Tuesday 29 January 2013

"A Shapeless Mass of Flesh" or a "Beautiful Son"? Anne Boleyn's Mysterious Pregnancy in 1536

In late January or early February 1536, Anne Boleyn, second queen of Henry VIII of England, suffered a miscarriage, believed to be of a male child, at Greenwich Palace. This failure has since been shrouded in mystery and controversy, with a series of myths surrounding the tragic loss of a male heir which, almost certainly, would have guaranteed Anne's personal safety as queen and confirmed in the eyes of her husband that his second marriage was valid and his first one unlawful. Some scholars have seen Anne's pregnancy as the direct reason for her downfall, while others suggest that it considerably weakened her position but stress that she was not in fatal danger. So what is the truth of what happened to that tragic, if mysterious, pregnancy? Attempting in this article to separate fact from fiction, and viewing events through the eyes of sixteenth century social and cultural norms, a reasonable explanation will hopefully be offered.

According to later comments, it seems likely that the queen had become pregnant for the third time in mid-October 1535, when travelling with her husband on the annual summer progress.[1] Following another failure in pregnancy in the summer of 1534 – historians debate whether the queen suffered a phantom pregnancy, a miscarriage, or a stillbirth in July or August 1534[2] - both Anne and Henry must have been considerably relieved, because, as has been argued, no queen consort was ever really safe until she gave birth to the highly desired male heir, as conveyed strongly in the king’s first marriage to Katherine of Aragon. Unfortunately, Anne miscarried her child in early 1536, although what happened has been surrounded with fantastical stories born out of hindsight.[3] It is almost impossible, readers should note, to penetrate both contemporary and later sources in order to discern what really happened.

It seems logical to begin with the reports of contemporary observers who were well placed at court, although according to the divided nature of the palace according to royal protocol, status and occupation none of them were actually in the queen’s privy chamber when she suffered this calamity. Eustace Chapuys, the Imperial ambassador and a personal enemy of the queen, wrote that: “on the day of the internment (the funeral of Katherine of Aragon, 29 January), the Concubine [Anne] had an abortion [a miscarriage] which seemed to be a male child which she had not borne 3 ½ months, at which the King has shown great distress. The said concubine wished to lay the blame on the duke of Norfolk, whom she hates, saying he frightened her by bringing the news of the fall the King had six days before.”[4] Chapuys went on to write that it was well-known that this was not the cause of Anne’s miscarriage, and that others at court had speculated that, medically, she was unable to bear male children. Some historians have developed this point and suggested that Anne was rhesus negative, meaning that, following her first successful pregnancy (giving birth to Elizabeth in September 1533), she would never again have been able to bear a healthy child.[5] On a different note, Raphael Holinshed, a Tudor chronicler, also wrote that Anne’s miscarriage occurred on 29 January.

Edward Hall, who wrote a celebrated chronicle of Henry VIII’s reign, stated that: “And in February folowyng was quene Anne brought a bedde of a childe before her tyme, whiche was born dead”.[6] Hall had previously asserted that, following Katherine’s death, Anne had worn yellow in celebration – or possibly in mourning, since yellow was Spain’s national colour of mourning – of the former queen’s passing. Charles Wriothesley, a prominent court observer, wrote: “This yeare also, three daies before Candlemas [ie. 2 February], Queene Anne was brought a bedd and delivered of a man chield, as it was said, afore her tyme, for she said that she had reckoned herself at that tyme but fiftene weekes gonne with chield...”[7] Lancelot de Carles, who wrote a controversial poem about Anne’s downfall in June, wrote that the king’s jousting accident – thus agreeing with Chapuys’ sentiments – caused the queen to miscarry in shock, delivering “un beau filz”, a beautiful son, prematurely.[8]

As can therefore be recognised, there was near universal confusion surrounding the date of the miscarriage, but what can be determined is that the queen: suffered a miscarriage of a male child, at around three and one half months (or 15 weeks), at the end of January or early February 1536. Some actually doubted that the queen had been pregnant at all. The Bishop of Faenza wrote to Ambrogio in March 1536 that the French King had commented that Anne had pretended to be pregnant and her sister Mary was her only attendant, in order to maintain the pretence.[9] Dr Ortiz also wrote to Emperor Charles that month that Anne pretended to be pregnant due to her fear that the king would leave her, hoping to convince him that she was still capable of bearing a male heir.[10] Such statements are clearly garbled with rumour and can be dismissed. Nicholas Sander, a Catholic Reformation historian who wrote a damning portrayal of Anne, suggested that she had given birth to “a shapeless mass of flesh” in 1536, with connotations of deformity – which will be later discussed.[11]

