Did Jane Seymour have a C-section?

Posted By on October 12, 2015

JaneSeymourLucasHorenboutToday 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 [1537], 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.

Sources

  1. 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.
  2. Harpsfield, Nicholas, A Treatise on the Pretended Divorce between Henry VIII and Queen Katherine, p. 107.
  3. 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.
  4. Burnet, Gilbert (1865) The History of the Reformation of the Church of England, Volume 4, Appendix p. 161.
  5. Heylyn, Peter, Ecclesia restaurata; or, The history of the Reformation of the Church of England, Volume I. p. 13.
  6. British Library “Medieval Caesarean Section” – http://www.bl.uk/learning/timeline/item100531.html
  7. Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 12 Part 2, June-December 1537, 911.
  8. Quoted in ed. Child, Francis James (2003) The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Volume 3, Dover Publications, p. 375.
  9. 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

32 thoughts on “Did Jane Seymour have a C-section?”

  1. Mariella says:

    Very fine research, as always. Thank you Claire.
    Mariella

    1. Claire says:

      Thank you Mariella!

  2. Jenny says:

    Great article Claire.

    Jane’s death was an all too common tragedy of her time. Even now women die from post natal complication due to ignorance and poverty. Even poor Catherine Parr died of a post natal related illness.

    I doubt Henry would risk harming his beloved Jane for a 50/50 chance of having a son. Indeed, if had forced her to have a caesarean she probably would have been made infertile if she had survived. Even if he had his boy, he would still a Duke of York as a spare.

    I take some comfort in the fact that she had some time, no matter how short, with her darling son. They were probably the happiest of her life.

  3. Jenny says:

    Great article Claire.

    Jane’s death was an all too common tragedy of her time. Even now women die from post natal complication due to ignorance and poverty. Even poor Catherine Parr died from childbed fever.

    I doubt Henry would risk harming his beloved Jane for a 50/50 chance of having a son. Indeed, if had forced her to have a caesarean she probably would have been made infertile if she had survived. Even if he had his boy, he would still a Duke of York as a spare.

    I take some comfort in the fact that she had some time, no matter how short, with her darling son. They were probably the happiest of her life.

    1. Selina says:

      I think you’re overestimating Henry. In his mind, he was sure that it would be a boy, as he was when Anne was pregnant with Elizabeth, so for him, it would not have been a 50/50 chance. And if Edward had died and Jane lived, he would have found a way to blame it on her.

  4. George Crowley says:

    Well, well, well.
    Very very interesting.
    The problem with all the “research,” is that it could very well make sense that the contemporary chroniclers and Henry VIII might well have sought to conceal a Caesarean. While it is true that Sander’s writings were often unimformed and sought to cast aspersions on the Reformation and slander Anne Boleyn, there seems less motive to cast aspersions on Jane Seymour, a Catholic sympathizer. I do not doubt that Henry and the doctors might have sought to supersede the ministrations of the midwives and save the child at the expense of Jane’s life. I rather like this version of the mythology (given that all history is mythology and subject to scrutiny and interpretation). So much was done to absolve Henry of all guilt in his gradual conversion to self-centered tyranny and absolutism, so I rather like the idea that he might’ve said, “get the midwives out and cut her open; this has gone on too long, and the risk to the child’s survival is too great.” Puerpal fever might’ve just been a handy “story” to keep the story of the prince’s birth pristine. And Jane’s signet ring could’ve been used after her death to seal documents. I like this story that makes Henry culpable for his third wife’s death, in favor of saving the child.

    1. Claire says:

      Hi George,
      I don’t see how they could have concealed Jane’s death though and caesareans were only performed on a dead woman or a woman who was dying. We know that caesareans were fatal at that time. Jane was able to order and sign letters following the birth, and even if there was a conspiracy to use the dead Jane’s signet I just don’t see how they could have had a procession going to her chambers and visiting her after the christening if she was in fact dead. I think news would have got out. As much as it’s an interesting myth and a great story, the contemporary evidence just does not support it.
      Sander and Harpsfield were not casting aspersions on Jane, they were casting aspersions on Henry VIII for murdering his wife for the sake of his prince.

      1. Claire says:

        Also, the rate of mortality was high in childbirth so it would not have been unsual for Jane to have died during the birth. They could have just said she died during the birth, rather than concocting a huge conspiracy.

        1. Ashley says:

          It was also not uncommon for women to labor for days. My mother was in labor with me for 2 days in 1960 at a London hospital while everyone debated on whether she should have a C section. Laboring was unpredictable, could be lengthy and the outcome never certain. Physicians, men, were not allowed to look the private parts of a woman of royalty, especially not the queen.

  5. Leslie says:

    Great article, Claire. Jane’s labor must have been painful, I can’t imagine receiving visitors just a few days after such a birth.

    It’s so fascinating to me that Nicholas Sander is the source of so many misconceptions most people have about Anne Boleyn and the Tudors in general. I guess some would rather believe the slander than the truth. Nicholas Slander indeed!

