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The Baby Vanishes: Anne Boleyn’s Second Pregnancy

December 12, 2012

[Anne] was pregnant again … three or four months after the birth of Elizabeth …. By April the queen’s condition was obvious, and Henry’s confidence is seen in the highly elaborate silver cradle which was ordered from his goldsmith, Cornelius Hayes, with Tudor roses, precious stones, gold-embroidered bedding and cloth-of-gold baby clothes. All was well as late as July, and then tragedy struck. Anne miscarried.

The secret of the disaster was so well kept that it was only on 23 September that Chapuys reported that the queen — or “the lady” as he insisted on calling her — was not, after all, to have a child. We have to remember that the ambassador had been out of touch with the court while it was on summer progress. Away from the public eye, with a smaller number of attendants than at other times and with both Anne and Henry desperate to conceal it, total discretion was achieved.

— Eric Ives, The Life And Death of Anne Boleyn, pp. 191-192

In an endnote to the first paragraph, Ives states “That it was a miscarriage and not a stillbirth or neonatal death is indicated by the queen not having `taken her chamber.'” By modern standards, this would not necessarily be correct: a miscarriage is a pregnancy loss before twenty weeks, and a stillbirth is a loss anytime thereafter. As queens did not normally spend the entire second half of pregnancy in their chamber (though I’m sure the month or so they did spend certainly felt long enough) it’s possible, on the evidence even likely, that Anne did indeed experience a stillbirth or neonatal death. If she was showing in April and still pregnant in July, it’s unlikely that she was less than twenty weeks along and probably closer to thirty. And, barring certain kinds of mishaps, it’s very likely that the baby’s sex would have been discernible. Antonia Fraser, in The Wives of Henry VIII suggests that she likely had a stillborn son; others, placing emphasis on Chapuys’ later remark that the King “doubted whether she had actually been enceinte” have hypothesized that Anne had never, in fact, been pregnant at all but had experienced pseudocyesis as a result of her desperation to become pregnant again, or else had consciously faked a pregnancy in order to take the heat off. In my own opinion, I do believe the first solution to be correct; she did have a baby, prematurely, and the reason we don’t know its sex or what exactly happened is that nothing was written down, or if it was, it was lost. But never mind my opinion — what do the writers say?

Not much, until recently. Nowadays we see Anne’s failure to produce a live boy as a major factor in her downfall, and while this failure certainly left her vulnerable, earlier times placed less stress on her childbearing history and more on her religious opinions. The Annes of an earlier day have little to say about children except for heavyhanded praise of the young Elizabeth, and no miscarriages or losses of any sort are mentioned. This changed in the twentieth century, but for a while the only pregnancy loss really worth describing was her last — the male fetus who died and was miscarried only a few weeks after Catherine of Aragon’s death. Consequently, the baby of 1534 was sometimes left out altogether. In The Favor of Kings (1912), and Anne Boleyn (1957) for example, we shoot straight over 1534 and right into the drama of late 1535 and early 1536.

More often, the loss is mentioned as “a miscarriage” which occupies about a paragraph and the vague descriptions of which usually make it sound like a standard-issue miscarriage during the first eight weeks: Anne collapses and is ill, bleeds, and has to spend a week in bed, but there’s no labour and certainly nothing that’s recognizably a baby, living or dead, at the end of it. “I never dreamed this ignominious mischance could happen to me!” says the Anne of Brief Gaudy Hour (1949) — depressed and tired of being in bed, she ends up letting her tongue rattle on too much and tells Lady Rochford a little too much about what Henry is like in bed. This isn’t the only sickbed at which George’s wife is an unwelcome presence. “Anne had not yet recovered from her miscarriage when Jane Rochford lingered by her bedside,” we learn in Queen Anne Boleyn (1939). Lady Rochford has come to convey the glad news that “Methinks we have a new favourite,” as Henry is courting another maid of honour. In The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn (1997) the unwelcome visitor this time is Mary Boleyn, who breaks the news of her pregnancy while Anne is “still abed” with “a bloody miscarriage.” Even Anne of Hollywood (2012) whose characters wouldn’t require any particular obstetrical secrecy, gives Anne a routine if distressing early miscarriage with her second pregnancy, though of course given that book’s setting, deviation from the historical record is part of the package.

Sometimes the pregnancy is invented: in Murder Most Royal (1949) Anne, already despairing of Henry’s love after Elizabeth’s birth, pretends to be pregnant in order to bring him back to her bed — “He did not leave her, not that night, nor the next.” Unfortunately, the plan doesn’t work.”She had believed, when she told the King that she was with child, that soon she must be. Why was it that she was not?” Brooding on the fact that she’ll have to break the news of her “mistake” soon, once again she’s approached by Mary Boleyn, who breaks the news of her own (genuine) pregnancy. In Sow The Tempest (1962) Anne tries a similar strategy, and has a similar lack of success.