What caused her miscarriage? Sensational stories created by hostile Catholics offered scandalous reasons for the queen’s miscarriage, which they delighted in. According to Jane Dormer, duchess of Feria and a personal friend of Mary I, and thus no admirer of Anne Boleyn, the queen had discovered her husband with Jane Seymour, his mistress, seated on his lap in January 1536 and had flown into a rage. Sander wrote something similar, suggesting that Anne had found her husband with Jane one afternoon in an intimate position, leading Anne to suffer a miscarriage from shock and distress and subsequently blaming her husband for her mishap: “See, how well I must be since the day I caught that abandoned woman Jane sitting on your knees”. Chapuys later commented that Anne had “miscarried of her saviour”. As has been observed, some believed that the queen suffered from a defective constitution and so would never be able to bear male children. Chapuys later spitefully alleged that the queen could not have a male child, which has led some writers to believe that the mysterious miscarriage in the summer of 1534 was also of a boy.[12] A reasonable suggestion would be that the king’s shocking jousting fall a few days earlier on 24 January had caused the queen to experience shock, horror and bewilderment, perhaps directly influencing what later occurred. However, Chapuys stated that she was indifferent to the king’s fall when told.

Whatever did happen, historians have advanced several theories as to this miscarriage, concerning how it impacted upon the queen’s personal relations with her husband, and how it damaged – either fatally or merely badly – both her political position and her personal security. Retha M. Warnicke, an American historian, is perhaps the best known scholar for her controversial, if intriguing, theories on Anne’s final pregnancy. Believing that the Spanish ambassador Chapuys was deliberately misinformed by Master Secretary Thomas Cromwell and other English officials as to both the date of Anne’s miscarriage and the nature of that miscarriage, Warnicke asserts that Anne delivered a deformed child in mid-January 1536, which was the ‘sole reason’ why she was executed four months later, because the birth of deformed children, apparently, was associated with witchcraft and sexual misbehaviour, thus convincing Henry that his wife was both a witch and an adulteress.[13] Warnicke believes that Sander’s comment, that the queen delivered “a shapeless mass of flesh” – written, by the way, some fifty years after that tragic event by someone who was a toddler at the time of Anne’s execution – reflected the truth of what happened to Anne’s pregnancy. This claim was spectacularly developed in Philippa Gregory’s wildly inaccurate novel The Other Boleyn Girl (2001) where Anne gives birth to a shockingly malformed foetus with a splayed spine and a giant head.

Warnicke puts forward several pieces of evidence to support her argument: Anne’s comments when imprisoned in the Tower of London suggested that her miscarriage was unusual, contemporary observers at court wrote that that spring the king was acting as if he was “accursed” and “living in hell”, rumours of witchcraft circulated a few days after the miscarriage, Anne was accused of committing incest with her brother and adultery with four men – in Warnicke’s eyes, had the foetus been normal, there would have been no need to go to such lengths to prove the king was not the father, there was a delay between the miscarriage and when it was reported (around 2 weeks in the case of Chapuys), the nature of the crimes alleged to have been committed by Anne, the fact that all five men were supposedly “libertines” – ie. homosexuals – and thus viewed as monstrous, and the fact that efforts were made to see what Mary, Anne’s stepdaughter, knew about the pregnancy.[14] Warnicke’s argument has proved convincing, with scholars such as John Guy crediting Anne’s downfall in 1536 with the birth of a deformed foetus in January. But can Warnicke’s arguments be supported, and do they suggest that Anne did miscarry a deformed child?

Nicholas Sander did assert that the queen had miscarried “a shapeless mass of flesh”, but we must remember that his work was published fifty years after these events, he never met Anne, and as a Catholic Reformation scholar, portrayed the queen as a monstrous being, with a witch-like character, deformed appearance, and insinuated that she was the daughter of Henry VIII. His account, therefore, is untrustworthy at best, slanderous and venomous at worst. No other contemporary Catholic sources referred to this supposed monstrous pregnancy, when they surely would have exploited such scandalous news to further blacken Anne’s reputation. Chapuys, who loathed the queen, simply described the miscarried child as being male and of around three and a half months in age. The notorious Chronicle of Henry VIII, which asserted incredulously that the queen was guilty of multiple adulteries and contains multiple inaccuracies, did not refer to the pregnancy at all. Neither did Jane Dormer. During Mary I’s reign, when Anne was publicly referred to as being an adulteress, there was no mention made of the deformed foetus. If this really did have connotations of witchcraft, consorting with the Devil and sexual immorality, why was no mention made of it and, more to the point, why was Anne’s daughter Elizabeth not publicly debarred from the succession on account of being the daughter of a witch? Warnicke herself has shown that contemporaries believed that daughters of witches were viewed as witches themselves, but no mention was made of this. What may both convince readers about the dubious nature of this theory – and is yet disturbing for so many people contain to believe it is true – is that there is no mention of a deformed child. As has been shown, contemporary comments only referred to the miscarried child as being male, while de Carles stressed that it was “beautiful”. Furthermore, rumours of witchcraft circulating in February, made by the Imperial ambassador, have been severely and critically questioned by historians, who conclude that this information was at best third-hand. No mention of witchcraft was made in the indictments against Anne and her lovers; the crimes were overwhelmingly sexual, not supernatural in basis.

