The hype surrounding the birth of a royal baby is nothing new. Two public lectures (18 and 25 June) will explore the Tudor and Stuart obsession with producing a male heir. 

Henry VIII was obsessed by the need to produce a male heir and, ideally, a spare to take the ruling Tudor line forward.

Peter Jones

Birth is a momentous event in anyone’s life. When the people involved were absolute monarchs, births had the capacity to shape the narrative of nations. Past royal births are both examples of this most universal of experiences and potent indicators that historians can use to investigate our culture, politics and mores.

As the arrival of the latest royal baby approaches, two public lectures will unravel some of the problems and pitfalls surrounding births of Tudor and Stuart monarchs. The lectures — titled Born to Rule — will shine a light on the history of fertility, pregnancy and childbirth in Britain in the 15th to 17th centuries.

The talks will be given by historians working with the Generation to Reproduction Project at Cambridge University’s Department of History and Philosophy of Science. This cross-disciplinary research group is funded by the Wellcome Trust to investigate the history of reproduction over the long term.

On Tuesday 18 June, Peter Jones, a principal investigator in the Generation to Reproduction project, will talk about Henry VIII’s fertility struggles. Henry forged multiple marriages in the pursuit of a single goal – a healthy male heir who would ensure the continuation of a fragile dynasty.

“Throughout his reign Henry VIII was obsessed by the need to produce a male heir and, ideally, a spare to take the ruling Tudor line forward. Henry’s domestic and foreign policies were shaped by this quest to reproduce and he directed an impressive battery of resources – medical, religious and political – at achieving this aim. Nothing was spared: neither family relationships nor religious affiliations,” said Jones.

Because he broke from Rome, in order to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, it is often assumed that Henry VIII was irreligious. But the evidence for his personal beliefs suggests that he was very devout – and in his quest to sire a child he bought into the quasi-magical practices current at this time.

“When Katherine of Aragon bore him a son – an infant who lived only six weeks – he jumped on a horse and rode from Richmond to the Shrine of our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk where he said prayers of thanks to the Virgin Mary and left a necklace as a thank-offering. Though he’s commonly remembered for his dissolution of the monasteries, he remained pious to the end of his life,” said Jones.

“Henry VIII also clearly believed, as many people did, in the power of rituals involving amulets and prayer rolls. He owned and wrote on such a roll – a manuscript inscribed with devotional prayers – which was to be wrapped around women during childbirth to protect mother and child. He refused to crack down on these superstitious practices.”

For many years there was speculation that Henry’s own fertility problems had been caused by syphilis, a retrospective diagnosis which tapped into his reputation as a womaniser. Medical historians now reject this view: there is insufficient evidence of symptoms of the disease.

A more recent explanation for his shaky fertility is that he carried the gene for the Kell antigen on red blood cells. Most people are Kell-negative and if Henry’s wives were Kell-negative, they would become sensitised once they had conceived a Kell-positive baby. Subsequent Kell-positive pregnancies would be at risk as the mother’s antibodies attacked the baby as a foreign body.

“Interestingly, while in the modern era infertility was often blamed on the woman, there is evidence that in Tudor circles fertility was seen as a matter of balance between men and women. There are, for example, records of tests in which herbs were put into pots of urine from both the man and woman to see which herb grew and thus which partner was fertile. It was more of an open question than a simple assumption that fertility problems stemmed from the woman,” said Jones.

The childbirth drama that unfolded some 150 years later is the subject of the second talk. On Tuesday 25 June, Mary Fissell of John Hopkins University (currently a visiting scholar at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science) will present the gripping story of the birth of James Francis Edward in 1688. The arrival of the so-called “warming pan baby” – a reference to the feverish speculations surrounding his true parentage – is an early example of the media circus that surrounds royal infants.

The birth of James Francis Edward in 1688 at St James’s Palace is said to have been witnessed by no fewer than 42 eminent public figures, assembled to act as verifiers of the legitimacy of the child as legal issue of James II and his second wife, Mary of Modena.  “The pressure on Mary of Modena to produce the sought-after male heir was horrific. She experienced a series of stillbirths and this latest pregnancy had been the source of successive waves of gossip. A fascination with celebrity is nothing new,” said Fissell.

“People doubted that Mary was genuinely pregnant and, once she went into labour, there were reports that the baby who emerged had been smuggled into the bedchamber in a warming pan, or that it had been sneaked into the bed through a secret door in the bedhead.  The routes through which these rumours spread were the cheap broadsheets that were being produced in huge numbers, and read by an ever more literate population, often in the newly popular coffee houses, which were incubators for rumour.”

The warming-pan scandal put a permanent question-mark against baby James’s legitimacy. He never became king. His half-sister, Mary and her husband William of Orange, seized the throne in 1688, in part claiming that succession had failed because James was not the legitimate heir. The deposed King James II and his wife Mary of Modena fled to France from whence their son mounted invasions to reclaim the throne. Later known as the Old Pretender, he was the father of the Young Pretender or, more famously, Bonnie Prince Charlie.

Procreation was a matter of mystery and fear as well as a matter for celebration. “There was no sex education and the process of pregnancy and childbirth was usually a woman’s preserve, unless an emergency required a doctor being brought in. Childbirth was feared, perhaps disproportionately so – but most women would know, or know of, someone who had died in childbirth. One family alone in London had a monopoly in the use of forceps which were a closely guarded secret,” said Fissell.

“My interest in the drama of the warming-pan birth – apart from it being a really good story – is the way in which it was a royal birth but also an ordinary birth, revealing so much about the tussle for power in gender relations. During the Civil War women had risen to unforeseen prominence and with the restoration of the crown there were moves to keep them in check. Ballads, for example, portray them as sexually suspect and promiscuous, meaning that no man was safe from their mischief.”

The talk ‘Henry VIII: the Quest for an Heir’ is on Tuesday 18 June, followed by ‘Mary of Modena: a Royal Scandal’ on Tuesday 25 June. Both lectures will take place in the Little Hall, Sidgwick Avenue, Cambridge at 5pm. Free and open to all, no need to book.

More about the Generation to Reproduction group at Cambridge University can be found at

For more information on this story contact Alex Buxton, Office of Communications, University of Cambridge,, 01223 761673


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