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The Pregnancies of Katherine of Aragon by Sarah Bryson

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attributed to Lucas Horenbout , c.1525-1526

attributed to Lucas Horenbout , c.1525-1526

Sadly, on this day in history, on the 9th of November 1518, Katherine of Aragon, first wife of King Henry VIII, gave birth to a stillborn girl.

There are very few surviving details of Katherine's pregnancy but Venetian Ambassador Sebastian Giustinian wrote that "This night the Queen was delivered of a daughter, to the vexation of as many as know it;—the entire nation looked for a prince." A later report in the Venetian archives stated that: "The Queen had been delivered in her eighth month of a stillborn daughter, to the great sorrow of the nation at large".

At eight months, Katherine of Aragon would have gone into labour a month early. It is unknown if Katherine had time to enter her "lying in", where the Queen removed herself from court and shut herself away from the world. No men were allowed in her private rooms and the Queen was only allowed to be attended to by other women. The Queen's rooms would be closed off and tapestries would be hung over the windows to block out as much light from the outside world as possible. Only a single window would have been left open to allow fresh air and a small amount of light into the room as it was believed that too much light could damage the mother's eyes. Crucifixes and other religious items would have been kept within the room to provide spiritual support for the mother. The idea was to recreate the womb: warm, dark and quiet. The Queen's lying in generally took place around a month before the child was due, so it is possible that Katherine may have just entered her lying in when her sudden labour came upon her. Or perhaps she was just going through her daily routine. Whatever the circumstances surrounding Katherine's pregnancy and labour, she had to go through all that labour and childbirth involved only to deliver a daughter who never had the chance to draw her first breath. One can only imagine the sheer grief that Katherine must have felt.

The birth of this stillborn daughter was Katherine of Aragon's last pregnancy. By 1518, Katherine had been married to Henry VIII for nine years and had experienced around six pregnancies, but much to her husband and the kingdom's distress she had only managed to produce a single healthy child: a daughter. It is important to understand that the way men and women was viewed during the Tudor period was very different to how we, in many countries, view men and women today. In medieval England, the English crown had been held by men and it was strongly believed that women were physically and intellectually inferior to men. Women were expected to live up to the ideal of the Virgin Mary – to be pure and chaste - yet when they were married it was a woman's role to engage in sexual intercourse and to provide her husband with strong, healthy children, especially sons. In addition to this, it was strongly believed that it was the woman's fault if she could not produce healthy children. While extremely religious and devout, and wholly dedicated to her husband, Katherine of Aragon had failed to do the one thing that was seen as her duty as Queen: to provide her husband with a son and heir to carry on the Tudor blood-line and to succeed his father to the throne.

Throughout the centuries, historians have argued about the exact number of pregnancies that Katherine of Aragon experienced, with theories ranging from six to the staggering number of ten! Katherine of Aragon may not have known that she was pregnant until she had skipped several "courses" (the Tudor word for period) or until she felt her baby move within her at around four or five months (known as the "quickening"). This may seem strange to us in today's times with modern technology that can test if a woman is pregnant at just a few weeks, but such hope rode on a Queen's shoulders that it was vital to be sure the Queen was definitely pregnant before she advised her husband or announced it at court.

From examining the historical documents, it is strongly believed by most that Katherine in fact had six pregnancies:

1) 31st January 1510 - Katherine gave birth to a stillborn daughter at just seven months. On the 27th May 1510 Katherine wrote to her father, King Ferdinand that: "Some days before was delivered of a daughter. That her child was stillborn is considered to be a misfortune in England. Has, therefore, not written sooner, or permitted any other person to send the news of her confinement. Begs him not to be angry with her, for it has been the will of God. She and the King her husband are cheerful. Thanks God and him that he has given her such a husband as the King of England." Katherine and Henry were still young and the King believed that his wife would soon give him a son.

2) 1st January 1511 - Katherine gave birth to a baby boy, named Henry after his father. The whole Kingdom rejoiced and the King ordered a lavish celebratory joust to be held at Westminster. Tragically, the little boy would die on the 22nd February 1511, aged just fifty-two days old.

