31 January 1510 – Catherine of Aragon Has a Stillborn Daughter

Michael Sittow's Virgin and Child. The woman appears to have been modelled on Catherine of Aragon.
Michael Sittow’s Virgin and Child. The woman appears to have been modelled on Catherine of Aragon.

On 31st January 1510, Catherine of Aragon’s first pregnancy ended with her going into premature labour and giving birth to a stillborn daughter. It was obviously a devastating blow to Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon and what made the situation harder was that Catherine’s abdomen continued to swell and her physician advised that she was still pregnant with the twin of the baby she had lost.

The royal couple clung on to this hope, even when Catherine began to menstruate again. The royal nursery was prepared, Elizabeth Denton, the former Lady Mistress of Henry’s own nursery, was brought out of retirement in anticipation of the birth, and Catherine entered her confinement in March 1510. She never went into labour, there was no baby, and it appears to have been a phantom pregnancy. It must have been like losing a baby all over again.

Catherine quickly became pregnant again and on 1st January 1511 she gave birth to a baby boy, Henry, Duke of Cornwall. Sadly, the little prince lived only 52 days, dying on 22nd February 1511.

There is evidence for Catherine having six pregnancies:

  1. 31st January 1510 – A stillborn daughter born 33 weeks after the marriage. This is reported by Diego Fernandez, Catherine’s chancellor, in the Calendar of State Papers (Spain)
  2. 1st January 1511 – Birth of a son, Henry, who died on 22nd February at just 52 days old.
  3. 17th September 1513 – Birth of a son who was either stillborn or who did not survive long. The Venetian Calendar of State Papers records that the child was alive at birth: “a male heir was born to the King of England and will inherit the crown, the other son having died.”
  4. November 1514 – The Venetian ambassador, wrote to his senate in November that “The Queen has been delivered of a stillborn male child of eight months to the very great grief of the whole court”, Holinshed, the chronicler, reported that “in November the Queen was delivered of a prince which lived not long after”, and John Stow wrote “in the meantime, to Whit, the month of November, the Q was delivered of a prince which lived not long after”.
  5. 18th February 1516 – Birth of a daughter, Mary, the future Mary I.
  6. 10th November 1518 – Birth of a stillborn daughter. The Venetian ambassador wrote “The Queen has been delivered in her eighth month of a stillborn daughter to the great sorrow of the nation at large”.

As you can see, Catherine lost babies through stillbirth rather than miscarriages, as is usually claimed. It must have been heartbreaking for her to lose all those babies and cope with all the pressure that was on her to provide Henry VIII with a son and heir.

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56 thoughts on “31 January 1510 – Catherine of Aragon Has a Stillborn Daughter”
  1. The progression of Katharine’s pregnancies is always heartbreaking – it is too bad that at the time, all women were considered good for was the production of heirs, because Katharine had so much more to offer as a PERSON.

    She was a serious intellectual, and probably smarter than Henry.
    She was just as capable a monarch, if not Henry’s superior as a ruler, as shown during her regency when the Scots attacked England.
    Katharine’s bravery was legendary, especially during the disgraceful treatment Henry put her through, trying to divorce her.
    Finally, her strength of character and compassion shone through, even to her sad end, when she wrote that last letter to Henry, beseeching him to be a good father to Mary, and that “mine eyes desire you above all.”

    I am definitely an “Anne Fanne” but I also deeply admire Katharine of Aragon. It is a pity both women were stuck with Henry.

  2. I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been for Catherine to lose all of these children. Just imagine how she felt when Henry Fitzroy was paraded around court, and Henry’s mistress gave birth to him. How awful. Then, when Henry put Catherine aside so publicly for Anne (with the hope Anne would provide a son). This woman’s strength is truly amazing.

