K. (2015, June 30). Midwifery: Magic or Medicine in the Dark Ages. Retrieved May 31, 2017, from https://kimrendfeld.wordpress.com/2015/06/30/midwifery-magic-or-medicine-in-the-dark-ages/

> Starkey, D. (2009). Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII. London: Vintage.

> Weir, A. (1991). The Six Wives of Henry VIII. New York: Ballantine Books.

> Wilson, D. (2009). A Brief History of Henry VIII: Reformer and Tyrant. London: Robinson.

> Wood, J. W., II. (2008, March). Puerperal Sepsis. Retrieved May 31, 2017, from http://www.austincc.edu/microbio/2993p/sp.htm

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