Skip to content

Too Long In This Condition

December 11, 2013

About a year ago, the “How Common Is Your Birthday?” chart made its way onto the net, followed shortly by some nifty enhanced versions, including my personal favorite: the chart where mousing over a birthdate will also highlight the approximate day of conception. Equally interesting (and amusing) was the fact that of all the months on the calendar, September was by far the most popular one in which to be born, suggesting that a reasonable number of those babies were delayed Christmas gifts from the previous December. Whether because of bad weather, excessive eggnog, a rash New Year’s Resolution, or any number of other factors, an awful lot of people do seem to get pregnant in December. And being me, one of the first things I thought on seeing that chart was “Wait, wasn’t Elizabeth I born on September 7th?”

She was — and if she was a textbook 280-day gestation, that would mean that she was conceived on December 15th of 1532. She probably wasn’t, of course — most people have at some point run across the information that a term pregnancy can last anywhere between 37 and 42 weeks (though apparently there’s a push to have 37-39 weeks redefined as “early term”). So if Elizabeth was one of the 80+ percent of babies born between 37 and 42 weeks, she could have been conceived anywhere between December 1 and January 4. Since Anne only “took to her chamber” in the last week of August, according to Antonia Fraser, I’m less inclined to believe in a 42 week pregnancy; it would have been pushing things a bit to wait out almost every day of nine months before going into confinement. Of course, Anne herself wouldn’t have known when exactly the 280th day of gestation was, so there may have been some miscalculation involved. However, whether Elizabeth had her beginning at the end of November or the end of December, by the end of January Anne would certainly have missed one period, and possibly two. A small, private marriage on January 25th would have taken place in the knowledge that if pregnancy was not completely confirmed (the baby’s movements would not have been noticeable at that point) it was at least very likely.

Even when there’s that five-week timespan to work with, though, a number of novels end up using some peculiar math when it comes to the date of Elizabeth’s conception. For most books it isn’t an issue — very early works tend to dispense with any discussion of Elizabeth’s birth at all, and many of the later ones are still decently vague about such questions as when exactly Anne’s period was due, so that the first hint of pregnancy comes from her craving apples in January. But of the books that do get specific, a surprising number end up giving poor Anne a horrendously long gestation, because they insist on making her get pregnant in November.

Often this is connected to the Calais trip — Anne and Henry left for Calais in October and returned in mid-November, and since she’s often depicted as having lost her virginity to him during the journey, there seems to be an impulse to make the first time extra-special by having it be the occasion of Elizabeth’s conception. This is the case in The Dark Rose (1982) in which we are told that “Anne’s flux was due in November just after they arrived home in England,” which is to say around the 14th. November and December pass, and finally we’re told that “January came, and the third expected flux did not appear, and it was certain that she was pregnant.” A period due on November 14th would mean a conception right around November 1st, with an expected due date of July 25th. By doing this, the book ends up saddling Anne with a forty-six week pregnancy, with Anne going into confinement at week 44! A pregnancy like that must have happened to someone, but it would be a real anomaly. Not quite as badly off but still very post-term is the Anne of Dear Heart, How Like You This? (2002) who becomes pregnant “in the second week of November”, which, if we generously interpret this as meaning November 14th, would still have her giving birth a full month late, at 44 weeks.

Other books stretch things to a barely more plausible length. In The Heir Of Allington (1973) Anne becomes pregnant (by Thomas Wyatt) at an unspecified date in early winter, and after she’s been sure “for some weeks” breaks the news to him while further informing him that she plans to seduce the King right away so that she can plausibly claim that the baby is his. Wyatt is understandably somewhat perturbed by this information, and ends up taking a walk, “trying desperately to calm his fevered thoughts in the cold December air.” If we assume that this is the last day of December, that “some weeks” means two weeks (say, any time after a missed period circa December 15th) then a conception date of December 1st is just possible. It would still make Elizabeth a 42-week delivery, but it wouldn’t be as statistically outrageous as the two others above.

