“The Queen’s Big Belly:” The Phantom Pregnancy of Mary I

M1On 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.

L0005249 Foetus in womb.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.

M2 (1)

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.

If you enjoy my blog, please consider supporting my content by clicking HERE.

Suggested Reading:

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).


The Battle over Bodies: A History of Criminal Dissection


On 29 July 1831, John Amy Bird Bell was found guilty of murdering a young boy for the sake of a few coins. At his trial, Bell expressed no emotion when he was sentenced to death. He did, however, break down when he was informed that his body would be given over to the surgeons to be dissected.

Bell was only 14-years-old when he was executed and anatomized. As he made his way to the gallows, he turned to the constable and asked: “He [the murdered child] is better off than I am now, do you not think he is, sir?” The constable agreed.

The Murder Act of 1752 decreed that the bodies of all murderers—young and old—be anatomized as an additional punishment for the heinous crime of taking another person’s life. Most of the criminal bodies harvested for dissection came from Tyburn in London, a place of execution since the 12th century.

NB2Locals called the permanent scaffold there “the deadly nevergreen,” the tree which bore fruit all year long. It consisted of three posts—each ten to twelve feet high—held together by three wooden crossbars at the top. Between 1169 (when the first recorded execution took place) and 1783 (when hangings were moved to Newgate Prison), an estimated 40,000-60,000 died at Tyburn. Amongst these were Perkin Warbeck (1499), pretender to the throne; Francis Dereham (1541), Queen Catherine Howard’s lover; and Jack Sheppard (1724), the notorious thief and escape artist.

The public’s desire for justice did not necessarily include a desire to see the criminal body dissected. Most believed the body was sacred and should remain intact after death. A sketch made in 1782 by the artist, Thomas Rowlandson, depicts the interior of William Hunter’s anatomical museum on the Last Day of Judgment as resurrected corpses bewilderingly search for missing body parts  [See below]. As comical as this may seem, fears about what happened to one’s body after death were very real during this period. Many people believed that the execution itself was punishment enough and that the body of a criminal should not suffer the final indignity of dissection.

L0016844 'Museum... in Windmill Street, on the last Day'.

After the passage of the Murder Act, Tyburn became a battleground between the surgeons who needed to procure corpses for dissection and the mob who fought ferociously to protect the dead. Samuel Richardson, writing in 1740, described such a scene:

As soon as the poor creatures were half-dead, I was much surprised before such a number of peace-officers, to see the populace fall to hauling and pulling the carcasses with so much earnestness, as to occasion several warm rencounters [sic], and broken heads. These were the friends of the persons executed…and some persons sent by private surgeons to obtain bodies for dissection. The contests between these were fierce and bloody, and frightful to look at. [1]

Before the day of reckoning, the condemned went to great lengths to protect their bodies from the dissection table. They appealed to family, friends, lovers and acquaintances. Martin Gray begged his uncle to come to his execution in 1721, “lest his Body should be cut, and torn, and mangled after Death.” [2] Sarah Wilmhurst, who was convicted of murdering her bastard child in 1743, was more concerned that her father and brother would fail to secure her body after the execution than with the prospects of death itself. [3] Most telling of all was a plea made by Vincent Davis, who was condemned to die after murdering his wife, Elizabeth, “by giving her with a Knife one mortal Wound in the Right Side of the Breast.” During his consignment, Davis

…sent many Letters to all his former Friends and Acquaintance to form a Company, and prevent the Surgeons in their Designs upon his Body…So great were these Apprehensions that he should be Anatomiz’d, that…he desired and wish’d he might be hang’d in Chains to prevent it, and with that view affronted the Court of Justice. [4]

The court did not acquiesce to his pleas. On the day of execution, however, Davis’s friends fought the surgeons for his body and won. He was later buried in Clerkenwell. [5]

NB3These battles were not for the faint-hearted. Accounts from the Barber Surgeon’s Company reveal how violent scenes around the gallows could become. An entry from 1739 records: “Paid the Beadles for their being beaten and wounded at the late execution £4.4.0.” Another entry from 1740 reads: “Paid for mending the windows broke upon bringing the last body from Tyburn. £0.6.0.” In one record we discover that the “dead man’s clothes…were lost in the scuffle.” The hangman who had procured the body thus required 15 pence compensation as the clothes of the executed rightly belonged to him. [6]

Eventually, “the deadly nevergreen” was taken down after the last criminal—John Austin—was hanged there on 3 November 1783. From that point forward, hangings took place just outside the walls of the Newgate Prison. Given the close proximity of Surgeon’s Hall to the site of execution, it was easier for surgeons to procure bodies for dissection away from the prying eyes of an angry crowd.

tumblr_midn0fROZ31qasg9no1_1280Nonetheless, surgeons continued to be the object of public loathing and ridicule well into the 19th century. On 19 April 1828, The London Medical Gazette reported:

The practice of dissection seems repugnant to the strongest prejudices of the people in this country; a repugnance which is by no means limited to the lower classes of the community, but which at present pervades nearly all, and which has unfortunately been increased, if not originally produced, by dissection having been made to constitute part of the punishment of the most aggravated felonies, and thus associated in the public mind with crime and degradation. [7]

It wasn’t until the Anatomy Act of 1832—when the bodies of the unclaimed poor were made available—that the links between dissection and punishment were formally severed. Unfortunately, in the minds of many, the executioner and surgeon would remain bound together for some time.