More to the point, historians have not considered the thriving broadside ballad culture in early modern England, and how this may have been exploited with salacious details about Anne’s supposedly monstrous pregnancy. Particularly in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, ballads became increasingly interested with monstrous births and deformed children, as numerous ballads of this nature attest. A W Bates has written that “monstrous births... were popular subjects for ballads”.[15] There were, apparently, 250 monstrous births between 1503 and 1700, often reported in scandalous detail in early modern ballads.[16] The birth of deformed children, more to the point, was not necessarily believed to have been the result of witchcraft or sexual misbehaviour. A woman’s disturbed imagination could be viewed as leading to her child being born with defects. Other factors could be at work. Couples who had sexual intercourse during menstruation were believed capable of producing a deformed child. Religious differences in belief could be important too. It has been argued, for instance, that whereas Catholics – ie the king and his consort – interpreted a deformed foetus as being the result of natural forces, later Protestants chose to view it as being a sign of God’s direct intervention in the natural world.[17] Historians who support the deformed foetus story therefore fail to answer the simple question: how could a government, no matter how powerful or efficient the ministers and officials, successfully conceal from both country and continent the news of such a monstrous happening as the birth of a deformed child, particularly one born to the most powerful woman in the country, which would surely have invited scandal? This has never been adequately explained. Warnicke claims that the charges of adultery and incest were brought against the men to try and conceal all news of the deformed child, which apparently was more disparaging to the king’s honour than the fact that his wife was apparently violated by five men, one her own brother. This is an unconvincing and dubious argument. No individual, or group of individuals, could successfully conceal such a monstrosity, only for a scholar to ‘discover’ it 450 years later. As Eric Ives has commented, this invites more than a raised eyebrow.[18] To conclude, there is no evidence that a deformed child was born to Queen Anne, so this suggests that there was no deformed child at all. No mention was made of it during the queen’s downfall, no hostile Catholic (or Protestant, for some also opposed Anne) ever scandalised it in literature, no evidence of Anne’s association with witchcraft was brought forward, and claiming that Anne’s conversations in the Tower, the charges that she kissed and seduced courtiers, and the fact that her lovers were supposedly libertines are evidence of a deformed foetus cannot be substantiated.

However, Warnicke’s arguments that fertility and its related matters, such as impotence, were crucial to this miscarriage and its role in Anne’s downfall are somewhat more convincing, and something perhaps neglected by political historians who emphasise the factional nature of Anne’s downfall. The indictments drawn against her did emphasise that “certain ills had befallen” the king’s body, implying impotence – which, interestingly, was a significant issue in his later marriages to Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard – and it was suggested that he had been bewitched into marriage by the queen. I would cautiously suggest that strenuous efforts were made to deny the king’s paternity of Anne’s last child, not because it was deformed, but because it was believed that during the period 1533-35 Anne had rapidly turned to five lovers in desperate attempts to become pregnant, and therefore the king was not the father. Similar issues were addressed in Katherine Howard’s downfall, when her probably innocent meetings with Culpeper and former relations with Dereham were viewed as evidence that she intended to fall pregnant by either in order to provide her impotent husband with an heir.

If it was believed that the queen had turned to other male lovers, as hostile Catholic sources alleged in scandalous detail – possibly due to Henry VIII’s developing impotence – then it makes sense why strong efforts were made to suggest that during a period of two years Anne had enjoyed sexual relations with five men. However, this was only to occur significantly later on. With no evidence of deformity, one cannot argue that Anne’s last miscarriage was the ‘sole reason’ why she was executed four months later. I would tentatively agree with Ives, and other historians, who have argued that ‘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’.[19] An issue which historians should perhaps consider further is that of the queen’s age. Disagreeing with those who believe Anne was born in 1507, I have argued that she was born most likely during 1501.[20] If the king was aware that his queen was approaching her thirty-fifth birthday, it makes considerable sense why he voiced dissatisfaction and dismay with her second failure in pregnancy. Surely, if she was aged twenty-eight, his reaction would not have been as severe or devastated, for Katherine of Aragon had been pregnant consistently until the age of thirty-three, while Jane Seymour bore her son aged twenty-eight. Since the Imperial ambassador spitefully referred to Anne around this time as being “a thin, old woman” and emphasising that her rival was “a young lady”, it is possible that the queen’s age provoked the king’s concern that, married to Anne, he would never beget a healthy male heir.