And every now and then she’s given a bonus miscarriage which she’s less likely to have actually experienced. In The Other Boleyn Girl (2001), in a bizarre reversal of the previous trope, she experiences two real losses between Elizabeth’s birth and her January 1536 miscarriage, but manages to conceal them both times (in one instance having her mother burn the small, stillborn corpse in the fireplace, which I found unlikely), and tells Henry that she was in fact not pregnant at all. Anne’s reasoning? Anyone can make a mistake with their dates, but “miscarriage is proof of sin.” That one miscarriage proved sin would probably have come as news even to Henry VIII — it was Catherine of Aragon’s dreadful luck (five losses out of six pregnancies) which seems to have really tipped the balance for him, not just one. And in The Lady In The Tower (1986) she experiences two miscarriages in the space of one paragraph, but tells us that “they would have been boys.”

Identifying the sex of the lost baby is a very recent trend, as is giving its death more than about thirty words of attention. One of the earlier examples of this is in The Queen of Subtleties (2004), which takes its time about describing the process and does it very well, if distressingly:

My second baby was due in September; a second consecutive September baby. One day in early July, I began having contractions. Faint, and infrequent. It was a quiet day, nothing in particular going on: easy for me to plead a headache and retreat with Annie to my rooms. I told no one the truth. It’ll pass, was my reasoning, it has to pass….

By evening it was clear that I was in trouble …. Privately, I was wondering: could a baby be born at seven months — eight, perhaps — and survive? Could it be ready, early? Because why else would it be coming? Perhaps healthy baby princes were exceptional, ready early; perhaps that was it….

There was no baby-cry when they finally got the body free from me and took it from the bed. Only creaks of the floorboards as my sister — something in her arms — turned and moved away.

It — she — was a girl: my mother told me, after I’d asked and asked. Something else my mother said, when I pressed her: the little girl looked — would have been — perfect.

This is, so far, the only fictional example I’ve found in which Anne loses a daughter. Otherwise, the babies are boys. In To Die For (2011) Anne goes into premature labour in July of 1534 and delivers a baby “present in body and yet in spirit already with our Lord. It was just possible to see that the child had been a boy.” Anne, after being informed of this, says that “Mayhap the God I thought I knew I know not at all.” Poor Anne; Lady Rochford is present at this tragedy as well, announcing the news of her labour pains in a voice “tinted with triumph.” (Mary Boleyn isn’t, however — she’s already been banished). At The Mercy Of The Queen (2012) has Anne experiencing a stillbirth in late June, and shows us afterwards crying over her son’s body.

“Perfect … he is perfect … see his little fingers, long and slender like my own. And his hair, the color of his father’s. So tiny he is, so frail and helpless … I cannot bear it ! I cannot bear that he never even drew a breath on this earth. Why send him? Why send him to me when he cannot draw one breath?”

This book was not my favourite (to put it mildly) but I’ll admit, I did find that passage affecting.

Considering the evidence, it would seem strange that it’s taken so long for what was very likely a stillbirth (or premature, unsurvivable birth) to be treated as such. Distressing as early miscarriages are, they’re a whole different beast from giving birth at seven or eight months along, and while we should beware of projecting twenty-first century attitudes towards baby loss onto Anne — who would after all have grown up in a world where such things were expected, if distressing — it’s fair to conjecture that such a late loss, especially if the baby was a boy, would have affected both her and Henry’s subsequent actions deeply.

One could argue that the reason for this authorly reticence was not wanting to be overly explicit, especially in the books written fifty or sixty years ago, but considering that many of these books manage to pull off birth scenes with no problem, I don’t think that’s enough of an explanation. My guess is that authors were shy about committing themselves because Chapuys didn’t. It’s a lot like the case of the “very handsome young lady” to whom Henry paid court in 1534 — Chapuys never got around to naming her, and as a result authors have been shy about having to step away from him and choose or invent a name on their own. In this case, Chapuys didn’t happen to be in touch with the court when Anne’s pregnancy ended, which means that the author has to invent a great deal more than she does about the birth of Elizabeth, or the miscarriage of January 1536. Thrown adrift like this, authors have tended to try to get past the issue by either ignoring it altogether or making it into a quick and early miscarriage — a foretaste of the doom that will descend later.

From → Essays

  1. Always have loved the scene in Evelyn Anthony’s Anne Boleyn where Anne chucks a Book of Hours at Lady Rochford, who has made some sniping comments about how it’s not easy to produce a son!

    • sonetka permalink

      I love that too — of course it would be Lady Rochford saying it, wouldn’t she? I’ve got to do a post on her soon, but there are a couple of books I need to get hold of before I do.

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