Today is the anniversary of the birth of King Edward VI and every year, without fail, I see comments on social media about how he was born by a caesarean section and that Queen Jane Seymour’s death was caused by the surgery. This is a myth which has been debunked by many historians, but where does the idea come from? What sources back up this story and how reliable are they?
The main source for this story is Catholic recusant Nicholas Sander, who, in his Rise and Growth of Anglican Schism wrote:
“On the l0th day of October , Jane Seymour gave birth to a son, who was named Edward. But the travail of the queen being very difficult, the king was asked which of the two lives was to be spared; he answered, the boy’s, because he could easily provide himself with other wives. Jane accordingly died soon after of the pains of childbirth, and was buried at Windsor.”1
The original Latin (Sander wrote his book in Latin) is more precise and mentions the physicians asking the King to choose between mother and son, and after he’d chosen son (because he could easily find more wives) they used their surgical skills to free the baby.
Sander was writing while in exile in Elizabeth I’s reign in 1585, so nearly fifty years later, and he was only about seven years old when Edward was born. He is not a contemporary source and he also had an agenda, wanting to paint a very black picture of a man who he held responsible for the Reformation in England.
In his Treatise on the Pretended Divorce Between Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, Nicholas Harpsfield, the historian and Catholic apologist, wrote:
“Albeit, that mischance also might be accounted among the other great discomforts and misfortunes of his marriage that she should also die, though for the safeguard of the child, in such a manner as she did; yea, the child to be born, as some say the adders are, by gnawing out the mother’s womb […]”2
However, Harpsfield was writing this in the reign of the Catholic queen, Mary I, and, like Sander, was an opponent of the Reformation which had been caused by Henry VIII’s break with Rome.
The Chronicle of King Henry VIII of England, which was “written in Spanish by an unknown hand” and is commonly known as The Spanish Chronicle, has this to say of Edward’s birth:
“In due time, when the Queen was about to be delivered, they sent to London for processions to be made to pray God for a happy result, and after three days illness the most beautiful boy that ever was seen was born. Very great rejoicings were held for his birth; but on the second day it was rumoured that the mother had died, which caused great sorrow. It was said that the mother had to be sacrificed for the child. I do not affirm this to be true, only that it was rumoured.”3
This contemporary source, although one to usually take with a hefty dose of salt, mentions that there were rumours surrounding the death of the queen, but it also dismisses these rumours. Gilbert Burnet, the 17th century historian and Bishop of Salisbury, mentioned Sander’s view that Edward VI had been born by caesarean section in his The History of the Reformation of the Church of England:
“He [Sander] say, ‘Queen Jane Seymour being in hard labour of Prince Edward, the King ordered her body to be so opened by surgeons that she died soon after.’ All this is false, for she had a good delivery, as many original letters written by her council (that have been since printed) do shew; but she died two days after of a distemper incident to her sex.”4
Peter Heylyn, in his 17th century book Ecclesia restaurata; or, The history of the Reformation of the Church of England also discusses the rumours:
“It hath been commonly reported, and no less generally believed, that that child being come unto the birth, and there wanting natural strength to be delivered, his mother’s body was ripped open to give him a passage into the world, and that she died of the incision in a short time after.”5
He goes on to say that Sir John Heyward writes of these rumours as “a constant and undoubted truth” in his book History of the Life and Reign of King Edward the Sixth, but Heylyn dismisses these rumours, writing of how Queen Jane was able to sign a letter “with her own signet” “immediately after her delivery”. Caesarean sections were obviously known at the time but, as the British Library points out, they were “normally only performed if the mother was dead or dying, as it was inevitably fatal for her”.6 Queen Jane just could not have ordered the sending of letters or signed them with her own signet if she’d had a caesarean.
Perhaps the rumours surrounding Edward’s birth were caused by an error with dates, by reports that Jane died within two days of Edward’s birth. We know from court records that Edward was born on 12th October, that letters announcing the birth were prepared in the Queen’s name and under her signet, and sent to the Privy Council on 12th October, and that Jane was well enough to receive visitors after her son’s christening on 15th October: “The Prince was then borne to the King and Queen and had the blessing of God, Our Lady, and St. George, and his father and mother; and the same day the King gave great largess.”7 There are no reports of Jane being taken ill until a couple of days after the christening and she did not die until 24th October.
Contemporary chronicles, like those by Edward Hall and Charles Wriothesley, make no mention of any surgical procedure being carried out on Jane or of her being ill immediately after the birth. The news of Edward’s birth was greeted with joy and celebrations, and there is no hint in any of the contemporary records of anyone being worried about the queen at this point.
The idea of Jane having a caesarean is just not supported by the contemporary sources and appears to be a myth that has grown as a result of propaganda written by those with an axe to grind against Henry VIII and his religious policies. Myths and rumours grow, though, don’t they? Even today, we have tall stories and urban legends being believed and being passed around as facts. It is little wonder that this story about Edward’s birth has been passed down from generation to generation and appears in poetry and songs. In Robert Bell’s Ancient Poems, Ballads and Songs of the Peasantry of England (1857), Bell shares a poem, “The Death of Queen Jane”, said to be from a young gypsy girl who said that it had been passed orally down through two generations. Here is a verse from it:
“The surgeon was sent for,
He came with all speed,
In a gownd of black velvet
From heel to the head.
He gave her rich caudle,
But the death-sleep slept she.
Then her right side was opened,
And the babe was set free.”8
According to the poem, Queen Jane was also in labour for six weeks and she begged Henry VIII to rip open her sides for the sake of the baby!
Jane’s story is a sad one. She went through a difficult labour and then died just twelve days later, but her husband did not sacrifice her for their baby. Whatever our thoughts on Henry VIII, however much of a monster we may believe him to be, this story is just a legend and is disproved by the contemporary sources. As one article on the history of caesareans puts it, “Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, cesarean delivery was associated with an essentially 100% death rate for the mother.”9 Mothers just did not survive the procedure.
- Sander, Nicholas, Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism, p. 138. The 16th and 17th century historians arguing against Sander were using his original text which was in Latin and which states that when Jane was having trouble in childbirth Henry was asked whether he would choose the mother or the son. He replied that he could easily find more wives but not children. Therefore, the physicians used their surgical skills to release the baby and shortly after Jane died. The key bit being “cùm medicis chirurgicisque artibus ad partum laxaretur”. The fact that physicians used surgery to release the baby and had asked Henry VIII which person he wanted to prioritise implies that a caesarean section was performed and that is how the 16th and 17th century historians read it.
- Harpsfield, Nicholas, A Treatise on the Pretended Divorce between Henry VIII and Queen Katherine, p. 107.
- Hume, Martin Andrew Sharp (1889) Chronicle of King Henry VIII of England: Being a Contemporary Record of Some of the Principal Events of the Reigns of Henry VIII. and Edward VI. Written in Spanish by an Unknown Hand, p. 73.
- Burnet, Gilbert (1865) The History of the Reformation of the Church of England, Volume 4, Appendix p. 161.
- Heylyn, Peter, Ecclesia restaurata; or, The history of the Reformation of the Church of England, Volume I. p. 13.
- British Library “Medieval Caesarean Section” – http://www.bl.uk/learning/timeline/item100531.html
- Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 12 Part 2, June-December 1537, 911.
- Quoted in ed. Child, Francis James (2003) The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Volume 3, Dover Publications, p. 375.
- History of the Cesarean Section, Written by the Healthline Editorial Team, Published on 15 March 2012
Medically Reviewed by Douglas Levine, Gynecology Service/Department of Surgery, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York, NY. http://www.healthline.com/health/pregnancy/history-cesarean-section