Monday, July 5, 2010

The importance of a son

posted by Jen Black 5th July

The problem of childlessness attracts a lot of attention today, but it cannot match the strain such a matter put on a sixteenth-century Queen. Her one function in life was to bear sons. If she did not, she was a failure. Anne Boleyn reached Henry’s side by education, personality and courage, but then had to accept that everything hung on the production of a son. Her step-daughter Mary, who understandably resented Anne, no doubt laughed at her problem; but she too would fall foul of the same problem in years to come.

One son – one would think it surely could not be too difficult with a man like Henry. As time went by and the sons did not arrive, as they had failed for Katherine, Anne, like Katherine before her, shouldered the blame. Yet large families were not the commonplace we might think in the sixteenth century. Women spent what must have seemed like lifetimes being pregnant, but that did not always translate into large families. And especially it did not mean that a son and heir was a given. Many families of the time produced only daughters, or no children at all, and titles skipped to nephews.

Did Henry have sexual problems? In 38 years he slept, over a period of time, with eight women, including both wives and known mistresses. Only four of the eight conceived. Only four pregnancies produced healthy children, one for each of the four women – Katherine, Anne, Elizabeth Blount and Jane Seymour. Other pregnancies ended in stillbirth, miscarriage or death in the first few days of life.

It certainly raises the possibility that Henry was the root cause of his lack of heirs. It seems clear venereal disease was not to blame, as is sometimes suggested. His medical history and treatments are most unlike those of Francis of France, who definitely had the pox. There are no payments in the household accounts for the particular medications in use at that time for such a complaint. The so called syphilitic leg ulcer was more likely caused by osteomyelitis as a result of an injury in the tilt yard, and which never healed satisfactorily and caused him massive pain when abscesses formed deep in the bone. A seventeen-hands horse in half armour falling on you is apt to leave an impression!) Medical knowledge of the time could not deal successfully with such an injury. He never rode to the joust again, and increasing immobility coupled with a huge appetite led to an ominous weight gain. Pain led to shifting moods plus outbursts of irritation and temper.

When Anne Boleyn miscarried in July 1534, it probably brought back all Henry’s doubts about himself and Katherine. Today we know that anxiety about virility can lead to loss of potency, and he must surely have suspected, deep down, that he was the problem. A wife who produces no sign of pregnancy is one thing, but a wife who becomes pregnant but produces weak and sickly children is another thing again. Henry would know, as would his courtiers, of families where in-breeding produced deformities. They would also know of infertile stallions and bulls. From there it was a small step to the obvious conclusion.
It was more than a year before Anne was pregnant again.
At George Boleyn’s trial, he was asked if his sister, Anne, had told him that the King was unable to attain or sustain an erection. They say that the question was written, and the fact that George answered verbally ensured that he was executed.

Anna of Cleves may not have been Henry’s type, as we say these days, but his reluctance to bed her suggests his at least partial impotence. More conclusive is the fact that Mary Boleyn and Katherine Parr became pregnant the moment they married and bedded other men, and perhaps what sealed Katherine Howard’s fate was the thought that if she had been dallying, and became pregnant, then it might not be Henry’s son who inherited the crown of England. Henry couldn’t take that risk. Nor could he risk her saying it wasn't his...


Maggi Andersen said...

Interesting Jen, might explain his short temper!

Lindsay Townsend said...

How much history would have changed had modern medical knowledge been available then. All of Katherine of Aragon's miscarriages, for instance.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Injuries like the one Henry got could even be lethal. The Roman general Drusus had the same sort of accident during his campaign in Germany (9 BC) and broke his lower leg when the horse fell on him. The wouund got infected and the Roman physicians, capable as they were, could not do anything about a serious blood poisoning.

Drusus lived long enough for the news to reach his brother Tiberius in northern Italy. Tiberius, in company of only one man, rode all the way across the Alpes and up the Rhine to Mainz and then west into Germania Magna pretty much to where I live (there's considerable Roman presence from Drusus' time around here, as recent digs have shown). He managed that distance in about three days, eating on horseback and only taking a litter for 3-4 hours twice to get some sleep - quite a feat. He met his brother still alive, but Drusus died soon thereafter. The body was brought to Rome in a great funeral procession through Germany and Gaul.

Mirella Patzer said...

Thanks for putting together such a fabulous blog. I've added your link to my sidebar under favourites.

Maggie Dove said...

Fantastic blog, Jen! Too bad, Henry didn't know that men are the ones who determine the sex. Modern medicine could have saved many more ways than his poor wives being put to death!