Bloody Mary and The Phantom Pregnancy

Bloody Mary. Her name says it all really. England’s first queen in her own right has gone down in history as a religious fanatic who thoroughly earned her name by burning her subjects at the stake.


But there’s a lot of sadness to Mary I. It’s the duty of a king and a queen to have children and secure the next generation for their dynasty. Mary’s father, Henry VIII tore apart England and her religion in order to gain a male heir, and when she became queen, it was Mary’s duty to bear the next Tudor (not to mention Catholic) heir.

The problem was that Mary was old by the standards of the time, she was 37 and had never been married. She’d seen the problems that arise when a baby boy doesn’t fill the royal cradle, after all, Mary had been declared a bastard when her father put aside her mother Catherine of Aragon because of her ‘failure’. So, for the sake of her country and the Tudor name, Mary went looking for a husband.

She married Prince Phillip of Spain in 1554 and a few months later in September she stopped having periods, gained weight and felt sick in the mornings. She was pregnant!

Mary and her husband Phillip.
Mary and her husband Phillip.

In April 1555, there were rumours all around London that she had had a boy, but they were false. Throughout May and June, no baby arrived, and by July her bump was gone.

It was a phantom pregnancy. The medical name for the condition is pseudocyesis and women do genuinely believe that they are pregnant. Because phantom pregnancies are so rare, there isn’t much information about this condition. Phantom pregnancies can still happen though, such as when a Brazilian woman was rushed into hospital for a caesarian, only for doctors to find no baby.

Causes can be the sheer want and belief of a woman that she is pregnant, leading to psychological stress that is so extreme that the brain stimulates hormone production which causes the breasts to grow bigger (sometimes even producing milk), the abdomen to look decidedly bump-like, and the woman to feel tired and sick.

With Mary, the cause of her phantom pregnancy is likely to be because of her poor menstrual history. When she was younger she suffered from terrible and irregular periods as well as depression, though the reasons behind them were never known. It’s likely that her uneven and wildly fluctuating hormones (and maybe the want to get pregnant as well) caused her symptoms, and when her hormone levels eventually subsided, the ‘pregnancy’ was over.

Sadly for her though, Mary would again think that she was pregnant a couple of years later, and once again proudly showed off her bump. This time, her symptoms were probably caused by ovarian or uterine cancer, and she would die in 1558.

It’s one of many sad tales from the life of Bloody Mary, who would be succeeded by her younger sister Elizabeth I, who is considered to be one of the, if not the best, monarch that England has ever had. It’s possible that by seeing what her sister suffered, Elizabeth may not have wanted to marry and try for a child, in case she too suffered from the poor fertility of the Tudors.

If this post has caught your interest, I would recommend ‘Fit to Rule: How Royal Illness Changed History‘ by Lucy Worsley. 


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