Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Question from Sue - Henry's wives and live births

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I'm a professor of communication, and have recently finished The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir. In reading that book, I was struck by how difficult it was for all of Henry VIII's wives --not just his first-- to give birth to live children. Katherine of Spain, for example, was pregnant a total of 10 times but only one child survived, her daughter Mary. Why was this?

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  1. One must remember that we are speaking about 1500's. There were no hospitals. Doctors (or what passed for Doctors) did not help with the birth process because it was viewed as "women's work" and not worthy of their time nor something a man would be part of or even want to be involved. Additionally, there was little or no post-natal care. The death of women and infants during childbirth was rule, not the exception.

  2. Henry VIII also had syphilus(I hope I spelled that right), a chronic, sexually transmitted disease and it is suspected that his children, and his wives were afflicted by it, as well. Also, Queen Mary's inability to have children by Phillip is thought to have been caused by ovarian cancer, meaning that Katherine of Aragon could have by hereditary means, had it as well.

  3. Henry VIII did not have syphilis. This legend was disproved by J.J. Scarisbrick in his biography of Henry VIII (1968) and dealt with in David Starkey's study of Henry's court (1985) and Eric Ives's two biographies of Anne Boleyn (1986; 2004.)

  4. Actually a male physician helped out in many royal births, his name was Dr. Butts. The early modern period was the beginning of the "standardization" of medicine, which excluded women, particularly the midwives and healers who had been serving their communities for centuries. These women were starting to become shunned as "uneducated" or "superstitious" at least or "witches" at worse.

  5. In early 2011 there was a special shown on TV. Some archeologists performed a "virtual autopsy" on Henry VIII, and determined that he probably suffered from severe diabetes, which could cause "sexual incapacity", or impotence.

  6. Also , keep in mind the kind of women Henry was attracted to; with the exception of Anne of Cleves, all of Henry's wives were tiny. Katherine of Araogn was 4 foot something, compared to Henry's 6 foot 3. The tiny, delicate women Henry married could have all had difficulty birthing the rather large babies that a man Henry's size would sire. It's ironic that AoC was described as a large robust girl, and she's the one Henry found repulsive. She probably would have given him a large brood of sons without any trouble!


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