The lost heirs of Henry VIII: Alison Weir on Katherine of Aragon’s failed pregnancies
The first of Henry VIII's six wives, Katherine of Aragon was married to the infamous Tudor monarch for almost 24 years. But while she bore the king a daughter – the future Mary I – their relationship was plagued by multiple miscarriages and stillbirths. Unable to produce a male heir, Katherine was eventually cast aside by Henry in favour of her lady-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn. Here, historical author Alison Weir examines Katherine’s many pregnancies and the children she lost
While the truth about her marriage to Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales, would remain a mystery for centuries, there was never any doubt that Katherine of Aragon’s second marriage to his brother, Henry VIII, was ardently consummated on their wedding night in June 1509. To the 18-year-old, idealistic king she was a great prize, this princess from mighty Spain, who brought him a rich dowry and international prestige to the fledgling Tudor dynasty. He adored her: she was, we are told, “the most beautiful creature in the world”. She was 23, plump and pretty, and had beautiful red-gold hair that hung below her hips. Henry spoke openly of the joy and felicity he had found with Katherine of Aragon.
Katherine had already adopted the pomegranate – a symbol of fertility since ancient times – as her personal badge, and it seemed prescient, for she conceived almost immediately. On 1 November 1509 a proud Henry broke the good news to her father, King Ferdinand: “Your daughter, our dearest consort, has conceived in her womb a living child, and is right heavy therewith, which we signify to your Majesty for the great joy thereof that we take, and the exultation of our whole realm”. The public announcement of the queen's pregnancy gave rise to great rejoicing in England, for the birth of an heir to the throne would secure the future of the Tudor dynasty and remove the ever-present threat of dynastic civil war.
The court was in residence at Westminster when, on 31 January 1510, Katherine, then about six or seven months pregnant, went into labour prematurely. Her infant, a daughter, was stillborn. Although not uncommon in those days, it “was considered in this country a great calamity”, and Katherine suffered a strong sense of failure because “she had desired to gladden the King and the people with a prince”.
Katherine was profoundly shaken by her loss and tormented by guilt. She did not have the heart to inform her father, “or suffer anyone else” to tell him; and when, some days later, she was persuaded that he would like to hear from her, she begged him: “Pray, your Highness, do not storm against me. It is not my fault, it is the will of God. The King, my lord, took it cheerfully, and I thank God that you have given me such a husband”. Again, she repeated, as if to reassure herself, “It is the will of God”.
Katherine suffered a strong sense of failure because 'she had desired to gladden the King and the people with a prince'
Henry wasted no time in getting Katherine pregnant again, and on 25 May 1510 her confessor was able to inform Ferdinand: “It has pleased our Lord to be her physician, and by His infinite mercy He has again permitted her to be with child. She is already, by the grace of God, very large”. Katherine could only have been seven or eight weeks pregnant; assuming that she carried her child to term, the date of conception must have been between 6 and 14 April. Confusion has arisen because in late May there was a report in Spain that “some days before she had been delivered of a stillborn daughter”. That must refer to her loss in January, because the time frame rules out delayed-interval delivery of a twin.
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Soon after midnight on New Year's Day 1511, Katherine was “delivered of a Prince, to the great gladness of the realm”. In honour of the occasion, bonfires were lit in London and free wine flowed in the conduits, and in the churches Te Deum was sung. The infant was christened Henry “with very great pomp and rejoicing”.
But “after this great joy came sorrowful chance”. Suddenly the festivities were curtailed. The king and queen had received the terrible news that their little son had died. Henry, “like a wise prince, took this dolorous chance wondrous wisely and, the more to comfort the Queen, he made no great mourning outwardly. But the Queen, like a natural woman, made much lamentation”. Henry spent a lavish sum on the funeral of Prince Henry, who was buried in Westminster Abbey.
On 30 September Thomas Wolsey wrote: “It is thought the Queen is with child”. Nothing more was heard of this, so it was either a false hope or Katherine suffered a miscarriage. She was pregnant again when Henry went to war with France in June 1513. When the Scots invaded England in his absence (in September), Katherine, heavily pregnant, travelled to Buckingham, where she made “a splendid oration” to the forces camped outside the town, urging them to the victory at Flodden that followed. But in October, while Henry was still away, Katherine was delivered of a premature son who died shortly after birth.
One gains no impression that Henry was bitter about the loss of another son. He knew what Katherine had been through in his absence. By July 1514 she was pregnant once more. The chronicler Hall states that “in November, the Queen was delivered of a prince who lived not long after”, but in December the Venetian ambassador in England reported that she had borne “a still-born male child of eight months, to the very great grief of the whole court”. Late in December it was reported that Katherine had “brought forth an abortion 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 foetus”.
Katherine was already out of favour because of that discord, and it was evident to others that Henry’s love for her had cooled. The loss of this son, who would have restored her to her husband’s good graces, was a doubly bitter blow, and she observed that God must love her to confer upon her “the privilege of so much sorrow”. Tragedy and stress had taken their toll. Approaching 30, she had lost her youthful bloom and her figure, and in 1515 was described as “rather ugly than otherwise”.
