As September 1533 approached, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn expected that a prince would soon be born. Announcements of a prince’s arrival were drawn up ahead of time, but an extra “s” had to be added to Elizabeth’s birth announcement to proclaim the birth of a princess. Henry’s confidence was based on no less than an astrologer’s prediction that Anne would, in fact, give birth to a male child. Would either Henry or Anne have had any reason to doubt such a prediction?
Then, as now, astrologers were proven wrong. Fast-forward to daughter Elizabeth’s reign, and we can see how predictions by Nostradamus failed. Although he is popularly featured on History Channel documentaries today, many of Nostradamus’s predictions concerning Elizabeth failed to come true. His predictions, however, served a purpose: as Catherine de Medici’s astrologer, it was his job to develop predictions that suggested the downfall of her Tudor rival. Obviously, none of the dire predictions came true, but an early modern astrologer was as much a propagandist as he was a predictor of the future. Oftentimes, propaganda was more useful than a correct prediction, as it inspired well-timed fear in the enemy and hope amongst allies. Of course, the more accurate one’s astrologer was at making predictions, the more useful the propaganda was, but the creation of fear was a tremendous boon on its own account.
This is not to say that monarchs did not take their astrologer’s predictions to heart. That would be a mistake, and one that is easy to make in a modern era where astrology is often viewed as trickery. Astrology was not a con, nor was it incompatible with religion in the 16th century. Indeed, it was considered to be a way to understand God’s divine plan, and was viewed to be as grounded in science as that of the study of the changing seasons. For Henry and Anne, the astrologer’s prediction of a male child was one they could look favorably on.
That the astrologer predicted a boy should not have surprised Henry, Anne, or us – beyond the fact that the royal couple hoped for this prediction, the months that Henry persisted in the belief that a boy would be born was enough to buy him time and leverage with those he dealt with. It gave his proceedings against Catherine of Aragon and his marriage to Anne justification – any male (and the majority of females, too) in the early modern era would tell you that it was better to have a boy than it was to have a girl. They understood the urgency that accompanied the Tudor dynasty’s need for a male heir- and it was an urgency that had been granted a favorable verdict to the male party for generations before Henry VIII hit the scene. Read Chapuy’s or any other enemy’s report of Elizabeth’s arrival and the relief seems to drip from the pages – Henry has had another girl. Sure, the kid is healthy and this could indicate future healthy children will follow, but for now, it should be back to business as usual. Predictions could be made, but immediate results needed to follow.