Anne Boleyn - The Nidd Hall Portrait
Anne Boleyn - The Nidd Hall Portrait

On this day in history, 29th January 1536 Catherine of Aragon was interred at Peterborough Cathedral and her successor Anne Boleyn suffered a miscarriage, a huge blow to both Anne and Henry VIII who were desperate for a son.

As I said in my post a couple of week’s ago, there are many possible reasons for the fall of Anne Boleyn and the Boleyn faction, but Retha Warnicke, author of “The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn”, believes that Anne’s fall was caused directly by the miscarriage Anne experienced in January 1536. Warnicke states:-

“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.”

What does Warnicke mean by “the nature of the miscarriage”?

Well, Warnicke is one historian who believes the words of Nicholas Sander who, during Elizabeth I’s reign, wrote that Anne Boleyn had miscarried “a shapeless mass of flesh”, a deformed foetus. If indeed Anne did miscarry a deformed foetus, it is no wonder that this miscarriage led to her fall because in Tudor times a deformity, or giving birth to such a monster, would have been associated with witchcraft or have been a sign that one of the parents had sinner and committed adultery or incest.

So, what evidence does Warnicke give to back up the deformed foetus story that only Nicholas Sander writes of, and he was no contemporary of Anne and Henry?

Here are Warnicke’s arguments for why this miscarriage was so unusual:-

  • Unlike other foetuses miscarried by Henry’s consorts, this miscarriage was not kept secret and details of the gender, age and date of birth were all made public.
  • After Anne’s arrest, Sir Edward Baynton wrote in a letter to William Fitzwilliam: “this shallbe to advertyse yow that here is myche communycacion that nomam will confesse any thynge agaynst her, but allonly Marke of any actuell thynge. Wherefore (in my folishe conceyte) it shulde myche toche the King’s honor if it shulde no farther appeere. And I cannot beleve but that the other two bee as…culpapull as ever was hee.” According to Warnicke, Baynton’s words about the King’s honour and reputation only make sense if Anne had miscarried a deformed foetus because there was a “widely accepted link between the honour of a man and the public awareness of his and his wife’s sexual habits.” Warnicke feels that the fact that several men were accused of adultery with Anne shows that ministers were trying to accuse another man of fathering the child and blaming the deformed foetus on Anne’s sinful sexual behaviour.
  • That Anne hinted to Sir William Kingston in the Tower that her miscarriage had been unusual – Warnicke writes that by telling Kingston of how Elizabeth, Countess of Worcester, was unable to feel her unborn child move because of “the sorow” she had “toke” for her, Anne was hinting that there was something about her miscarriage which was particularly tragic and which grieved the Countess so much that it affected her unborn baby.
  • Anne holding Elizabeth in her arms while pleading with her angry husband – Warnicke argues that Anne could have been showing Elizabeth to Henry to prove her innocence and show that she had given him a perfect child once before. Warnicke states that if Anne’s problem was not being able to bear sons then pleading with Elizabeth in her arms would have served no purpose at all.
  • Anne was “charged with inciting, in a witchlike fashion, five men to have sexual relations with her by the use of touches and kisses that involved thrusting her tongue into their mouths and theirs in hers…The kisses, touches and caresses were minutely described probably because by reason of their motives they could be viewed as mortally sinful.” Warnicke feels that by showing Anne as the instigator and initiator of these acts that the Crown was proving that she was not a victim but that she was a witch. Also, Warnicke states that the ministers chose the dates of the adultery carefully so that Henry’s fatherhood could be denied and that this would only have been important if the foetus was not normal.

But was the foetus that Anne miscarried “a shapeless mass of flesh”?

No, I don’t believe so and I can’t say that I am convinced at all by any of Retha Warnicke’s arguments. Why believe the words of Nicholas Sander, a man whose sole aim was to slander and discredit Anne Boleyn, when contemporary sources do not mention any deformity at all. Surely, if Anne had given birth to such a monster, it would have been used as evidence against her at her trial.

Arguments Against the Deformed Foetus Story

I’m not the only one who disagrees with Warnicke’s theory. Here are some arguments from other historians:-

  • Both Eric Ives and Alison Weir quote Eustace Chapuys, the Imperial Ambassador, as saying that “the child had the appearance of a male about 3 months and a half old.” – Wouldn’t Chapuys, who hated Anne Boleyn, have mentioned any deformities?
  • Eric Ives quotes Charles Wriothesley as saying that Anne had miscarried ” a man child” and that Anne “said that she had reckoned herself at that time but 15 weeks gone with child” – No mention of a deformed foetus.
  • Eric Ives, Anne Boleyn’s biographer and a man who has researched Anne’s life and Tudor history meticulously, states that “no deformed foetus was mentioned at the time or later in Henry’s reign, despite Anne’s disgrace” and that even when Anne Boleyn’s name was blackened in Mary I’s reign, the story of a deformed foetus did not come out.
  • Sander wrote the story of the deformed foetus 40 years after Anne’s miscarriage and Eric Ives is of the opinion that without any corroborating evidence we should dismiss this story as a myth.
  • Alison Weir makes the point that the deformed foetus story was never used in Anne’s trial yet in a time where deformities were blamed on God’s judgement on the parents this “shapeless mass of flesh” would have been the perfect evidence to bolster the charges of incest and adultery.

Was the Miscarriage of January 1536 to Blame for the Fall of Anne Boleyn?

