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Royal Childbirth and the Tudors

By Workshop of Hans Holbein the Younger 1497/8 (German)Details of artist on Google Art Project - eAHC0d0WiemXSA at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The experience of royal childbirth in the Tudor period was perilous at best, the attitude towards it both anxious and obsessive, most especially because the weight of its outcome would concern the matter of the succession. This is a crucial case in point that royal sex was above all, dynastic. Not only did the royal female undergo the ordeal with the knowledge of this vital importance, but the ordeal could be such that the mother’s life could often hang in the balance merely through the attempt. It was the failed pregnancies and stillbirths in Catherine of Aragon’s troubled gynaecological history that frustrated the expectations of Henry’s longed-for son and heir. The marital bed was the place where the royal union would be consummated, with the Queen brought to childbed to bear the fruits of what was usually, a political marriage.

The realisation of the sex of the child, could mean “failure” if it resulted in a daughter – whose actual “use” could only really be “redeemed” for reasons of political expediency – meaning that the royal mother (providing she survived the experience) would have to try again, something she would grasp more or less immediately. Normally the best attitude in this instance was to hope that with a healthy daughter, sons could naturally follow. This was certainly the case with the birth of the Princess Mary in 1516; the King was pleased at Catherine of Aragon’s having given birth to a healthy child, in a remark made to the Venetian Ambassador, Giustinian, “if it is a girl this time, by God’s grace, boys will follow”. So sure had everyone been that Queen Anne Boleyn’s first pregnancy would result in a son that an announcement was drawn up beforehand. The one that was prepared for Lord Cobham, survives. That the surprise and shock over the birth of the future Elizabeth I was therefore great can be witnessed by the extra ‘s’ which was hastily inserted, to make the expected word ‘prince’ into ‘princess’. There is a world of different in this extra ‘s’, seemingly so small on paper.

The royal female was at the mercy of her own gynaecology. Unable to determine the baby’s gender, she also had no influence over a possible miscarriage (Anne Boleyn famously laid the blame for her miscarriage of a ‘man child’ in 1536 on the King’s jousting accident). Miscarriage was, of course, another form of failure, for which the female was deemed responsible – which meant that her success as a wife and her surest means of power lay in providing the King with a son and heir. Even though this might not bind the King to his wife emotionally – Henry VIII seems to have strayed during the periods of his wives’ pregnancies – sex within a royal marriage was viewed first and foremost as a matter of state. The fact that most extra marital affairs were pursued outside the royal marriage bed again serves to show that the aim for them was entirely separate to what sex meant for duty. Sex within a marriage of state was to enable the continuation of the dynasty and as such, demonstrate the fruitful nature of the marital alliance, which anyway was the ultimate hope for the marriage being forged in the first place. It also underlined the King’s virility and increased confidence in the dynasty for the future.

For Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, it was important that her personal badge was that of the pomegranate, denoting fertility. Poignantly, these are sometimes reverently laid at her tomb in Peterborough Cathedral, by cultural pilgrims. Despite her many pregnancies, it must be stressed that her ability to conceive more than justified this symbol – the problem lay in carrying the child to term. The longed-for Prince Henry – born as the result of her second pregnancy, on New Year’s Day 1511 to English euphoria – died before he was even three months old.

Henry’s pursuit of Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour took on a heavier significance when the pregnancies of Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn were unsuccessful, outside of the singular healthy births of princesses to both. Both Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour might have remained mere mistresses in non-sexual terms, if the pregnancies of the Queen had been successful. The fact that they were not when it came to a male child, legitimised the singular coincidence of Henry’s realisation that his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was ‘unlawful’ in the sight of God at the same time as his discovered passion for Anne Boleyn. It is important to stress that the lack of male heirs would have been something which Henry would have ascribed to God’s possible disapproval of his marriage (as he would read in the book of Leviticus “… 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…”

This occurred at the same time as his doubts as to the validity of his marriage, something which also “coincided” in Henry’s mind with his realisation of Catherine being past child-bearing age, his frantic concern regarding the matter of the succession and of course, his falling passionately in love with Anne Boleyn. When Anne’s turn came, her seeming inability to bear surviving sons of her own meant that the King’s interest in Jane Seymour could become more serious. The desperate Tudor need to secure the future of their relatively new dynasty, can be seen in the attitude for example of Henry VII, who lost three of his sons. It is interesting to speculate that had Catherine of Aragon given birth to a quiverful of healthy male heirs, his entire marital history could have remained conventional, with Catherine his only queen alongside a number of discreet mistresses.

Elizabeth of York – the mother of Henry VIII and England’s first Tudor queen, died in the Tower of London following childbirth. After the death of their son Prince Arthur, she had told Henry VII that they had “yet a fair Prince and two fair princesses and that God is where he was, and [they were] both young enough [to have more]”, and this was the tragic result of her attempt to have another child. Queen Jane Seymour probably died from puerperal fever, after having given birth to the King’s longed-for son and heir, the future Edward VI in 1537. (Incidentally, the words of Elizabeth of York to Henry VII on the premature death of their eldest son, Prince Arthur, found a later echo in the optimistic remark made by Henry VIII in 1516 to the Venetian Ambassador, “The Queen and I are both young…”) It has been suggested that the cause of Queen Jane’s death may have been the result of bacterial infection due to insufficient birth hygiene. At his christening, the future Edward VI was carried on a cushion by the Marchioness of Exeter; also in the procession followed the baby prince’s nurse and also the midwife who had helped at the birth.

