Bloody Mary: A Study in the Queen’s Gynaecological Tragedy

RoseMary Gray

Henry VIII spent his life obsessed with producing a male heir

While Henry VIII spent his life obsessed with producing a male heir, it was in fact his two daughters that had the remarkable reigns that succeeded him. However, his older daughter, Mary, continued his trend of having an inability to produce a male heir. Mary I was nicknamed “Bloody Mary” as a result of her fervent persecution of Protestants in an attempt to undo her father’s reformation of the Church of England, and bring the country back under Catholic Rule. Interestingly enough, this epithet may have been more apt than anyone ever realized. It is very likely that Mary’s troubles were all linked to a pre-existing gynecological condition. From the time of her youth it is very well documented that Mary suffered from what they referred to at the time as “The Mother.” This was essentially an umbrella term for all gynecological diseases. She suffered from drastically irregular and painful periods. Now, without modern diagnostic measures, it is impossible to nail down exactly what her problem was - as it is still not even a perfect science today. The possibilities include endometriosis, premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), or even polycystic ovary disease (PCOS). The symptoms of endometriosis are frankly endless, the most prominent being irregular and painful periods. The other main symptom of which Mary possibly suffered were fertility issues. A more likely cause would actually be PMDD. She also exhibited extreme bouts of depression and irritability which can be linked to PMDD, along with the issues with her cycle. This can be linked to the fact that she had a significant family history of mental illness. When you consider that the contemporary descriptions of her ailments were a “suffocation of the matrix” and “hysteria,” PMDD seems the likely candidate when even they noticed the ink with the mental and physical symptoms. The only indication that would have PCOS in the running for the possible cause is that she was often referenced with having a “voice like a man,” however, other outward indicators are being overweight and having excessive hair growth - of which there are little to no references of her having.
Bloody Mary: A Study in the Queen’s Gynaecological Tragedy
Mary I

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Bloody Mary: A Study in the Queen’s Gynaecological Tragedy
Queen Mary I

By the autumn of 1554, Mary believed that she was already pregnant

Once she was married, all attention went away from her periods except for the goal of making them cease through pregnancy. In 1554, Mary married her cousin Philip of Spain - she was 37 at the time. This means that were she to get pregnant, she would have what medicine refers to today as a “geriatric pregnancy.” A pregnancy at that advanced of an age, especially with the state of medicine what it was during her lifetime, would have led to serious complications including dying during childbirth. By the autumn of 1554, Mary believed that she was already pregnant. She wrote to her cousin in December that she could in fact feel the baby moving inside of her. In April, she “took to her chamber,” a period a month prior to the expected delivery where the woman would stay in her rooms in preparation of the baby. However, summer came and went with no signs of a baby to be born. Mary and physicians all wrote it off as a miscalculation of the timing due to her history of erratic cycles. By August 1555, everyone including Mary had to come to accept that she had never been pregnant. Again in 1557, she believed herself to be with child. She kept it to herself until December, when she thought that she was seven months along in an attempt to avoid what happened the last time she thought she was pregnant. Unfortunately, there was still no child by April 1558. The popular opinion is that both of these occurrences were phantom pregnancies. Due to her extreme pressure, both personally and on behalf of the country, to produce an heir, this is not an unlikely diagnosis. Her history with mental illness could also contribute to the possibility of the phantom pregnancy. It’s not even a far stretch if you use the terminology of the time. Another name for this phenomenon is “hysterical pregnancy”; remember the Queen already suffered from “hysteria.” Unfortunately for Mary, the depression that this second false pregnancy caused was the beginning of the end for her. Queen Mary was dead within the year of realizing that she was still barren. Yet, another tragedy in the Tudor’s attempt to create a lasting dynasty - and losing the battle of attempting to prevent her sister Elizabeth from becoming the next queen of England.
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Bloody Mary: A Study in the Queen’s Gynaecological Tragedy

RoseMary Gray

RoseMary Gray is a nurse in America who has always had a passion for history. While she had to put her love of history on hold to focus on nursing school, as well as having a new baby, she has recently been reawakened to her first love: Tudor History. She now spends her limited free time to combine her love of history with her nursing background in an effort to better understand medical mysteries of the past with our modern day knowledge of medicine.
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