Trigger Warning: miscarriage and stillbirth mentioned.
I probably don’t need to speak of the events of the week involving the Duke and Duchess* of Cambridge, the media is all over it. I just couldn’t bring myself to comment on it, so I wound up writing a post about a very different set of royals.
For nearly sixteen years, I have been fascinated by the Tudors. I got bit by the bug when, after I remarked that I needed a book to read, my paternal grandmother pointed me towards a shelf filled with Jean Plaidy historical novels. I picked up the one that sounded the most fascinating to me, a volume entitled Murder Most Royal. The book was about the machinations leading up to the executions of Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard, Henry VIII’s second and fifth wives respectively.
A couple of years later, I noticed a non-fiction book in the high school library: The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir. I had read almost all the historical fiction novels I could get my hands on about the Tudors, from Henry VII to Elizabeth I, but this was the first non-fiction I had encountered. I checked it out and was almost instantly transfixed by the fascinating stories of the six rather extraordinary women Henry VIII had married. This has, over the years, led to my currently overflowing bookshelf of Tudor history. I have volumes by, of course, Weir, but also Antonia Fraser, Eric Ives, David Starkey, and numerous others.
I borrowed my pen name here from one of Henry’s queens, his first wife Katherine of Aragon. Katherine of Aragon was not precisely infertile, having gotten pregnant shortly after her wedding to Henry VIII, but would fit into the general scope of today’s adoption, loss, and infertility community (ALI). By most historical accounts, Katherine had six fairly well substantiated pregnancies. Some historians have put the total at nine, but there is insufficient evidence for this assertion. It is possible, however, that earlier term miscarriages or losses might not have been marked as closely as the later ones.
Of those six substantiated pregnancies, Katherine bore a single child who lived past one year: her daughter, Mary (later known as Mary I or “bloody Mary”). Another child, a prince named Henry, lived only a short time after birth. The other four pregnancies ended either in stillbirths or babies that died almost immediately after birth, and historical records seem to indicate several of these were calculated at eight months gestation and one at 33 weeks, so somewhat premature.
In other words, this was a woman who understood the grief of being unable to bear the child or children she wanted so very, very badly. This was a woman who knew how it felt to lose, to be in awful emotional anguish.
I also admire Katherine of Aragon for her incredible stubbornness. I was amused to read the other week in a book by Susan Bordo about Anne Boleyn that Katherine of Aragon tends to get a sterling reputation for being the perfect wife while Anne gets painted as an evil seductress. Bordo’s observation was that Katherine didn’t really deserve her reputation as she was extremely obstinate and that her refusal to allow Henry VIII to annul their marriage probably, ironically, was a huge contributing factor in Henry VIII’s decision to break with Katherine’s beloved Catholic Church.
I thought Bordo’s assertion was interesting, as I’ve always had an impression of Katherine of Aragon as very, very stubborn. Katherine of Aragon was by no means a perfect person, however she was one of the few people with the steel to stand up to Henry VIII, even getting her powerful relatives involved to try to ensure that she was not discarded.
The real reason I picked Katherine of Aragon as my namesake, however, comes from the speech she made before the papal court that would determine her fate. Katherine got down on her knees before Henry and made an impassioned plea. The line that made me chose her is this one: “This 20 years or more I have been your true wife and by me ye have had divers children, although it hath pleased God to call them from this world, which hath been no default in me.”
Talk about brave! In a world where women and/or sin were generally assumed to be the culprits for not being able to bear a living child this woman insists as her solemn word that the lack of heirs is absolutely not her fault. It’s a powerful and moving speech.
When I was first diagnosed with infertility, I spent several months wondering if I had done something wrong to merit such a punishment. Intellectually, I knew that this condition was not my fault, that there was nothing I could have done to change it or prevent it. At the same time, in the depths of frustration and despair, the thought would return and haunt me. Katherine of Aragon’s ringing words of “which hath been no default in me” provided a reminder. The infertility and lack of children wasn’t because of something I had done. It’s just one of those unfair, unfortunate events that happens to plenty of people, none of whom deserve such a fate.
So I became Katherine A.
*Speaking of the current royals, does anyone else hear the line from “The Princess Bride” whenever you see images of Kate Middleton? You know, the one where the evil Prince Humperdinck is introducing Buttercup and says “On that sundown, I shall marry a lady who was once a commoner like yourselves. But perhaps you will not find her common now.” Fortunately, it seems commoner Kate Middleton has found herself a much nicer prince to marry than Humperdinck.