Posted By Claire on February 3, 2010
Last week, I considered the role of Anne’s final miscarriage in the fall of Anne Boleyn and the Boleyn faction. Although Retha Warnicke concludes that “her fall was almost certainly triggered by the nature of the miscarriage she was to suffer in late January, for there is no evidence that she had been in any personal or political danger”, I cannot believe that the miscarriage was the sole reason for Anne’s downfall and I have to agree with Professor Eric Ives who says:-
“The miscarriage of 29 January was neither Anne’s last chance nor the point at which Jane Seymour replaced Anne in Henry’s priorities. It did, nevertheless, make her vulnerable again.”
The miscarriage may well have made Anne’s position more vulnerable, particularly because it coincided with the death of Catherine of Aragon, but it was not the catalyst of Anne Boleyn’s fall. It was just one factor which contributed to the undoing of this queen, one more thing which her enemies could use against her and to make Henry doubt his second wife.
But why did Anne’s miscarriage have any impact at all?
To understand why this final miscarriage may have shaken Henry’s faith in Anne and his marriage, we have to examine Anne’s obstetric history and also look at that of Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon. The miscarriage of January 1536 was not an isolated incident.
Catherine of Aragon’s Pregnancies, Still-births and Miscarriages
There is a fascinating article by Professor Sir John Dewhurst entitled “The Alleged Miscarriages of Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn”, in which he examines the obstetric histories of both Catherine and Anne. When we consider that Henry VIII got his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled because she could not bear him a son and that some feel that he executed Anne Boleyn for the same reason, we have to conclude that these women’s obstetric histories are worth looking at.
According to J.J. Scarisbrick, 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”. Dewhurst makes the point that “several” must mean three or more so Scarisbrick is crediting Catherine with a total of nine pregnancies, only one of which gave Henry a living heir and it was only a girl. Hester Chapman writes of Catherine having a total of seven pregnancies, Neville Williams writes of how Henry was “mindful of earlier miscarriages” in his second year of marriage to Catherine, John Bowle writes of six pregnancies and A.F. Pollard suggests a total of around ten pregnancies. If Catherine had nine unsuccessful pregnancies it is little wonder that Henry felt that their marriage was cursed!
But did Catherine have so many miscarriages or still-births?
Sir John Dewhurst has looked at primary sources and argues that there is only evidence for six pregnancies:-
- 31st January 1510 – A stillborn daughter born 33 weeks after the marriage. This is reported by Diego Fernandez, Catherine’s chancellor, in the Calendar of State Papers (Spain)
- 1st January 1511 – Birth of a son, Henry, who died on 22nd February at just 52 days old.
- 17th September 1513 – Birth of a son who was either stillborn or who did not survive long. The Venetian Calendar of State Papers records that the child was alive at birth: “a male heir was born to the King of England and will inherit the crown, the other son having died.”
- November 1514 – According to Dewhurst, the Venetian ambassador, wrote to his senate in November that “The Queen has been delivered of a stillborn male child of eight months to the very great grief of the whole court”, Holinshed, the chronicler, ” reported that “in November the Queen was delivered of a prince which lived not long after”, and John Stow wrote “in the meantime, to Whit, the month of November, the Q was delivered of a prince which lived not long after”.
- 18th February 1516 – Birth of a daughter, Mary, the future Mary I.
- 10th November 1518 – Birth of a stillborn daughter. The Venetian ambassador wrote “The Queen has been delivered in her eighth month of a stillborn daughter to the great sorrow of the nation at large”.
Dewhurst admits that Catherine may have had further miscarriages but that at least one date given by Pollard for a miscarriage is a physical impossibility as he credit Catherine with a miscarriage or stillbirth in July 1514 when she was actually pregnant with the son she delivered in November 1514. Dewhurst concludes that “In the absence of other evidence, these can surely be dismissed as unsupported rumour and Catherine relieved of the burden of her alleged miscarriages.”
Anne Boleyn’s Pregnancies, Still-births and Miscarriages
Details of Anne’s obstetric history seem to be as hazy as Catherine’s! We know that Anne gave birth to a healthy daughter, Elizabeth, on the 7th September 1533, but exactly how many pregnances did Anne have?
Historian G.R. Elton writes that “the dreary tale of miscarriages was resumed” after Anne’s successful first pregnancy, which implies that Anne had a few miscarriages, at least three. Mary Louise Bruce writes that “during the first six months of 1534 she appears to have had one miscarriage after another” which Dewhurst concludes must refer to a maximum of three as “it is scarcely “conceivable” for a woman to have more than three miscarriages within a six-month period”. Hester Chapman writes of a miscarriage in March 1534, a further pregnancy in April and a possible third in July , all of which ended in miscarriages. According to Dewhurst, Chapman goes on to write about the birth of a dead son in the seventh month of pregnancy in January 1536. Still another historian, F. Chamberlin, writes of Anne only having two miscarriages – one in 1534 and another in 1535. Confused yet?!
So, what does the evidence say?
- 7th September 1533 – The birth of a live daughter, Elizabeth.
