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Did an Eating Disorder Prevent Catherine of Aragon Having a Son?

Posted By on November 10, 2010

If you have read my review of Giles Tremlett’s book “Catherine of Aragon: Henry’s Spanish Queen”, you will notice that I mention Tremlett’s theory regarding Catherine of Aragon’s alleged eating disorder. Well, Tremlett has written an article for the Daily Mail – “Was Henry Vlll’s first wife anorexic? Catherine of Aragon’s secret problem” – in which he explores this theory further and even theorises that her “disordered eating” could have led to fertility problems which prevented her from producing the much needed male heir.

Did Catherine of Aragon Have an Eating Disorder?

I agree with Giles Tremlett that Catherine of Aragon probably did have some kind of eating disorder. Tremlett quotes “one intimate observer” in 1510 as saying, “Irregularity in her eating and the food which she takes makes her unwell which is why she does not menstruate well”1 and, after being told of Catherine’s zeal for fasting and abstinence, by the Prince of Wales (the future Henry VIII), Pope Julius sent a missive saying that if “the devotions and fasting of the wife” were “thought to stand in the way of her physical health and the procreation of children” then they could be “revoked and annulled by men.”2

Did Catherine’s Eating Disorder Affect Her Fertility?

Tremlett goes on to describe how Catherine’s fasting adversely affected her menstrual cycle and how “in her early twenties… she went more than nine weeks without menstruating.”3 However, although Catherine’s religious fervour and fasting may have had such a knock-on effect, as a woman I also know how worry and stress can also cause a woman’s menstrual cycle to be  irregular.

Catherine was, as Tremlett describes, “a political bargaining chip”, a pawn on the chessboard of Europe, and she was left in dire straits after the death of Prince Arthur. Catherine suddenly went from being secure, both financially and politically, as the future queen of England, to being in a very precarious situation. Nobody wanted her, she was in limbo. She got herself into debt, she was a foreigner in a country where she couldn’t speak the language, her father was arguing with the King, her future was uncertain and she felt abandoned by everyone; it really is no wonder that she became depressed and ill and I am sure that this affected her menstrual cycle.

Did Catherine’s Eating Disorder Prevent Her from Giving Henry VIII a Son?

I’m not sure that we can blame the lack of a male heir on Catherine’s fasting or a possible eating disorder because I don’t see any evidence of Catherine having any trouble getting pregnant.

In my article “The Pregnancies of Anne Boleyn and Catherine of Aragon”, I quote historian J. J. Scarisbrick4 as saying that Catherine of Aragon had “several miscarriages, three infants who were either stillborn or died immediately after birth (two of them males), two infants who died within a few weeks of birth (one of them a boy) and one girl, Princess Mary” and if we take “several” to mean three or more then we can assume that she had at least nine pregnancies. Hester Chapman5 credits her with having seven pregnancies, John Bowle6 says six, A.F. Pollard7 says around ten and Neville Williams8 writes of how Henry VIII was “mindful of earlier miscarriages” in his second year of marriage to Catherine. When we consider that by November 1509, just 5 months after her wedding to Henry VIII, Catherine was pregnant and that even today, 500 years later, couples are told not to worry about their fertility until they have been trying for a baby for at least one year, then I can’t see that Catherine had any type of fertility problem.

In his article “The Alleged Miscarriages of Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn”9, Sir John Dewhurst writes that the primary sources only give evidence for six pregnancies:-

  1. 31st January 1510 – The stillbirth of a daughter.
  2. 1st January 1511 – A son, Henry, who died 52 days later.
  3. 17th September 1513 – Birth of a son who was either stillborn or who died in very early infancy.
  4. November 1514 – Another son who was either stillborn or who died soon after birth.
  5. 18th February 1516 – Birth of Princess Mary, the future Mary I.
  6. 10th November 1518 – The stillbirth of a daughter.

So, at least six pregnancies in 8 years, surely we can’t believe that Catherine had fertility problems.

Giles Tremlett concedes that Catherine did have at least six pregnancies and that miscarriages and infant deaths were common in Tudor times, but he writes that “research also suggests that both miscarriages and underweight babies can be linked to eating disorders” – is this true?

Are Eating Disorders linked to Miscarriages and Stillbirths?

From my initial research into this, I have to agree with Mr Tremlett. In an article “Pregnancy and Eating Disorders”, on Bulimia.com, Diane Mickley, MD, says:-

“The outcome of pregnancy may be compromised in women with active eating disorders, those with subtle eating disorders, and even those who are fully recovered… Complications commonly reported in studies of pregnancy in women with past or active eating disorders include higher rates of miscarriage, morning sickness, preterm delivery, and cesarean section. Fetal complications include intrauterine growth retardation, babies who are premature or small for gestational age, and newborns with low birth weights, smaller head circumferences, and /or low Apgar scores.”10

This is backed up by an article “Eating Disorders in Pregnancy” on Epigee.org, which says:-

“During pregnancy… the effects of an eating disorder can be even more serious, affecting the growth and development of your baby… Having an eating disorder during pregnancy puts your baby at a high risk of developing a number of medical disorders. Your baby can also die from improper nutrition or stress caused by your eating disorder… The most common problems seen in pregnant women with eating disorders is an increased risk of low birth weight babies and preterm labor. Both bulimics and anorexics often fail to take in adequate nutrition and some refuse to gain weight, causing their babies to be underweight, underdeveloped, and malnourished. Mothers with eating disorders are more likely to give birth to babies with respiratory illnesses and low Apgar scores. Babies of malnourished moms also have a 35% increase in the risk of coronary death and are 6 times more likely to develop diabetes later in life.