  6. Anne Barnhill says:

    Fascinating article. The story (rumor) is a good one in that it confirms our suspicions of Henry as a monster, desperate for a son. I cannot imagine him doing such a thing. I do think I’ve read of Jane receiving visitors right after the birth…she certainly couldn’t have done that after surgery. Can’t remember where I read that….Thanks!

  7. Diana Rubino says:

    Hi Claire,
    Great research as usual. I’d never heard that Jane had a C-section. But knowing Henry, I wouldn’t put it past him to put Jane’s life at risk so that he could have his much-awaited heir, even if the doctors had warned him that C-sections were fatal. He was such a selfish inconsiderate man. His Jane may have been beloved, but he wanted his male heir more. I wouldn’t give him the benefit of the doubt in this instance. But since there’s no documented proof she had a C-section, we can safely assume she didn’t.
    It’s a terrible tragedy that she didn’t survive. It seems that she was the only queen Henry was truly happy with.
    Diana

  8. LouiseS says:

    The story about the caesarean also appears in a horoscope of Edward VI published by the Italian physician and mathematician Gerolamo Cardano in his Liber XII Geniturarum. I think it was published in 1554 but I only have access to a later reprinting. He says that Edward was cut out (“excisus”) of his mother’s womb. However, the story cannot be true. It would have been impossible for her to have survived such a procedure, but she was seen in public on the day of Edward’s christening, as you rightly point out, on 15 October, three days after the birth, and she did not die until 24 October.

  9. Ali says:

    very sad, poor lady. Women were little more than baby machines at the time, She lived a short while after the birth but died of Puerperal fever ( a CS would have killed her right out back then)

  10. Sonetka says:

    I’m not seeing where Sander says she had a c-section, he only says that Henry was told to choose between the life of the mother and the baby. I’m not saying that this is true, only that this choice did not have to entail a section. “Saving the mother” during a long labor could entail injuring or killing the baby in order to get it out more quickly.

    1. Claire says:

      It’s actually from the original Latin, which is a bit more precise and I’ll add a note to my article above.
      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. That’s why Burnet quotes Sander as saying “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.”
      Hope that helps. The translation of Sander’s book is excellent but in this case it wasn’t quite as precise and misses part of a sentence.

      1. Claire says:

        I forgot to give you a link to Sander’s original Latin version – sorry, my morning coffee hasn’t quite reached my brain yet! It can be found on Google books – https://books.google.es/books?id=1gxWAAAAcAAJ

  11. Barb says:

    I never believed that myth….a caesarian section would have killed her immediately. She died of childbed fever which took about a week to kill her. Thanks for another great article!!!

  12. Gail Marion says:

    A great number of Americans carrying hostility towards Obama are convinced he was born in Kenya and, accordingly, not entitled to be President. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose …

    1. Robin says:

      Gail Marion,

      This site has nothing to do with Obama. Please stop spamming.

      I enjoy this site. Usually I am a lurker but felt the need to just let you know.

      Now back to Jane Seymore…

      Thank you for this article. It clears up the misconception of the c-section that never happened. Jane would have died almost immediately.

      I read something not long back which stated “Henry, in desperate need for a male heir ripped the babe from Queen Jane’s womb”

      Talk about going off the rails. I guess the person who wrote that was in desperate need to sell whatever tabloid he/she works for.

      Claire, I love this site. I lurk here and read your articles daily. Thank you for your time, research and knowledge.

  13. Denise Hansen says:

    The “Death of Queen Jane” is a very pretty ballad and it was used in the movie soundtrack for “Inside Lllewyn Davis”. Here is the link.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sfeKFKG3JWM

  14. Banditqueen says:

    A very well researched and sourced article, excellent setting out of the evidence. I never believed the c section nonsense as Jane would have died at once. As she appears to have been well enough to receive the court and to watch the ceremony of the evening procession for Edwards baptism in Hampton Court. The work by Sander does not say he was born with a c, but that Henry was told he may have to choose between the life of the child and that of the mother. It’s the commentary that adds the C section. Both works are many years later, both are based on rumour, the equivalent of the media rags of today, picking up on rumours and inventing the rest.

    Henry could have been given a choice about Jane, she had been in labour for almost three days. The midwives used their skills through what was obviously a dangerous and difficult birth, the doctors would only be allowed in as a last resort. Jane appears to have been seriously ill, to have contracted septicemia, she died days later of childbed fever. In the documentary by Helen Castor on marriage, birth and death, she talked to a medical expert about Jane Seymour, especially pointing out that Jane suffered a loosening of the bowels, before her condition worsened. The doctor was of the opinion that Jane may not have passed the placenta, which became trapped inside her, causing bloodloss, toxic shock and septic shock. The lose movement may have been accompanied by the passing of the placenta. Jane would have suffered internal trauma. She suffered from massive internal bleeding and septic shock, causing a vast infection, thus child bed fever. Henry would have recognized it, his own mother died of this. It’s unlikely that Henry would have been able to make any decision about his wife or child, after three sleepless nights, he would have been too overwrought to make such a choice. It was not possible. But scandalous stories make for a good read now, back then it was just as likely that rumours about Jane and Edward’s birth were invented by those wanting to create a good story.