  3. The tragedy was the insanity that ran through that family. Katherine’s sister, Juana de loca, inherited the strain full blown. She literally dug up the corpse of her husband Maxilian Hapsburg and kept him in the attic. It’s truly sad Mary I inherited the same insane streak. So many of our family lost their lives during these periods in history. Katherine was completely innocent. Henry was a tyrant only made worse by the Syphilis he had.

    1. Tom, that Henry was supposed to have suffered from syphilis was debunked in 1931.

      What had and fast evidence is there that Mary I was insane? When she came to the throne she saw her first duty as to provide an heir, and to bring the country back to the Church of Rome. Her increasing desperation to conceive cannot be judged as insane. What other evidence do you have for her insanity?

      As for Katherine’s sister, that’s a discussion for another time!

      1. how do you know that henry did not have some sort of sexually transmitted disease ,I have read that there was no evidence of mercury with henry ,but I think that no evidence does not mean he did not have something,maybe he did not want it known.mary 1 did maybe have some anxiety ,mental problems but not serious at first,but did become really bad later on with the treatment she received fron henry and anne Boleyn ,by then she had truly gone neurotic,but then I think they all had mental health issues especially Elizabeth 1

    2. Juana may well have been bi-polar, although her difficulties were exaggerated by many for political reasons. She did not dig up her husband’s body: she had his coffin opened once, possibly due to a rumour that his corpse had been stolen by his Burgundian servants.

      Although Juana’s grandmother had suffered from mental health problems, the rest of Catherine’s family was quite sane, including her daughter Mary, as Melanie said. It was many years later that repeated intermarriage within the Hapsburgs resulted in a significant number of members with physical and psychological problems.

        1. Marilyn,i should have put it another way, Elizabeth was very young when she lost her mother,(too young to remember her)her “darling daddy”executed her mother ,claiming she had slept with her brother ,George, amongst other horrific charges,i don’t know when Elizabeth became aware of this ,but quite a lot for a child to take in,,i believe Elizabeth thought a lot of her father ,why I wonder?later on she loses her brother ,mary1 becomes queen and at some time later imprisons Elizabeth in the tower possibly near where her mother was held ,not knowing from day to dat what was going to happen ,then the Seymour episode and Catherine parr .the list is endless ,Elizabeth never rehabilitated her mothers name nor saw to it that she had a decent burial and this strikes me as odd ,was she so afraid of mentioning her own roots ,I know she had a ring in her mothers image on her finger till the day she died but no one knew about it ,she executed her cousin and many more ,went on rampages in Ireland killing yet more .not of course personally ,but nonethe less in her name as she had the crown on her head,she refused to get married to beget heirs and after what her father went through to beget the said tudor heirs,she died a very lonely woman ,how could you not have mental issues after that sort of life

    3. It’s not Juana de Loca:, she was called Juana la Loca…Please get your story straight. She did not “dig” up her husband’s body and keep it in the attic. She had has coffin opened to look at his body.

  4. It is documented on the evidence on poor Juana de Loca. Mary Tudor did suffer horrendously, but so did the entire country at that time. My ancestor, and maybe yours as well, Rowland Taylor, was slaughtered during the reign of Mary. Tragedy nonetheless!
    The Catholic vs. Protestant conflict that led to so many deaths.

    1. Tom, religious zeal is not usually diagnosed as insanity. For me, combined with the way Mary was treated by her father, she probably suffered from a certain number of psychoses. Remember the status of women at this time, despite Mary being a queen!

  5. Why am I not aware of any suggestions as to why Henry’s wives had so many miscarriages. It does make me wonder if there was some fault in Henry.

    1. It has been suggested that there may have been issues with the Rh factor. And of course their obstetrical care was nothing like ours. What we might have solved with prescription vitamins would have gone untreated in them. And of course only two wives had this issue…

      1. But the others, with the exception of Jane Seymour, didn’t fall pregnant with Henry’s children, and Jane only had one pregnancy

  6. I think life in a Renaissance court would be enough to drive most of us crazy! I dare say that Juana and Mary both had some serious issues, but their rough treatment from their husbands (and, in Mary’s case, her father and stepmother) probably accelerated matters. That said, I’m not a psychiatrist or a psychologist. For all we know, in 500 years a lot of “normal” behaviour today will be considered mentally unbalanced.