Henry’s displeasure abated, and Katherine conceived again. On 18 February 1516 she gave birth to a healthy daughter – the future Mary I. The king was delighted with this “right lusty princess”. When the Venetian ambassadors congratulated him, he told them, “We are both young; if it was a daughter this time, by the grace of God the sons will follow”.
They didn’t. In August 1517 it was reported that “the Queen is supposed to be pregnant”, but no more was heard of it. Her last child was conceived in February 1518, when she was 32. “I pray God heartily that it may be a prince, to the surety and universal comfort of the realm,” wrote the king's secretary.
The pregnancy was kept secret, but in July, when Henry arrived at Woodstock, Katherine greeted him at the door of her chamber, proud to display “for his welcome home her belly something great”, declaring openly that the child had quickened in her womb. Henry was so delighted that he gave a great banquet to celebrate, and wrote to Wolsey that he was “so loath to repair to London, because about this time is partly of her dangerous times, and by cause of that I would remove her as little as I may”. He knew by now that a happy outcome was “not an ensured thing, but a thing wherein I have great hope and likelihood”.
Katherine was then about five months pregnant. If this was a dangerous time for her, then there may have been at least one other pregnancy that had not been made public, because none of her children had been born at five months. It is possible that the pregnancy rumoured in 1517 had ended in a miscarriage at five months, and was fresh in Henry’s mind. There may have been another pregnancy in the two-year gap between Prince Henry’s birth in January 1511 and the conception of the son born in October 1513.
On 25 October 1518 it was reported that “within a month, or rather more, the Queen was expecting her delivery, which was looked forward to with great anxiety by the whole realm”. Tragically, such hopes were to come to nothing yet again, for on the night of 9/10 November “the Queen was delivered of a daughter, to the vexation of everybody. Never had the kingdom so anxiously desired anything as it did a prince”. The baby was weak and died before she could be christened.
By the spring of 1525 it was well known that, nearing 40, Katherine was “long past the usual age of childbearing”. She had borne her losses with resignation, yet the burden of failure was great. In the patriarchal society of Tudor England, blame for stillbirths and neonatal deaths was always apportioned to the woman, and some were of the opinion that Henry had made a grave mistake in marrying a wife older than himself. “My good brother of England has no son because, although young and handsome, he keeps an old and deformed wife,” the king of France cruelly observed. To his credit, Henry never openly reproached Katherine for his lack of a male heir, although he was now desperate for a son and probably beginning to wonder why God should deny him this one crucial gift.
So why did Katherine of Aragon suffer such disastrous losses?
Fasting in pregnancy, which we know she did for religious reasons, cannot have helped. It has been suggested that she was anorexic, but a lot of evidence, including her gaining weight over the years, is against that. Poor medical care and hygiene could have been responsible, or any number of complications during the births of her children.
Queries are often raised about Henry VIII's fertility, and why so many of his issue died in infancy or in the womb. One theory is that Henry suffered from McLeod Syndrome [a neurological disorder that occurs almost exclusively in boys and men and affects movement in many parts of the body], but the pattern of Katherine’s pregnancies doesn’t fit with that, or the fact that Elizabeth Blount bore him two children who grew to maturity.
Henry suffered no sudden character change for the worst: it was a gradual progression and his increasing immobility was due to an injury. He suffered, not from ulcers, but almost certainly from chronic osteomyelitis [inflammation of bone or bone marrow], which could last for years, with repeated and very painful attacks, and it was probably this that culminated in multi-organ failure from long term sepsis.
Could the problem have been genetic? Henry was one of seven children. Only four lived beyond infancy, which was not unusual in an age of high infant mortality. Katherine of Aragon also came from a family of seven: two of her siblings were stillborn. Thus there was a history of infant mortality on both sides, which may or may not be significant.
Henry's second wife, Anne Boleyn, became pregnant four times. She herself was born of parents who had a child “every year”, although only three lived to adulthood. Her first child was a daughter, Elizabeth I. Her second died at or near full term, and was almost certainly a son. Her third and fourth pregnancies ended in miscarriages, the latter of a son.
That pattern of losses could be explained if Henry’s blood was rhesus positive and Anne’s rhesus negative: the first pregnancy is unaffected but during labour tiny amounts of the baby’s blood can cross the placenta into the mother’s bloodstream, and if the baby is rhesus positive the mother becomes sensitised to these harmful antibodies. In succeeding pregnancies the mother’s antibodies will pass through the placenta into the baby’s blood and, recognising it as ‘foreign’, will try to break down its red blood cells.
In Henry’s day this condition would invariably have resulted in subsequent stillbirths. Worse still for Henry and Anne’s dynastic hopes, if she had had this condition she could never have borne another living child.
Henry had a son by Jane Seymour, and one acknowledged illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, by Elizabeth Blount. He almost certainly had three illegitimate daughters who grew to adulthood. This, then, was a man who fathered 15 children, eight of whom were probably sons, and seven of whom lived beyond childhood. On this evidence, it is not possible to say with any certainty that Henry's “lack of issue” was due to any condition he may have suffered, and – lacking other evidence – we can only conclude that the losses Katherine suffered were just tragic examples of what could happen in an age that did not perfectly understand childbirth.