A lack of adequate calories and nutrition can also cause developmental problems for your baby. Babies of women with eating disorders are at increased risk for developing cerebral palsy, liver disorders, cleft palate, blindness, and other physical abnormalities. They are also at increased risk for mental disorders, including lowered IQ, learning disabilities, and mood disorders later on in life.

Eating disorders during pregnancy can also lead to the death of your baby. Mothers who do not eat right and gain insufficient amounts of weight can suffer from spontaneous abortions or stillbirth.”11

I also found out that eating disorders can lead to early menopause12 so perhaps Catherine’s lack of pregnancies after 1518, when she turned 33, were down to her going through an early menopause or a temporary menopause caused by irregular eating.

Conclusion

It may be, then, that Catherine’s religious fervour, her fasting and her irregular eating led to her having problems carrying babies to term, having healthy babies and going through the menopause early. It’s not that her alleged eating disorder prevented pregnancies, more that it affected the outcome of her pregnancies, and that it accelerated the menopause, causing her to stop menstruating in her mid 30s.

Of course, her miscarriages and the deaths of her babies may have been completely unrelated to her fasting and we can’t say, definitively, that Catherine of Aragon had an eating disorder, but she was certainly a sickly woman who had to cope with a lot of stress in her life. Giles Tremlett’s theories regarding Catherine’s eating, her health and her obstetric history certainly make interesting reading.

Anorexia Mirabilis

We think of eating disorders like anorexia nervosa being a modern phenomena but if you look up “anorexia” on wikipedia it gives you the option of anorexia nervosa or anorexia mirabilis which “refers almost exclusively to women and girls of the Middle Ages who would starve themselves, sometimes to the point of death, in the name of God.”13 Wikipedia goes on to say that anorexia mirabilis “was frequently coupled with other ascetic practices, such as lifelong virginity, flagellant behavior, the donning of hairshirts, sleeping on beds of thorns, and other assorted self-mutilations. It was largely a practice of Catholic women, who were often known as ‘miraculous maids'” and that such women “notoriously refused all food except for the holy Eucharist, signifying not only their devotion to God and Jesus, but also demonstrating, to them, the separation of body and spirit.” Catherine of Aragon was an extremely devout Catholic who, later in her life, wore a hair shirt and was ready to die as a martyr, so I think that Catherine may well have had anorexia mirabilis.

What do you think?

Did Catherine have an eating disorder? Did it affect her fertility?

Notes and Sources

  1. Catherine of Aragon: Henry’s Spanish QueenGiles Tremlett, p114
  2. Ibid., p115
  3. Ibid.
  4. Henry VIII, J.J. Scarisbrick, p150
  5. Anne Boleyn, Hester Chapman, p41-42
  6. Henry VIII, John Bowle, p159
  7. Henry VIII and His Court, Neville Williams, p47
  8. Henry VIII, A.F. Pollard, p12
  9. The Alleged Miscarriages of Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, Sir John Dewhurst.
  10. Pregnancy and Eating Disorders, Diane Mickley, MD
  11. Eating Disorders in Pregnancy, Epigee.org
  12. Premature Menopause in Girls – It CAN Happen
  13. Wikipedia page on Anorexia Mirabilis

51 thoughts on “Did an Eating Disorder Prevent Catherine of Aragon Having a Son?”

  1. Sue says:

    If Catherine starved herself regularly …why was she not know for being thin? Instead she was considered to be overweight.

    1. jessica says:

      If i’m not mistaken, Catherine was known for being thin, short and with low voice, just like her daughter, queen Mary I, the several years of pregnancy and the weight of age, made her look more overweeight, but once she was called the most beautiful princess of Europe.

    2. Claire says:

      Hi Sue,
      Catherine was not considered to be overweight in the early years of her marriage to Henry but was, instead, known for her beauty. I’m sure that the catalogue of pregnancies, the stress she was under and her ill-health had their effects on her body and that like many women today her waist thickened as she got older. I’m not sure that she was ever considered to be overweight.

  2. Trish says:

    Very interesting! I certainly do think that with Catherine being such a devout Catholic and also needing a male heir so badly, coupled to lead to the problems she had. I don’t think the problem was her fertility, as the article states, but delivering a live child. And I do believe that a bad diet could lead to stillbirths and unhealthy infants. Also, they didn’t know much about pregnancy and healthy eating in those days. Maybe Catherine thought she was doing the right thing by fasting, and asking God for his help in delivering a healthy child, when really, she was depriving a growing fetus the nutrients they need to develop into healthy babies. Poor Catherine! Great article.

    1. Claire says:

      Yes, Trish, it’s ironic that Catherine may have fasted as part of praying for a child and yet it may have been the fasting that caused her problems. So sad.

  3. Jenn says:

    I don’t know that I believe a nine week missed cycle can be used as evidence of an eating disorder. I think it’s more likely with her miscarriages that she simply had a very early miscarriage. Also the amount of miscarriages speaks to an ability to get pregnant. She would have had to have had a cycle in order to become pregnant. Since an eating disorder is something people are often plagued with for most of their lives, I have to question the validity of the claim when we look at later pictures of Catherine. I’ve read comments (if they were correct) made later on about how the how the amount of pregnancies contributed to her later appearance and weight gain. I don’t find it hard to believe she would fast, but I believe there is a difference between that and a true eating disorder. If she did fast during a pregnancy it would have to affect the baby, I don’t deny that. In a situation where you lost many children and you are praying for the safe birth of a current pregnancy, fasting may have seemed appropriate. I also sadly agree it would have affected the baby as well. The information is very interesting and I’m looking forward to reading the book.

