Mary I’s phantom pregnancy

The first queen of England in her own right, Mary I was known as 'Bloody Mary' for her brutal persecution of Protestants. But she is also remembered for her phantom pregnancy of 1555. Perhaps a result of the queen’s overwhelming desire to have a child, the peculiar episode had great political consequences for her reign

Here, Professor Carole Levin from the University of Nebraska investigates…

With the recent birth of Princess Charlotte Elizabeth Diana, daughter of Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge, there has been much excitement, pleasure and celebration.

On 30 April 1555 there was a similar rejoicing over the birth of a royal infant: bells rang, bonfires were lit and there were celebrations in the street, following news that Mary I had given birth to a healthy son. But in reality there was no boy, and eventually all hope of a child died out. What was thought to be a royal pregnancy ended in sadness, humiliation and political turmoil. This was the phantom pregnancy of Mary I.

Mary was declared queen on 19 July 1553, less than a fortnight after the death of her half-brother, Edward VI, and just days after Lady Jane Grey was briefly acclaimed queen [the decision to make Grey queen was reversed in light of Mary’s widespread popular support]. When the boy-king, Edward, died, there were no appropriate male heirs to the throne, and thus his older half-sister Mary, Henry VIII’s oldest child, became queen of England – and a Catholic queen at that.

As soon as Mary was crowned, everyone – including Mary herself – expected her to marry so that she could bear a child. This would hopefully be a son, so that the English could look forward to someday having a king again. As Mary was already 37, there was no time to waste.

Mary decided to marry Philip II of Spain, the son of Charles V. For a number of months the Spanish feared it was not safe for Philip to come to England because there was such uproar over the proposed marriage. Though he eventually came, it meant the two were not married until 25 July 1554, more than a year after Mary ascended the throne.

By September there were rumours that Mary was pregnant, though as late as November the queen herself was unsure. According to medical texts from the period, it was very difficult to tell a false pregnancy from a real one – at least until a baby was born, or too much time had passed. However, Mary stated towards the end of the month that she felt the child move in her womb.

Those at both the English and the Spanish courts were delighted by Mary’s pregnancy, but there were still some, including Spanish ambassador Simon Renard, who wondered if the queen was really with child. But he thought it would be good for the Anglo-Spanish alliance if she were, reportedly announcing in one of his dispatches: “If it is true, everything will calm down and go smoothly here.” [Jo Eldridge Carney’s Fairy Tale Queens: Representations of Early Modern Queenship, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012].

c1554, Philip II (king of Spain from 1556) with Queen Mary I of England. The pair married in 1554. Original artwork: engraved by Joseph Brown after the drawing by G P Harding of 1812, after the painting by Antonio Moro. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Mary, now thoroughly convinced she was pregnant, expected she would give birth in May 1555. The birth chamber was prepared, as was the nursery with a beautifully carved cradle, and many women were hired to help care for the baby. Letters announcing the birth were written, with just the date and the sex of the infant to be filled in. Historian Chris Skidmore claims the word ‘Fil’ (son) was written on the letters because it could easily be amended to ‘fille’ if the baby was the girl. [Chris Skidmore’s Death and the Virgin: Elizabeth, Dudley and the Mysterious Fate of Amy Robsart, Orion, 2010]. Mary and Philip went to Hampton Court, where they wanted the birth to take place.

The rumours of Mary’s safe delivery soon spread abroad, and those on the continent even sent out letters of congratulations. In London, one preacher reported that no one had ever before seen such a beautiful prince. But in fact, no one had seen this prince. It soon became known the rumour was false, yet Mary and Philip waited.

As May became June, Mary stayed in her chamber, refusing to see people, but not giving up hope. Though in July Mary asserted she was still pregnant, and had simply miscalculated her timings, by the end of the month all hope was gone. In early August Mary left her chamber at Hampton Court for a smaller, more private residence. Giovanni Michieli, the Venetian ambassador, wrote that Mary’s pregnancy was more likely to “end in wind rather than anything else”.

Everywhere there was gossip and speculation. Had the people been told she was pregnant to keep them happy and supportive of their queen? Surely that was a shortsighted idea, if so! Some were convinced that Mary was ill, and had simply convinced herself she was pregnant, while others claimed that she had been pregnant and her miscarriage kept secret. Some were convinced that she had never been pregnant at all, and the plan for some other baby boy to be smuggled into the court had somehow fallen apart. A few wondered if the queen were even still alive, or if those in power put an effigy of her in the window for people to see. One particularly strange idea was that instead of a baby, Mary had given birth to a mole!

The story of the queen’s failed, fictive pregnancy was so powerful that it came around again more than a century later, when James VII and II’s second wife, another Catholic Mary [of Modena], fell pregnant. Many spoke of Mary I, and how now once again a queen was not really pregnant. It was later claimed that a baseborn boy had been smuggled into the palace in a warming pan to be presented as Mary’s child.

Mary of Modena with her son, James Francis Edward Stewart (or Stuart), Chevalier de St George, c1689. James later claimed the English, Scottish and Irish thrones and was known as 'The Old Pretender'. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The reign of ‘Bloody Mary’ ended in disappointment and despair, with no heir to the throne. The country turned happily instead to her younger half-sister, Elizabeth. For Protestant historians writing in the next century, the futile, phantom pregnancy became a metaphor for all of Mary’s failures – especially the burning of around 300 people as heretics.

Carole Levin is Willa Cather professor of history and director of the medieval and renaissance studies programme at the University of Nebraska. She is also Fulbright scholar at the University of York.

Levin will be speaking about Mary I and phantom pregnancies as part of University College London’s festival of the arts on Wednesday 20 May. For more information, click here.

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