- 1534 – Eustace Chapuys wrote to Charles V on the 28th January reporting that Anne was pregnant. A letter from George Taylor to Lady Lisle dated the 27th April 1534 says that “The Queen hath a goodly belly, praying our Lord to send us a prince”. In July, Anne’s brother, Lord Rochford, was sent on a diplomatic mission to France to ask for the postponement of a meeting between Henry VIII and Francis I because of Anne’s condition: “being so far gone with child she could not cross the sea with the King”. Chapuys backs this up in a letter dated the 27th July, where he refers to Anne’s pregnancy. We do not know what happened with this pregnancy as there is no evidence of the outcome. Dewhurst writes of how the pregnancy could have resulted in a miscarriage or stillbirth, but there is no evidence to support this, he therefore wonders if it was a case of pseudocyesis, a false pregnancy, caused by the stress that Anne was under – the pressure to provide a son. Chapuys wrote on the 27th September 1534 “Since the King began to doubt whether his lady was enceinte or not, he has renewed and increased the love he formerly had for a beautiful damsel of the court”. Muriel St Clair Byrne, editor of the Lisle Letters, believes that this was a false pregnancy too.
- 1535 – The only evidence for a miscarriage in 1535 is a sentence from a letter from Sir William Kingston to Lord Lisle on 24th June 1535 when Kingston says “Her Grace has as fair a belly as I have ever seen”. However, Dewhurst thinks that there is an error in the dating of this letter as the editor of the Lisle Letters states that this letter is actually from 1533 or 1534 because it also refers to Sir Christopher Garneys, a man who died in October 1534.
- 29th January 1536 – Chapuys reported to Charles V on the 10th February 1536 that Anne Boleyn had miscarried on the day of Catherine of Aragon’s funeral: “On the day of the interment [of Catherine of Aragon] the concubine [Anne] had an abortion which seemed to be a male child which she had not borne 3 1/2 months”.
After looking at the evidence, Dewhurst concludes:-
“Thus the Lisle letter relieves Anne of the burden of one alleged miscarriage and careful examination of the evidence surrounding a possible pregnancy in 1534 provides little if any support for any miscarriage that year. She is left with only two pregnancies, one successful and one unsuccessful. Perhaps the oft-repeated assertions that both Catherine and Anne had a series of miscarriages may be laid to rest.”
However, when it comes to Anne Boleyn I like to look at what Professor Eric Ives says as he has meticulously researched her life and always backs up his theories with primary sources. Ives writes of how Anne became pregnant shortly after giving birth to Elizabeth and that “All was well as late as July, and then tragedy struck. Anne miscarried.” Ives also refers to Henry VIII’s instructions to George Boleyn to ask Francis I to defer their interview on the grounds of Anne’s pregnancy (LP vii 958). Ives then says: “That it was a miscarriage and not a stillbirth or neonatal death is indicated by the Queen not having “taken her chamber”.
Ives also writes of how Henry VIII ordered a beautiful silver cradle, decorated with precious stones and Tudor roses, from his goldsmith, Cornelius Hayes, in April 1534 so he must have been sure that Anne was pregnant.
Ives discounts Dewhurst’s theory of pseudocyesis saying:
“Anne, however, had no reason to be under stress at this date, having produced a healthy female child 8 months earlier”
and pointing out that imperial sources at Rome had been informed that Anne was pregnant in January 1534 so Anne must have conceived around November 1533. I have to agree with Ives, Anne may have been disappointed by the birth of a daughter in the September but she had every reason to believe that she would conceive again and give birth to a son. Ives does not mention another miscarriage or stillbirth and writes of her third pregnancy being the one she miscarried in January 1536.
The Impact of Anne Boleyn’s Final Miscarriage
I can understand Henry VIII’s obsession with having a son because not only did he feel he had to prove his manhood but he also knew that his job was to protect the throne and keep the Tudor line going. Catherine of Aragon’s miscarriages and stillbirths must have not only grieved him but also terrified him. Ives writes of how Anne’s loss of a son in January 1536 must have been a huge psychological blow to Henry and reminded him of the problems that Catherine had experience, which had “revealed the wrongfulness of his marriage to Katherine.” Who can blame Henry for wondering if history was repeating itself, particularly when he was already shaken from his accident just five days earlier? BUT, he and Anne had only been married for 3 years and in that time she had provided him with a healthy daughter, and there is no evidence that Anne suffered a series of miscarriages. There was hope that Anne would conceive quickly and there was no reason for Henry to doubt Anne’s fertility and ability to carry a son.
Although Henry was desperate for a son and shaken by Anne’s miscarriage, I do not believe that the miscarriage of the 29th January caused Anne’s fall or that it was the moment that Henry VIII decided to replace his wife with another model. It was a blip, not the end of the marriage. As I said last week, the lack of a son did make Anne’s position vulnerable, but the fall of Anne Boleyn was due to a number of factors – political and personal – all moving against Anne in 1536.
What do you think?
P.S. You can read a discussion on the causes of Anne Boleyn’s miscarriages at https://www.theanneboleynfiles.com/q-a/possible-reasons-for-anne-boleyns-miscarriages/
- Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII – Found online at British History Online
- “The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn” by Eric Ives
- “The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn” by Retha Warnicke
- Antonia Fraser’s“The Six Wives of Henry VIII″
- J.J. Scarisbrick’s“Henry VIII”
- Hester Chapman’s“Anne Boleyn”
- “Henry VIII & His Court” by Neville Williams
- A.F. Pollard’s“Henry VIII”
- “The Alleged Miscarriages of Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn” PDF article by Sir John Dewhurst
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