One executed the body, the other executed the law.

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1. Samuel Richardson, Familiar Letters on Important Occasions (1928), p. 219.
2. The Ordinary’s Account, 3 April 1721
3. The Ordinary’s Account, 18 May 1743.
4. The Ordinary’s Account, 30 April 1725.
5. Peter Linebaugh, “The Tyburn Riot Against the Surgeons,” in Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England (1975; repr. 1988), p. 81. I am hugely indebted to Linebaugh for information found in this blog post.
6. S. Young, Annals of the Barber-Surgeons of London (1890).
7. The London Medical Gazette (19 April 1828).

PBS Mercy Street – Guest Blog Post


Inspired by real people and events, the new PBS mini-series Mercy Street goes beyond the front lines of the Civil War and into the chaotic world of the Mansion House Hospital in Union-occupied Alexandria, Virginia. For those who are fans of the show, or merely interested in this period of history, check out my guest blog post for PBS on “The Embalming Craze of the Civil War.” Click here to read.



The Fatal Fashion of the Georgians

GV1The other day, I walked through the makeup section of a department store. Every step of the way, I was bombarded by sales attendants trying to sell me the latest anti-aging potions. There was Rodial Snake Venom—an anti-wrinkle cream which allegedly simulates the paralysing effects of a viper bite to reduce expression lines in the face—as well as a host of other products including Freeze 24/7, which purports to be a “clinically proven dream cream.” Topping the list of quack remedies was the “Vampire Facelift,” a non-surgical procedure involving the reinjection of gel-like substance derived from the patient’s own blood.

With all these products on the market today, you might think that we are uniquely obsessed with finding eternal youth. Yet, people in the 18th century were equally concerned with turning back the hands of time, and their beauty regime could be just as futile (and toxic) as our own.

The proliferation of potions and elixirs reached epic proportions in Georgian England. Everything from anti-baldness creams to slimming pills were offered. Each one promised its own miracle cure. Each one offered the consumer hope in a jar (which, incidentally, is the name of a 21st-century product by Philosophy).

Quacks also peddled medical remedies targeted at those seeking a more permanent change.

GV2One of the most famous examples is Parr’s Life Pills—named after a man who reputedly lived to 152 in the 16th century. These “remarkable” pills purported to extend the consumer’s lifespan by decades; and contained a combination of aloe, rhubarb and jalap which were flavoured with liquorice powder, treacle and sugar. Parr’s Life Pills were so popular that they persisted well into the 19th century, where one cynic wrote:

I hearby certify and swear to it, that at the age of fifteen years I had the misfortune to fall into the crater of Vesuvius, and was burned to a cinder; but on taking two of Parr’s Life Pills, I completely recovered. At Waterloo I was blown to atoms by a Congreve rocket; but after taking one box and a half of the Pills I speedily got well, and with the exception of occasional shooting pains, which a single pill invariably relieves, I have since been a better man than ever.

In the grand scheme of things, Parr’s Life Pills were rather harmless, but one staple of the Georgian’s health and beauty regime most certainly was not: makeup.

Both Georgian women and men coveted rouges, lipsticks and powders that enhanced and lightened their complexions. Most of these cosmetics were homemade. Unfortunately, a majority of them also contained toxic substances that could prove fatal over time.

GV3For instance, many 18th-century rouges were made using the lead-base ingredient, carmine (see pot, left). The rouge was applied to the cheeks using wet bits of wool. The crimson cosmetic was also available as a lipstick, which was made by mixing carmine with plaster of Paris, a substance similar to mortar or cement. And let’s not forget the powders which gave wealthy Georgians that famous cakey-white look. These were sometimes made from finely flaked lead and most certainly caused serious medical problems—such as nausea, headaches, blindness or even death—for those who used them over long periods of time.

And then there was hair. I’ve talked extensively about the medical services offered by barber-surgeons. In 1745, however, the barbers split with the surgeons, who went on to form their own medical guild. Henceforth, the barbers were restricted to tasks relating to…well, barbering! Thus, the Georgian barbershop—with its noticeable absence of leeches, lancets and tooth extractors—is the most immediate (and recognisable) predecessor of the modern-day salon.

Georgian barbers began building their reputations as wigmakers after their split with the surgeons. Both men and women wore wigs in this period, the latter going to great lengths when it came to design and height of the hairpiece.

GC4Adrian Teal captures the growing extravagance of the era brilliantly in The Gin Lane Gazette. As the book progresses through the 18th century, the wigs grow higher and higher, till they are indeed taking up entire pages in this exquisitely illustrated romp through Georgian England (see right).

