So, what was Henry the VIII's problem anyway?

Having just watched three consecutive weeks of Masterpiece Theatre bios of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, I was left wondering –

Is there any generally accepted theory for why it was so hard for him to get a healthy son? After decades of trying with 6 wives he had (if I paid enough attention) only one son born alive (who died really young, don’t know it that was congenital or a disease), two daughters who at least lived to adulthood, and a slew of still births.

On the odds the fault lay with him rather than ALL the wives…

OTOH, apparently he had some bastard sons, though I don’t know what happened to them.

Or what it just pure chance? Sometimes you just roll snake eyes, over and over and over.

Just the normal results of infant mortality in those days I’d say.

One of his acknowledged illegitimate sons, the Duke of Richmond, survived the rigours of childhood but died in his late teens.

Not necessarily Henry’s fault (well, the fact that the children were daughers was his).

Catherine of Aragon was 34 when she first gave birth; that was pretty far advanced those days. Remember: childbirth was a risky proposition back then, even for a very young woman.

There is some speculation that Anne Boleyn was Rh negative. If her first daughter, Elizabeth were Rh positive, then it would explain why her other pregnancies didn’t come to term.

Jane Seymour died in childbirth, so didn’t have a chance for another.

Henry never had sex with Anne of Cleves. He thought she was ugly and annulled the marriage as soon as he could.

Catherine Howard was a pretty flightly girl, and began having an affair after about a year of marriage. This was treason, of course*, and why he had her beheaded. Also, by this time Henry had his heir and probably was less interested in keeping the line alive.

Finally, Catherine Parr married Henry to be his consort and fulfill the role of queet at court. She was not expected to provide an heir.

Finally, just because Edward VI died young, it doesn’t mean he was a sickly child. He was evidently quite healthy until after he became king; he developed what was probably tuberculosis, and died of it.

*It would call into question the legitimacy of any heir, and calling the king’s legitimacy into question was treason.

Correction to the OP: Henry had two sons born alive. One died after a few weeks, the other grew up to be Edward VI.

There is the possibility that Henry and family ( including sisters ) may have suffered from some medical issues like diabetes or some circulatory issue ( and of course syphilis has been a suspicion almost since he died, but remains only that ), but it still is a bit of a mystery.

However bad luck probably plays a roll and was nothing unusual. Dynasties, great and small, died out all the time from a lack of legitimate male heirs. I forget the exact number, but tornover was high in the medieval world among noble houses ( I want to say about a third of them went extinct in the male line every generation, but I’d need to look for a cite ).

Take the Norman dynasty for example - William I ‘the Bastard’ ( i.e. ‘the Conqueror’ ) was himself illegitimate and just barely gained acceptance because of it. He had four sons who reached sexual maturity. Richard, his second, died in his teens of a hunting accident, unmarried. Robert, the eldest, had one legitimate male heir, William Clito, who while married ( twice ) died at age 27 from a battle wound, no heirs. William II ‘Rufus’, the third, was probably solely homosexual and died ( again of a hunting accident, unless he was assassinated ) in his forties, unmarried and without heirs. Henry I, the youngest, had ~35 bastards ( a probably record for the English monarchy :stuck_out_tongue: ), but only two legitimate heirs, one of whom was male. His male heir, William Audelin, perished in his early teens in the White Ship disaster ( when quite a few young nobles drowned ). Consequently the dynasty came to an end with Henry’s death in 1135.

The dynasty then switched to the house of Blois ( Stephen of Boulogne, Henry’s nephew ), then to the (1rst ) Angevin dynasty or Plantaganets through Henry I’s grandson Henry II, son of his daughter Mathilda and Geoffrey ‘Plante Geneste’ of Anjou, which held on for the next 300 years or so. In essense the conquering dynasty of England was gone after only two generations.

Given the hazards of battle ( a declining issue in Henry VIII’s time ) but more importantly the poor state of health care with the consequent very high infant mortality rate and simple dumb luck, failing to produce a viable male heir wasn’t at all rare.

  • Tamerlane

After Katherine of Aragon, Henry really didn’t give his wives much time to get pregnant.

