The Phantom Pregnancies of Mary I

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Mary I’s brief reign is best remembered for the burning of Protestants, acts which earned her the lasting moniker, “Bloody Mary.” But her five years on the throne were also marked by personal, as well as public, loss. When Mary claimed her throne in 1553 and put down the rebellion of Lady Jane Grey and the Dudley family, she quickly moved forward with marriage. She was 37, her childbearing years were numbered and it was her primary duty to not only re-connect England to Rome, but ensure a Catholic succession.

She married the son of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, Philip of Spain, in July 1554. By the fall, Mary’s first pregnancy was announced. The union was a tricky situation – its implications, failures and successes would serve as a template and a warning for how the future marriages of female monarchs were handled. Because Philip was a Spaniard, not to mention a Catholic, there was considerable resistance in some corners that he marry the English queen. In short, many didn’t want to be ruled by a foreigner. That Mary was the monarch did little to soothe fears because, as a woman, there was the assumption she would bow to her husband’s will.

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Philip II of Spain

It was an uneasy reality, but so was the need for an heir and the idea of Mary not marrying was unthinkable – as it would later astound Elizabeth I’s contemporaries when she declined to take a husband during her own reign.

The baby was due in April 1555 and throughout the “pregnancy,” Mary’s abdomen appeared distended, she gained weight and she apparently displayed enough other symptoms that her doctors were confident she carried a child. It was the fulfillment of everything Mary desired – to reign, to wed and to mother. She viewed it as a blessing from God and acknowledgment that she was the true queen, whatever the naysayers might argue about her religion and legitimacy.

In late April news leaked out from the royal court that Mary had been safely delivered of a son. Celebrations and rejoicing were rampant: shops closed and there was revelry in city streets. The rumor spread to foreign courts and reached the ear of Philip’s father, the Emperor, who was overjoyed to not only hear he had a grandson, but that Philip’s legacy and power in England had been solidified through fatherhood.

Problem was, there was no baby and as April turned to May the public started getting antsy. The Queen began hiding out in her chambers and was a virtual recluse to her courtiers. Worse, the swelling in her abdomen began to decrease and it became rapidly apparent that she was no longer pregnant, if she had ever been. At first, it was circulated that the due date had simply been miscalculated, but as spring gave way to summer it became readily apparent that couldn’t possibly be the case.

The modern medical theory is that Mary likely suffered from ovarian dropsy her entire life and the condition resulted in an amenorrhea. Even if she had conceived a child somewhere in this window, she would have been incapable of carrying it to term.

Bizarrely Mary and her circle continued to hold out hope she was still pregnant – that some sort of miracle would occur and after 11, 12, 13 months a healthy child would eventually emerge. Their insistence on the Queen’s pregnancy became a point of embarrassment as the English people and other European courts not only questioned Mary’s fertility, but her overall health.

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By August the jig was up. Philip left England to return to his domains and Mary believed that God had punished her for not dealing with heretics swiftly or harshly enough.

A similar situation played out again in 1557 when, once more, Mary believed herself pregnant, announced it as such and then her physical symptoms once again showed themselves to be dropsy and not a child. Unfortunately, this time what illness plagued her proved to be fatal. By the spring of 1558, when she had been expecting to welcome a child, it became clear the Queen was dying and England began to prepare for the succession of the Protestant Princess Elizabeth. She would finally pass away that November at St. James’s Palace.

What is strange about the “pregnancies” is not only that it happened twice, but that a similar situation played out in the early years of her parents’ marriage in 1510. At one point Katherine of Aragon retired from court to welcome her first child only to have her abdomen begin to flatten. Physicians became convinced she had been carrying twins and only one had survived, but eventually she was forced to re-emerge without a child to show for it. The confusing explanations and shifting due dates would have been a larger scandal than they were had she not swiftly conceived again and been able to announce a second pregnancy.

Likely, quite a bit of it in Mary’s case was simple desperation for a child. Lonely, in love with her husband and cognizant of the political necessity of an heir, symptoms of illness were willed into pregnancy. As Carolly Ericksen noted in her biography of the queen, a copy of Mary’s prayer book has not only survived, but still shows evidence of tear stains and smudges on the prayer of expectant mothers.

Mary’s life was tragic, however much she lost herself sympathy in the history books with the ruthlessness of her reign. Her “phantom pregnancies” are in many ways just a whisper of what could have been had her trajectory not suddenly been broken by the arrival of Anne Boleyn at her father’s court.

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