It was an illness that claimed millions of lives before the advent of modern medicine and among its victims are several queens and high ranking women in English royal history. Puerperal fever, sometimes called childbed fever, was a bacterial infection that led to death in the majority of cases and it was only eradicated by the advancement of hygiene techniques and the introduction of antibiotics.But given the attention lavished on royal women, as well access to the best midwives and medical staff around, it is still perhaps surprising that some succumbed to this condition. One thing that has always struck me is how convenient it was that some of these royal women were removed from a political scene where they held more power and influence than we credit them with in modern times. Let’s look at the high profile royal women who fell ill with the condition and their role at court and ask whether foul play might have been involved.
Isabella of Valois
When she was just six years old, Isabella of Valois was married to the increasingly unstable King Richard II of England. The union was never consummated and before her tenth birthday, Isabella was a widow when her husband was deposed by his cousin, Henry IV, before dying in mysterious circumstances. Isabella refused to do any business with the new king and ended up being sent home to France.
There, she married Charles, the eldest son of the Duke of Orleans. Her new father-in-law was brutally murdered the following year on the orders of a rival and a bloody civil war ensued. Isabella, daughter of King Charles VI of France, became pregnant in 1409 but died giving birth to a daughter who survived. Her father was, by then, too mad to know she had died.
Isabella was a strong willed princess with a political brain and had already proved herself a fierce opponent. What’s more, her fifteen year old widower was married again within months of her death and his new father-in-law took control of one faction in the civil war thanks to the wedding. So was Isabella put out of the way by familial ambitions?
Katherine of Valois
Isabella’s sister married Henry IV’s eldest son, Henry V, in a union intended to unite the kingdoms of England and France. She had a son, Henry, who succeeded to both crowns at the age of nine months and who was soon the tool of ambitious uncles who pushed his mother out of his life.
Katherine wed her servant, Owen Tudor, and they had at least three children. But the dowager queen was a thorn in the side of many. For a start, she had acquired a new husband despite strict laws forbidding her from marrying anyone and by 1436, her brother, Charles VI, was turning the tide against English domination in France. Katherine retreated to Bermondsey Abbey where she died in January 1437, apparently from an illness following the birth of a daughter who also died. However, Katherine had made a will before even going into labour and there are scant details of her baby or her death. Her disappearance certainly made life easier for many.
Elizabeth of York
The queen consort of Henry VII had been a problem since before the accession of her husband. Elizabeth had a far better claim to the throne than Henry who married her to unite the sides in what is now known as the Wars of the Roses. However, he didn’t arrange a coronation for his queen until she had produced a son and heir, underlining her role as an accessory to his power. Elizabeth died following the birth of a seventh child in 1503, at the age of 37, despite six previous healthy pregnancies.
So why was Elizabeth a problem at that time? Well, by 1503 her firstborn child, Arthur, had died unexpectedly. Arthur had been raised as a future king, away from his mother, but the new heir, Henry, had been under Elizabeth’s influence since his birth in 1492. Was the possibility that the queen consort might control the future king a problem for some? However, it should also be remembered that Elizabeth had lost her beloved child less than a year before her own death. She became pregnant soon after Arthur’s death but was weighed down with grief. Her new baby also died soon after birth. Her emotional and physical health were hit badly and she was perhaps not strong enough to fight off even the smallest infection.
The queen who gave Henry his longed for son died less than two weeks after the birth but was her passing all it seems? No actual cause of death has ever really been determined and Jane seemed well for the first days after her delivery. But five days after the birth, she became ill and died a week later.
Puerperal fever or an infection arising from a retained placenta are usually thought to be the cause of her death. But almost immediately after her funeral, rumours arose that she had been operated on to help with her delivery and this had caused her death. The whispers were largely spoken by Henry’s enemies who saw him as a wife killer – after all, Anne Boleyn had been executed on his orders less than 18 months earlier.
So did Henry order doctors to save his child rather than the wife he apparently adored? What’s strange about Jane’s case is that infection doesn’t set in for almost a week and then takes another week to cause her death. It’s been suggested that the sequence of events was caused by a retained placenta – Jane had laboured for almost three days before giving birth to a large baby. Whatever the cause, her death turned her husband into a widower but one with a secure succession.
The queen who survived Henry VIII didn’t take long to forget her royal husband, marrying her previous suitor, Thomas Seymour, within months of the king’s passing. Her new spouse (number four on her impressive list) was maternal uncle to the new monarch, Edward VI, but the newlyweds were kept far away from the young boy who had previously doted on his stepmother.
Instead, the king was under the influence of another uncle, Edward Seymour, who had little time for his brother and found his sister-in-law to be far too clever and far too interfering for his liking. Katherine retained the title and prestige of a Queen of England and when she gave birth to her first child, in August 1548, the baby was treated as the daughter of royalty.
Katherine soon became ill with fever and died five days after the birth. At one point in her delirium, she accused her husband of wishing her ill by keeping her doctors from her. So was that the ranting of a fevered mind or an accusation of murder? There’s no doubt that the removal of Katherine Parr helped Edward Seymour enormously while Thomas Seymour wasted no time weeping and headed to London to try and marry the future Elizabeth I. However, Katherine was also old for a first pregnancy, having reached the age of 36, and the fact she had been married three times before but never become pregnant could suggest gynaceological difficulties.