The Fate of Anne Boleyn and Catherine of Aragon’s lost babies

Apr1,2024 #Catherine of Aragon

Catherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII, suffered four stillbirths and lost a baby boy when he was just fifty-two days old, and her successor Anne Boleyn suffered one miscarriage and a possible stillbirth, but what happened to these babies? Were they buried and, if so, where?

That’s a question I’m often asked and one I’m going to try and answer today…

Before I begin, I just want to give a trigger warning that I’m going to be talking about miscarriages and stillbirths, and views that some people may find upsetting.

Catherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII, suffered four stillbirths and lost a baby boy when he was just fifty-two days old, and her successor Anne Boleyn suffered one miscarriage and a possible stillbirth, but what happened to these babies? Were they buried and, if so, where? That’s a question I’m often asked and one I’m going to try and answer today.

According to Catholic doctrine, which of course held sway in Tudor England at the time, a child is born in a state of original sin due Adam’s sin but, by baptism, that sin is washed away and the child is born again in Christ. This is based on Christ’s words in the gospel of John: “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the spirit”. Baptism is, therefore, necessary for salvation and it’s why in Tudor England babies were baptised quickly, within a couple of days of birth and even on the same day as their birth. They were then saved and it was believed that they were innocent and incapable of mortal sin until the age of seven or when they started to lose their baby teeth. That was when they were deemed capable of telling right from wrong and committing mortal sin.

Because baptism was necessary for salvation, midwives were given special permission by the Church to do emergency baptisms if a baby was born weak and, in emergencies, parents could also do emergency baptisms at home. A child who died unbaptised could not go to heaven. However, although the taint of original sin condemned them to hell, it was believed that they wouldn’t suffer the full horrors of hell, but would be sent to “limbo”, on the edge of hell, and just suffer separation from God.

An unbaptised baby could not be buried on consecrated ground, so could not be buried, for example, in the family’s vault in a church or in consecrated ground in the churchyard.

Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon’s son, Henry, Duke of Cornwall, was born on New Year’s Day 1511 and was baptised in the Chapel of Observant Friars at Richmond on 5th January. So, according to the Catholic doctrine held in England at the time, he was saved and when he died on 22nd February 1511, at just 52 days old, he would have gone to heaven. His baptism made it possible for his remains to be buried in consecrated ground and so he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

But what about Anne Boleyn’s miscarriage of 1536, the baby she must have lost in 1534, and Catherine of Aragon’s stillbirths? Well, there is no mention of them being baptised so they would have to have been laid to rest in unconsecrated ground. People did get around this, for example, a midwife could pretend that a baby was still alive and quickly baptise it, thus giving the family the opportunity of a Christian burial, and there is archaeological evidence of haphazard infant burial in churchyards suggesting that parents disobeyed church law and secretly buried their lost babies in consecrated ground. Unfortunately, we have no records regarding the fates of Catherine’s other lost babies or those of Anne, apart from a suggestion that the little boy Catherine lost in 1513 was born alive, so perhaps he was baptised, and one record of her 1514 loss states that she “was delivered of a prince which lived not long after”, so again, perhaps there was time for an emergency baptism, or that was stated so that he could be baptised. We just don’t know, and there’s certainly no record of their resting places as far as I can find. In an article on unbaptised babies, the Oxford Reference website quotes an oath taken from midwives in 1649: “ if any childe bee dead borne, you your selfe shall see it buried in such secret place as neither Hogg nor Dogg, nor any other Beast may come unto it, and in such sort done, as it may not be found or perceived, as much as you may; and that you shall not suffer any such childe to be cast into the Jaques (privy) or any other inconvenient place.” So midwives were in charge of making sure that the baby was buried, perhaps that’s what happened in the cases of Catherine and Anne. I hope so.