Had Anne Boleyn “miscarried of her saviour” (J. E. Neale, Queen Elizabeth)? Was this miscarriage “the turning point to tragedy” (Ives)? Was it the catalyst of Anne’s fall?

I think that it is far too simplistic to blame the fall of Anne Boleyn on that final miscarriage as there are so many other factors to consider. Yes, this miscarriage had a devastating impact on Anne, who was desperate to prove herself to Henry and give him what he wanted and needed – a son – and to Henry also, due to the fact that he had given up his wife of over 20 years because she was barren and, as Eric Ives writes, Anne’s miscarriages were “the ominous reminder of Katherine’s history” that “brought all Henry’s doubts flooding back.” Catherine of Aragon had suffered many miscarriages and still-births and so Henry had moved on to Anne for a fresh start, yet, like Catherine, all she had given him was a daughter and now history seemed to be repeating itself.

We know that both parents were griefstricken by this tragedy from contemporary reports. Henry VIII had suffered a serious jousting accident on the 24th January, just five days before Anne’s miscarriage, and Eric Ives writes of how he must have been shaken by this brush with death, and reminded of his own mortality and the need for a male heir, so Anne’s miscarriage would have hit him hard. It is no wonder, therefore, that Henry reacted in the way he did, saying:
“I see that God will not give me male children.” (Eustace Chapuys quoted in Eric Ives and taken from LP x351)

George Wyatt tells the story a little differently, giving Anne’s reaction too, and Alison Weir quotes him as saying:

“The King came bewailing and complaining to her [Anne] the loss of his boy, some words were heard [to] break out of the inward feeling of her heart’s dolours, laying the fault upon unkindness, which the King more than was cause (her case at this time considered) took more hardly than otherwise he would if he had not been somewhat too much overcome with grief, or not so much alienate.”

Wyatt also wrote that Henry told Anne that “he would have no more boys by her”.

Alison Weir also quotes Chapuys as saying that Henry “scarcely said anything to her [Anne], except that he saw clearly that God did not wish to give him male children, and in leaving her, he told her, as if for spite, that he would speak to her after she was up” and then the King left Anne “with much ill grace.”

These angry words spoken by Anne and Henry sound serious until we consider their relationship, which Eric Ives describes perfectly when he says “storm followed sunshine, sunshine followed storm”. Anne and Henry would hit out at each other and then make up. They were both passionate people with quick tempers and don’t we all lash out and say cross words, and words we later regret, when we have been hurt or are suffering from grief? I don’t think we can read too much into Henry and Anne’s reactions to the miscarriage and their spiteful words. Also, Eric Ives makes the great point that we can take Henry’s words “I see that God will not give me male children” as Henry emphasising that the miscarriage was “the will of God rather than the failure of Anne.”

Suzannah Lipscomb, author of “1536: The Year that Changed Henry VIII”, writes of how Anne’s miscarriage must have not only been a disappointment to the King but also a real worry because “it threatened the stability of the realm at a time when English security was already in jeopardy” because of “an edict issued by the Pope that would have deprived Henry of his right to rule” which was circulating in Europe and which, if formally published, could legitimise an invasion of England and the overthrow of Henry’s throne.

Anne must also have been shaken by this miscarriage and she must have felt Catherine of Aragon’s shadow over her as she suffered this miscarriage on the day of Catherine’s funeral. As Antonia Fraser writes:

“the influence of the dead woman stretched from beyond her grave in Peterborough Cathedral to pull down the woman who had supplanted her.”

Eric Ives makes the point that Catherine’s death left Anne very vulnerable and Mary, Catherine and Henry’s daughter, a “more formidable opponent”. All that was needed for Mary to displace Elizabeth as heir presumptive was for Henry to accept that Mary was “bona fide parentum gotten, conceived and born”, a child of good faith, and this could now be done without “challenging the King’s conviction that the Aragon marriage had been invalid.” Ives also writes that Anne Boleyn’s enemies could now take heart that removing the woman they saw as a usurper did not mean that Henry VIII would have to return to the barren Catherine but that he could move on to a new wife. Alison Weir agrees and also writes of how Anne’s miscarriage and Catherine’s death affected Jane Seymour “who may not only have felt genuine grief at Katherine of Aragon’s death, but must also have realised that, in the eyes of many people like herself – and indeed most of Europe – Henry VIII was now a free man. And suddenly, in the light of the Queen’s miscarriage, Anne’s enemies saw in this pallid young woman, who up till now probably had been of no more significance than any other of the King’s passing fancies, an opportunity to bring her down.”

The miscarriage had certainly put both Anne and Henry in vulnerable positions.


“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.” Eric Ives

I love that quote because it sums up my feelings about Anne’s final miscarriage. It was not the beginning of the end – Anne was obviously a fertile woman and there was no reason why she should not get pregnant again, and Henry had no reason to doubt this. Yes, she was in a vulnerable position, having no son to endorse her and Henry’s marriage and having powerful enemies at court, but she had the love of her husband. Henry was still sticking up for his wife, talking of their hopes for a son and campaigning for her acceptance as Queen right up until the events of the end of April 1536, three months after the miscarriage. Ives writes of how Henry was “publicly endorsing Anne’s position on the Tuesday after Easter”, so it seems that the miscarriage was not the sole cause, or even a major cause, of the fall of Anne Boleyn; if it was, then surely Anne would have fallen a lot sooner than she did.

On the next couple of weeks, I will also be looking at the question of how many miscarriages Anne Boleyn actually had and what could have caused them.


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