3) 17th September 1513 - Katherine gave birth to a son. The Venetian Calendar of State Papers record that "a male heir was born to the King of England and will inherit the crown, the other son having died." It is possible that the child was alive at birth but died shortly afterward. It should also be stated that Henry VIII was in France when Katherine gave birth and was not due to return to England until the end of October. It is highly unlikely that the King would be away for the long-awaited birth of a son and this could point to the fact that Katherine went into labour before her due date.

4) November 1514 - Katherine gave birth to a stillborn son. Venetian Ambassador Sebastian Giustinian wrote that "The Queen has been delivered of a stillborn male child of eight months to the very great grief of the whole court".

5) 18th February 1516 - Katherine gave birth to a daughter who was christened Mary. Mary would be Katherine of Aragon and Henry VIII's only surviving child. She became Mary I, the first female monarch of England.

6) 9th November 1518 - Katherine gave birth to a stillborn daughter. Once again Katherine had delivered a child in her eighth month of pregnancy.

Katherine of Aragon had borne six pregnancies within nine years, five of them resulting in the death of her children. The frequency of her pregnancies and the tragic loss of each infant took its toll upon the Queen and after November 1518 she had no more children.
It is unclear exactly why Katherine lost so many of her children. During the Tudor period it was not unusual for babies to die young and it is reported that only two out of every five births resulted in children that would live to adulthood. However, after six pregnancies Katherine had only a single living child, a daughter. There have been reports that Henry VIII was infertile, and while this may have been the case in the later years of his life, in the early years Katherine was able to fall pregnant at regular intervals. Katherine of Aragon was devoutly religious and was known to fast regularly and it has been suggested that this fasting while pregnant may have harmed the unborn child. Whether this is true or not remains unknown. It has also been suggested that with her failing pregnancies Katherine may have been under greater and greater pressure to provide her husband with a longed-for son and heir and that this stress affected the developing foetus.
Whatever the cause of the loss of Katherine's children it must have been extremely traumatic for the Queen, especially with the weight of the nation upon her shoulders. Sadly, Katherine was eventually cast off by her husband for another woman and she died before she could see her only living child, her daughter Mary, become Queen of England.

Sarah Bryson is the author of Mary Boleyn: In a Nutshell. She is a researcher, writer and educator who has a Bachelor of Early Childhood Education with Honours and currently works with children with disabilities. Sarah is passionate about Tudor history and has a deep interest in Mary Boleyn, Anne Boleyn, the reign of Henry VIII and the people of his court. Visiting England in 2009 furthered her passion and when she returned home she started a website, queentohistory.com, and Facebook page about Tudor history. Sarah lives in Australia, enjoys reading, writing, Tudor costume enactment and wishes to return to England one day. She is currently working on a biography of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk.

Click here to read an article on Katherine's 1510 stillbirth, and for more on pregnancy and childbirth in Tudor times, members can view Claire Ridgway's talk - click here.

Sources

There are 5 comments Go To Comment

  1. selkie /

    In the last decade or so it has also been suggested that the miscarriages were caused by Rh disease.
    With Catherine, however, this does not seem a valid diagnosis since at least two pregnancies were live births. But it might explain the miscarriages of Anne Boleyn.

    1. Claire Ridgway / Post Author

      From my understanding of problems caused by the mother being Rhesus negative, Rhesus disease results in stillbirth or deafness, blindness, cerebral palsy or learning difficulties, not miscarriage. With Anne Boleyn, she miscarried at what was said to be 15 1/2 weeks which is too early for a baby to be affected by her rhesus negative blood type, if she had one. Even today, with treatment for the problem, women are not given the anti-D injection (to stop their body making antibodies which would harm their baby) until around 28-30 weeks of pregnancy. I just don’t think that the rhesus theory fits Anne.
      It doesn’t really fit Catherine either. Rhesus disease does not occur in a first pregnancy but in subsequent pregnancies when a mother has been sensitised to Rhesus positive blood cells by carrying a Rhesus positive baby. After sensitisation, when the woman is carrying a Rhesus positive baby, her immune system will produce antibodies which attack and destroy her baby’s blood cells. Catherine’s first baby was stillborn, then she had a son who lived only 52 days, then a stillbirth or baby who didn’t live long, then another stillborn baby, then a living daughter and then another stillbirth. Although perhaps Mary was also rhesus negative. It’s impossible to tell but it doesn’t seem to be a good fit.

  2. Midge /

    I had actually posted this issue a couple years ago of RH incompatibility on my site as the reason for the deaths of Henry Vlll infants.

    Basically, the person who described the symptoms is wrong about what they read so their premise is wrong as well. They used a 20 year old article on Kernicterus which is a description of a high bilirubin levels of the blood caused by many dozens of different conditions. It is a description of a symptom not an article on RH incompatibility. This article took the outcomes from dozens of different conditions which cause high bilirubin levels in the blood and dumped all the outcomes into one bucket which your commenter then quoted.

    It is like saying all poxes are the same. Taking measles, chicken pox, shingles, smallpox, etc., and claiming they are all the same, then dumping all the possible outcomes into one bucket such as blindness, balding, hearing loss, scarring, death, heart damage, neurological damage, etc., and claiming those are the outcomes for any pox. That is the downside of reading an internet article and not understanding the nuances.

    Just as the terms Kernicterus describes a plethora of different medical conditions which cause high bilirubin levels in the blood… different conditions which don’t all cause rapid death like RH incompatibility… The term Hemolytic blood disorders do not apply to just one blood ailment. Nor are the treatments compatible. That is like saying, everyone who turns orange has pancreatic cancer. These develop kernicterus in completely different ways and neither is related. The difference with RH compatibility is the infants never live long enough to develop any of those conditions from the Kernicterus bucket.

    I pasted 3 links at the bottom with better info. The march of dimes would be the easiest for the general public to understand.

    Here are the symptoms without treatment before they die:
    An RH incompatible infant often dies before birth. The first child to that mother usually survives healthy. Rarely any others survive thereafter. mostly miscarriages and stillbirths. If they survive long enough to be born, they develop high bilirubin levels due to the destruction of red blood cells and damage to the liver which causes them to turn yellow. They can also be born with severe hemolytic anemia. They can suffer brain damage and heart damage from these conditions and Die within a few days to a couple weeks. Possibly a little longer. They cry a high pitched cry and either sleep too much or not at all. They don’t eat and are miserable and there is very little in their diaper. They don’t last very long.

    It is conceivable that a child with a lower dose of antigens could survive longer. Perhaps a few weeks, but without any treatment or medicines in the 1500’s it would soon die.

    RH incompatibility was one of the leading causes of infant death before they knew what it was and how to treat it. They would also have trouble seeing the yellowing skin in a dark, candlelit castle, thus don’t be surprised it wasn’t mentioned. So all they would know at that time if it was born alive, is that the baby wasn’t doing well, cried and wouldn’t eat and would continue to fade until it died. Most of Henry’s infants born alive died within a very short time.

    I am a survivor of RH incompatibility. My mother who was RH negative lied to the doctors that I was her first child so they were not concerned that my father was RH positive. The antibodies & antigens which result from the RH compatible are created during the birth of the first RH incompatible child.

    That first RH incompatible child has no problems because the mother doesn’t develop the antibodies until the birth. It is the second and subsequent incompatible child which is attacked by the antibodies developed from the first incompatible child.

    In my case, my brother was her first child. They were both RH negative So no antibodies (antigen D) were created. My mother’s second child, my sister, was RH positive which caused my mother to develop antibodies during her birth. Since she was the first RH positive “incompatible” child she was safe. The antibodies are developed during birth of the first child & thereafter. The antigen D sensitivity increases with each child. It does not matter how long between children. The mother carries these antibodies her entire life. They get stronger with age not weaker.

    When I was born 15 years later, RH positive & incompatible, my mother had lied about the previous births and claimed I was her first child. So the doctors were unprepared for the RH incompatibility. The antibodies began damaging my blood cells and liver. I turned orange a day or two later. It required a complete transfusion of all my blood to remove the antibodies attacking & cortisones to reduce the immune system. I still have my hospital records plus the siblings who witnessed the event. They are 19 & 15 years my senior. Thus, near adults when I was born.