    1. Claire says:

      Hi Jenn,
      I agree that going nine weeks without a period doesn’t mean that the woman has an eating disorder and I think it’s more likely that it was caused by stress or illness, or, as you suggest, she may have been pregnant and then lost the baby.
      I don’t think that later pictures of Catherine can be used as evidence that she did not have an eating disorder. I’ve known people who had eating disorders in their teens and twenties who went on to be a “normal” weight in their 30s and 40s. It is hard to know whether Catherine had an eating disorder or whether it was simply part of her faith, but it appears that she was rather over-enthusiastic in her fasting, so much so that Henry VII ordered the Prince of Wales to write to the Pope as they were worried about her health. I think she took things a bit too far.
      I would highly recommend Giles Tremlett’s book, it’s brilliant and he looks at Spanish evidence and records that have been ignored by some other historians and authors.

      1. miladyblue says:

        Oh, yes! Based on the information you are giving, that the author used Spanish sources as well, I am REALLY looking forward to this book! Too many bios of Katharine treat her as having sprung into existence from the moment she set foot on English soil, and do nothing to illuminate her background and what really made her tick. There is almost nothing about her Spanish heritage, unless it is a quote of a furious remark made by Anne Boleyn about curbing Mary’s “Proud Spanish blood”, which seems out of context, with nothing on Katharine’s full background.

        Katharine was a foreign Princess, and she was, as she herself said to Henry, “a poor woman born out of your dominion.” Even with such friends and retainers as Maria de Salinas and Francisco Felipez, it had to be terribly lonely for her to be so far from home, where things made sense.

  4. Jenn says:

    Thanks Claire I cannot wait for it to be released here in the US. Both Anne and Catherine are my favorite two wives, which I know sounds odd considering the history. I agree with you about her being over enthusiastic. The letter to the Pope was evidence I had no knowledge of and found very interesting.

    As far as the eating disorder I know two people, one in my family who suffer from the disorder. While she has been well for many years now she tells me that it is something she fights and feels she will continue to fight for the rest of her life. She remains thin, but at a healthy weight now thankfully. So my heart goes out to anyone who is or has dealt with this. If she did indeed suffer with this then my heart aches for her. I’m sure she must have struggled with it during stressful times in her life, as we know there were many. Thanks for all the wonderful information.

  5. Sheena says:

    I know that women are required to have a certain amount of body fat in order to maintain a regular menstration cycle, and that a certain amount of body fat is required in order to allow for the proper development of a baby. This is why women who are very athletic or skinny often have irregular cycles, and women are scolded for not gaining weight during pregnancy (I was put on a special diet to gain weight for mine!). As for whether or not Katherine had anorexia mirabilis- it is hard to say, she may have- how many times is she documented fasting whether during the times of her pregnancy or not?

    As for her appearance later in life- she was not very tall, and after having so many pregnancies- I would imagine that one’s midsection would start to look a little “squishy.” Also let’s not forget that stress puts a lot of weight on people…either way, Katherine’s story is a very tragic one.

    Great article, Claire! =)

  6. Eliza says:

    Another great article!!

    I remember reading an article (maybe here at the ABF or at the Tudor Tutor) that was about Tudor eating habits and how women were advised to eat certain types of food during pregnancy that were harmful for the baby. Doctors also wrongly advised women to avoid some types of food. The problem was that doctors in the Tudor times didn’t know a lot of things that are now well known.

    I don’t find it hard to believe that Catherine may have fasted so much that it affected the course of her pregnancies. And I agree with Trish that she may have fasted escessively in an attempt to have a son (with the help of God), without knowing that she was harming herself.

  7. Lexy says:

    The fact of fasting too much, having difficulties with fertility and being overweight are not opposed. When you deprive your body of food for a long time, it has s reflex, inherited from the strarvation eras, of producing more fat, using every calory you absorve to produce food supplies if the lack of food happens again. That’s why people often regain weight after a very strict diet, even if they have an healthy alimentation ( it’s a girl who’s been on diet since childhood who speaks, so the subject is known). Women are especially victims of this since they have to provide food for the baby they can possibly conceive and bear ( that’s why men always loose weight quicker). This body memory lessens your fertility sometimes if the starvation time happens too often or too long, since your own organism can’t feed both your main organs and muscles and your baby, making sometimes anorexic girls barren. So when Katherine ate after fasting ( and fasting is worst than a diet), she started this phenomen of body memory, and upsetted her fertility, in my opinion.

  8. Lady Kateryn says:

    I believe Katherine wore the habit of a Franciscan nun under her gowns – not a hair shirt. (It was Thomas More who wore a hair shirt.)

    Katherine’s household had experienced food shortages after Arthur’s death, when she was reduced to penury; frequently she endured fish and meat that was several days’ old because it was cheaper to buy.

    Perhaps that influenced her attitude towards food in later life?

