Tag Archives: Mary Tudor

So many ships

Who knew the history of trying and testing for pregnancy would be so intertwined with maritime history? When I started my project, I never expected to be contemplating a visit to the National Maritime Museum archives in Greenwich, looking for ships, routes and cargoes. In my last post I talked about ships and now there are others coming up, too; it turns out I need to know a lot lot more about ships and sailors.

At the moment I’m thinking about the sixteenth century, exploring the story of Mary Tudor’s two false pregnancies (1554 and 1557). This has immersed me in texts and interests from the immediate aftermath of her death, and the reign of another childless Tudor queen, Elizabeth I. I have been looking at different writings from historians and poets, medical writers and others. Any historians of medicine reading this will know that health was intimately tied up with environmental factors in the medieval and Renaissance past and, not least, the wind. Wind was thought to blow through people connecting them up with the larger world, cosmos and elements.

Detail of Zephyrus and Chloris, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (1480s).

Wind also had a special association with conception. Foetuses were thought to be ensouled at quickening through inspiration: they were literally breathed into life. Zephyrus, the west wind, from classical myth was thought to cause or contribute to the ripening of nature in the spring, at a historical moment when humans were not excepted from seasonal rhythms.  You may know the opening to the Canterbury Tales which famously credits Zephyrus with pricking the spirits of little birds and simultaneously stirring longing for pilgrimage in people with all the opportunities pilgrimage offers for pleasure, for company, for reproduction of all kinds. Yet wind wasn’t only breath and life, it could also be flatulence and vacancy. Windy dropsy or windy tympany was the most common condition to be mistaken for pregnancy, because it swelled the stomach, just like in a pregnancy. Thinking about wind in relation to pregnancy enabled an agnosticism at a time when early pregnancy was often difficult to diagnose.

Wind rose from Cecco d’Ascoli, ‘L’Acerba’ (1521).

Entangled in the question of the wind and how responsible it was for royal reproductive disappointment and, by extension, England’s growing succession crisis, is an interest in the wind in relation to England’s maritime fortunes. To that end, I have recently been looking at the way that the winds are presented on maps, as individual personified beings at different points of the compass, drawn on maps as elaborate wind roses. ‘Winds’, writes Henry Peacham in The Gentlemans Exercise, ‘must be drawn with puffed and blowne cheekes,’ (rounded out but hollow shapes, like the abdomen distended by dropsy). In some ways there was less of a distinction than we might expect between wind roses and the representation of compasses. At a time when ships were sailing ships, winds were routes and, whilst land maps in the Middle Ages weren’t much used for getting around, sea charts or portolans certainly were.[1] Maps’ rhumb lines were the roads over which ships traveled and they lined up with the points of the compass, which also indicated the direction of different winds.

Medal commemorating the defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588),
National Maritime Museum, London.

The wind was, of course, central to English maritime survival in the Anglo-Spanish wars of the late sixteenth centuries, which pitted Mary’s husband, Philip II of Spain, against Elizabeth, his one-time sister-in-law. Indeed, the Armada was defeated more by the wind than Elizabeth’s navy. Commemorative medals were made which celebrated this divine intervention in human affairs; ‘he blew’, the Latin caption read, citing the Biblical book of Job, ‘and they were scattered’. The Anglo-Spanish wars were also triangulated with America in an age of competitive colonial expansion, a project to which wind was, of course, absolutely crucial.

Detail of textiles in Armada portrait
Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I, one of three painted to commemorate the defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588). Royal Museums Greenwich.

I’m finding that these winds out at sea were the same ones, and sometimes discussed in the same breath as those that were implicated in Mary’s false pregnancies, and perhaps Elizabeth’s childlessness, too. So now I am looking at some of the very famous paintings and keep seeing wind roses everywhere. There are certainly a lot of rounded out forms – the globe, etc. in this much-discussed Armada portrait; and what do you think of the designs in the background textiles here, particularly on the right? Can you see the billowy shapes around the fleur-de-lys points as stylized representations of puffs of wind?

Featured image: Portolan chart, Jorge de Aguiar (1492).

[1] See, for example, Alfred Hiatt, ‘From Hull to Cartage’: Maps, England and the Sea’, in Sebastian Sobecki ed., The Sea and Englishness in the Middle Ages (Brewer, 2011).

Hidden faces – hidden histories

This week is fertility awareness week. As part of events this week, Fertility Network UK has a ‘hidden faces’ campaign to challenge stereotypes about who might struggle to become a parent. The campaign comments, too, on the unseen nature of fertility issues. hidden-faces

The strong cultural message not to mention a pregnancy until the end of the first trimester brings with it a cultural silence about infertility and miscarriage. Because of this silence, many who find themselves struggling to conceive are surprised by the experience.

Pregnancy books, whilst they often have a section on fertility treatment, don’t often dwell on the very common experience of things just not happening for a long time. They have sections on late miscarriage, but don’t say very much about early ones. There is often an inset about how long, on average, it takes people to conceive, but no one is average so it means little to an individual reader. The cultural representation of pregnancy often emphasizes its immediacy: that even one sperm at any time of the month might fertilise an egg. Watch out, we rightly tell children in sex ed. But really it often takes time. It takes time, too, to discover there’s a problem, time to approach a doctor, time in which people are wondering and waiting.