Another extended pregnancy appears in My Lord The Fox (1984) in which Elizabeth’s father is once again a special mystery guest: Mark Smeaton. Anne has enlisted Smeaton to get her pregnant after she begins to fear Henry might not be up to it, and meets up with Smeaton at a safe house “three times in that November of the year 1532.” As with The Heir Of Allington, the vague dates make it barely plausible: if the last meeting took place on November 30th, a December 1st conception would be realistic and would lead to a fortunately-extended 42 week pregnancy.

Rarely, Anne’s pregnancy is not too long but dangerously short. In fact, I’ve only seen it twice — in All Or Nothing (1997) and Anne Boleyn (1985) Anne is supposed to have conceived in late January. In All Or Nothing the secret wedding actually takes place in February but is backdated to January to make Elizabeth’s legitimacy unquestionable, and in Anne Boleyn Anne keeps her virtue to the end and simply doesn’t have a chance to get pregnant until after her January wedding. In either case, an Elizabeth conceived on January 25th would have reached 37 weeks only at the very end of September; a September 7th birthday would have meant she was born at 34 weeks’ gestation. Possible, but considering her good health, highly unlikely.

December itself, by far the most likely month of conception, gets very little attention in and of itself — as I mentioned earlier, most authors who aren’t emphasizing a November conception are sweeping right past Christmas and on into the “hankering for apples” scene in January without getting into excessive detail about potential ovulation dates (by far the best choice, when you get down to it). But some books do manage to establish a specifically December conception. In The Autobiography of Henry VIII (1986) Anne and Henry first sleep together at Calais, but she doesn’t get pregnant — instead, they return to England and she avoids him “for several days” afterwards; it’s implied that she’s withdrawing in order to keep him from getting tired of her. Henry, anxious to keep her interested, tells her that he’s going to make her Marquess of Pembroke, and the ceremony duly takes place “in a few weeks’ time,” which translates to around the first week of December. After the ceremony, “She was laughing; I was laughing; I had never been happier, nor loved her more. I believe we made Elizabeth on that drowsy, yet heightened afternoon.” (In reality, Anne was elevated on September 1, 1532. Thankfully, the novelist changed the date here, or Anne would have had an unprecedented fifty-three week pregnancy).

And finally, the book which manages to give Anne a believable conception date which makes complete sense in context and still spares her the experience of going one or two weeks post-term. In The Two Queen Annes (1971), Henry says that “At Christmas, Anne, the world stands still,” and, exhausted but still elevated from the Christmas celebrations, she consents. “It was the holy night, when she had given herself to him.” From December 25th to September 7th is two hundred and sixty-nine days — a pregnancy of thirty-eight weeks and a few days, which tallies perfectly with what information we have. For all of her loopiness — depicting Henry VII as a syphilitic, Cranmer as a pederast, and Anne of Cleves as an epsilon-minus semi-moron — I’ll say this for Lozania Prole: she knows her biology.

From → Essays

  1. Brown Line permalink

    Thank you for the “How Common” link. My birthdate (August 27) was almost exactly nine months after Thanksgiving of the previous year (November 22). Turkey and cranberry sauce have aphrodesiac qualities – who knew? In any case, it never ceases to astonish me how many writers can’t figure out how to count to nine.

    • sonetka permalink

      Especially when you have a block of five weeks to work with! And of course nowadays there are about 250 conception/due date calendars online if you don’t want to bother an obstetrician for a look at their pregnancy wheel.

      My conception date was apparently August 1st, which isn’t exactly high holiday time unless you count Lammas Day.

    • sonetka permalink

      Though considering the nature of cycles, it looks like you probably got start about two weeks after Thanksgiving (December 4). Relief that the guests had all gone home, I suppose :).

  2. Thanks for the chart link! Being conceived on a holy day is one of the signs of someone destined to rise from the grave as a vampire, so after checking the interactive map I immediately Googled May 10, 1987. No luck. 😦

    Although if Elizabeth was conceived on Christmas, that would make her a good candidate. Now I want to write about an arrogant red-haired vampire who’s been roaming the world for 410 years and really doesn’t like Philippa Gregory . . .

    • sonetka permalink

      She can add Hilary Mantel while she’s at it (she has Cromwell seeing the two-year-old Elizabeth and thinking “All hail Princess Ferret Face.” Very likely true but I doubt Good Queen Bess would see it that way).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: