Guest article by Lissa Bryan
On June 21, 1529 Katharine of Aragon entered a courtroom at Blackfriars. A hearing had been convened by papal agents to rule on the question of the legitimacy of her marriage to King Henry VIII. Henry claimed he had sinned by marrying his brother’s widow and was enduring the curse in Leviticus 20:21: And if a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing: he hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless.
Katharine threw herself on her knees before him and pleaded with him in an eloquent speech. She pointed out that their union hadn’t been childless. “[B]y me ye have had divers children, although it hath pleased God to call them from this world, which hath been no default in me…”
Katharine had, indeed had many children. Historians aren’t exactly certain how may pregnancies she had, but most estimates range between six and ten. Only two children lived past birth, Prince Henry and Princess Mary, and the latter was the only one to survive beyond infancy. The others were stillborn, died at birth, or shortly thereafter.
As the number of lost pregnancies mounted, the issue of having an heir became more pressing, and the queen was more closely watched for signs a baby was on the way. Tudor queens had no bodily privacy. The whole court knew when the king visited his wife’s chamber, and her menstrual periods were a matter of public knowledge. A missed or late period was an occasion for excited gossip, so some of the early reports of pregnancy may be erroneous.
In that era, there was no way to medically confirm a pregnancy, and most women waited to formally announce they were pregnant until after they’d felt the “quickening” or the first movements of the child, usually around the beginning of the second trimester.
But let’s go back to the beginning. Henry and Katharine were married in June 1509, shortly after the death of Henry’s father and Henry’s ascension to the throne. The match was extremely popular with the people. Katharine was seen as a sympathetic figure, having been widowed and cast into genteel poverty when Henry’s older brother died. Henry looked at the “bird in hand,” and acknowledged that he couldn’t do much better. She was the ideal Renaissance princess, the epitome of beauty for the era: a peaches-and-cream complexion, blue eyes, and red-gold hair. She’d been educated like a prince by her parents, “the Catholic Kings” Isabella and Ferdinand, and she had the tactful, gracious charm of royalty trained from birth.
In November, Henry wrote to Katharine’s father, Ferdinand, to announce that his wife was “right heavy” with a living, or quickened, child, but on January 31, 1510, tragedy struck and she miscarried a girl. Katharine’s confessor later wrote that it was kept secret from the court because it was seen as an ill omen.
However, Katharine’s stomach didn’t deflate as normal. The swelling was likely due to infection or bit of retained placenta, but her physician was convinced that she had been carrying twins, only one of which had been lost. Even after her menstrual cycle resumed, they remained certain she was still carrying another baby. The king ordered furniture for the nursery on the 24th of February, so he must have believed it, too.
Katharine went into confinement at Greenwich in March. There, she waited for the birth, but as her confessor put it, “it has pleased our lord to be her physician in such a way that the swelling decreased.” Katharine emerged and the story of the baby’s loss was finally confirmed in a letter to her father in early May, though she fudged the timeline a little by claiming the miscarriage had happened only “some days before.” She begged her father not to be angry with her because it was God’s doing.
A letter of the time described her as “sad and disconsolate” because she had wished to gladden the people with a prince. The same letter contains hints that Katharine may have had some sort of eating disorder. “I think some irregularity in her eating and the food which she takes cause her some indisposition, the consequence of which is quod non menstruat bene, quœ res principalis est causa non concipiendi.” [Loosely translated: that it causes her to not menstruate regularly, which could impede the most important part of conceiving.]
Her father was informed by her confessor on May 25 that she was already three months pregnant, but that has to be an error. Her next labor commenced on January 1, 1511, and if the child was full-term, he was likely conceived in the first weeks of April. It’s notable because that means Henry had relations with his wife before she’d completed her confinement period.
The born in January was nicknamed “The New Year’s Boy” and England erupted in celebration that England had an heir. He was christened Henry for his father and given the title Duke of Cornwall. Little Henry appeared to be a healthy, thriving infant and so everyone was shocked when he died suddenly at only fifty-two days old.
Henry, Duke of Cornwall was given a magnificent funeral in Westminster Abbey, but he rests in an unmarked grave. His little casket was discovered by accident in the Victorian era near the Shrine of Edward the Confessor. His is the only burial location of Katharine’s infants which is recorded. Where the remains of the others were interred is unknown. This isn’t unusual; infants’ graves were rarely marked and when they were, it was often with a simple, tiny brass, many of which have been lost over the centuries. Stillborn infants, who weren’t named, were buried anonymously.
Katharine, of course, was devastated by her son’s death. “Like a natural woman, [she] made much lamentation, howbeit by the king’s good persuasion and behavior, her sorrow was mitigated, but not shortly.” She increased her religious fervor, praying for hours while kneeling on stone floors, and fasting to show her devotion. At various points in her married life, she made vows to undertake pilgrimages to religious sites or make rich offerings if God would grant her a child. It’s difficult today to understand what it must have been like for her. There was nothing like therapy or medications for mood swings caused by lingering pregnancy hormones. Katharine could only take comfort in prayer or in talking with her friends.
Cardinal Wolsey wrote to the Bishop of Winchester on September 11 of the same year they lost the New Year’s Boy, “It is thought that the Queen is with child,” but nothing more is said of it. It’s possible there was a mistake, or that Katharine’s cycle was simply late. There could also have been a very early-stage miscarriage.
It was over a year before the queen announced another pregnancy, which must have been a long and anxious time for her. In summer of 1513, Henry departed to fight in France and named Katharine regent in his absence. While he was away, the Scots decided to seize the opportunity to invade, marching with 80,000 men toward Northumberland.
