Sunday, May 31, 2009

Question from Elizabeth M. - Burial of stillborn babies

I have a question about what was done with the bodies of stillborn babies/ I know this is a macabre question. Yesterday, my husband and I went to visit the graves of his parents in a Catholic cemetery in Waukesha, WI. We walked around for a while, as the weather was so gorgeous, and we found a little area of the cemetery we never knew was there--a little burial ground for infants, many of them were obviously stillborn or lived for only a short time, as they had only their birthdate on the marker, some were not even named. What was done with stillborn infants in Tudor times, especially the royal ones?


Lara said...

There is a vault in the Lady Chapel at Westminster Abbey that has many of the young children of James II and those his daughter, poor Queen Anne (Stuart).

I want to say that some of Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII's children were buried, possibly in the Abbey? I'll have to look through my guide and see if I'm remembering that correctly. I'm sure others will know though.

Elizabeth M. said...

Does anyone know what became of the infamous male fetus born to Anne Boleyn in 1536?

Anonymous said...

The Roman Catholic, and I suppose the Anglican Catholic, Church made a very clear distinction between a child that was born, was baptised, and died, and one that was born dead. A baptised child could go to heaven (perhaps through purgatory, on account of the innate sinfulness of human nature) while a child born dead went to limbo, the mild outer circle of hell (not being a Christian).

Therefore a baptised baby was buried in consecrated ground, often in the family plot or monument. If the mother also died, they might be buried in the same coffin. A child born dead was supposed to be buried in unconsecrated ground, along with suicides and non-Christians.

Anne's fetus was too young to live. No funeral, no consecrated burial, probably no record of its disposal.

PhD Historian said...

Entspinster is essentially correct: Infants born dead as well as infants born alive but who died prior to being baptised are thought to go to "Limbo," according to Roman Catholic tradition. Not having received the first of the seven sacraments of the church, they were not part of the Roman Catholic Communion and therefore not eligible for entrance into heaven. They were generally not buried in consecrated ground, though local practice sometimes varied.

However, it is incorrect to refer to the Church of England (a.k.a. the Anglican Church or Communion) as the "Anglican Catholic Church." The word "Catholic" is not part of its name.

Also, it is the official doctrinal position of the Church of England that neither limbo nor purgatory exist. The CofE considers that neither is identified in scripture, and they are therefore "inventions of man."

Anonymous said...

I stand corrected. However, at the time of Anne's miscarrage things may not have been so clear. Henry had no problem, it seems, with confiscating assets left to endow masses for the dead for other people, yet his final will attempted to endow such masses for himself. The Roman position, then as now, was that those in Heaven should be asked to pray for others, there was no need to pray for them. And those who are in Hell get no benefit from such prayers. So Henry would seem to have believed in Purgatory, though goodness knows he changed his mind about many things over time.

Retha Warnick, in "The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn" claims that the fetus "must" have been abnormal precisely because more was recorded about the miscarriage than about Catherine's miscarriages/stillbirths.

Henry and Catherine's son, Henry, who lived a few weeks, was buried with due ceremony. Is there any evidence about the others?

Mary Ann said...


In the Roman Catholic belief a baptized infant who then died would go directly to heaven since Baptism removed the "stain of Original Sin" and an infant could not commit any sins. When I was going through catechism class in the 1960s we were taught that a child under the age of 7 could not commit a sin because of a child's inability to form an intent to commit a sin. I don't know if that was the belief in the 1500s but perhaps someone can help with that information.

PhD Historian said...

You are correct, Entspinster, that church doctrine was still "in limbo" (pun intended) at the time of Anne's reported miscarriage. Officially, the church in England was still "Catholic" in doctrine at that time, though there were those who were already pressuring for the abolition of belief in purgatory and limbo as well as other beliefs.

The church in England did not begin abandoning beliefs in purgatory and limbo until the publication of the two Books of Common Prayer (1549 and 1552) under Edward VI. And not until 1563 and the enactment of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion did purgatory and limbo become officially banned beliefs.

All historical evidence indicates that Henry VIII's personal theological beliefs remained entirely Roman Catholic in nature, right down to his death. So yes, he would have believed that the souls of his unbaptized or stillborn children went to Limbo.

With regard to prayers for the dead, it was the official position of the Roman Catholic Church during and after the Tudor period that masses and prayers for the dead helped to shorten the time spent in Purgatory by the souls of the dead and sped their eventual transition into heaven. Every mass or prayer said reduced the deceased's retention in Purgatory by a specific amount of time. And of course it cost money to have masses said, creating revenue for the Church. This practice was only slightly amended by the Council of Trent (1545-1563). The Twenty-Fifth Session of the Council (1563) confirmed the existence of Purgatory and that "the souls there detained are helped by the suffrages of the faithful." But as regards the "savour of filthy lucre," bishops were cautioned to ensure that "the sacrifices of masses, prayers, alms, and other works of piety, which have been wont to be performed by the faithful for the other faithful departed, be piously and devoutly performed, in accordance with the institutes of the church ... not in a perfunctory manner, but diligently and accurately, by the priests and ministers of the church."

PhD Historian said...

Mary Ann is correct that the modern Roman Catholic Church teaches that infants who die after baptism enter directly into Heaven, bypassing Purgatory.

The age at which a child becomes capable of sin, known as "the age of reason," has changed over the centuries. At the beginning of the 20th century, for example, the age of reason had been extended to as much as 14 years, prompting Pope Pius X to issue the papal decree Quam Singulari in 1910. That decree gave seven years of age as a general figure, based on the fact that most children were in school by that age and thus already learning (reasoning). However, the decree did not stipulate seven years as an absolute figure, but instead allowed local priests and bishops to judge a child's individual ability to reason, based on differences in maturity and upbringing. "No one can better determine the age at which the sacred mysteries should be given to young children than their parents and confessor" (Catechism of the Council of Trent, Part II, Chapter 4, paragraph 63). Age of reason, and with it age of ability to commit sin, therefore varies from one child to the next.

In the Tudor era, some theologians argued that the age of reason was as low as 5 years of age, though the majority did favor a later age, usually 6 or 7.

Church doctrine distinguishes between "age of reason" and "age of discretion," however, with reason coming before discretion. Thus children are admitted to the sacraments in stages, with age for first confession (based on reason)sometimes preceding age for first communion (based on discretion).
Determination of the age of discretion remains a source of "much controversy," according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, with differing Church authorities arguing for ages varying from seven to fourteen.

By the way, in the past few years, and especially since Benedict XVI became Pope, the Roman Catholic Church has been re-examining its teaching on Limbo. According to the official Church document entitled "The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized," the Church "does not have sure knowledge about the salvation of unbaptized infants who die," but "there are reasons to hope that God will save these infants precisely because it was not possible to do for them that which would have been most desirable -- to baptize them in the faith of the church."

Anonymous said...

I always thought the infant son of Queen Anne buried with Henry VIII was that of Anne Boleyn, not Anne Stuart. Which is it? And if it is Anne Stuart- Why buried with Henry?

JP said...

I would like to clarify a few things said here, about modern Catholic beliefs.

The teaching on Limbo was not ever official Church doctrine, although it was widely taught. Today we are taught that a child who dies before baptism is left to the mercy of God, with the general feeling that they go to Heaven.

Also, the Church states that the sacrament of confession must precede the sacrament of communion.