    1. In Mary’s case, she was the 2nd wife of Philip II and in 1568 his 23 year old son, Carlos, died after being incarcerated by his father who had had him put away because of his mental instability.

      Today we know that, far from keeping a family line ‘pure’, marrying close relatives tends to cause all sorts of problems.

      1. Hi Melanie,

        I was watching a history prog last year, can’t remember now which it was, and it said that Don Carlos became mentally unstable after a terrible fall down some stone steps due to severe head injuries…same as Henry’s bad fall perhaps!

        1. Dawn, it is quite possible. Can you remember if they cited documentary evidence? If there is, it is probably in the Escorial. If money were no object, then I think we all need to get there and search out the documents. Who knows what we may discover.

          It is well documented that head injuries can cause personality changes.

        2. No, sorry Melanie I don’t remember, but it did seem a properly researched programme, wish I could remember what it was called! .
          I’ve just had a quick look on the web and glanced at Wikipedia and I know you have to be very careful about what is written on there, but it mentions a Geoffrey Parker, an English historian who specialises in Spanish and military history as a source concerning Don Carlos head injuries if that helps, and apparently his head was ‘drilled’ by a prominent anatomist Andreas Vesalius, to relieve the pressure of swelling to the brain I presume as they do now. This apparently saved his life, but sadly not his mental state.

          Yes I read quite a bit on head injuries some years ago, especially concerning criminal behaviour, very interesting…

  7. There are theories regarding Joanna of Castile that claim she wasn’t mentally ill at all but a pawn in her father Ferdinand’s bid for power.In some ways I am inclined to believe she possibly was.At first after Isabella’s death Ferdinand claimed he was giving the kingdom to his children and that he would rule as regent until he was no longer needed.But than he claimed Joanna was mad and unfit to rule because he knew her husband Philip wanted Castile.
    At this time he choose to remarry a french princess hoping to produce another heir who would rule Castile.This only made the people of Castile turn more towards Joanna as they did not want to be ruled by the French.Ferdinand than decided to give Philip Castile saying all the while Joanna was too mentally unstable.Philip than caught an illness and died.
    Ferdinand then proceeded to force Joanna to give up her rights to the throne.She refused to sign a document giving all her powers to Ferdinand.After this she was queen in name only.I believe she may have been manipulated by her father and than her husband.Of course there is not much evidence to prove this was the case but it is possible.It seems she could have been another wronged woman in history.

    1. As you said, there is a lot of controversy about Joanna (Juana), with theories ranging from complete sanity to complete insanity. The truth is probably somewhere in between.

      Joanna had to put up what would now been seen as domestic abuse from her horrible husband Philip. He kept her short of money, isolated her from her compatriots, flaunted his mistresses in front of her, had her spied on and alternated between shows of affection and total rejection. He was also physically violent towards her, although she was violent towards him as well. Their relationship was often described as turbulent, particularly after Joanna attacked one of his girlfriends and had her hair hacked off.

      Philip’s pro-French policies caused major friction with Ferdinand and Isabella and with his own father, the Emperor Maximilian. When he and Joanna visited Spain in 1501, it became clear that he would be a disastrous ruler for Castile and that she would not be able to stop him taking power. Joanna effectively blew her chance of being an independent ruler when she chose to return to Burgundy in 1503 following a violent scene with her mother that caused many to believe her unstable. Isabella certainly seems to have thought so – her will stated that if Joanna was absent from Spain or ‘unwilling or unable to rule’, her father would act as Regent of Castile until her eldest son Charles was 25. As one of Isabella’s biographer’s, Peggy Liss, points out, she clearly did not want Joanna to rule and she especially did not want Philip to rule for her.