Katharine called England’s nobles to raise their armies. She traveled to Warwick – about two hundred miles from the front lines – where she rallied the troops with a rousing speech before sending them north to fight. Despite a new television show to the contrary, she didn’t join them on the battlefield herself in maternity armor. She coordinated troop movements, ordered and collected supplies and organized the transport, and sent in the forces, demonstrating the skills of command that had been taught to her at a young age by her parents. Her leadership was a rousing success, and the King of Scots James IV fell on the battlefield. In the letter announcing her victory and sending Henry a piece of the fallen king’s bloody coat, Katharine told him she was heading to the shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham, which she had “promised to see,” perhaps fulfilling a pre-pregnancy vow to take a pilgrimage there if God sent her a child.
The nobles worried the stress of command might have deleterious effects on her pregnancy. Katharine gave birth on September 17, 1513 to another boy. It’s speculated this was a premature birth because the queen hadn’t gone into seclusion and the king wasn’t expected to return from to France until October, and he likely would have intended to be home for the birth. It’s also uncertain whether the child was a stillborn or died shortly after birth.
Stillborn infants weren’t baptized and mothers had to face the additional agony of knowing their child’s soul had gone to Limbo. It’s thought that midwives sometimes claimed they saw breath or movement so that a baptism in extremis could be quickly preformed and the mother’s heartache eased by the belief her baby had made it to heaven.
By the summer of 1514, ambassadors were reporting that Katharine was visibly pregnant. In November, Katharine gave birth to a stillborn son of about eight months gestation. Alison Weir quotes a source that claimed Katharine “brought forth an abortion [miscarriage] due to worry about the excessive discord between the two kings, her husband and father; because of her excessive grief, she is said to have ejected an immature fetus.” One wonders if there was any bitterness in her voice when Katharine remarked that God must love her to visit upon her the privilege of so much sorrow.
1515 brought another pregnancy. Rumors spread in the summer, but it wasn’t common knowledge until October. Henry and Katharine were starting to become leery of making joyful announcements. In January of 1516, Ferdinand of Aragon died, and it seems that his death was kept secret for some time out of fear the grief would cause the queen to miscarry.
On the 18th of February, Katharine gave birth to a healthy girl, christened Mary. Mary, described as a “right lusty” child, would survive to adulthood. Henry was pleased, but tempered his praise when he said “[I]f it was a daughter this time, by the grace of God the sons will follow.”
Katharine was now thirty-one years old, the time of life the Tudors considered “middle age,” and she only had one living child. Henry had already begun privately to express “doubts” about the validity of his marriage to his confessor.
But he still did his conjugal duty. The Venetian ambassador wrote in 1517, “the Queen … is supposed to be pregnant” but thereafter, it’s never mentioned again. As with September 1511, it could have been simply rumors due to irregular menstruation, or Katharine could have miscarried early.
Henry himself wrote to Cardinal Wolsey on July 1, 1518. “Two things there be which be so secret that they cause me at this time to write to you myself; the one is that I trust the Queen my wife to be with child.” Both Katharine and Henry seem to have known intuitively that this was their last chance. Around the kingdoms, churches prayed for her safe delivery. When Katharine told Henry she’d felt the child quicken, he threw a lavish banquet in celebration.
In November, Katharine gave premature birth to another stillborn girl. It was the last time she would ever conceive.
In 1524, Henry stopped sharing her bed. She was thirty-nine years old, and according to Tudor standards, “past that age in which women most commonly are wont to be fruitful.” Within a year or so, Henry’s eye would stray to one of Katharine’s maids of honor, Anne Boleyn, and soon after that, he would formally ask the Pope to annul his marriage.
When people delve into this long list of lost children, the first reaction is to seek a specific reason for it. Much ink has been spilled in speculating about health conditions Henry and Katharine may have had. Some have diagnosed genetic disorders, Macleod’s Syndrome, RH incompatibility, or eating disorders on Katharine’s part, but I feel the most likely explanation is that Katharine was simply pushing her body beyond its limits in the rapid pace of her pregnancies. Even today, with our ample nutrition and prenatal vitamins, doctors suggest waiting a year between pregnancies to give the body time to fully recover.
The advice given to pregnant women in the Tudor era was literally the exact opposite of the advice a doctor would give today. Women were advised to avoid foods with “cold humors” such as vegetables, fish, and fruit, and consume as much food with “hot humors” such as red meat and red wine. Pregnant women were told to avoid exercise, lest they jiggle the baby out of the womb. Katharine’s devoted religious fasting wouldn’t have helped matters. She was putting enormous strain on an already-malnourished body with the rapid pace of her pregnancies. It’s not surprising she wasn’t able to carry fully to term.
Six Wives by David Starkey 2003
Mary Tudor: England’s First Queen by Anna Whitelock
Medical History 1984, THE ALLEGED MISCARRIAGES OF CATHERINE OF ARAGON AND ANNE BOLEYN by Sir John Dewhurst
Res Medica, Summer 1963, Volume 3 HENRY VIII by G. Devonald
History Extra May 13, 2019, The lost heirs of Henry VIII: Alison Weir on Katherine of Aragon’s failed pregnancies, by Alison Weir
The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir
Catherine of Aragon: Henry’s Spanish Queen by Giles Tremlett, 2010
Calendar of State Papers, Spain: Supplement To Volumes 1 and 2, Queen Katherine; Intended Marriage of King Henry VII To Queen Juana. Originally published by Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, London, 1868.