    1. epiphany says:

      No, it’s documented by several diplomatic sources that KoA did infact wear a hair shirt in her last decade or so. Ever wonder what sins she was attoning for? I get weary of everyone viewing KoA as a saint – she wasn’t. She was regal, intelligent and sincerely loved her husband, but she was also sanctimonious, bigoted, bull-headed, and had such a myopic view of her “right” to become and remain Queen of England that had been drilled into her since childhood that it obliterated everything else in her life. She should have understood that England needed a male heir, stepped aside graciously, joined a religious order, which would have superceded her marriage vows, while retaining her daughter’s legitimacy and place in the succession, and allowed Henry to remarry; if she was so concerned about her Holy Mother Church, this would have been the best thing for it – and for England.

      1. Marisa says:

        I absolutely agree. Koa wasn’t the saint, and I am growing weary of looking how many people idolize her. I think she consummated her marriage to Arthur Tudor and lied about her virginity to become Queen of England. It can explain why she wore hair shirts in the last decade of her life when her marriage to Arthur was widely discussed.

        1. Aud says:

          Marisa and epiphany,

          There is nothing wrong with admiring Catherine of Aragon, and I find the idea that just because she wore a hair shirt, it means she lied, very far fetched. Thomas More wore a hair shirt, does that mean he committed some big crime? Why does Catherine have to be attacked? What because she didn’t act in the manner that Anne Boleyn or Jane Seymour did? And just because there are those of us who admire her, it doesn’t mean that we think she is perfect or a saint. I don’t think she lied, but you can disagree with that, all you need to do (both of you) is respect others opinions.

          And epiphany, Catherine didn’t have to step aside, she knew there was precedent for a female ruling and turns out she was right. Henry was the one who exploited and tore apart his country for the sake of a male heir. She doesn’t have to join a religious order if she doesn’t want to. She was not the one who did anything wrong, Henry is the problem and you talk about Catherine and her “myopic” view of her right, but Henry had the same view in regards to himself and his throne. He had such an ego, that he thought God’s Will was his own. Funny how you overlook that and attack Catherine.

      2. Christine says:

        Yes your right, she was a woman to be admired but she could have agreed to the divorce and retire graciously from the court whilst her daughter would still have been acknowledged as the heir to the throne, she couldn’t let Henry go and so she wore herself out with the bitter struggle to remain Queen only making Henry hate her more and this is what is so tragic about Catherine Of Aragon, she would not back down had she done so Princess Mary would have had an easier life as it was they were not allowed to meet and Mary turned into a bitter sad woman, she was forced to choose between her parents , there’s something very un dignified about a woman holding on so tenaciously to a man who so clearly doesn’t want you, and she ruined Mary’s life in the process, Henry held all the cards, he was the King, Catherine was sincerely loved by the people and that wouldn’t have changed, she could have remained friends with Henry and he may well have invited her back to court now and then, she could have had a much happier life instead she caused a lot of untold misery for herself and Mary finally dying alone in a draughty castle without her daughter beside her, a very sad life indeed.

        1. Aud says:

          Why should she? Her daughter as far as she was considered, had every right to become Queen of England, and Henry wanted to change that. Someone finally stood up to the rule that women couldn’t rule or hold the throne and it’s her fault? Where is this evidence that Henry would have allowed Mary to remain heir to the throne? The man wanted a son to succeed him.

          And besides what is right does not always lead to the easy route, Catherine was willing to sacrifice comfort and wealth, for not just her own sake, but her daughter’s as well. I don’t see Henry doing anything of that sort, but then again, I find his actions during this divorce being defended and upheld and him being a “man of his times”.

          And as if Henry could be trusted right? The same man who is divorcing his wife because she was married to his brother, is going to now marry the sister of his former mistress? How hypocritical of him! And Catherine was far from “un-dignified”, the exact opposite in fact. And she didn’t ruin Mary’s life, Henry did that all on his own with some contribution from Anne Boleyn. I think the person who lacked any dignity was Henry VIII, absolutely disgusting to treat your wife and child that way.

        2. Christine says:

          Catherine did have dignity I’m merely saying that if a man doesn’t want you it’s best to let go, I know she was fighting for her rights and that of her daughters it’s just that as Henry was King he had the final say and there is a source written in a biography but I can’t remember of whom, either Catherine or Mary that had she agreed to have her marriage annulled Mary would still be in the succession, this is a fact, I know being Queen meant a lot to Catherine and I don’t blame her for not wanting to go into a convent I wouldn’t either, it’s just that she could have made life a lot easier for herself and Mary, I’m not condoning Henrys treatment of her he was brutal to her and his daughter, but it could have all been much different, Henry was generous to those who pleased him his treatment of Anne of Cleve’s proved that, he remained firm friends with her and she was often at court, it could have been that way for Catherine to, I know I’d much rather be a friend of Henrys than an enemy!

        3. Aud says:

          I wouldn’t want to be that man’s friend to be honest. He had no issues killing his “friends” when it suited him. Lol, if I ever came face to face with him, I would say something and land myself in a lot of trouble.

          You mean in the line of succession? Okay, when you said heir, I was thinking you meant the actual heir to the throne. I have heard of that, but I always have said in regards to that, could Henry have been trusted to keep his word? And while yes Catherine wanted her daughter in the line of succession and would have saw that as Mary’s right, it would have been the heir. The only way she would have accepted Mary falling behind someone else in the line of succession, is if she was dead and Henry married again and had a son. And there is still the issue that she would have to admit to being his concubine for 20 something years. I think whatever happened between KOA and Henry, at least Mary should have been left out of it. She didn’t need to be bastardized and treated the way she was, that was spite on Henry’s part.