In his book “Tudor Children”, Nicholas Orme writes of how attitudes towards the burial of stillborn infants were changing as he Reformation took hold. He explains that new church laws were drafted in 1535 which forbade burial in consecrated ground only to people who had committed suicide and those who’d been excommunicated. Further laws were drawn up in 1553, but none of them were passed. And although London preacher William Hubbock in 1595 wrote a treatise arguing that young children did not need baptism to receive eternal life, and there were others who held his view, in the 19th century people were STILL trying to get around the rules by secretly placing the baby in the coffin of a person awaiting burial or burying the baby just inside the churchyard wall in an unmarked grave. It’s good that attitudes have now changed and that proper funerals can be arranged for these babies.

It is a terribly sad subject, but I’d like to think that in the 16th century there were rebellious midwives who helped families by baptising their lost babies as if they were alive and perhaps even pretending to the parents that the baby had taken at least one breath. This would have allowed them to grieve without the added worry about the fate of their child’s soul.

I’m sorry for the macabre and awfully sad subject, but it is a question I’m asked a lot. Unfortunately, it’s one I just can’t answer fully, but I hope I’ve shared enough interesting information with you.

By the way, from the 17th century, in Ireland, special children’s burial grounds began to be established especially for unbaptised infants, but also for others who could not be buried in consecrated ground, and people treated these burial grounds just the same as consecrated ones. It is an interesting subject once you start digging, excuse the terrible pun there.

Thank you for joining me today and I send special love to any of you who have lost babies.

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3 thoughts on “The Fate of Anne Boleyn and Catherine of Aragon’s lost babies”
  1. This sad subject has also intrigued me over the years ever since I began to read about the history of both Henry V111’s two queens, we know in those days there was a high infant mortality rate and so it is understandable that the midwife or parents would have baptised the babies immediately, and Katherine of Aragon being Catholic would almost certainly have made sure her babies would have been baptised, I find the Catholic doctrine strange however that if the baby died without such a ritual then he would be in eternal limbo, separation from god, the phrase ‘suffer the little children to come unto me’ does not quite ring true there, they were nameless these dead infants and vanished from history where were they buried? We know about Prince Henry as he lived for fifty two days he was christened and baptised and buried in Westminster Abbey, was he laid to rest in the vault of his grandparents we do not know that either, I have often pondered on where Queen Anne’s the last Stuart monarch dead infants were buried, she lost so many yet one was discovered in the grave of King Henry V111 when that was opened up several hundred years later, what happened to the last infant Anne miscarried in January 1536, we see In the last days of Anne Boleyn the tv documentary the midwife carrying the baby wrapped up and hastily being carried away, an occurrence that happened so many times with Henry’s first queen, I imagine with these infants royal as they were would have been baptised even though they were dead, surely they would not let a child of the blood royal go to purgatory, but as we hear no more about them we must assume they were buried with quiet dignity with the blessing of a priest and maybe laid to rest in a little garden maybe in Hampton court or Windsor, these lost babies of royalty must be under the earth somewhere in beautiful gardens but being so young maybe their bones have disintegrated somewhat, it is a very sad subject but unfortunately dying is part of life, what makes infant deaths so dreadful is they had no future and never felt the sun on their little faces nor see the beauty of the moon and stars at night, some believe today that a dead infant grows in the spirit world so when their relatives pass over they see them as adults, Queen Elizabeth of York lost her last child the Princess Katherine and I believe she was laid to rest in the vault of her parents, I know throughout history that parents when losing a child, often give their next child that dead siblings name, it is a comfort to them and particularly amongst working class they had large families, however many people today tend to stick to just one or two or three, it is quite a rarity when you hear of a family who have four and more children, yet for hundreds of years it was the norm to have many children, maybe because they tended to die so young, at least in these days we have skilled doctors and midwives so if a baby is in distress the mother is often whisked away to have a caesarean, in the case of Henry first two queens we can safely assume their babies would have had a much better chance of survival.

  2. Although this is an extremely tragic subject, it was an extremely informative lecture! I agree with Christine that I can’t see these poor children being consigned to either Limbo or Purgatory. Like she said, Jesus told the children to come unto him.

    Thank you Claire for your insightful information. Also, thank you Christine for your input as well!

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