One note about Catherine Howard-- Many modern scholars don’t believe she ever actually had an affair with Thomas Culpepper. In his depostion (recently discovered and transcribed by David Starkey in his latest book about the wives), Tom Culpepper said he and Catherine met secretly just to talk.

Yes, she was likely in love with him, and yes, she’d had pre-marital affairs, but I personally don’t believe she would have been foolish enough to actually have adulterous sex because of all the risks it invoved.

Likely, she knew the king would be infuriated by her talking to, and showing interest in, another man, and so hid it for that reason. She probably figured if the king ever found out, he’d be angry, but forgiving because it wasn’t a physical affair.

Henry was ahead of his time in some ways-- he expected his marriage to be happy. Annulling a marriage simply based on looks was bizarre in the royal world. Kings and Queens did not marry for love or mutual attraction-- they married to unite kingdoms. Henry, however, was a romantic (though in a serial killer kind of way. :smiley: )

Henry mentioned potenial heirs with Catherine Parr in his will, IIRC. He was plenty lusty with Catherine Howard, and by all accounts, Catherine Parr was a pretty young woman. For some resaon, though, people have this matronly, sexless view of her.

I don’t know about a third of the noble houses going extinct every generation, that number seems excessively high. Sometimes a ruler died without a legitimate son, and the lands were inherited by a brother, a nephew, a cousin, so the inheritance remained within the same male kingroup. The Plantagenets bred like rabbits until the War of Roses, when they started wiping themselves out. The medieval Scots dynasty made it 252 years in the direct male line, even though for the last hundred or so they were barely limping along. The Árpád dynasty of Hungary lasted from the 10th to the 14th centuries, once again in the direct male line. And of course there’s the Capetians of France, who lasted from 987 to 1830, all male-line descendants of Hugh Capet, albeit through a couple of cadet branches.

Yeah, I wouldn’t take my word for gospel until I find a cite ( maybe not even then :smiley: ), but if I’m recalling correctly it was in reference to the very high turnover in the English peerage, with so many descending through female heiresses. Might have been Saul’s biography of Richard II or Ross’ of Richard III. I’ll poke around tomorrow maybe.

  • Tamerlane

Of course, Henry was Catherine Parr’s third husband, and she had produced no children yet. She married again after his death, to a brother of Jane Seymour I think, and died attempting to produce a child.

Catherine Parr’s last husband was Thomas Seymour, one of Jane’s brothers. She died bearing his child.

Of course, “ugly” is relative. She was probably just pleasingly plain. She had a kinda Ceci Connolly thing going.

Henry saw her portrait prior to the marriage and was not displeased. When he saw her in the flesh he was mortified.

But that argument is contradictory, since it defines “dynasty” solely in terms of direct male descent, and yet recognizes that the Crown can descend through the female line, in the absence of a male heir. As you point out, Henry II was the grandson of Henry I, and the great-grandson of William the Conqueror.

Under those rules, the Norman dynasty founded by William the Conqueror is one of the most successful in Europe - every monarch of England and the United Kingdom for the past 900+ years has been a descendant of William I.

Exactly. Beware of Doug’s first link is probably the portrait that was shown to Henry when he was thinking of marrying her (or, at least, a copy of the original). It was done by Hans Holbein, and Holbein evidently idealized her a bit. When Henry saw Anne for the first time (after they were engaged), he thought she was ugly and immediately began to make plans to have any marriage annulled.

BTW, Henry never divorced any of his wives. He annulled (or, if you’re Catholic, tried to annul) his marriage with Catherine of Aragon on the basis that it was incestuous* and he annulled his marriage to Anne of Cleves because of noncomsummation.

*OK, the long story is this: Catherine had married Henry’s older brother Arthur. Arthur died and, for political reasons, it was suggested that Henry marry her. Only the Catholic church at the time considered if incest if you married your brother’s widow (oddly enough, it didn’t consider it incest if you married your uncle). Henry asked the Pope to annul Catherine’s marriage to Arthur for noncoummation, clearing the way for them to marry. Later, when she was reaching menopause without a male heir, Henry wanted to marry someone else to preserve the line. He was persuaded to argue that Catherine’s marriage to Arthur was consummated (and brought witnesses who claimed Arthur said it was). Thus, the original dispensation was not valid, thus there marriage between Catherine and Henry was null and voice. The Pope didn’t buy the argument (it didn’t help Henry’s cause that Catherine was the daughter of Philip of Spain, to whom the Pope had family ties), so Henry said that the Pope did not have the authority to overrule the bible’s rules on incest and that the marriage was annulled.