        4. Chrsitine says:

          Yes he didn’t have to do that I think he was really angry that Mary sided with her mother he could have just argued the point that as Mary was born whilst Henry thought he was legally married to her mother, then Mary should still remain legitimate, he was used to having it both ways, she was Princess of Wales and then bastardised and then had to take precedence after Elizabeth, had Elizabeth been a boy then she would have been Henrys heir anyway but as she was a girl to it doesn’t seem fair that Mary being the eldest should have to come after her baby sister, Henry did that out of pure spite towards Catherine.

      3. Aud says:

        And by the way epiphany, joining a religious order doesn’t dissolve a marriage vow, it just makes annulment proceedings easier. And KOA was fighting for her marriage, her title, and her daughter’s right to become Queen of England. Her beliefs were at the basis of this, and again Henry took the road that he did, no one forced him to!

  9. Kate says:

    I often wonder if the issues were due to Henry’s disposition since Katherine and Anne had multiple stillbirths and miscarriages ???

  10. Gena says:

    I think the years between Arthur’s death and her marriage to Henry caused a great deal stress on Katherine. She, if i recall from various books, had little money and poor diet in those years as well as being treated so badly by Henry VII & her own father; her future so unsettled. It could not help but have some affect on her body. She had a lot of stress after her marriage just trying to give Henry a son. Stress can do a lot of damage to one’s health.

  11. Nancy says:

    As someone who has gone to Weight Watchers, I can attest to what Lexy says. They tell you not to get too discouraged if you reach a plateau – not losing weight for awhile even though you’re following the diet. I lost about 18 pounds between February and May this year since I wanted to get in shape to wear my Anne Boleyn dresses in time for the Anne Boleyn Experience. I’ve gained it all back (and then some, I think), so now I’m going to have to start over again for the Executed Queens tour!

  12. Carolyn says:

    Lots of good points here. Fasting may also have given Katharine a feeling of being in control of SOMETHING, as so much was not under her control during the very stressful period between her marriages. Psychologically, it may have been very easy to slip back into ‘old habits’ when she experienced stress during her marriage to Henry. Miscarriage after miscarriage, stillbirth after stillbirth, Henry’s adulteries, Lady Blount giving Henry the son Katharine had wanted so desperately to give him.

    And that’s before Henry started trying to annul their marriage. Religious fasting was a part of daily life then, so it would be easy to take that too far and be overzealous. Her sister, Juana, was famously unstable, and Katharine seemed depressed, kneeling for hours in prayer.

  13. Anne Barnhill says:

    This is facinating and something I have never considerred before but it makes some sense. I do think it’s likely Catherine did fast as part of her prayers for a male heir, the irony is so sad—And, after menopause, she would have gained around the middle–you can see this in thin women who, after the big Change, shift their weight around. She also had that black growth around her heart which indicates cancer–possibly she had another tumor in her belly somehow that would have made her look heavier. Quite interested! Can’t wait for the book–thanks Claire!

  14. Melanie says:

    “Anorexia mirabilis”? Wow–what a fascinating theory. So Katherine would have been a rather fertile woman, but perhaps prone to producing weak children due to erratic and/or insufficient nutrition? I must admit, though, that I can’t believe someone as educated and intelligent as Katherine would have purposely semi-starved herself during pregnancy; medieval midwifery was not ignorant of how to conduct a healthy pregnancy, especially if you could afford to eat well. On the other hand, Katherine would have also been a good candidate for an eating disorder– bright, ruling class background, under pressure to perform–and that sort of disorder trumps common sense.

    (It’s always struck me as terribly unfair that Henry blamed his first two wives for not producing living male children, given that sperm decides the sex of a child.and that stress is not conducive to healthy pregnancy. Not that he was know this.)

  15. Ana says:

    I’m afraid the idea that starving can make you fat is just a myth. (I mean when you think about it, how could that happen?And if it could why are third world countries not full of grossly overweight people??). Prolonged starvation can have a very small effect on the metabolism *while you are actually starving*, but this just slows down the rate of weight loss, it does * not* stop it or actuallly make you gain weight, which would be physically impossible. And this effect is reversed immediately the calorie consumption goes back to normal. It doesn’t have any permanent effect. People tend to blame this mythic ‘starvation mode’ for their failure to lose weight, or for their rapid regain, but it’s just that people coming off diets tend to rebound and go back to their old ways of eating, and thus regain all the weight again very fast. Believe me – I am an ex-anorexic, and I *never* got fat from undereating. No one ever has or ever could.

  16. alison morton says:

    We forget that alcohol was the source of fluids during these times as water was considered contaminated. Certainly alcohol consumption would have disturbed or destroyed pregnancy and contributed to low birth weight and poor intellectual growth.

  17. Kittie says:

    I have to offer another opinion… actually, starving yourself makes your body go into starvation mode and hold onto every bit of fat that it can. However, eventually, it starts to feed on it’s own fat and muscle, hence where anoexics and bulimics get their characteristic thin look. However, it is not at all uncommon to be overweight or even average weight and have an eating disorder. I was bulimic (non-purging, so I would eat and then fast for days) when I was a teenager, and according to the height/weight chart, I was technically overweight! So, I’m sorry, Anna, I repectfully disagree with you, and caution you from using “No one ever has or ever could”, as you could not possibly know everyone in past present or future.
    However, back to my story, I was technically overweight, though I was a non-purging bulimic for about five years during my adolescence. I still struggle with those urges today, and though I have been diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome, I do believe that my past eating disorder is a contributing factor, no matter how small, to my current situation.
    My husband and I have been trying to have a baby for about four years now, with a year and a half or two years of active fertility assistance. I’ve taken medications, surgeries, procedures, my husband has done all the tests and so have I (his stuff is good). We got pregnant once, but our baby decided to go back to the angels about halfway through my first trimester.
    Thanks to this article, I’m going to seek help for my lasting urges with non-purging bulimia. Thank you so much for this article. If you pray, please mention my name.