    If I had been RH negative the antibodies would not have affected me even though antibodies formed from the 2nd child because it only affects the 2nd & subsequent RH “incompatible” babies. Mother also had several miscarriages. Only the subsequent RH positive babies were affected since she was RH negative.

    Mother was like Henry VIII. She had 5 husbands and 3 children. Each child had a different father. She was RH- The first child was also RH- The second child was RH+ and I was the third child. The second to have RH+ so I was the one who turned orange and nearly died until they transfused my blood. She also had at least 4 miscarriages and one abortion that I am aware of. She still didn’t learn and lied to the doctors about how many children… which could have prevented the miscarriages if the doctors had known to treat her. The patterns of these infant deaths are easily recognized in Henry VIII’s infants and miscarriages.

    It is also very difficult to see jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes). More difficult than you would think. Especially in the yellowish glow of candle light in a castle in the 1500’s. When my husband turned orange from pancreatic cancer, we could not tell if his skin coloring was from incandescent lights or not. It was more difficult to see his orange skin from inside the house than you would think. It took us a week to realize he was orange. Especially with tinted windows and incandescent lights. So it is not surprising that they didn’t notice the jaundice coloring of Henry VIII’s infants.

    The rapidity of organ failure depends on how many antibodies were exchanged during the birth of the second RH incompatible child. The more exchanged, the faster the organ failure.

    The RH incompatibility of Henry Vlll fits perfectly & I have suggested it several times. But few people understand it because they have no personal experience to recognize the patterns. I do. Since only 15% of the population has RH negative, it is likely that Henry Vlll had RH negative blood & his wives & mistresses were RH positive.

    Anne Boleyn was a classic RH incompatible situation. Her first incompatible baby survived because the antibodies developed in the mother during the birth of Elizabeth. All subsequent babies with RH negative died.

    After the creation of antibodies were developed from Catherine of Aragon’s first birth regardless of how long it survived or miscarried, all subsequent RH incompatible babies would die.

    Her daughter Mary must have been RH positive like her mother to survive because she was compatible with her mother. Both had RH positive blood. Only subsequent RH incompatible infants are affected. Compatible RH babies are not affected no matter how many die before them. Any subsequent RH negative babies born to Catherine would have continued to die.

    Mary Boleyn’s first child was likely her husbands and probably RH positive so no incompatibility occurred. Her second child Henry was the first incompatible RH negative child. So he was not at risk because he was the first RH negative incompatible child. Only the second & subsequent Incompatible babies are affected. If Mary had more RH positive children with her husband after Henry, they would not have been affected since they were not incompatible. Her husbands were likely RH positive since that is the standard for 85% of the population.

    The same would have been true for Jane Seymour. Only The first RH incompatible child survives. So Edward, her first survives. He was probably RH negative as was likely predominate for most of Henry’s children excepting Mary.

    If Jane had not died, she would have probably not produced anymore thriving babies since most would have been RH negative and incompatible. It seems Henrys RH negative was the dominant blood type of his offspring. This often runs in families & you may see more similar patterns of infant deaths in other royal family members prior to the medical community learning about RH incompatibility and how to treat it.

    Even in the case of his mistress, the first child survived with no problem. In Catharine’s case, she tried so many times that it was the luck of the draw that one of them eventually was compatible RH positive to produce Mary.

    In my case the doctors demanded to know why my mother lied. She answered with another lie & said she had 2 miscarriages she forgot to mention. All of those lies to cover the fact she lied about her age by 11 years to my father (11 years her junior) & didn’t want him to know she had a 19 year old son & 15 year old daughter so she continued to claim they were stepchildren. Hence 2 more children were miscarried after me due to her continuous lies.

    If the doctors had not noticed the jaundice of my blood cells being destroyed & transfused my blood then further damage from lack of oxygenated red blood cells could have affected the brain with serious consequences if the transfusion was not done in time. Without the transfusion, I would have died just like during the 1500’s.

    The length of time depends on when & how long the blood contamination occurs & how many antibodies are transferred. Since the babies blood supply is separate from the mothers, the onset usually occurs during the birth. But in rare cases, some leakage has occurred prior to birth. Perhaps from a fall or brutal spouse or tight corset.

