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Fifteen Weeks Gone: Anne Boleyn’s Last Miscarriage

January 29, 2014

The king must still have been suffering the after-effects [of his fall at jousting] when death came for real. On 29 January Anne miscarried. The immediate details appear in Chapuys’ despatch of 10 February. He reported that the “child had the appearance of a male about three months and a half old”. A note made privately by Charles Wriothesley, Windsor Heralds, agreed that it had been “a man child” but gave the date as 30 January and was very specific about the length of gestation, saying that Anne “said that she had reckoned herself at that time but fifteen weeks gone with child.” This we may well credit since Wriothesley’s post gave him a ready entree to the court, and his cousin Thomas was clerk of the signet and close to Cromwell.

— Eric Ives, The Life And Death Of Anne Boleyn p. 296

Despite the court consensus that the baby had been male, Ives goes on to argue that that may not have been the case — “the gender of a foetus cannot, it seems, be determined much before seventeen weeks … how reliable would amateur diagnosis by the queen’s normal attendants have been, especially since Tudor households did not enjoy the clinical conditions of modern medicine?” (296) True enough, especially considering that the miscarriage may have been delayed, though it’s also worth mentioning that Anne may not have been counting her weeks in the modern way, which begins with the first day of the last period and so automatically adds two weeks — meaning that fifteen weeks’ gestation is “seventeen weeks pregnant”. But ultimately, all of this is sidetracking. Whether or not the baby she miscarried was a boy, apparently she and everyone around her believed that it had been, and while the loss may not have been the final metaphorical nail in her coffin, it certainly left her much more vulnerable to political maneuverings later on. And after her death, it would eventually become easy to look at her career and, with the benefit of hindsight, decide that January 29th was the day on which Anne’s fall really began — whether it was precipitated by Henry’s accident while jousting a few days earlier, by finding Jane Seymour on Henry’s knee, or any other number of proposed explanations, is impossible to know. At that stage, it seems unlikely that a shock, no matter how large, could have had effects quite that dramatic. It does seem considerably more likely that Henry, true to form, said that the miscarriage a sign of divine disapproval of some sort (Ives, 298).

The circumstances surrounding the child’s loss were so dramatic, and well-timed, that unlike Anne’s ill-fated second pregnancy of 1534, the episode has been at least fleetingly mentioned in almost every fictional work about her, even if it puts her fall down entirely to other causes. Vertue Betray’d (1682) doesn’t mention it, but Journey From This World To The Next (1743) has the narrating Anne tell us that “I had a son dead-born, which I perceived abated something of the king’s ardour; for his temper could not brook the least disappointment.” The king’s ardour being cooled, he seeks to fire it up again with Jane Seymour, but there’s no suggestion that the miscarriage, of itself, meant that Anne’s marriage was doomed. In Anne Boleyn (1861) Anne’s son is described as “murdered by too early birth,” and Henry says angrily that he’ll have no more heirs by her — or by anyone, apparently. However, when he lists his complaints about her later on, the “murdered” heir is not mentioned — greater prominence is given to Anne’s tendency to give away too much money and accidentally interfere in church business. Throughout many nineteenth-century works, fleeting references to a stillborn boy are made, but not leaned on. Gory details are, needless to say, not forthcoming.

The twentieth century was when the baby’s posthumous existence began to get more eventful. Although descriptions of the episode, not to mention the subsequent emotional fallout for both parties, began to get more detailed — “It’s the worst blow to my hopes!” Henry tells Cromwell in Anne Boleyn (1957) — it wasn’t until the 1990s that the miscarried boy was promoted from being an ordinary if inauspicious loss to a stomach-turning horror in which God’s disapproval was not being so much quietly expressed as being shouted from the housetops. And like other sudden, dramatic changes to Anne’s story (the invention of her stepmother, for instance) this one is easily traced to a single historian deciding to get a bit creative. The historian in this case was, of course, Retha Warnicke, whose The Rise And Fall Of Anne Boleyn was published in 1989 and who posited, among other things, that Anne’s supposed lovers had actually been part of an underground homosexual ring (hence Cromwell, promoter of the Buggery Act, wanting to penalize them somehow) and that Anne’s miscarried child had been “deformed”, which led Henry to decide that it had been conceived by witchcraft of some kind and decide to throw Anne off. There are several obvious problems with this hypothesis, most obviously that nobody at the time mentioned fetal deformity, and Warnicke explains this by asserting that Henry and Cromwell would have hidden the “true” cause of Anne’s arrest and spun elaborate cover stories so the king would be spared the humiliation of publicly admitting that he might have fathered an imperfect child even as he thought that he had not, in fact, fathered it at all (Warnicke, 214). It’s as circular as a snake eating its tail — “no evidence whatsoever supports this alleged deformity” says Ives (297) — but nonetheless the idea caught on. It’s hard to better the drama behind that imagery, after all. The first mention of it which I’ve found in fiction is in The Seduction Of Anne Boleyn (1998). “They told me he was malformed,” Henry snarls at Anne. “Malformed? What does that mean? How can a child of mine be anything but perfect?” And in Threads (2001), Henry decides that “it could not be his, since it was deformed.”