  18. sarahp says:

    I have suffered from an eating disorder for 16 years and although at times I have been thin, I am usually at the upper end of ‘normal’. This is because starving yourself completely ruins your matabolism. Your body doesn’t know when it is going to be fed and hangs on to every bit of food you eat as fat. If Catherine, like me would starve for long periods of time and then eventually overeat and possibly even make herself sick, her weight could very possibly increase over the years. When I have been at my worst, I have also had a very puffy face as your glands swell from purging. My periods also stopped for seven months so eating problems absolutely do affect female fertility:-(

  19. lisaannejane says:

    Anna, I have to disagree with you about starving yourself and then overeating and gaining weight. I know many women who have gone on extreme diets and then think they can resume their old eating habits and not gain weight. I’ve seen a few shows where women went on less than 500 calories per day to reach a size 2 or size 0 but once they resumed eating, their appetite increased and some ended up weighing more than they did before the diet. And the more times you go on this yo-yo diet, the worse it gets. I shared a dorm room with someone with an eating disorder and it was sad to see her struggle with food and deal with a battle of feeding herself too much and purging or just living on diet coke. She never really looked healthy and she confided to me that purging just came so naturally to her that she did not know how to stop. I have often wondered if she got treatment. But I can understand how Katherine of Aragon could have ended up gaining weight if she alternated between fasting and eating as this will cause metabolic problems. And I can understand how stress can cause a woman to go into early menopause as one of my closest friends did during her divorce. I wonder if Katherine had been less zealous in her fasting and kept to her regular diet if she might have had an easier time carrying a baby to full term. My mom made a point to tell me and my sister that we should eat if we were hungry and ignored any fasting that the Catholic church may have wanted. She said she wanted us to feel healthy and fasting only made you hungry, not closer to god.

  20. Kara says:

    We have to remember that in Tudor times veggies eaten raw was not normal and they didn’t know the health value to fruits and veggies like we do today. Not that it has anything to do with Catherine’s eating disorder if she even had one. I just wanted to point out that they really ate a lot of protein back then and excessive amounts can cause harm and early diabetic problems, intestinal problems, and rapid weight gain. Maybe she gained oe extr pounds and fasting with her faith caused weight loss and he knew that, so she might of wanted to keep up her attractive figure.. Who knows, right?

  21. Ceri C says:

    What an interesting article!
    I’ve always wondered whether the privations of Katherine’s youth, when she lived in penury in between Arthur’s death and her marriage to Henry, might have contributed to her unfortunate obstetric history Also, even then, her household were concerned that she spent too much time on her knees in prayer. Not a very healthy pastime in a cold stone chapel! I’d never considered, however, whether she might have had an eating disorder.
    Her mother and sister Juana both produced numerous healthy offspring, so it make sense that Katherine’s problems were caused by something in her lifestyle or environment rather than intrinsic constitution.
    The theory fits very well with what we know of Katherine’s religious fervour, iron will and pride. How sad if these characteristics led to her undoing.

  22. Dylan says:

    Very interesting theory. I believe it was definitely possible she may have suffered from an eating disorder of some sort, and the stress of her situation probably had ill effects on her health. I’ve also heard the prime reason for so many miscarriages was because of her religious fasting.

  23. margaret says:

    well the way i see it ,catherine may have done some fasting and possibly henrys concern for her eating/ fasting problem was was more than likely arrived because he ate rather a lot himself so even a normal diet would look like starvation to henry,i know someone who after having repeated miscarriages was put on progesterone for the first trimester of pregnancy and went on to have a very healthy baby ,so could be that was catherines problem and maybe anne as well .they did not really have any idea of nutrition 500 yrs ago and also drank rather a lot which would have put weight on with all the calories in achohol,so i think that none of them were on the thin side ,you couldnt possibly be thin with their lifestyle .all the royals seem to be closely related too and that could also be a cause .

  24. margaret says:

    also women in third world countries with next to nothing to eat have babies no problem so i dont believe that few years living between arthur and marriage to henry would have done that much harm ,any problem would have righted itself upon her marriage to henry with the amount of food available ,i still thoughhave this niggling notion that henry had congenital syphillis and even if it was not documented ,and a lot was lost in the passage of time ,i think he could have been the problem .

  25. Raychelc says:

    Interesting theory among the many others. = ). I found an article about a possible genetic condition interesting as it relates to miscarriage. I am forgetting the name of the condition, but generally it means if one person is positive for it, the other negative, they have a 50/50 chance of pregnancies being successful and complete.

    Catherine’s odds weren’t even that good since Mary was her only surviving child, but with all the other factors involved, it’s so hard to guess, isn’t it?

    There was always some mysterious plague or epidemic of illness, so many trade ships bringing illnesses along, bad sanitation, food that was less than sanitary in many cases, and so on.

    The fact that water would make you sick, so you drank wine instead probably wasn’t great for the developing fetus either!

    And of course, medical science not really existing in a form that was very helpful to most patients, much less to women in labor..she is probably very fortunate to have not died from sepsis from retained tissues following those miscarriages and stillbirths.