As beautiful as these creations were, they could also be toxic. Barbers often used lard at the base of the wig so that it would adhere better to the scalp. But the lard also attracted mice, which sometimes burrowed deep inside these elaborate hairpieces. Those who could afford to keep up with this extensive beauty regime frequently suffered from infestations of lice or fleas, as well as an array of scalp problems due the unhygienic conditions of the wigs.

Hardly a romantic view of the “Romantic Period!”

So next time you walk through a department store and feel tempted to purchase the latest anti-aging product, think of the Georgians with their potions, elixirs and wigs.

And remember: beauty always comes at a price.

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‘Twas The Night Before Christmas (Morbid Rendition!)

It’s nearly Christmas! Time to revisit this festive episode of Under The Knife. Using the talents of Adrian Teal (artwork), Joel Mishon (animator), and the vocal stylings of Alex Anstey, we give this classic poem a macabre twist.  So sit back, relax and enjoy my rendition of `Twas the Night Before Christmas as you’ve never heard it before!​ Featuring myself as the dissected criminal (Thanks, Adrian!).

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Not Just For Kissing: Medicinal Uses of Mistletoe (Past & Present)

Mistle Toe (1940)

Ah, December. That time of year when mistletoe springs up magically in entrance halls and doorways, driving unsuspecting individuals into an awkward embrace before they make a mad dash for the booze.

Today, we associate mistletoe with smooching; however, this wasn’t always the case. In fact, the poisonous, parastic plant has a long association with medicine, and in the past would have been recognized by doctors as a vital ingredient in the treatment of various disorders.

One of the first records of mistletoe being used medicinally comes from Hippocrates (460 – 377 BC) who used the plant to treat diseases of the spleen and complaints associated with menstruation. Celsus (25 BC – 50 AD) also describes using mistletoe in the fifth book of De Medicina. He mixed it with various organic or inorganic substances to create plasters and emollients, which he then used to treat abscesses, carcinoids, and scrofula. There is also evidence that Pliny the Elder (23 AD–79 AD) used mistletoe to treat infertility and ulcers. Mind you, Pliny was also the man who thought you could cure incontinence by drinking wine mixed with the ash of an incinerated pig’s penis, touching linen or papyrus to your genitals, or urinating in your dog’s bed. [1]


When the preserved remains of the 2,000-year-old bog body known as Lindow Man (above) were recovered in 1984, scientists also found evidence of his last meal still preserved in his stomach. It included a grilled bran pancake that had burned while it was cooking, and a drink made from mistletoe.

M0008872 The oldest printed description and picture of the mistletoe.By the 15th and 16th centuries, mistletoe was being used in Europe to cure all kinds of ailments. The oldest printed description and picture of mistletoe dates from 1491 (right). It was described in herbal books from this period as “warming, softening, and an astringent.” It was used to treat afflictions of the kidney and spleen; and mixed with other plants to create poultices and plaster for ulcers and bone fractures. It was even used to alleviate labour pains in pregnant women. During the 17th century, British chemist Sir Robert Doyle suggested drinking pulverized mistletoe in black cherry juice during a full moon to cure epilepsy—a disease that was often associated with witchcraft and devilry because of its symptoms.

For hundreds of years, many Native American tribes had been brewing mistletoe into a liquid before immersing their heads in the tincture to alleviate headaches. The use of mistletoe—especially the kind gathered from oak trees—continued throughout the 19th century, especially in folk medicine in the United States. [2]

But what was it about mistletoe that might have appealed to healers in the past? Apparently, the plant can have an unusual effect on the circulatory system. It acts as a stimulant, increasing blood pressure and heartbeat (though both of these effects can wear off very suddenly, which can be dangerous). In this way, mistletoe was sometimes used to treat angina and heart ailments.

Mistletoe3Today, researchers in the medical community have once again turned their sights to mistletoe, this time in connection with cancer. Dozens of laboratories in the US have conducted experiments, yielding results that show an extract from the plant not only kills cancer cells in certain animals, but also boosts their immune systems, helping the body to fight off the disease naturally. These results, however, have not been proven to work reliably in humans to date, and more experiments are needed before we can understand what (if any) are the effects of mistletoe on cancer. [3]

In Europe (especially Germany), mistletoe is currently used for palliative care of cancer patients. Over the past several decades, trials have shown that the herb can help ease fatigue, nausea, and depression in patients undergoing chemotherapy. Interestingly, some studies also suggest that the plant can help diminish the toxicity of chemo drugs, which means patients can tolerate higher doses. [4]

So, next time you’re at a cocktail party and are taken unawares under the mistletoe by someone you’d rather not kiss in a lifetime of Decembers, distract him or her with the medical history of the plant, before making a quick exit. But don’t blame me if it doesn’t work.

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1. Pliny. Rockham H, trans. Natural History. 16.250-251. Vol 4. Loeb Classical Library ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press; 1938-1963: p. 551.
2. K. S. Zanker and S. V. Kaveri (eds.) Mistletoe: From Mythology to Evidence-Based Medicine (Karger, 2015), pp. 3 – 5.
3. Brian Handwerk, “Medical Mistletoe: Can the Holiday Plant Really Fight Cancer?” Smithsonian (8 December 2014).
4. Ibid.