Matrimony was essential to the Tudor concept of divine order. God ruled the universe; the King ruled his realm and husbands ruled their families, especially their wives.

Marriages were purely business arrangements. A wife could not expect her husband to remain faithful. Adultery among men was common, especially when their wives were heavily pregnant.

Royal brides, like Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, enjoyed considerable power and influence which came solely from their husband. They only enjoyed freedoms he permitted. They were nothing without him.

A queen’s main roles were producing heirs to ensure the dynasty’s continuity and setting a high moral standard as a model of wifely dignity and virtue at court.

Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn, c 1534
Anne Boleyn, c 1534

Anne Boleyn failed to adjust from dominant mistress to a submissive wife. She lacked the necessary modesty, circumspection and humility so her critics believed she was guilty of moral laxity.

Alison Weir believes Anne Boleyn was rhesus negative as the real reason for her miscarriages, especially if Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were rhesus positive. A rhesus negative woman’s first pregnancy results in a healthy child which produces agglutinogen (antibodies) in her blood. The rhesus-positive blood cells in later foetuses are destroyed by antibodies—resulting in miscarriages or stillbirths—and probably the cause of Anne’s failure to bear another living child. as this was not identified until the 1940s. (The Anti-D Immunoglobulin injection became available for 20th Century women to avoid health issues in future pregnancies.)

Catherine of Aragon

Pregnancy was often an annual event which satisfied the husbands, but not their wives who were worn out from frequent childbearing. Catherine of Aragon lost her figure and youthful bloom within six years, as these pregnancies and bitter disappointments had considerably aged her.

Catherine of Aragon by Lucas Hornebolte
Catherine of Aragon by Lucas Hornebolte

Her first pregnancy produced a stillborn daughter. Catherine’s second was a boy, Henry, born on 1 January 1511 but he died six weeks later at Richmond on 22 February. Her third baby was born premature and died. The fourth was another boy who died within hours of his birth.

Her fifth pregnancy resulted in a healthy daughter (Mary I) born on 18 February 1516.

The last pregnancy was another daughter who was weak and died before she could be christened.

Henry hinted Catherine suffered from a gynaelogical problem. (He blamed his wives for not producing sons when he carried the Y-Chromosome.)

A woman who bore ten children could expect to see less than half grow to adulthood.

Jane Seymour

Jane Seymour
Jane Seymour

Many women did not know they were pregnant until the baby quickened (the foetus’ initial movement) or kicked—usually about four months for first-time mothers, or even earlier for second or subsequent pregnancies. (An ultrasound made it possible for a woman to see the baby’s movement long before she can feel it. Or reveal Mary I’s phantom pregnancies—Pseudocyesis—well before she went into confinement.)

Only midwives attended confinements. Doctors were rarely called except for severe complications. Most lacked medical knowledge. Jane Seymour had this misfortune to be attended by the best doctors—experts in medicine (academics) but they had no practical experience in child delivery.

Midwives failed to understand the necessity for hygiene and clean hands.

Puerperal (Childbed) fever was a common hazard for women. It was a serious form of septicaemia often contracted during or after childbirth, miscarriage or an abortion.

Jane Seymour died from puerperal fever caused by an infection after a long and difficult labour. No evidence survived of a Caesarean operation performed on Jane or any living mother prior to 1610, as the woman died immediately.

Mary I by Portrait by Antonis Mor, 1554
Mary I by Portrait by Antonis Mor, 1554

Women spent the last several weeks of their pregnancy in confinement, away from men, for several weeks. Strict regulations and correct procedures to be followed for a Queen’s confinement.

The chamber was hung with tapestries covering the walls, doors and ceilings. One window remained uncovered to allow light. Fresh air was considered unnecessary, even dangerous.

Pregnancy and childbirth was hazardous as a high proportion of women and babies died. The expectant mother arranged for someone to care for her child if she died.

Intensely high rate of infant and child mortality meant no one, especially kings, felt secure with only one son.

Babies often died from infection without any warning as no antibiotics were available. Many were given unsuitable foods.

Sources

Fraser, Antonia, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 1992 (Seventh Impression 1993)

Plowden, Alison, Tudor Women: Queens & Commoners, Sutton Publishing, Stroud, 2002 (Reprinted 2007)

Starkey, David, Monarchy: From the Middle Ages To Modernity, HarperCollins Publishers, London, 2006

Starkey, David, Six Wives The Queens of Henry VIII, Vintage [Random House], London, 2004

Weir, Alison, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Pimlico, London, 1991 (Reprinted 1992)

© 2009 Carolyn M Cash

This article was originally published by Suite 101 on 16 August 2009.

One thought on “Pregnancy and Childbirth in Tudor Times

  1. You might be interested in Jennifer Roach’s biography of Edward VI, in which she argues that puerperal fever was not likely to have caused Jane’s death, since it occurred two weeks after birth. Rather, Roach argues that it was more likely to have been caused by a partially retained placenta–which would not have happened had she been attended by midwives instead of the male doctors.

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