31 January 1510 – Catherine of Aragon suffers a still-birth

Catherine of AragonOn this day in history, 31 January 1510, Queen Catherine of Aragon went into premature labour and gave birth to a still-born daughter. Her confessor, Fray Diego, reported that the birth had occurred “without any other pain except that one knee pained her the night before.”

Although she had lost her baby, Catherine’s abdomen stayed rounded and actually began to increase in size, leading her physician to conclude that “the Queen remained pregnant of another child and it was believed”. They believed that Catherine had lost one of a pair of twins. The couple, who had obviously been saddened at the loss of their little girl, clung onto this diagnosis even when Catherine began to menstruate again. At the end of February 1510, Henry ordered the refurbishment of the royal nursery and Elizabeth Denton, the former Lady Mistress of Henry’s own nursery, was brought out of retirement in anticipation of the birth. In March 1510, Catherine entered her confinement and waited for her labour to begin. It never did. Eventually Fray Diego reported that the swelling had decreased and that Catherine was not pregnant after all. It must have been a blow for her and Henry, but she soon became pregnant and gave birth to a son, Henry, Duke of Cornwall, on New Year’s Day 1511. Unfortunately, he lived just fifty-two days.

You can read Fray Diego’s report to King Ferdinand of Catherine’s stillbirth and the physicians’ conclusions over at the Tudor Society – click here.

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”.

Notes and Sources

  • Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile, Julia Fox, Hardback US Version (Ballantine Books), p185-187
  • Catherine of Aragon: Henry’s Spanish Queen, Giles Tremlett
  • ‘Queen Katharine: 1510’, in Calendar of State Papers, Spain: Supplement To Volumes 1 and 2, Queen Katherine; Intended Marriage of King Henry VII To Queen Juana, ed. G A Bergenroth (London, 1868), pp. 34-44 http://www.british-history.ac.uk/cal-state-papers/spain/supp/vols1-2/pp34-44 [accessed 28 January 2015].

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16 thoughts on “31 January 1510 – Catherine of Aragon suffers a still-birth”
  1. Is there any research or theories as to why she had so many still births or the babies being unable to survive? As his other wives also failed (largely) to produce live children, could there have been something wrong with Henry or the lifestyle that they led?

    1. I don’t know if there are any other theories out there, but the only thing that comes to my mind is Rh disease. If Henry’s blood type was Rh positive and Catherine’s was Rh negative, this would be the reason behind it. If the first child, the premature stillborn daughter’s blood type was Rh positive like Henry’s, that would have been enough to produce antibodies in Catherine’s blood (during delivery) that would see the Rh protein in her baby’s blood as a foreign invader and attack that protein in every Rh positive child she carried thereafter, causing them to die tragically soon after birth.

      So why would Mary survive? She may have been the only Rh negative child Henry and Catherine produced and therefore, her blood wasn’t attacked and destroyed by Catherine’s immune system.

      As for miscarriages, there can be a number of reasons for them, including mild-moderate hypothyroidism.

    2. There are quite a few (Rh incompatibility, Kyra Kramer’s hypothesis, etc) but of course at this distance and without the ability to do any testing of remains nothing is provable. It could all have just been terrible luck, of course — Henry was hardly the only ruler to have a high death to survival rate among his children (for a contemporary example, look at Louis XII of France — no fewer than four stillborn boys, and two surviving daughters). And outside of Catherine, very few of his wives had a chance to do much childbearing — Anne’s record of one healthy birth, one stillbirth and miscarriage is something that could happen even now for no particular reason, Jane Seymour never had a chance to get pregnant a second time, and the last three wives probably never had an excessive number of chances to get pregnant at all.

    3. It seems Catherine of Aragon fasted every Friday even throughout her pregnancies, and perhaps this had a negative impact on the fetus. The speculation if memory serves is from “The Wives of Henry VII” by Antonia Fraser. Read a long time ago, but the thought has remained with me.

  2. I haven’t really researched this, but I read somewhere that in one of history’s sad ironies, the “best” doctors of the period were unfortunately really poorly informed of the way it all worked, and Henry’s wives really would have been better served in childbed by a village midwife, which of course was absolutely unthinkable in such matters of importance.

  3. The other supposed baby reminds me of Mary I and all her phantom pregnancies.I’m surprised Catherine didn’t have more(like Mary I) knowing how much pressure she was under and just how desperately they wanted a child.

  4. Could it have been syphilis? That is a diesase that had became common i all of Europe at the time, and it is known to be a cause of stillbirths, childdeaths and misscarriages.
    Henry did have a lot of sexual partners, and as the disaese is a sexual transmitted disaese, he could have transmitted it to his wives.