  15. Loretta Bridges says:

    Was Jane Seymour’s labor complicated by shoulder dystopia? If midwifes did not handle it properly, the labor would be prolonged. It was said that Edward VI had one shoulder considerably lower than the other. This is a common birth happening; as evidenced by the birth of Kaiser Wilhelm.

    1. Claire says:

      It could well have been. I had to have an emergency caesarean after labouring for many hours because my son was in the posterior position and also had his chin jutting out. He got well and truly stuck. I’m sure he would have sorted himself out in time but his heart rate dipped and they were worried about him so I got whisked off to the operating theatre. Perhaps Edward was in the posterior position and that’s why her labour was so long and hard.

  16. Cheryl Esselman says:

    Very interesting. By saying save the child, if Henry did in fact say that, he was assuming the child was a boy. If in fact no women survived Cesarean births then she obviously did not have one. Childbirth in unsterile conditions and risk of hemorrhage after a difficult birth I’m sure was high with no antibiotics available. It’s very sad turn of events. I wonder if Henry felt God was punishing him?

  17. Naoko says:

    If there’s reference to ‘surgery’ it was probably an episiotomy. A small cut to widen the birth canal. A barber/surgeon could stitch a small wound like that. But it would have definitely got infected.

    1. Claire says:

      The only references to surgery definitely mean more than that, in that they have Henry being asked to choose between mother and child. There are no actual reliable contemporary references for any type of surgery at all though, it’s simply propaganda.

  18. Katherine Newman says:

    Could she have had an episiotomy? Cecily Neville needed to be cut to deliver Richard III who was a breech birth so it was a procedure that was performed in the C15th and could be the cutting that is referred to? It would have been very easy to get an infection after such a procedure in an age before anti-biotics.

    1. Claire says:

      There aren’t any contemporary reports that back up the idea of any cutting, and Sander is definitely suggesting more than an episiotomy in that he talks about Henry VIII having to choose between mother and child. Harpfield also writes of Edward being born by “gnawing out the mother’s womb”.

    2. BanditQueen says:

      There is no contemporary evidence to support the latter report of John Rous that the birth of Richard iii was anything but a normal birth or that his mother was cut open to allow him to be born easier. The wild descriptions of his birth by Rous are written after 1485, nothing dating from October 1452 supports any of his description, later used by Shakespeare. There is nothing of this mentioned in Cecilly Neville’s biograthy by Amy Licence and it has been dismissed by several historians. The myth was completely debunked in an entire section dedicated by Dr John Ashdown Hill MBE in his work on the mythology of Richard III. Just as this was a myth; there is nothing contemporary either to support the legend that Jane Seymour had a c-section, nor is any other surgery mentioned. Richard III was also said to have been in his mother for two years; hardly possible I think.

      While it is not impossible that Edward was in the breach position, or that minor surgery was used to widen the passage, it is not mentioned, so cannot be claimed to be a historical fact. Midwives, however, did have manuals written during the middle ages that showed all the possible positions of birth and how to deal with them; they would have been able to turn the child. One possible theory which has been put in a documentary hosted by Helen Castor ( a midwife on the show) was that as Queens were sacred property, doctors and midwives may have hesitated to touch them in an intimate manner, so turning the child may not have been their first action; until they had no choice. Remember poor Jane was in labour for about 72 hours; her life was despaired off and she must have grown weak. All we know for certain is that she survived the birth, attended the celebrations, watched the baptism from her rooms or a screen, received the court, and that she grew ill a few days after the baptism, her condition going down hill rapidly, Jane died 12 days after the birth; her symptoms suggest loss of blood and septicimia causing her death from childbed fever. Given the stand off attitude to helping and intervention with the treatment of a royal person, it is more likely that she died through lack of attention than any kind of direct intervention or hands on treatment.

      1. bruno says:

        The C-section seems to have brought a lot of silly stories through ages.
        Already the story of Julius Cesar’s mother’s body to be delivered by cesarean is nonsense, for she actually died decades after this birth.
        Like Cicely née Neville, dying at eighty, ie long after any of her sons
        And when it comes to the famous dilemma (save the child OR the mother), I’ve never heard of such a thing in fact (we can guess that this issue was tried only when madam was dead; even the less loving husband had to be realistic and count on his own and his wife’s strength to get further children if not healthy, living at least).
        The only case I was told about among royals is the death in childbed of the Great Catherine (of Russia)’s 1st daughter-in-law .
        In that case, the young wife of tsarevitch Pavel, Natalia had been suffering for rather a long time , ending with dying of fever – her body was opened by surgeons but that was only for the discovery a long-time dead foetus (so as often a case of blood-poisoning!…).
        The tsarevitch, nor the emperess (who did not like her daughter-in-law) gave orders to save the baby – supposedly living then – rathe r than the young woman.
        The only thing I heard – sources ? Maybe it’s just gossip – is young Edward Tudor was born very unhealthy and was a frail creature all his life-long.
        Anybody to tell the truth about it ?

        Thanks for your site – very informative, indeed

  19. Christine says:

    I also believe it’s a myth as Jane would have died immediately had she been cut open, its like the deformed foetus tale that Anne Boleyn was said to have given birth to, again there’s no contemporary source to back it up.

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