      Philip was not prepared to give up what he saw as his rights as King of Castile, and the unfortunate Joanna was left as ‘piggy in the middle’ between her husband and her father. Her behaviour seems to have been quite variable at this time – she had a habit of hiding in remote corners of kitchens and had violent temper tantrums, but she was also described as dignified and queenly. Henry VII was very impressed with her when she and Philip were forced ashore in England on their way to Spain in 1506 – he said later that although Philip and his council were saying she was mad, she seemed perfectly sane to him. Rather ominously, the young Prince Henry was equally impressed by Philip!

      Ferdinand certainly lost some support in Castile by his alliance with France and marriage to Louis XII’s niece, the Navarrese princess Germaine de Foix, but he could not afford to be diplomatically isolated when both the Empire and England were against him. He was forced to make a pact with Philip declaring Joanna insane but almost immediately repudiated it before leaving Spain for Italy. Joanna initially stood up to Philip and had herself proclaimed Queen by the Cortes but then caved in and gave him power. His death in rather fishy circumstances (was it typhus, typhoid or poison?) gave her a second chance which she failed to take – she refused to govern and set out for Granada with Philip’s body.

      When Ferdinand returned in 1507, Joanna handed power to him and he ruled Castile until his death. Joanna retired to the Castle of Tordesillas in 1509, and remained there until her death in 1555 at the advanced age of 75. Her name continued to appear on official documents as Queen until well into her son Charles’s reign, but she never ruled.

      Philip, Ferdinand and Charles all had ample motive to label her mad, but there is contemporary evidence from sources such as ambassadors and doctors which points to periods of mental illness. As well as the bouts of temper and violence, she often refused to wash, dress and eat. She also showed little interest in ruling- perhaps she realised that she was unsuited to it. As there was always a danger that she would be used as a figurehead by rebels, her father and son had little option but to lock her away, harsh as this may seem.

      Joanna’s life was ever sadder than that of her youngest sister, who at least had some years of happiness with Henry in the early part of their marriage.

      1. Interbreeding between cousins however much removed causes problems. My stepdaughter is a senior midife in Manchester and has seen only too often the birth defects resulting in intermarriage between even first and second cousins, because they share grandparents and suchlike.

        Most parents in Tudor times would have rejoiced in such strong, healthy and intellectually brilliant girls as Mary and Elizabeth. However, Henry, C of A and Queen Anne were not gifted with clairvoyance.

  8. This is the first of a series of sad losses for Henry and Katherine, and the poor lady must have had some sort of internal infection that caused her swelling to continue. Katherine and Henry also seem to have suffered some sort of embarrassment at the loss of this first child; not revealling the loss for some weeks to Katherine’s parents. By then happily for them both Katherine had new hope and was pregnant again. Her son Prince Henry was born on 1st January 1511, and the celebrations were wild. Sadly he was to die 58 days later and the couple again were devastated. The reasons for hiding the still birth or miscarriage seem very strange and historians have analysed it in great detail. I just think that poor Katherine was just too upset and when she was told she had another child inside her may-be she hoped that they could bring the child to term and say nothing. It was a very private and hurtful thing for the young couple on so much pressure to produce an heir quickly; international eyes on them; hopes of a nation; the loss must have been both sad and embarrassing; too much for them to reveal at the time. So sad!

  9. Recent research showed that Henry VIII suffered a blood disease that may have decreased the fact of his fertility. Nevertheless, I still think him the father of mary bolelyn’s children and others as well.