    1. Doctors never treated Henry for syphilis. Historians today discount the idea he suffered from the disease.

    2. The idea that Henry had syphilis has been debunked as his medical records show he was never treated for it, in fact he didn’t have a lot of sexual partners at all when you compare him to the French King Francois who actually did contract syphilis and later died of it, Anne could have had a rhesus blood group and Catherine could just have been unlucky with her babies, she fasted a lot and went on pilgrimages so sadly she could have contributed to their deaths, you musnt fast when your pregnant you must eat healthy and rest but she wasn’t aware of this, years ago a lot of babies did die whilst researching my own family tree I found a lot of babies did die, one of my ancestors lost four in a row but then she went on to have healthy children, she could have had a medical condition unknown at the time like another tragic Queen, Anne several centuries later who lost all of her children and all she had was a blood clotting disease which the common aspirin would have cured.

  5. Another theory is that if you do have a difficult birth or the child dies you are advised not to have anymore babies for some time, this was the case with my grandmother who lost a son in infancy then there was a gap of ten years before she had my father, it also happened with a cousin whose wife had to wait some time before having a second child, in those days such a thing was unheard of, imagine telling Henry to give his wife some years before trying for another child, but that could have been the issue here, had Catherine left it a few years before conceiving her children may not all have died, they didn’t know this in Tudor times of course Henry thought women could give birth like rabbits but a rest period between each pregnancy could have given their future children more chance of survival.

  6. There are a number of theories, but the evidence is that stillbirth was common, nothing to do with lifestyle, and other nonsense, just one of those things. The problem with Henry and Katherine is an unusually high number, resulting in two live, healthy children. Henry Duke of Cornwall, living for only 52 days had no evidence of illness or not being robust, but suddenly died, possibly of SIDS, though, not from neglected as he was attended and rocked by at least four people. A sleeping baby could slip away moments before being noticed and to be fair to the Tudors, we only discovered the cause of cot death in the 1990s. The cause of stillbirth, rare today has been studied and numerous medical complications identified, thus limiting the problem today. Labelling a mother via theories of lifestyle is dangerous, although we know today that certain things are to be avoided if you are not going to risk damaging the child. The information at that time could not be known that took account of modern medical knowledge, but even so blaming the mother as they did then is ridiculous, as we don’t have all the causes of every miscarriage or stillbirth and we sometimes have to say we can do nothing to prevent the sad event and to accept things as such. The saddest thing here is that it Katherine lost five children at least, which suggests something more profound going on either with her or Henry, which we cannot pinpoint because we are not able to examine and test them to discover the real medical case that left them with only one living child. Of course being a cynic the cause can be stress, the pressure to have a living heir, too many pregnancies too soon after the previous one, or health and fear causing more stress, plus the lack of experience in royal midwifery. The royal midwife who attended Jane Seymour did not remove the placenta which got trapped, imploded, causing internal bleeding, a rupture as the placenta was expelled from the body the last night before she died of septicemia. The infection may have been there for a few days, but neglect of normal midwifery resulting in her death. Internal damages could also have affected Katherine in future childbirth, but it is not a theory that can be tested.

  7. Yes they always blamed the poor woman, and it was thought that she was at fault if she gave birth to daughters and not sons, now they know it’s the father who determines the sex of the child, I don’t know much about Catherine’s family history but I read that her mother was very fertile.

  8. There is a new biography by a Spanish author who claims Katherine suffered from a serious eating disorder since she was a young teen and that this impacted the pregnancies.
    Someone above mentioned Good Friday fasting and the author does not put it that way, but fasting for much longer durations not necessarily religion based (though it my mind it does not have to be one or the other…perhaps as she beam more and more devout she starved herself more and the cycle was set)

  9. Maybe she suffered from an incompetent cervix? It seems like she had quite a few premature deliveries and that may have been the cause. The rhythm factor always seemed highly likely to me too.

  10. there are genetic things — not necessarily diseases — that could be at least partially the problem. A friend of mine couldn’t give birth to living boys, and was lucky to carry them. If you call that luck.
    Most of these genetic failures that I know of are somehow related to nutrition — PKU, amyloidosis, something like that. There’s a Hunter-something that’s fatal to male children, a protein breakdown failure. And there’s more common thins like hemophilia.
    Katherine’s mother was fertile — but only one son survived to adolescence. Could there have been a recessive gene that the one boy luckily did not inherit from both parents? It’s possible.

    The royal families f Europe were so interbred that genetic flaws were not uncommon.

  11. Katherine of Aragorn was so desperate to give her husband a living heir that she went through all kinds of things to do so. She knew that he would support her at this early stage as when their son Prince Henry died both of them mourned. Her midwives and doctors deceived her, she was too upset and embarrassed to admit that she was not still pregnant but must have been delighted to be with child by the Spring of 1510, yet again.

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