    Without a transfusion the child will die. Each “Untreated” death is different lengths depending on how many antibodies & antigen D as well as the immune system of the infant & rate of blood cell & organ destruction. Some are born dead. Some live a couple weeks, some slightly longer. Also consider the addition of bad hygiene & other issues in the 1500’s. But all who are born untreated with the RH Antigens attacking their blood cells & organs will die without Treatment or a transfusion.
    I’ve seen the list of failed births of Henry VIII and these are clearly cases of RH incompatibilities.

    If someone could check Henrys remains, perhaps they can still determine his RH factor. I would bet he was Negative.

    I was lucky. They transfused my blood before I had damage & have a very high IQ. But I could have sustained brain damage if it had gone untreated another day or Two.

    Or died if I had been born in the 1500’s before they knew about this condition & couldn’t Transfuse blood.

    If my mother had told the truth, then they would have used immunoglobulin & Antigen treatments to desensitize while my sister & I were in the womb or upon delivery.

    Here is some info on RH incompatibility.

    http://www.marchofdimes.org/baby/rh-disease.aspx

    http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/797150-overview#a6

    http://anthro.palomar.edu/blood/Rh_system.htm

  3. Pingback: The Pregnancies of Katherine of Aragon by Sarah Bryson – The Tudor Society – Olivia Longueville /

  4. Nali /

    The post by Midge about Rh factors and fetus mortality was a good read. Thanks, Midge. However, there were a few problems in it. If Henry the Viii had some Rh- children and some Rh+ as Midge is contending, then he should have been a carrier of both types and on average, half of his children should have been + and half – (given that the mother is Rh+). In that case, roughly half of his children should have been born without health problems (given there was not some other genetic issue). And yet, we don’t see that. Other than Mary, the mortality rate for his children after the first child seems to be 100 percent. So Rh- as an explanation does not work because the odds against so many children living if they were first born but dying if later born are just too high to support this theory.

    A theory that would fit this pattern would be that he carried the Kell antigen and given his health problems, that he also had related McLeod syndrome. Rh- would not explain his serious health problems whereas McLeod syndrome would. McLeod syndrome would also explain why basically all of his children subsequent to the first one always before or shortly after birth. As far as Mary, what if she was not the child of Henry the Viii?

    A woman who conceived many children who was intelligent would certainly begin to suspect that perhaps it was the husband who was the problem, not her. Unless Catherine of Aragon were an idiot, she should have started wondering if Henry the Viii was deficient rather than her. Maybe she managed a liaison with somebody she could trust to keep his mouth shut about it. Or maybe she just simply had a secret affair. She wouldn’t be the first person in history to do that, especially when her husband was a cheating horse’s arse. With him so busy with his women on the side and other things, she had time to have a fling herself.

    My exboyfriend and his sister were both conceived by affairs that their mother had. She figured out her husband was infertile although he never figured it out. So in order to have children, she had two different affairs and conceived two children by those men. To this day, the husband still thinks he is the father of the children and has no idea that neither one is his child. The children look nothing like him. He is a very, very tiny, short, skinny little dark haired, black eyed man who looks Italian. My ex-boyfriend was a tall, muscular, light blonde, blue eyed Viking looking man. His mom told me that he looks just like his biological father.

    Given the history of all the deaths among Henry VIII children who were not first born, I am surprised that nobody else has ever posited that Mary was possibly not his child. I suppose everybody thinks that because Catherine of Aragon played the part of a pious woman, everybody thinks she was above that sort of behavior. I have known many religious hypocrites myself. I even had a married Amish guy try to kiss me when I was driving him. I had to give him quite a speech about being accountable to God and his wife in the afterlife to get him to back off. He literally crawled into the tiny space between the driver seat and the passenger seat in his efforts to try to paw at me. It scared the crap out of me. So I used the religious talk to get him to get back in his seat and leave me alone since I read some women say that talking about Jesus and such saved their life from a rapist when the attacker was very religious. I figured it was worth a try. Very often, people who put on a front of being the most religious are the worst creeps in private of anybody.

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The Pregnancies of Katherine of Aragon by Sarah Bryson