    1. Where is the evidence that either Katherine or Henry were infertile? Infertile means you cannot have kids at all; Henry fathered several children by his wives; but sadly they were either not carried to term, stillborn or miscarried or lived only a short time. He had three living children by three wives, and one son who lived for 58 days. As you say he had other children; at least one illigitimate son that we know about and may have had a couple of other children as well. Katherine had six children by Henry, but they either did not live long or were stillborn. Anne had three children; two which ended in miscarriage and Elizabeth and he had a son by Jane from one pregancy; but she sadly did not live long enough to give him more children. It is not an infertility problem; it is a problem bringing the child to term or with infant deaths. That is not the same thing. And Kings did not always sleep with their Queens all the time; so there are gaps that can be explained by absense from the marriage bed. There were also gaps to allow a woman to recover and if a woman had internal injury, then it is a natural thing that she did not conceive for a time and her body was allowed to recover. That is not infertility; it is nature’s way. Had Henry or anyone else had trouble with fertility then conception would have been a problem and that is not a problem until Henry’s two later wives; partly due to the King’s age.

      It is not possible to identify if Henry had a blood disease or if his kids were insane; it is only a theory and we tend to put behaviour that is a charactoristic of the age down to insanity. A person can be cruel and not insane. It is possible that Mary had some form of cancer and that Katherine did as well that gave her a swollen stomach and made her believe she was with child or her desperation may have brought on her thinking she was and the symptoms may have convinced her. The research into Henry having the Kell gene is well done but it is not conclusive as we do not have anything to compare it to and cannot prove it. There is no evidence of Henry having syphalis and it is unlikely at the start of his marriage to Katherine in any event. The mercury treatment would have taken him out of circulation for 6 weeks. The insanity argument while interesting is also one that is hard to prove; other things are possible and Mary does not show any signs of insanity. She may show signs of mania as she was very much dedicated to the cause of destroying heresy at all costs, resulting in the burning of 283 Protestants, many from the rank and file of society and not just the clergy, but this was normal in Europe and a lot of people believed in fires to purge out heretical influences. There are signs that towards the end of his life Henry was paranoid and Mary and Elizabeth showed signs of this as well, but with plots going on around them all the time and a number of circumstances in their lives giving cause for this; it is not surprising. Whether or not all of this could be put down to a blood disorder as the research suggests; again is speculation and cannot be proven as we do not have Henry’s tissue or blood to compare and test.

      The sad thing is that Katherine delivered her children too soon and they could not survive. She was not infertile and clearly neither was Henry during this time at least; but constant repeated childbirth and pregnancy can take its toll on a woman, especially if they were close together. After the stillbirth in 1510 and the death of Prince Henry in 1511; her son born on 1st January; there is a two year gap to 1513 when she is pregnant again. But the next three pregnancies are very close together and one living and healthy child did result: Mary. It is possible to experience periods of temporary infertility during times of ill health and stress and this may have occured from time to time, but it is not accurate that the lack of living chidren in Henry and Katherine’s life is due to infertility; just poor luck in carrying the child to term and in a healthy birth.

      Henry and Katherine were devastated by the deaths of their children and could not understand why it happened. A great pity that the boy that gave them so much hope on 1st January 1511 did not live and grow to become King: the alternative history is massive.

    2. You are clearly looking at the Kramer theory that he suffered from McLeod’s syndrome – only DNA testing would confirm this. It’s an interesting possibility, but then again the Rh factor would also produce all sorts of problems with pregnancy.

      Somewhere someone has said that only 2 of Henry’s wives suffered from miscarriage and stillbirth. Yes, but then Jane Seymour died of other complications shortly after Edward’s death, the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves is a matter of history and Katharine’s Howard & Parr never produced offspring, neither was it ever recorded that they were pregnant. Therefore, it is more likely that the problem lay with Henry. He may well have suffered from STIs, but the syphilis theory is not proven and generally not accepted. 3rd stage syphilis can cause a rapid (please note) rapid, descent into insanity in the last few months prior to death. Henry was paranoid for years. He had total control of life and death over his subjects because he was on the throne by ‘divine right’ and he used it.

