When the future Edward VI was born in 1537 there was much rejoicing – for his father King Henry VIII, the birth of a son was especially important. The joy at the birth was of course overshadowed by tragedy because it was to lead to the death of the mother of the child, Jane Seymour.
A trouble free pregnancy - a difficult birth
Jane’s pregnancy was announced in February 1537 and she experienced a trouble free pregnancy up to the time that she went into labour. The birth of the child however was long and difficult, taking two days and three nights to be delivered. The baby was eventually delivered at around two o’clock on the morning of the 12th October. As this is the eve of the Feast day of Edward the Confessor the baby was named after this Saint.
Jane was able to sit and greet guests prior to the christening on the 15th October at Hampton Court but two days later her health had seriously deteriorated and she was given the last rites. By the 24th of October, Jane was dead.
A Midwifes view
I asked a Midwife colleague at Birmingham City University to consider what is known about Jane Seymour’s death, to give her opinion about what happened to Jane Seymour and how this would be handled if it happened today.
Because of her elevated social position we can perhaps assume that Jane was a relatively fit and well nourished young lady. It is very likely that the complications which led to her death were caused by the difficult labour and especially the length of time it took to give birth.
The most likely cause of the extended labour would be that the baby was not positioned well in the womb – making it more difficult for the woman to give birth. The uterus is the muscle that does the job of pushing the baby out of the womb and after a long labour it can become exhausted. Because this muscle was exhausted it is more likely that the placenta surrounding the baby would not be completely expelled. Even though remaining placenta might only be the size of a thumbnail, this would always cause an infection once it began to decay.
Further problems would be caused by the fact that internally, Jane would have been left with open wounds. She had experienced a lot of pain, lost a lot of blood, and would have been physically and mentally exhausted. In this physical state she would have been more open to infection and once infected, her body would have been less able to fight it. There was no understanding of microbial infection and no effective treatment for infection. The presence of dirty cloths and hands during and after the labour would be a very likely cause of infection.
In a modern situation things would be much different. Firstly, the mother and baby would be closely observed by the Midwife who would record the mothers blood pressure and temperature as well as the baby’s vital signs. Any sign of undue distress would lead to a hospital admission and probably a caesarean section ( there are records of this operation being performed in this period to save a baby when the mother was dying – there are no known instances of a mother surviving such a procedure). Modern knowledge of drug treatments to help labour as well as understanding of causes of infection and the use of antibiotics mean that in developed countries such deaths from infection are rare.
Women are still dying.
When writing about Tudor times we often find ourselves telling stories that still have some relevance today and sadly, this story is no exception. The problems that killed Jane Seymour nearly 500 years ago are still causing women to die every day. According to the World Health Organisation(WHO) maternal mortality is still very high in some countries. The WHO estimates that pregnancy or childbirth related problems cause around 1500 deaths a day! – these deaths are mostly from avoidable causes.
See this blog posting for more information about Tudor Childbirth
Also White Ribbon Alliance an international coalition campaigning to ensure that pregnancy and childbirth are safe for all women and newborns in every country around the world.