On the page about fertilization in a popular ‘childbirth bible’ a diagram of the female reproductive organs, cut away so you can see inside, shows an egg being released from the ovary on the far left. Just below, the egg is pictured again surrounded by sperm.

Miriam Stoppard, 'Conception, Pregnancy and Birth' (2008), pp 32-3.
Miriam Stoppard, ‘Conception, Pregnancy and Birth’ (2008), pp 32-3.

It is shown again, dividing on its journey across the page and down the fallopian tube; again, implanting in the uterus wall; and a blown up detail depicts an embryo at four weeks gestation.  Then, on the far right of the page, with its feet nearly kicking the cervix, is a baby: naked, smiling, lying on its front and holding up its head.

Given that babies generally can’t hold their heads up and smile about it, until they are at least four months old, this page charts a process which takes, at absolute best, thirteen months, or fifty-seven weeks in pregnancy-speak. For those that spend any time trying to get from one side of the page to the other, let alone onto the next section of the book – ‘You and your developing baby’ –  this image and its neat representation of all the processes of conception happening perfectly, and all at once, doesn’t look quite right. There’s a bit, a wait, missing from this diagram.

Our histories of conception also jump ahead to pregnancy and childbirth. If you do a vox pop in the street and ask people ‘what do you know about pregnancy in the past?’ people would probably say that it was scary and that childbirth was really dangerous, that, because of this, there were lots of ways in which women tried to prevent pregnancy. Women might join a nunnery to avoid the dangers of marriage and childbirth, for example, or they might take drugs to ‘regulate’ periods, which also had the unspoken effect of terminating unwanted pregnancies.

These things are true and lots of good historical research tells us so. But there is also another story to tell, which hasn’t been told as often: the history of not being pregnant for month on month, year on year, for a lifetime. Parts of this history have been written in different places, but those parts haven’t been put together yet in a cross-period study which precisely addresses this issue. That’s what the Conceiving Histories project is trying to do: bringing material together which is already out there, but also uncovering things which are hidden in the archives – bringing out the Hidden Faces of the past.

To give just one example, this week I am going to be talking at a workshop about the case of Queen Mary I (1516-1558). It’s quite well known by historians that she had two false pregnancies. She thought she was pregnant, her physicians and female attendants thought she was pregnant, but she wasn’t. She waited and waited, well beyond her supposed due date, and nothing happened. Her husband (Philip II of Spain) waited, too; the Venetian Ambassador wrote home that ‘one single hour’s delay in the delivery seems to him a thousand years’.[1] Everything was ready: a nursery with a crib, beautifully painted with a special prayer, the public was poised to celebrate. Everybody waited … forever.

Whilst she waited, Mary wrote letters to her friends and to foreign heads of state announcing the birth. She left the date blank and enough space after the word ‘prince’ to add the Ss which would announce a girl instead.

Letter from Mary to Cardinal Pole, 1555 day and month left blank.
Letter from Mary to Cardinal Pole, 1555, with blank spaces for the day and month at the beginning of the penultimate line here.

She made other arrangements, writing her will, for example, as lots of women did, in case they died in childbirth.

Then somehow word went out that the baby had been born: there had been no labour pains; the baby, a boy, was born. It was a perfect story. Easy.

[P]eople made public demonstrations of joy, by shutting the shops, processions in churches, ringing the bells, public tables being spread with wine and viands for all comers; and although it was day there were bonfires in the streets.[2]

Mary had retired to Hampton Court when she thought her baby was due. She was ‘lying in’ and so it was understood that she wasn’t out and about. Eventually, though, when the expected baby wasn’t born, she had to come out. She had to face the public and her humiliation at not being able to conceive and give birth, showing her hidden face. Gathering her nobles and attendants, the court ambassadors, the Lord Mayor and all the London aldermen she went out with the full royal insignia expected when the Queen went out in public. A huge crowd greeted her along a long road.[3]

Mary Tudor by Hans Eworth, 1554; #HiddenFaces
Mary Tudor by Hans Eworth, 1554; #HiddenFaces

Historians are most usually interested in how these events intersected with other aspects of her rule, which is a fascinating question of course. But I want to think about what else we might do with this story, how we might use it to think about now, as well as then. One of the things that particularly interests me is the material substance of pregnancies that don’t happen– the pre-written letters, the empty crib, the premature party. I want to look more at this non-event in our future project and think about the history of what Jessica Hepburn has movingly described as ‘the pain of never’. For lots of people today this ‘never’ has real substance yet, paradoxically, it’s not visible because of our cultural reticence on early pregnancy and fertility issues. National Fertility Awareness Week is all about finding the hidden stories and people’s experience of waiting, hopefully for something, but perhaps for nothing.

To say that nothing, no pregnancy, has a hard material trace is surprising perhaps but it testifies to the existence of a history of un-pregnancy, which Conceiving Histories is unearthing and reassembling. It is there, it’s just hidden.


[1] Calendar of State Papers and Manuscripts Existing in the Archives and Collections of Venice, 1534-1554, ed Rawdon Brown (London: Longman, 1873), #116, p. 93. June 1st 1555.

[2] Ibid, #89, p. 76. May 21st 1555.

[3] Ibid, #200, p. 173. August 27th 1555.