      Is it because he is a king, rather than a queen, that the wielding of his ‘total power’ is not called insanity? Mary’s power was just as total and she wielded it in the same way as her father, but history has condemned her as being psychotic. She was clearly following the role model of her father, with added gynaecological problems and male condemnation for her inability to produce an heir.

      1. I agree: if you were a man with power you were regarded as strong: women with power who were also strong and acted decisively were called she wolves. They had a double standard. Thank you for the run down of the theoey; now know what I was reading more easily. But I do not think that they were infertile; but had reduced or irregular fertility; they had stress from time to time and shocks and dangerous births and pregnancy was dangerous and this as you say had gyno complications. I am not surprised that they also had difficulty with births and infant mortallity, but whatever the cause it was so very sad for both Katherine and Anne.

    1. Hello Dummy; we are fascinated as they are interesting people and we love history. This site does a good job to bring these people back to life and we feel that we know them. They may have died 500 years ago, not 600, but they were still human beings and they still had tragic losses and sad lives and suffering, and we should be compassionate about someone no matter when they died.

      Explore the site and feel at home; I am sure you will find some of the articles of interest to you.

    2. Different people find different things interesting. I hate watching sport on TV and love history, but others hate history and love sport; we’re all different and have different interests and hobbies. There are things which happened in the 16th century that have had a major impact on our lives today, for example, Henry VIII’s break with Rome led to the Reformation which led to England eventually becoming a Protestant country, Henry VIII’s Reformation Parliament gave Parliament powers which eventually led to our present consitutional monarchy. But it’s not only that, the people are fascinating too!

  10. what I do not understand about ,henrys wives pregnancies ,katherine and anne neither had a problem getting pregnant ,both had a daughter each but what I find odd no ROYAL SONS were born ,conceived certainly but miscarried ,stillborn or died soon after to these two women .jane got the son duly delivered but it killed her and poor Edward was not long living either ,it seems to me that henry was indeed cursed or something ,was there some misdeeds occurring regarding these lost children maybe giving some sort of poison to cause these deaths of the babies ,I always suspected that anne Boleyn was given something ,maybe herbal and dangerous to make her miscarry,given that Elizabeth was so healthy

    1. I should have added that henry Fitzroy seemed ok birth wise ,and possibly if mary Boleyn did have henrys offspring ,now I don’t know that ,but my point is any illegitimate children born to henry were bastards so no threat to the kingdom ,being their mothers married off to some character that would bring up these children as their own.in other words they were out of the way.

    2. You needn’t go to nefarious lengths- the infant mortality rates were VERY high at that time, even for a royal child. The rate at which Katherine and Anne lost children is consistent with what was normal then. Also, in infancy and as young children, males are not as hardy, and baby boys die at a higher rate than girls. I also might note that half of Katherine’s children were boys, half were girls- two survived birth, one boy, one girl. And the one boy died, possibly something as innocent as SIDS, which claims children even now.

      And if there was an Rh problem, the miscarriages were not unusual.

      I don’t seen any reason for big plots to explain what happened.

    1. Although interbreeding was a problem with the later Habsbugs, it wasn’t an issue with Henry.

      He was distantly related to all of his wives, but you have to go quite a long way back in his family tree to find a common ancestor. I think that the wife most closely connected to the King was Catherine of Aragon but their common ancestor was Edward III, six generations back, who died over a hundred years before either of them was born. Jane Seymour was also descended from Edward III, but you have to go back to Edward I, who died in 1307, to find the ancestor that Henry had in common with his other four wives, It is therefore very unlikely that their remote connection had any impact on the fate of their children.

      Liutgard rightly pointed out that infant mortality rates in Tudor times were very high and it was far from unusual for queens of the era to lose many children. Anne of Brittany, whose life was the subject of Yann’s recent post, was pregnant at least fifteen times, but only two daughters survive to adulthood. In contrast, Anne of Hungary, who was married to Queen Catherine’s nephew Ferdinand, had fourteen children who lived to be adults from the same number of pregnancies. Ironically, the Hapsbugs of this era seemed to have particularly strong genes.in contrast to their later problems, whereas the Tudors lacked healthy offspring.

      1. I don’t think an inter breeding problem lay with Henry, but a more inherent factor like either the RH factor after the first pregnancies, or possibly a congenital problem such as McLeod’s. Thanks to modern medicine, we can overcome all sorts of problems such as the RH factor, problems carrying to term and can diagnose certain congenital illnesses in utero e.g. cystic fibrosis, Downs syndrome and loads more. The most common problem is the Rhesus factor and, without modern intervention, women would still be rejecting foeti if the baby’s blood is incompatible with their own.

        Philip II’s first wife, Maria Manuela of Portugal, was his double cousin and their son Carlos was born deformed and mentally unstable. Philip & Maria’s close relationship may well have been a cause, but will we ever know? Sadly, Maria (the grand-daughter of Joanna of Castile) died a month after Carlos’s birth. Following the lines of the various intermarriages within the Hapsburgs are enough to give one a headache! Even if the gene pool is or isn’t desperately strong – the jaw line certainly was.

        Another reason for infant mortality may be a much simpler one of hygiene, or rather the lack of it.

        1. Yes, Phillip’s II repeated marriages to close relatives did cause issues for his descendants, particularly as they followed suit and carried on marrying their cousins. And the Burgundian lip and Hapsburg jaw cropped up repeatedly!

          However, the mental health problems which his eldest son Carlos experienced may well have been due in the main to an accident which he suffered at the age of 17. He hit his head falling downstairs, and underwent an operation to relieve swelling on his brain. His behaviour after this was unpredictable and violent and he eventually had to be confined.

        2. Jillian, Durer’s post mortem portrait of Maximillian I (Ps’s grandfather), Titian’s portraits of Charles V (father) also demonstrate the Hapsburg jaw, so this is something that was in 3 generations.

          Do we know if anyone has done any research into Carlo’s health? Perhaps there are documents within the Escorial that will throw light into Carlos’s life and health. It would be an interesting area of study.

  11. Katherine, in her religious fervor, had a habit of fasting-a lot. Today we would say she has an eating disorder. Considering all of the stress she would undergo, both, during, and after her marriage(s), she needed to maintain some control in her life. As with anorexics of today, controlling the amount of food in and out of the body was, to her, the only source of power. Among those who spotted the danger to Catherine’s health was the Pope. Julius II, whose permission was required for many marriages between Europe’s royal families, was a key player in continental politics. So when he received news that Catherine was overdoing her fasting and jeopardising her ability to bear children, he wrote to the Prince of Wales.
    The Pope’s letter is dated confusingly and it is not clear whether it was meant for Prince Arthur or Prince Henry, but Catherine was probably aged between 15 and 19 – the age at which today’s eating disorders appear. Julius leaves little doubt about the worry she caused. He had been told that the ‘fervour of her devotion’ was such that she excessively observed ‘holy oaths and prayers, fasting and abstinence’ without the Prince of Wales’s permission. Catherine ‘does not have the full power of her own body’, the Pope wrote. ‘And the devotions and fasting…if they are thought to stand in the way of her physical health and the procreation of children…can be revoked and annulled by men.’ He gave the prince ‘authority to restrain and compel’ her and prevent anything ‘that would stand in the way of the procreation of children’. Catherine, in other words, could be ordered to eat.
    Catherine was plagued by mysterious, long-lasting illnesses. Her own doctor believed she suffered one continuous bout of illness that lasted for six years after her arrival in England. The symptoms were varied and erratic. They included ‘derangement of the stomach’, hot sweats, cold sweats, fevers that came every other day, summer colds and summer coughs that baffled King Henry’s physicians. She would complain, on the same day, of ‘suffering cold and heat’. It is difficult not to see her underlying illness as depression. Her doctor said as much. ‘The only pains of which she now suffers are moral afflictions beyond the knowledge and ability of her physician.’
    Catherine’s strange eating habits soon drew the attention of a worried Spanish ambassador.
    ‘Irregularity in her eating makes her unwell,’ he reported. ‘Which is why she does not menstruate well.’ Little surprise, he went on to say, that Catherine was having trouble conceiving.
    A disturbed menstrual cycle is one of the first symptoms to appear in modern eating disorders, and problems getting pregnant can be another knock-on effect. In fact Catherine did conceive – at least half a dozen times – but her pregnancies mostly ended badly. Stillbirths, miscarriages and infant deaths were a painfully repetitive part of her existence. This was not abnormal for the times, but research also suggests that both miscarriages and underweight babies can be linked to eating disorders.

  12. A very good analysis of the young Catherine. Lucas Horenbout’s miniatures of her, in her latter years, are not very flattering, showing her with a podgy face. Do you think she may have managed to reverse a fasting habit, or perhaps it was caused by other conditions brought on by her over zealous fasting?

  13. I too am one who believes that Katherine of Aragon’s eating habits had a disastrous effect on her ability to have healthy children. It would be interesting to know her eating habits in the months before each delivery or miscarriage. I would think if that information was available it would show that before Mary’s birth she ate well and rested well; and that she and Henry were enjoying a period of happiness with one another. In her religious devotion, Katherine may have overdone her fasting. As a Catholic she would have, of course, wanted to take the holy sacrament but before doing so she had to be confessed and it is, or was, law that between confession and taking the sacrament one does not eat. Although Katherine had access to confession whenever she desired and could have confessed just moments before the sacrament was taken, more than likely it was quite some time between the two. It is also part of the Catholic laws that women who are pregnant can be excused from fasting but I doubt that Katherine would have availed herself of this law wanting to secure a place in Heaven for herself. Her faith was the major motivating factor in her life, it was her strength and comfort. She could not relinquish her beliefs no matter threats against herself. Between the stress of not giving Henry a male heir, stress of his adultery with other women, the tremendous stress of knowing Anne Boleyn was different that his other affairs, the worry of what would become of Mary, her own illnesses and her frequent fasts I am surprised she had one surviving child and lived as long as she did. She was a strong woman with a strong faith, perhaps so strong she suffered for it needlessly.

  14. There does not seem to be much emphasis on fasting In Henry’s interpretation of Catholicity, judging by the gargantuan meals enjoyed by him and presumably most of the court. But strangely he was addicted to hearing a shortened version of Mass several times a day.
    I suspect that Catherine’s intimate circle consisted of demure Catholic girls like herself and it may be that she and her ladies often ate privately in her apartments where they could fast as much as they liked, and perhaps joined in the evening’s entertainments later. One doesn’t often see a portrait of a fattie in Tudor times – Henry and Wolsey being the exceptions, and I don’t think either of them was heavily into selfdenial.
    And the point made about hygiene is significant. Conditions were probably not much better for a queen than a village girl , especially with that suffocating lying-in period royal brides had to endure.

  15. I wonder if the Conquistadores brought trepanning back from their South American adventures!? Mummies found in the high Andes show evidence of drilling through the skull and the bone healing, so perhaps the Incas were way ahead of European medicine.

    Perhaps Mr Parker has a theory, or even knows the answer.

  16. Just discovered this post. My grandkids were both born at 30 weeks. It was known that they would be preemies so there was a lot of help ready before and after the births. They are both doing really well now at ages 10 (she’s a competitive cheerleader and first in math at school) and 6 (he’s a wrestler who keeps winning his competitions). We are so grateful that they were born in a time with so much advanced knowledge about how to care for preemies.

    It has always interested me to read of how some families back in those Tudor times had so many children with many or most of them surviving but those Tudors had a terrible time having not only healthy boys, but healthy girls, as well.

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