    Further yet, you have the theory that Henry may have had Syphilis, which is slightly controversial, I know. If he did have it, however, then women he slept with were at risk for pelvic inflammatory disease, which is known to cause scar tissue to form in the reproductive tract, including the very important fallopian tubes. This can make pregnancy hard to achieve, can cause tubal pregnancy (which we can be sure she didn’t have as it’d have killed her lacking surgical intervention) and so on.

    Too, it will cause pelvic pain, difficult or painful intercourse, irregular bleeding, vaginal irritation and discharge, and all other things probably not so helpful for a good love life.

    The reason people say Henry may have had Syphilis is his longterm and gradual mental deterioration, which it can cause, but it seems odd he’d have lived with it for so long without suffering many of the other symptoms. High fever, body-wide rashes, tremors, weakness, loss of appetite, and so on.

    Aside from his leg ulcer and violent mood swings, he seems to more or less have enjoyed a fairly active lifestyle in his younger years and well into his middle age.

    His mental and physical decline seems to have been far more marked and ‘sudden’ following maybe..45 years of age or so?

    As for that leg ulcer, while he may have had an injury in the area at one point, it seems awfully consistent with type 2 Diabetes, which makes sense in the overweight, older Henry.

  26. Melanie says:

    I find this theory on Catherine interesting and a possible reason why she had still births and miscarriages. As far as I know there are no descriptions of the infants that died other than what sex they were. They may hav been born too early or too underweight..the Tudor doctors etc did not even know how long the pregnancy should last for. Fasting was common practice and worry and stress (ESP when u had to produce a male heir and all eyes at court were on your pregnancy!) didnt help! The menopause can make u put on weight so maybe that’s why she was much bigger later on etc and looked older before her time? Xx

  27. Violet says:

    I’ve always wondered why Catherine and Anne had miscarriages and stillbirths too and why, after six (!) wives Henry only had three children and only Elizabeth was strong enough to reign. Various theories never seemed to work out, such as syphilis. Chronic pelvic inflammatory disease (from chlamydia) can cause issues, but I’ve never heard anyone bring that up. It’s interesting to hear about this theory, because yes, it is entirely possible. That is not to say that emotional issues caused an eating disorder, because I cannot imagine Catherine doing intentional damage to her body, but for God, yes, for her faith in Him, yes. I have read about the hair shirts and fastings. Dieting is a modern thing, and back then it was a show of richness to eat meat and good bread… so if one was royalty, one would not necessarily eat vegetables and shirk meat and other things we consider ‘bad’ these days.
    A couple years ago I had cholesterol problems and so my doctor told me to stop eating red meat. I had always had very regular cycles before this. I stopped eating red meat and pretty much went on a fasting diet to knock off some extra weight as well. I ate smoothies and sandwiches. Within a few months my cycle went haywire. The pain was awful and cycle was so irregular. I didn’t know what was going on. I was 39 when I started that diet and am now 41. I just started eating normally again and my cycle has started to become regular again. So yes I can entirely see how nutrition plays an important part in menstruation. It is quite possible that Catherine was fasting and that she wasn’t always carrying a child to term or getting pregnant often enough because of that. We will never know for sure, however.

  28. Patricia says:

    Years ago doctors would freak out if you gained more than 20 lbs. during pregnancy, even if you were slim at the outset. Even if you pointed out that you gained the extra pound from swollen feet. some doctors would put women on a “healthy” diet that resembled a reducing regime.

  29. Sarah says:

    What about syphilis? She could have contracted this from Henry while it was still in its active phase, since the chances of him being a virgin at marriage are, in my opinion, pretty slim. The syphilis in Europe in the 1500s was a much more aggressive form than we have today, and it often caused miscarriages (it is still today a nasty disease that interferes with pregnancy, but back then it was probably worse, since the symptoms back then were documented as being quite horrific when first introduced to Europe). I think this might have been why Henry had such a hard time getting women pregnant at certain periods in his life. If the syphilis was active and he gave it to his wife, then it would be difficult for her to carry a child and if it did manage to make it full term it would probably be sickly (Mary was noted to be a sickly child and Elizabeth seems to have escaped the fate of congenital syphilis– both Catherine and Anne had a hard time having kids so it follows he probably gave them this nasty disease). If the syphilis was not active then he wouldn’t pass it on to his wife and she could conceive (like Jane Seymour).

    1. Christine says:

      No he didn’t have syphilis a lot of babies born to syphilitic parents are blind or go blind later, Henry became a tyrant in his later years but he didn’t go insane another sympton of syphilis, he wasn’t treated for it by his doctors as the documents show, it was just a theory by Victorian doctors to explain the many miscarriages his wives had, and the poor health of his children, I said this in another post, they think now that Henry died from type 2 diabetes, I think he was just unlucky.

  30. Sarah says:

    Margaret, I just read your post. I don’t think Henry had congenital syphilis since he was born in 1491, and syphilis didn’t start popping up in Europe until 1494 (first written records of syphilis surfaced in Naples during the french invasion, thank you Columbus for the lovely gift from America!). He most likely contracted it as a teenager if he did have it.

    1. Banditqueen says:

      Henry Viii didn’t have syphilis!!!!!!! How many times does this myth have to be explained to people? There is absolutely no evidence that Henry Viii or his children or his wives had syphilis and this was disproved years ago. Everything he was treated for was recorded and he was never treated with mercury for six weeks out of circulation. It’s a complete myth with nothing to back it up.

