Katherina of Aragon’s Last Childbirth

Late in the evening of 9 November 1518, Katherina of Aragon delivered her last child, an unnamed daughter that was either stillborn or did not survive very long past her birth. The ambassador from Venice, Sebastian Giustinian, wrote a letter the next day, reporting that, “In the past night the Queen had been delivered of a daughter, to the vexation of everybody. Never had the kingdom so anxiously desired anything as it did a prince.” There is no mention that the child was not alive when she was born. It was only later that the Venetian records note, “The Queen has been delivered in her eighth month of a stillborn daughter, to the great sorrow of the nation at large.”

The baby was given a Christian burial, and thus was certainly baptised, but no name adorns her grave. In fact, none of Katherina and Henry’s children who did not live past their first day were named. Most stillborn babies or neonates who died very young weren’t named or even given their own burial plots. Why? It wasn’t that the parents weren’t aggrieved; we have diaries indicating that the parents who lost neonates felt a great deal of sorrow. So why didn’t they give these babies a name?

The babies were left unnamed as a result of the intersection of religion and medicine in Tudor culture. Birth is a biosocial event; a biological process that is shaped by cultural expectations. For Katherina and Henry, and for most parents, their grief would not overrule the sociocultural expectations of how the deaths of a newborn or a stillbirth should be handled. It would have been ‘unseemly’ for a baby who died so young to have been given a name. Names were assigned at the infant’s christening, not its baptism.

If Katherina had not carried her pregnancy long enough to “quicken”, wherein she felt movement of the fetus in her womb, her miscarriage may not have been mentioned at all; since the fetus would have been imbued with a soul, and therefore personhood, it wouldn’t have counted as a dead child, no matter how sad the parents were at the time of miscarriage.  Although the Catholic Church forbade the deliberate termination of a pregnancy, from a doctrinal standpoint the quickening was thought to announce the ensoulation of the fetus, and the beginning of its humanity. Until then, both the Church and the medical establishment considered the fetus a homunculus — a kind of fleshy vessel that LOOKED human but was not yet a real person.

Quickening usually occurs around the 20th week of pregnancy, and any fetal loss prior to that would have been a matter of private grief but not of public mourning. Considering that only about 50% of Tudor pregnancies made it to quickening, this might have been a sociocultural mechanism to prevent parents from losing their minds from anguish. The likelihood that they would have to morn a full-term baby or living child was great enough without adding the burden of additional bereavement for miscarriages prior to quickening.

If a woman miscarried or had a pre-term labour after quickening, it was imperative that the baby be baptised lest the infant wind up in Limbo. It was for this reason that the Catholic Church deputised midwives, alone of all women, with the right to perform an emergency baptism. If the midwife could baptise the baby as it emerged from the vagina, prior to confirmation of its intrauterine death or its subsequent demise post-parturition, then the baptism “counted” and the child’s soul would safely be winged to Heaven to await its parents in security and eternal bliss.

A baptised child who died before the christening would probably remain unnamed. There was no need to name the infant; God would know who he or she was, and the parents didn’t require a name to remember the loss of their hopes. Regardless of the sadness the family felt, it was expected that they not bemoan distress ‘immoderately’. To do so was to show a disregard for God’s will and would be self-indulgent. Suffering was understood (in fact, it was believe you could die of grief), but the loss of fetus or neonate was typically considered of less consequence than the loss of an older baby or child, and should hence be handled with more public stoicism.

If the baby was healthy, the family would wait a few days (or even weeks) to baptize the newborn, often at the same time the child was christened, in order to turn it into a proper celebration. The baptism also functioned to welcome the baby into the community, and was performed during church in front of everyone, with the godparents (but not the parents) in attendance. It was hoped that a baby healthy enough for the baptism and christening to be delayed would be healthy enough to grow to adulthood.

The odds of reaching adulthood were slightly in a healthy newborn’s favor. According to research done by David Cressy in his book Birth, Marriage, and Death, neonates had a 98% chance of surviving their first few days, a 75% chance of surviving to their fifth birthday, and 60% chance of reaching adulthood. Even though the death rates are mind-bogglingly and terrifyingly high to the modern eye, it still means that every baby born had a better than even chance of becoming an adult and a contributing member of society. Then there were the lucky couples, like Catherine Carey and Sir Francis Knollys, who had 14 children, only one of whom died as an infant. At least 12 of the Knollys’ offspring grew to adulthood, married, and had children of their own.

Should the worst happen and a baptized infant perish, then the baby (named or not) was given the same Christian burial as an adult, although where and how they were buried varied by the family’s wealth, status, and wishes. Some graveyards had special corners set aside for infant burials. Sometimes the infants were buried with other family members or interred in the family vault. The main difference is that a lost neonate or stillborn baby would have had less social ritual attended to their passing. For example, it is unlikely that they would be displayed in their coffins in the family room, as adults were, or had their burial delayed while mourners ‘watched’ over the corpse in respect.

What is important to remember is that, regardless of outward changes, when death took a loved one the people of the sixteenth century suffered from the loss as much as people do today. The private diaries of the Tudor era are full of the heart wrenching distress that the parents and grandparents felt upon the loss of child at any age. Robert Woodford, who lived during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, prayed that God would spare the life of his one week old infant, and recorded that he felt profound “affliction” upon the baby’s death. Other parents also left records detailing their pain, and lamenting that their hearts were “incurably pierced with grief”. Elizabeth Freke wrote upon the death of her three year old grandson that she in her husband were “in an extreme melancholy for the fatal loss of this our dear babe”. In his treatise, Of Death, James Cole observes that, “We bewail our children, as fruits not yet ripe, too soon plucked from the tree.”

When Queen Katherina lost her daughter, in what would be her last childbirth, she was doubtlessly devastated. Just because she did not name her baby and had hoped the child would be male does not mean she didn’t weep for her little girl in private. When her New Year’s Boy died at the age of two months in 1511 she made, “much lamentation, like a natural woman”. We should remember that Katherina was not only a queen trying to provide her country and king with an heir; she was also a mother who delivered four babies that did not live longer than a day. Even her profound belief that her children were happily cossetted in the arms of God in a delightful afterlife could not remove the agonising sting of their deaths.

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