Besides their restraint — neither one of them goes into detail about exactly what “deformed” means — these two works have something else in common. In both of them, the “malformed” child is the product of rape; Henry, in a rage, forced himself on Anne about three months earlier and this miscarriage was the result. So there really was an immoral element to its conception, albeit not the kind which Henry is thinking of. (There is one pre-1989 book which also has the doomed pregnancy having a morally-dubious beginning — The Concubine [1963] in which Anne has safely anonymous trysts with random gentlemen during court masques in order to get pregnant one last time).

Taking this theme much further is, of course, The Other Boleyn Girl (2001) in which it’s hinted very, very strongly that George Boleyn is in fact the father of the miscarried boy, and its appearance does nothing to contradict the idea that something highly undesirable went down at its conception.

In the midwife’s bloody hands was a baby horridly malformed, with a spine horribly malformed, with a spine flayed open and a huge head, twice as large as the spindly little body …. The midwife looked at Anne, her face very grave. “What did you do to get this on you?”

“I did nothing! Nothing!”

“This is not a child from a man, it is a child from a devil.”

Although George Boleyn later scoffs at the idea of a deformity meaning anything other than that Nature makes a mistake now and then, it’s clear both to Anne and the reader that she’s not coming back from this one. And while Warnicke may have introduced the world to the idea of the malformed fetus, I’m fairly confident that it’s The Other Boleyn Girl which determined the details of the malformation. It turned up next in Dear Heart, How Like You This? (2002) in which the child has “an over-large head and a stump where there should be an arm.” A similarly shocking baby appeared in The Boleyn Wife (2007), in which the poor thing is given not only malformed spine and boneless limbs, but an enormous head with two faces on it. In The Shadow Of Lions (2008) tells us “It was a boy. But he was not as a child should be; his arms were shriveled and his head was bulging in one area. She could not bear to see him and threw a linen over his still face before she screamed.”

“It’s got gills. And flippers,” says a servant in Anne Boleyn (2010) before Cromwell tells him to throw the remains into the cesspit. A year later, in The Favored Queen (2011) the baby is back to its old form of huge head, exposed spine, and shortened limbs. And there are several other works which, without going into detail, still mention a “deformed” child and the resulting horror of the courtiers — A Lady Raised High (2006) and Betrayal (2013) both take this more restrained but nonetheless unlikely line.

All in all, I’d say that at least half of current Boleyn novels — and probably a bit more than that — have taken the line that Anne’s last miscarriage was even more traumatic than what was recorded at the time, and considering the inherent drama of a massive deformity and the frisson the reader can experience at seeing this visible sign of our heroine’s impending doom, I don’t think it will be going away any time soon. At least the fictional Anne can take comfort in not being entirely alone — in one book, at least, it’s not her but Catherine of Aragon who suffers a particularly disturbing end to her last birth, in 1518. The Autobiography of Henry VIII was published in 1986 and so predates Warnicke’s book by three years; whether the author read a preceding article of Warnicke’s or just happened to make a lucky guess about which way the winds of historical fashion were blowing, I don’t know. While the wife is different, the drama, and Henry’s ultimate conclusion, are the same:

It was no human face that I uncovered, but that of a monster. It had but a single eye; no nose, just a gaping great hole; and mushroomlike, puffy lips, over a mouth with teeth.

…. Clearly, God was giving me a message. One too blatant for even me to ignore.

There’s no evidence that Catherine of Aragon’s last daughter was deformed any more than Anne Boleyn’s last son, but Henry VIII’s sensing of divine disapproval in both losses rings horribly true. If there was any monster in the birthing chamber, it was him.

But to end on a happier note, Anne’s son manages to escape his doom on one occasion. In The Boleyn King (2013) he not only fails to be monstrous but comes to term, is born, and eventually reigns as King Henry IX. What happens to him ultimately is still a mystery, since it’s a three-volume story and only two volumes have been released so far, but whatever his fate, it has to be better than the ones that earlier novelists — not to mention life — have given him.

From → Essays

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