On 30 April 1555, the people of London took to the streets in celebration as bells ringing out around the city announced that Mary I, Queen of England, had been safely delivered of a healthy son. A preacher proclaimed to gatherers that no one had ever seen such a beautiful prince. News spread quickly to the continent, and letters of congratulation to the royal family began pouring in from Europe.
There was just one problem: Mary hadn’t given birth. In fact, there was no baby at all. What was initially hailed as a royal pregnancy ended in devastation and embarrassment for the Tudor Queen several months later.
Rumors began circulating about the pregnancy shortly after the Queen’s wedding to Philip II of Spain, in September 1554. Mary, who was by then 37-years-old, had reportedly stopped menstruating. Over the coming months, her belly expanded and her doctors attended to her morning sickness. The Queen—thoroughly convinced of the legitimacy of her pregnancy—ordered a royal nursery prepared in anticipation of the arrival of an heir that spring. Letters that would announce the birth of the prince or princess were primed and ready to be sent out at a day’s notice [Elizabeth I’s birth announcement below]. Only the dates and sex of the child needed filling in.
The months ticked by. In June, the Queen issued a statement claiming that God would not allow her child to be born until all Protestant dissenters were punished. Mary—who had already burned countless heretics at the stake since coming to the throne the previous year— began another round of executions in a desperate attempt to induce labor. During this time, the court grew suspicious of the Queen’s condition. Giovanni Michieli, the Venetian ambassador, wrote that Mary’s pregnancy was more likely to “end in wind rather than anything else.”
By August it was clear that there would be no baby, and Mary finally emerged from her confinement, humiliated and defeated. Her belly was once again flat. Her body showed none of the signs that had led to the pregnancy being announced. Her political rivals rejoiced, believing this to be a sign of divine retribution.
Conspiracy theories erupted immediately. Many people were convinced that Mary was ill. Others believed she had miscarried and simply couldn’t face the truth. Some even went so far as to claim that the barren Queen had been planning to smuggle a baby boy into the court but that the plan had fallen apart. A few wondered if Mary was even still alive. Whatever had happened, however, one thing was clear: Mary seemed to truly believe she had been pregnant.
Pseudocyesis, or phantom pregnancy, was a condition recognized by medical practitioners in the Tudor period. The physician William Harvey—best known for his discovery of the circulation of the blood around the heart—recorded several cases of phantom pregnancies which he had encountered in his practice during the 16th century. Most, he said, ended in “flatulency and fatness.” While many doctors like Harvey believed these phantom pregnancies were the product of trapped wind or the build-up of some kind of matter in the uterus, some thought they were the direct result of wishful thinking on the part of the expectant mother. Guillaume Mauqeust de la Motte referred to aging women, like Mary, who “have such an aversion for old-age, that they had rather believe themselves with child, than to confess they are growing old.”
Although it may seem astonishing today that a woman could falsely believe herself to be pregnant for a full nine months, we must remember that Mary lived during a time when there were no certain ways of determining pregnancy. This wasn’t helped by the fact that throughout her adolescence, Mary had also suffered from extremely painful and unpredictable periods that often left her incapacitated for weeks on end. Wildly fluctuating hormones may have been the cause of her halted menstruation in 1554, which naturally the Queen and her doctors took to be a sign of pregnancy.
Upon hearing the news, Mary’s husband left England to prosecute a war against France. When he returned to his wife’s side two years later, he brought with him his mistress. It was at this time that the Queen suffered yet another phantom pregnancy—perhaps brought on by grief from her failing marriage and inability to bear children to date. This second incident, however, led many to believe she had a tumor growing in her womb. What else could cause Mary’s belly to grow as big as it would if she were carrying a royal heir?
Sadly, Mary died childless shortly after this second phantom pregnancy. She had been Queen for only four years. Those who embalmed her body and prepared it for burial found no indication of a tumor, or any other explanation for her false pregnancies, which were a source of such deep sadness for Mary in her lifetime.
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Levin, Carole. “Mary I’s Phantom Pregnancy.” History Extra (12 May 2015).
Levin, Carole, Barrett-Graves, D., Carney, J. (Eds.) High and Mighty Queens of Early Modern England: Realities and Representations (2003).
Rosenhek, Jackie. “An Heir-Raising Experience.” The Doctors Review (August 2013).