Tuesday, 1 March 2011

The importance of a son

I read somewhere that the last instalment of The Tudors will have Henry’s death bed visited by some of his former wives. Given that most of them are dead, I thought that would be interesting, and started watching the programme once more.
There’s glamour still, lots of sex and the sheen of silken costumes, (in which the ladies must have frozen while the men are bundled up in thick brocade and heavy velvets) but the show is no better now than it was when I first tried it. Henry seems ageless, and strangely Irish. Nowhere does it suggest Catherine Howard’s frantic couplings with Culpepper might have been because pregnancy was what was required and Henry wasn’t doing the job.

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, and so, in a different way, did Elizabeth.

One son – one would think it surely could not be too difficult with a man like Henry. Yet time went by and the living sons did not arrive for Anne Boleyn any more than they had 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 living 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 and produced healthy children, one for each of 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 likely caused by osteomyelitis as a result of an injury in the tilt yard. A seventeen-hands horse in half armour falling on someone is apt to leave an impression and the wound never healed satisfactorily. It caused Henry massive pain when abscesses formed deep in the bone.

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 the doubts Henry was prey to during his marriage to 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.


If Catherine’s dalliance with Culpepper had led to pregnancy, Henry might have feared that his son would not inherit the crown of England. The Tudors systematically ridded themselves of all Plantagenet heirs to keep their throne secure. Henry couldn’t take the risk of a Culpepper bastard ousting his son. Nor could he face the public shame of Catherine claiming she carried another man’s son...she had to go.

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