Warning: The following article contains sixteenth century medical descriptions concerning miscarriage that may be unsettling to some readers. Reader discretion is advised.
Elizabeth I’s life might have turned out very differently if today’s events in 1536 had not occurred. For on January 29, 1536, Anne Boleyn miscarried what was thought to be a male child. According to Imperial Ambassador Eustache Chapuys:
“…the Concubine had an abortion which seemed to be a male child which she had not borne 3½ months, at which the King has shown great distress. The said concubine wished to lay the blame on the duke of Norfolk, whom she hates, saying he frightened her by bringing the news of the fall the King had six days before. But it is well known that is not the cause, for it was told her in a way that she should not be alarmed or attach much importance to it. Some think it was owing to her own incapacity to bear children, others to a fear that the King would treat her like the late Queen, especially considering the treatment shown to a lady of the Court, named Mistress Semel, to whom, as many say, he has lately made great presents.” (Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 10: January-June 1536)
What caused Anne Boleyn’s miscarriage (or, as it was referred to in the time period, “abortion” or “aborcement”)? We may never know. What we can understand, however, is how people in the sixteenth century viewed miscarriages, and what they thought the causes of such events to be. Chapuy’s tale alone lends insight into common perceptions of the time period. To understand the early modern man’s perception of miscarriages, we turn to The Expert Midwife, written in the mid-sixteenth century.
The Expert Midwife contained information on everything from conception, prenatal care, and delivery. It also addressed the occurrence of false, “monstrous”, or “unnatural” pregnancies. So far as initial reports went, no one indicated in 1536 that Anne had a “monstrous” birth. Monstrous births produced a malformed body, with disproportionate or extra limbs. This is not to say, however, that she did not have an “unnatural” birth, which was not as sinister as it can be made to sound today. Unnatural births in the mid-sixteenth century were any births where the child did not exit the body headfirst. Such births included when
“…It hapneth oftentimes, that the Infant commeth to the birth…witht the feete, fay, put forth firft, and the hands ftretched downeward to the thighes…
“…fometimes, the birth commeth forth with the feete firft, yet the hands not ftretched downeward to the thighs by the fides…but lifted up above the head…
“…if it fhall happen that the childe commeth forth with one foot onely, the armes hangin downeward about his fides, but the other foot turned backward…”
“Sometimes it hapneth that the child appeareth in an overthwart manner, and that the fide commeth forth firft…”
“the Infant haften to the birth, the feete and armes wide abroad…”
“the Infant fhall proceed to the brith with both the knees, the hands let downe about the thighes…” (The Expert Midwife, 113-121).
Unnatural births were not uncommon where miscarriages were concerned, as The Expert Midwife was careful to point out. For Anne, the miscarriage was a traumatic event. The Expert Midwife warned that a distressed woman’s caregivers should provide her with the utmost professional, spiritual, and mental support:
“Inftruments wholly fit and profitable for thofe ufes fhall be ufed. And when as neceffity fhall require the ufe of them, the poore and diftreffed labouring woman muft be encouraged before hand with comfortable and cheerefull words, then the Inftruments are to be prepared, and devout prayer to be poured forth to God: and that done, let her to fit upon the Stoole, that fhee may turne her Fundament as much as fhee can to the backe of the Stoole, and draw her legges to her as fhee may, and fpread and feparate them as wide as fhee can, the other women ftanding by, helping and furthering her, that the Midwife may conveniently performe and executed that which is to be done with the Inftruments…
…But if it come to paffe, that the dead child, becaufe of his bigneffe cannot be drawn out by the manner aforefaid, or the Secundines cannot be taken hold of with the hands, and be brough forth, then muft we have a care that it be taken hold of with the Infruments following what-foever…
…It fhall be without the hurth of the mother, and be pulled forth with a difcreet and prudent care.” (The Expert Midwife, 105-106)
Precautions would have been taken early in Anne’s pregnancy to avoid the situation that eventually occurred. For a woman who had already miscarried, as Anne had, certain suggestions were made:
“For if the woman fhall accuftome to Abort and to be delivered before due time through debility and weakneffe, fhee fhall be comforted and strengthened with convenient meat and drinke, that fhee may be in better care, her body being fomewhat fatter, and that is to be done before the time of her conception…
And firft, truly, let her dwell and abide in a temperate aire, which hath conceived let the exercife of her body, efpecially the firft three Months, be moderate, left the ligaments or stay-bands of the Infant…be broken. Let her sleepe be moderate; Let her not fuffer he belly to be bound, but let her keepe it reafonable loofe and laxative.” (The Expert Midwife, 167-168).
Nonetheless, once a woman began to miscarry, steps were taken to halt the progress of labor. For,
…if they thinke they fhall be delivered before the time, as in the feventh moneth, or fome other immature and unfeafonable time, and fhall already feele the dolours and paines of their labour to be moved and firred up, either through fome immoderate exercife, or conftipation and hard binding of the belly, or by an Ague, or fome other difeafe, let her receive a Fume or Suffumigation of Frankincenfe upon the coales. For the doing of this will greatly frengthen the Matrix and the Infant. Afterward, let her bathe the outwards parts with Allome, Galls, Comfreyu decocted and fodded in the Raine-water, Wine, and Vinegar. And if they fhall be weak and feeble by fwooning, let them take Diamargariton, or Manus Chrifti, after the fame manner as wee pfake before (The Expert Midwife, 70).
For Anne, the miscarriage could not be halted. All that remained was to determine what caused her misfortune, so that it could be avoided in the future. Chapuy’s own description of the event reveals much about how early modern men and women understood miscarriages. According to him, a number at court theorized that it was news of Henry’s accident that frightened Anne into a miscarriage. Chapuys dismissed this theory due to his belief that Anne had received the news in an off-handed manner to minimize her distress. He also wrote of theories concerning Anne’s inability to bear children and her fear of Henry’s interest in “Mistress Semel”. The Expert Midwife helps to place his statements in context:
“But it it be demanded of the caufe of fuch conceptions and birthes, we muft know before all things that they come not to paffe without the providence of the Almight and Omnipotent God; but alfo that they are permitted oftentimes by his juft judgement for to punifh and admonifh men for their fines. Likewife we allege the immoderate defire of luft to be a caufe, whereby it commeth to paffe, that the feeds of men and women are caufed to be very feeble and imperfect, whereby of neceffity, a feeble and imperfect Feature muft enfue. For the defect of feede going before, thoe consequence is, that a a defect of the feature doth follow; and contrarie wife, if the feed fhall be fuperfluous, it is eafily collected and concluded…” (153).
Anne’s miscarriage could, therefore, have been due to three causes in this form of early modern thought:
1.) The fear of Henry’s accident caused her to go into early labor
2.) God was punishing someone (either Anne, or Henry, or both) for “their fines”
3.) Someone, either Anne or Henry, had been “too lustful”, and this corrupted their “seed”.
For Anne, all of these conclusions could be dangerous in separate ways. Such thoughts may not have led directly to her downfall, but May 19th was less than four short months away.