This article has indicated how suspect sources which detail Anne Boleyn’s final miscarriage in 1536 are. Many of them are Catholic, written from a hostile perspective designed to disparage the queen and the circumstances of her rule. Many were written much later than the events they describe, and must be viewed with a critical and sceptical eye. Yet the fact that they knew of this miscarriage in the first place suggests that it was significant. Other, perhaps less unsympathetic, court observers simply stated that the queen had aborted a male some three months after conception, making no reference to either a deformity or to a violent separation between the couple. They do, however, suggest that the king was devastated and blamed his queen, fearing that he would never father a male heir by her, while they also show Anne’s grief at following a second unsuccessful pregnancy. In the long term, this miscarriage certainly played an important role in Anne’s downfall. Yet it was not the sole cause, as some historians have suggested. Although an uneasy, even tragic, estrangement between the couple seems to have shortly followed, it was not until late April 1536 that Anne fell into severe royal disfavour, only indirectly influenced by the loss of her son earlier that year.

[1] Charles Wriothesley, a contemporary observer, wrote that Anne believed herself to be ‘but fiftene weekes gonne with chield’, while the Spanish ambassador Eustace Chapuys also stated that the child had been conceived three and a months previously.
[2] G. W. Bernard, Fatal Attractions (Yale, 2010) advances the claim that Queen Anne was never pregnant and was suffering from a phantom pregnancy, which her stepdaughter Mary later infamously experienced in 1554-5. Eric Ives, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn (Oxford, 2005) suggests that Anne suffered a miscarriage in the late summer of 1534, stating that it could not have been a stillbirth because she never took to her chamber. Retha M. Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (Cambridge, 1989) believes that the queen gave birth to a stillborn child in late June 1534. Other historians identify with one of these theories – I believe it is most likely Anne suffered a miscarriage.
[3] Cited by Joanna Denny, Anne Boleyn: a New History of England’s Tragic Queen (London, 2004).
[4] Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII, x.282.
[5] Such as A. Weir, The Lady in the Tower: the Fall of Anne Boleyn (Jonathan Cape, 2009).
[6] Hall’s Chronicle, p. 818.
[7] C. Wriothesley, A Chronicle of England during the reign of the Tudors, from A.D. 1485 to 1559, p. 33.
[8] Poème sur la Mort d’Anne Boleyn, Lancelot de Carles, lines 317-326, in La Grande Bretagne devant L’Opinion Française depuis la Guerre de Cent Ans jusqu’a la Fin du XVI Siècle, George Ascoli.
[9] Letters and Papers, x.450.
[10] Letters and Papers, x.528.
[11] Nicholas Sander, Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism (Burns and Oates, 1887), p.132.
[12] For instance, Weir, Lady in the Tower.
[13] Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (1989) and “Sexual Heresy at the Court of Henry VIII”.
[14] For these arguments, see Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (1989) – Chapter 8 “Sexual Heresy”.
[15] A W Bates ‘Birth defects described in Elizabethan ballads’, http://www.jrsm.rsmjournals.com/content/93/4/202.full.pdf.
[16] http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=11902
[17] http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=11902
[18] E. W. Ives The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn (Oxford, 2005).
[19] Ibid.
[20] See http://www.conorbyrnex.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/the-boleyn-marriage-and-birth-of-anne.html


  1. Conor: I'm looking for a 3rd-4th century quote that would also make the point that sex during menstruation could lead to deformed children; any quick and easy suggestions? Thanks!

    1. Hi, I'm so sorry for my late reply. I don't know very much about the period in question. You might wish to consult the works of theologians who wrote extensively about sex.

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  5. Interesting...i believe she did have a boy, and a live one.
    And i have a serious reason for that, i have been told so by a man who claims so.He might be mad or the truth about Anne is not known and hidden, and it is logical.All this happend in the 1530's. Who knows? Well, may be some few people.

  6. Color, I am currently reading a book called The Autobiography Of King Henry Viii, by Margaret George. In it is stated that Catherine of Aragon's eight pregnancy culminated in a still-born baby girl. It also states this child had severe deformities including only one eye, a cavity where the rise should be and deformed mouth with teeth. Is there anything in your research that supports such an event?

    1. Hi Margaret, thanks for your comment. I haven't read that novel. It is a work of fiction, so it isn't a story to be taken literally. There is no evidence that any of Henry's wives gave birth to a deformed child.