The Pope didn’t buy it, and Henry was cut off from the church. Note that Henry did not consider himself a Protestant – he was just a Catholic who didn’t agree with the Pope.

Given Henry’s ego, I think it shold be phrased that he was “just a Catholic with whom the Pope did not agree.”

Not contradictory at all - inheritance can descend through the female line, but by convention dynastic names are all about the direct patriline. Blame our patriarchal world :p.

In reality, yeah everybody is descended from everybody else and we’re all related eventually. But dynastic naming conventions are a different kettle of fish.

  • Tamerlane

Ah. I think that – infant mortality + the fact that princes were no doubt constantly engaging in behaviors like hunting and fighting – either real or sport --were the facets I was overlooking.

In one of Stephen Jay Gould’s books he talks of walking through a Colonial era graveyard and noting how common deaths at less than a year were. I believe he suggested forcing any ‘back to nature’ type to do a similar tour. Yes, science has created some problems, but it also got us to the state were we expect virtually every child born will reach adulthood.

I think what made him mortified was her reaction to seeing him.

The first time they met, Henry decided he’d play one of his romantic little jokes. He used to dress up as Robin Hood or as a highwayman and burst into Catherine of Aragon’s chambers and demand to dance with the queen. She was always *so surprised *that the tall man who looked just like the king turned out to be her husband.

When Henry went to meet Anne of Cleves, he did the same thing-- he dressed up like a poor bum and entered her chambers. Anne was watching a bear-baiting below her windows, and did not pay the bum much attention. Henry was incensed. Firstly, she wasn’t playing along with his game, and secondly, the “eyes of love” should have seen through his disguise. He went to another chamber and changed into his kingly robes, and confronted her again. I imagine the expression on Anne’s face when she saw that this fat, uncouth, pouting man was to be her new husband was what turned Henry off.

There was no reports of Anne’s “ugliness” until Henry announced his distaste for her. (There was one report from an ambassador that said he didn’t think her as pretty as his companions did, but he never said she was actually ugly.) As soon as Henry said she was repulsive, everyone hastened to agree.

Anne knew there were bad tidings in the wind, and was intelligent enough to cater to the king’s whims. He announced he could not consummate his marriage (but assured his doctors it wasn’t because he was impotent by saying he had not only one but *two wet dreams that night.) Anne played along. When Lady Rochford (the sister-in-law of Anne Boleyn who accused her husband of incest with the queen) asked her if a baby would soon be on the way, Anne assured her it would-- the king kissed her on the cheek each evening before he went to bed. Lady Rochford replied that a kiss wasn’t enough. Anne pretended ignorance.

Anne of Cleves was the luckiest of all Henry’s wives. Her submission to the annulment request pleased him, and he gave her the title of “King’s Sister” as well as a fat pension. By all accounts, she led a happy life, remaining in England since she was no longer a valuable marriage pawn.

She was a bit insulted when Henry married the low-born Catherine Howard, and may have hoped after the execution that Henry would re-marry her, since they were getting along so well, but he moved on to Catherine Parr.

*I say pretend, because sexual ignorance in women was not valued as it was in later times. It’s highly unlikely she did not know how babies were made.

There are some (recent) exceptions. The UK is still under the House of Windsor not Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg. Denmark is under the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg not Laborde de Monpezat. And the Netherlands has remained under the House of Orange-Nassau despite passing through the female line since 1890. Also the Romanovs died out in the male line in the 1700s and never changed their name.

And the sometimes the dynastic name changes even when the male line is preserved. Look at the Plantagenets, the Lancasters, and the Yorks. The Lancasters and the Yorks were both descended from Edward III through direct male line, but they’re labled with different dynastic names anyway.