  31. c.Elizabeth Eichner says:

    Many interesting and varying points of view have been offered and I believe they could all be a small piece to a larger puzzle.
    I cannot say Katherine’s state of nutrition during her pregnancies, her fasting is referred to often. Also, as she was not from England, She may have needed time to adjust to her new diet in her youth. I have only left the country once, but I came back drastically smaller than when I left. I was not fond of the food where I was and that lead to some erratic eating habits and the loss of almost 15 lbs in less than 2 weeks. She was also impoverished between the death of Arthur and marriage to Henry, which would lead to involuntary fasting. All these things would look dysfunctional to some one outside the situation. As I said, I cannot speak for the nutrition she maintained while pregnant or any long term issues that were surely caused and also cannot rule anything out.
    Stress was abundant in her life and could affect eating and pregnancy.
    I think I only saw 1 post mentioning this, but I have read that KOA was affected by Luekorrhea, an infection caused by retained tissue in the uterus. Accounts of her early pregnancies suggest it is possible. This could have contributed to her ease of getting pregnant but difficulty in staying pregnant or birthing thriving children. It could also account for Henry’s aversion to intimate relations later on as it can cause unpleasantness in her downstairs. It is not often mentioned but very possible. Another factor could be obstetric care of the day. It killed many women and babies unnecessarily.
    There are so many plausible suggestions that may be a snowflake in an avalanche.

  32. c.Elizabeth Eichner says:

    I have also wondered if the sweating sickness could have affected her and Anne Boelyns obstetric states. I tried to find out if it could do such things but have come up empty

  33. Zoe Goodman says:

    Very Interesting historical insight! When one reads about Henry’s wives in the history books,they almost seem like characters in a story-not human beings. I think that this article shows that Catherine was not that much different from humans today. She struggled with a health issue that many people in still struggle with. She had feelings and beliefs that possibly conflicted with what was expected of her. All these issues are actually incredibly universal. Indeed,humans have not really changed over hundreds of years. However,I was wondering if an eating disorder is to account for Catherine’s issues with bearing surviving children,how does one account for Anne Boleyn’s troubles in this area? I once heard that Henry’s wives were not at fault at all,but rather it was Henry’s genetics that caused the miscarriages,stillbirths,etc.. Apparently something about Henry’s genetics made his male children weaker than his female ones. I’m uncertain about the theory’s validity but it could make sense. Two of Henry’s acknowledged sons (Henry Fitzroy and Edward VI) both died when they were still teenagers. Mary and Elizabeth,on the other hand,lived past their teens,surviving into adulthood. Could this theory have any truth to it? Any opinions?

  34. Maryann Pitman says:

    There are too many variables for which we either have no answer, or don’t really know how much influence they might have had.

    1) Food issues
    A) diet in Spain which gave easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
    B) Different food in England-less fruit, less variety of fruits and vegetables, different cooking style.
    C) Years of compromised food quality due to money issues.

    2) Stress factors

    a) New surroundings
    b)new people she is meant to impress all day every day
    c) new husband
    d) death of new husband
    e) fear of the future-ongoing for 7 years
    f) money trouble ongoing for 5-6 years
    g) death of mother, resulting loss of status in England
    h) death of brother-in-law and resulting issues regarding her sister
    i) ongoing struggle over her betrothal to Henry
    j) ongoing struggles within her household

    3) Health issues
    a) prolonged illness in Wales
    b) 6-7 prime childbearing years wasted
    c) long term stress
    d) possible over fasting
    e) likely poor diet
    f) intermittent illnesses digestive troubles

    4) Genetic issues
    a) brother died young
    b) mother prone to miscarriages
    c) sister died in childbirth/only surviving child died young
    d) closeness of relationship to Henry

    This mess of factors-and I likely missed some, is only from before she married Henry for the most part.

    All that stress, and the everyday stress of keeping up appearances, no matter what, has physical consequences. Stress produces cortisol, and that can cause havoc, including messing with hormones.

    What could be a major factor with Tudor reproduction could be genetic issues. There are questions as to the paternity of Edmund Tudor. If he really was a Beaufort, the Tudors were seriously inbred. Adding a wife from the same paternal line could have been a recipe for disaster.

    We just don’t know, and we may never know.

  35. Banditqueen says:

    I don’t know about an eating disorder but if Katherine fasted during pregnancy that certainly would affect the health of the baby. Princess Charlotte, daughter of George iv had a healthy pregnancy until her final month when a famous male midwife was introduced to the household as her husband and father were concerned that the only heir to the throne may be lost. This guy had something of a good reputation and was meant to be the best. However, he put Princess Charlotte on a diet of bread and milk and water for her last month. She lost weight and probably a lot of vital nutritional value from other foods. She was too weak when she went into labour, was in labour for many hours and couldn’t give birth. He used some kind of forceps but the baby was deprived of oxygen and in distress and died. Charlotte also died. She was only twenty-one years old. Two generations of direct heirs to the throne were wiped out in one night. This is how Victoria came later to be born as a replacement heir to Edward, Duke of Kent and his wife Victoria. She herself feared childbirth in case she died like Princess Charlotte.

    Katherine certainly wasn’t infertile, but fasting, along with a number of other things, could have contributed to the loss of her children. There are many theories, rare blood disorders, health problems, genetics or simply bad luck. The truth is we just don’t know and we can’t really prove anything.

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