England,  ER,  Western Europe

Mary I’s phantom pregnancies

Mary I- Photo credit National Portrait Gallery
Mary I- Photo credit National Portrait Gallery

Mary I of England was overjoyed at her marriage to Prince Philip of Spain. She had married a man of royal blood, the son of her adviser and cousin Charles V of Spain and had laid the foundation for the passing of the throne to a true born Catholic heir. There was only one fly in the ointment. She was thirty-seven years old, past the usual child bearing years of that time, and had erratic health. Few people believed that the Queen was capable of bearing children, but still they prayed with all their might for a prince.

In September of 1554, it seemed as if their prayers had been answered. The royal doctors confirmed that the Queen was indeed pregnant. She had all the usual symptoms – lack of periods, morning sickness, and a swollen abdomen. With obvious joy and triumph, Mary announced her pregnancy to the Privy Council. It seemed as if God was smiling his favor on Mary’s works. She had recently begun England’s reconciliation with Rome, and the coming of a legitimate prince only confirmed to her that she was doing the right thing.

In November 1554, all seemed going to plan. Charles V was happily awaiting the birth of his grandchild. Sir John Mason, the English ambassador, described him ‘as lively as I have not of long time seen the like lustiness in him.’ Charles was positive it would ‘be a man child’. Sir John rejoined bluntly that ‘Be it man or be it woman, welcome it shall be, for by that shall we at least come to some certainty to whom God shall appoint by succession the government of our estate.’ Charles happily agreed.

Philip, however, was a less than considerate father to be. He had done his duty in England and was leaving as soon as possible ostensibly to fight the French in the Low Countries. Because of Mary’s age and medical history, the birth was bound to be a difficult and probably dangerous one. Like most people, she wanted the comfort and support of her spouse near by. Philip had not intention of delaying his departure, and Mary fell into a depression that was so deep her councilors feared she might die during the birth. After being reprimanded by his father, Philip reluctantly agreed to stay in England until his child was born.

Tudor baby in swaddling- photo credit Google Images
Tudor baby in swaddling- photo credit Google Images

In April of 1555, Mary and Philip went to Hampton Court to await the birth of their child. Mary was due the May 8, but many of her ladies felt she had miscalculated her dates and was due June 9. In the meantime, the ladies stitched bedcovers and laid out swaddling bands and wrapping cloths for ‘the young master’. Tension was thick at Court as the birth grew near, and several false reports of the birth of a prince went out as well as a report from a French envoy that Mary had been delivered of a ‘mole, or lump of flesh’. However, all was quiet from Hampton Court. By June, Mary requested the clergy to go in procession through London to pray for a safe delivery. When there was no delivery by July, everyone but Mary knew there was no child. She still insisted she was pregnant, although she was eleven months into said pregnancy and ambassadors reported her stomach had gone down significantly. The only thing that convinced her was in August when her periods began again. She came out of confinement and faced the bitter disappointment and embarrassment of returning to Court without a child.

The drama began again in 1557, when Mary again thought she was was with child. This time she waited much longer to tell anyone to make certain she really was pregnant this time. She took to her chamber for confinement, the seclusion from the world of men noble women embarked on before labor at that time, in February of 1558. She made her will in March beginning with the line ‘I Mary, Queen of England, thinking myself to be with child in lawful marriage between my dearly beloved husband and lord’. However, the months passed again and there was again no child.

There is much speculation about what could have happened that Mary thought she was pregnant. She desperately wanted a child and showed all the symptoms of being pregnant. Some courtiers at the time thought it had been a uterine tumor, but one large enough to mimic a pregnancy would have had to have been removed. It would not have disappeared without a trace. The prevailing theory is that it was a pseudocyesis, a phantom pregnancy. This is a rare psychological condition that can happen when a woman longs for a child so much that the pituitary gland releases the hormones which cause the signs of pregnancy. During Tudor times, a doctor could not lay hands his sovereign’s body at all let alone perform a modern ultrasound, so this condition could go undiagnosed.

With the distance of time, we will never know. However, the ending of this last “pregnancy” left Mary in a serious depression. Alison Weir reports that in Mary’s prayer book there tear blots on the page for the “Prayer for a Woman with Child”. This loss and it’s depression undermined her strength, and left her prey to the ill health that lead to her death.