Thursday, July 31, 2008

Question from Leilani - Fertility issues for the Tudors

My question is why in the Tudor Period was producing children so difficult. Is it because of the intermarrying that went on amongst the royals. Their environments were seemingly easier then the peasants. I hope this does not seem stupid this is my first question and it is something that i have been wondering for awhile.


kb said...


This is a good question with any angles.

It wasn't necessarily difficult to produce children. For example, the descendants of Mary Boleyn Carey had an average of 4 children with her daughter Katherine Carey Knollys giving birth to 14 children, 13 of whom lived to maturity.

Even Henry VIII had no problem getting people pregnant - just getting boys who lived long enough to grow up.

The hard part was making sure that children born alive lived to maturity. The general theory is that the different understanding of health care and hygiene was a contributing factor in infant and child mortality.

Although there was a great deal of inter-marriage amongst the royals of Europe, the problem was most pronounced with the Hapsburgs in later centuries - not the Tudors.

If you would like to read up on the subject I am sure several people would be happy to suggest some books.

Anonymous said...

No question is ever "stupid," Leilani, and yours is actually quite thoughtful. I assume your question relates specifically to Henry VIII and not to the general population? Producing children, i.e., women becoming pregnant and successfully delivering a live child, was actually not much more difficult in the Tudor period than it is in Europe and America today. Perhaps a slightly higher percentage of pregnancies ended in miscarriages in the Tudor and early modern period than they do today, largely because nutrition was not ideal and medical care was primitive in the Tudor period. Nonetheless, many women, especially aristocratic and royal ones, are known to have had multiple pregnancies and deliveries. Consider, for example, Frances Brandon Grey, Henry VIII's niece. She is believed to have delivered 5 living children over a span of about 10 years. Frances' husband Henry Grey was himself one of nine brothers and sisters. Jane Guildford Dudley, wife of the Duke of Northumberland, delivered 12 living children. Elizabeth Hardwick, later Countess of Shrewsbury, delivered at least 8 living children.

Producing children was not the problem ... keeping them alive was. Where today we vaccinate infants and children against disease and can treat with antibiotics most diseases that do crop up, such was not the case in the Tudor period. Today's simple strept throat could be fatal in the Tudor era. Mumps, measles, and all the usual childhood illnesses each carried the very real threat of death in the 1500s. Thus a significant percentage of children born in the 1500s died before they were 5 years old. Even Henry VIII lost a son by Katherine of Aragon just 50 or so days after that child had been born, probably to an illness that today would have been easily treated. (A second son died after only a few hours, probably the result of a premature birth.)

Intermarriage among the royals ... and the genetic problems that go with it ... was not yet a significant problem in the Tudor period. Marriage was governed at that time by church (canon) law, which forbade marriage within a certain degree of relation, called consanguinity. Royal spouses might sometimes have one (or more rarely two) ancestors in common, but they were usually several generations distant. It was rare for second or third cousins to marry in the Tudor period. By the nineteenth century, however, virtually every royal house in Europe and Russia was in some way related to Queen Victoria, often at a distance of less than 3 generations. This is where the intermarriage issue really becomes critical, especially in terms of genetic abnormalities, not the Tudor period.

The issue with Henry VIII specifically is the subject of ongoing debate. Certainly he was capable of fathering children up until 1537. Katherine of Aragon became pregnant at least six times and successfully delivered two children that survived more than a month. One of these died after about 2 months, as mentioned above, while the other was the future Queen Mary. Henry also had an illegitimate son by Bessie Blount during the time that he was married to Katherine. Anne Boleyn later became pregnant at least twice by Henry, and Jane Seymour once. So on the whole, Henry generated at least 10 pregnancies in four women between 1509 and 1537. For whatever reason, only five (or half) of those pregnancies resulted in the birth of a child that was able to survive more than a month. In 16th century terms, that really was not a bad average, especially since four of those five each survived more than 15 years.

I think the impression that Henry had trouble producing children is the result of his won insistence on producing a surviving legitimate male child and not on any genuine failure to produce children more generally. Had Henry not set such a standard for himself, we might not today perceive that he "failed to produce children," since he did in fact produce many.

Foose said...

I agree with phd historian that Henry had no problem generating children ... it was rearing males to adulthood that was the problem from a dynastic point of view.

This was a problem shared by other dynasties of the period. Charles V had several sons, but only one survived infancy. Francis I of France had three sons survive to adulthood, but only one survived him. Ferdinand, Catherine's father, left only three surviving legitimate daughters. Henry II of France, Mary Tudor's contemporary, was survived by four sickly sons, who in turn left no posterity. The Portuguese line died out in terms of sons in Elizabeth's time, and Philip II of Spain used the opportunity to seize the Portuguese throne. All of these situations caused considerable analysis and reassessment of the rules of succession in the respective countries involved.

One of the results, however, was a kind of golden opportunity for female rulers or proxy female regents. Mortimer Levine's "Tudor Dynastic Problems" is the standard source, but it's rather dry and confined to just the Tudors. You might enjoy Lisa Hopkins' "Women Who Would Be Queens," out of print and a bit out of date but an enjoyable survey of how 16th-century women stepped up to the plate or were promoted as brothers, sons, husbands and fathers sickened and perished.

Foose said...

Lisa Hopkins' book is actually "Women Who Would Be Kings", not Queens.

Another more recent and scholarly source on this topic is Sharon Jensen's "The Monstrous Regiment of Women."

Anonymous said...

having children wasn't reltively easy because there weren't medications and antibiotics to assist in the birth, no IV stands, nothing to support the mother or child, no way to see the inside of the mother during the pregnancy.

Anonymous said...

I'm currently reading
Margaret George's novel, The Autobiography of Henry VIII and have long been interested in this period of English history and the Tudors,in general. I have read that Henry blamed his wives for his inability to sire a healthy male heir, but that would've been a typical male ego attitude and irrational since he had 6 wives.
Evidently, he had no problem with siring children, esp. males, but the pregnancies ended in miscarriages and still births usually. The daughters had health problems but not to the extent that Edward VI and The Duke of Richmond had. Syphilis would have affected the girls, too. Hemophilia is a possiblity as it affects males and the girls would have been carriers. Arthur, Henry's older brother, died young and was much less healthy than Henry all along. I wonder if there was some other kind of genetic disease passed on through the Tudor family that affected males, only. It would be worth researching to see if there is information on the Tudors prior to the ascension of Henry VII to the throne or in Wales at that time.

Anonymous said...

There was a very interesting article on Yahoo the other day discussing this very issue. Some doctors are proposing the possibility that Henry had something called Kell's. It only affects about 9% of people. The interesting bit is that a man that is positive for Kell' s can usually get a woman pregnant once with very little problem for her carrying the child to term. After the first birth, the woman may develop antibodies to the blood. Many times she will carry the baby almost to term. Miscarriages tending to occur in the 6 or 7 months. It is only a theory as there is no way to prove it but does seem to allow for the historically documented problems his wives had giving him more than one child.

Anonymous said...

The problem with the Kells theory is that Princess Mary was by no means the first child of Katherine of Aragon, and Jane Syemour had no time to produce more than one child. It has been suggested that the problem with Anne Boleyn was rhesus factor - if she was negative she could produce one child okay but the rest would be lost. I have always assumed that his failure with later wives was more likely caused by impotence, since there seems to be no evidence that Catherine Howard or Katharine Parr were ever pregnant, although the latter had no trouble conceiving after her remarriage.