Saturday 18 October 2014

Not of Woman Born?

Jane Seymour had unexpectedly rallied on 17 October, but on the following day she was still gravely ill. Her little son was six days old – cared for by his nursery staff close by – the christening was almost certainly the last time that his mother saw him. Just what was killing his mother in her fine apartments at Hampton Court?
By 1537 Henry VIII had a poor reputation and many people could believe anything of him. When he began looking for a fourth wife, shortly after Jane’s death, he was hampered by rumours that his first wife had been poisoned, his second wife was executed (which was, of course, true) and that his third wife died after being poorly attended following Edward’s birth. It is therefore no surprise that some contemporaries and near-contemporaries began to assign him an active role in Jane’s death.  

The near contemporary Chronicle of Henry VIII recorded that ‘it was said that the mother had to be sacrificed for the child’. The later sixteenth century writers Nicholas Harpsfield and Nicholas Sander also stated that Jane’s child was cut from her with Sander going so far as to claim that Henry was asked which life should be spared and replied ‘the boy’s, because he could easily provide himself with other wives’. None of these sources are particularly reliable, however. The Chronicle would later reverse the order of Henry’s fourth and fifth marriage, as well as assigning the deceased Thomas Cromwell an active role in the fall of Catherine Howard. Harpsfield and Sander, who opposed the Reformation and Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I, had their own agenda.

The idea that Jane had a caesarean, did however enter popular currency and is still believed by some today. The popular ballad, the Death of Queen Jane, for example, refers to a caesarean:

'Queen Jane was in labour full six weeks and more,
And the women were weary, and fain would give oer:
‘O women, O women, as women ye be,
Rip open my two sides, and save my baby!’
‘O royal Queen Jane, that thing may not be;
We’ll send for King Henry to come unto thee.’
King Henry came to her, and sate on her bed:
'What ails my dear lady, her eyes look so red?'
‘O royal King Henry, do one thing for me:
Rip open my two sides, and save my baby!’
‘O royal Queen Jane, that thing will not do;
If I lose your fair body, I’ll lose your baby too.’
She wept and she waild, and she wrung her hands sore;
O the flower of England must flurish no more!
She wept and she waild till she fell in a swoond,
They opend her two sides, and the baby was found.
The baby was christened with joy and much mirth,
Whilst poor Queen Jane’s body lay cold under earth:
There was ringing and singing and mourning all day,
The princess Elizabeth went weeping away.
The trumpets in mourning so sadly did sound,
And the pikes and the muskets did trail on the ground’.

I did quite a bit of research into caesareans for my book, Bessie Blount. Caesareans were rare in the sixteenth century, although they did occur. Children born in this manner would be referred to by the contemporaries by such terms as ‘not of woman born’, ‘the fortunate’ and ‘the unborn’. The operation was considered to have a spiritual nature and was performed only on deceased mothers when the midwives believed that the baby was still living and, thus, could be baptised before their death. Such children were not expected to survive and rarely did so, leading to a special religious significance in their offspring. As one historian has commented ‘no other medical procedure was so directly linked to spiritual salvation or damnation’. The operation, although rare, was well known in Jane’s time, with the later sixteenth century physician, Francois Rousset, writing a treatise in 1581 advocating the operation’s performance on living women, whom he believed could survive the procedure – I suspect that he received few willing volunteers! You can read more about caesareans in the really excellent Not of Woman Born by R. Blumenfeld-Kosinski (Ithaca, 1990).

The idea that Jane had a caesarean is impossible. Henry VIII was many things, but he was not a man who would order his wife cut open (something which would certainly kill her), just to save a baby. Caesareans were only performed at the point of death and, since Jane was able to attend the christening celebrations and, according to Cromwell, command her maids to bring herself unsuitable foods in the days following the birth, she had clearly not endured a caesarean.

So, what was killing Jane in October 1537?

You can read more about caesareans, and deaths in childbirth, in Bessie Blount.

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