To have just one son was deemed too precarious in an age when infant mortality was proven to be high and in an age where the royal female, if too young, was in danger of ‘spoiling’ if a marriage was consummated too early. Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond bore the future Henry VII – her only child from four marriages – when she was thirteen. That he survived was little more than a lucky chance. It was a curious irony that the Tudors who were so desperate to secure their newly established dynasty, were themselves not successful with the begetting of heirs who could survive them. Prince Arthur – Henry VIII’s elder brother – died six months short of his sixteenth birthday, probably of tuberculosis. The longed-for son and heir apparent of Henry VIII, Edward VI, died early at the age of fifteen. Henry VIII’s eldest daughter by Catherine of Aragon, Mary I – is known to have had at least one phantom pregnancy and Elizabeth I, died as she intended to, a ‘virgin’. The Tudors were not philoprogenitive.

Royal childbirth in the Tudor period involved careful preparation beforehand. The formal announcement that a queen was pregnant was not typically made until what was known as the ‘quickening’ had taken place, generally held to be about four months to be sure, given the huge national hopes that were invested in a possible royal pregnancy. What then followed was the ceremony known as ‘taking to her chamber’, whereby the Queen withdrew into isolation up to six weeks before the delivery and did not re-emerge in public until after the birth. The rules attending the birth of a royal child were already outlined in Margaret Beaufort’s set of ordinances for the regulation of the Royal Household.

The Queen would bid a formal farewell to the court and accompanied solely by her ladies – no man was allowed inside – seclude herself in her inner chamber, set up rather like a ‘cocoon’, with the Queen’s ‘great bed’ brought in. A separate ‘pallet’ bed was set up for Catherine of Aragon’s second childbirth in 1511. Queen Anne Boleyn gave birth to the future Elizabeth I on a pallet bed with its own canopy, in 1533. For Catherine of Aragon’s first pregnancy the aptly named ‘groaning chair’ was used as a ‘birthing chair’, with its attendant gilded bowl for the afterbirth. The instruments used at the birth were usually kept in a “cupboard” of their own.

Following the birth of her child, the Queen would usually receive the homages and felicitations of the court. Once this was concluded, the Queen could then be ‘churched’ which was a ceremony of “purification”, after which she could resume her public duties. The origin of ‘churching’ has no literal or ‘ritual’ purification, rather it is symbolic. It relates to certain elements of Jewish practice but was also performed in Eastern and Western churches for a time. Prior to the Reformation, it could mean that a votive offering was made, an allusion to the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin on 2 February. To be ‘churched’ also would mean that thanksgiving was made for the safe delivery of the Queen and her surviving the event, if indeed she did. The practice of ‘churching’ was maintained. Queen Victoria recorded in her journal being churched on the births of her children, down to the birth of her last daughter Princess Beatrice, in 1857. Her uncle, the Prince Regent – later George IV – had to undergo the bitter knowledge that his only (legitimate) daughter, Princess Charlotte, died in 1817 as the result of childbirth.

Queen Jane Seymour gave birth to the future King Edward VI at Hampton Court Palace. The ordeal was a hard one, and the birth took two days and three nights. The country, whose churches had sung the Te Deum for Queen Jane’s “quickening”, pealed with universal joy. It parallels perhaps, the birth of Prince Henry in 1511, but this baby prince did not die. A two-thousand gun salute was fired from the Tower of London. Letters and papers relating to Henry VIII’s reign recorded it firmly as the “most joyful news that has come to England these many years”. Tragically, all too soon did the ecstatic christening festivities for Prince Edward turn to funeral obsequies for Queen Jane, who died twelve days after giving birth to the King’s son in 1537, the hour of her greatest triumph.

It had taken a staggering twenty-eight years to achieve, since the marriage of the young Henry VIII to Catherine of Aragon in 1509. Because of the happy outcome of an heir being born, it is easy to see why Henry VIII could look upon his third marriage as having been “blessed” by God, although Queen Jane Seymour was called his “most entirely beloved wife”, even before the birth. It is probable she contrasted pleasantly in the Tudor mind from Anne Boleyn’s dark appeal with her bright modesty. The safe delivery of a healthy prince meant that Queen Jane would ever be regarded by Henry VIII as his most “true” wife – something which he remembered her as for the rest of his life, so much so in fact, that the King requested to be buried in the vault at St George’s Chapel next to his “true and loving Wife, Queen Jane”.

Though she passed away in the attempt, Queen Jane managed to achieve what had eluded her two royal predecessors and gave the King what he most desired. As such, she remained the most beloved, if not the wife for whom the King had felt the most passion. Gone were the tensions in the wake of the Pilgrimage of Grace. Jane Seymour could be seen by the King as having paid the ultimate sacrifice, for the reason closest to his heart.

It is easy to see how this wife was the one next to whom he himself wished to be buried, especially when we consider that this queen alone had arguably the most serene period of married life with him. Crucially, she was the only one of his six wives to receive a conventional burial according to her status. The burials of Catherine of Aragon (as a Princess Dowager) and Anne Boleyn as his disgraced, beheaded spouse, were naturally, of an entirely different nature.

Royal childbirth is a ready illustration of sex and dynasticism, because it was the expected outcome, the union literally bearing fruit on the royal family tree. The experience of royal childbirth was something quite different.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019. 

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian, writer, and researcher, specializing in Queen Victoria's family and Russian royalty. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and radio, including the BBC. She joined Royal Central in 2015 and wrote a blog as Historian/History Writer for the site until 2020.