Mother Mourning: Childbed Fever in Tudor Times

Mother Mourning: Childbed Fever in Tudor Times

Black death. The Great Pestilence. Plague. Sweating Sickness. The very words themselves cause us to shudder, and they certainly caused those in centuries past to quake because they and their loved ones were often afflicted by those diseases.  But when we survey the physical ailments that afflicted sixteenth century women there is one death that caused the deepest fear among women: Childbed Fever, also known as Puerperal Fever and later called The Doctors’ Plague.

Medieval and Tudor medicine centered around both astrology and the common belief that all health and illness was contained in balance or imbalance of the four “humours” of bodily fluids: blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm.  Therefore, the letting of blood or sniffing of urine were common manners to address or diagnose illness. Although it seems ludicrous to us today, this understanding of medicine had reigned supreme for nearly 2000 years, coming down from Greek and Roman philosophical systems. It’s been said that perhaps only 10-15% of those living in the Tudor era made it past their fortieth birthday. Common causes of illness leading to death? Lack of hygiene and sanitation.

Elizabeth of York

Decades  before the germ theory was validated in the late nineteenth century,  Hungarian physician Ignac Semmelweis noticed that women who gave birth at home had a lower incidence of childbed fever than those who gave birth in hospitals. Statistics showed that, “Between 1831 and 1843 only 10 mothers per 10,000 died of puerperal fever when delivered at home … while 600 per 10,000 died on the wards of the city’s General Lying In Hospital.”[1] Higher born women, those with access to expensive doctors, suffered from childbed fever more frequently than those attended by midwives who saw fewer patients and not usually one after another.

In 1795 Dr. Alexander Gordon wrote, “It is a disagreeable declaration for me to mention, that I myself was the means of carrying the infection to a great number of women.”[2]  Although they did not realize it at the time, it was, in fact, the sixteenth century doctors themselves who were transmitting death and disease to delivering mothers because the doctors did not disinfect their hands or tools in-between patients.

Queen Jane Seymour

 Because illnesses are often transmitted via germs doctors (and busy midwives) could infect the young mothers one after another, most often with what is now known as staph or strep infection in the uterine lining.  Semmelweis discovered that using an antiseptic wash before assisting in the delivery of the mother cut the incidence of Childbed Fever by at least 90% and perhaps as much as 99%, but his findings were soundly rejected.  Infected women had no antibiotics to stop the onslaught of familiar symptoms once they began: fever, chills, flu like symptoms, terrible headache, foul discharge, distended abdomen, and occasionally, loss of sanity just before death.
This kind of death was not only no respecter of persons, as mentioned above, it perhaps struck the highborn more frequently than the low born. In fact, fear of childbed fever is often mentioned when discussing Elizabeth I’s reluctance to marry and bear children.  In the Tudor era Elizabeth of York, the mother of Henry VIII, died of Childbed Fever as did two of Henry’s wives: Queen Jane Seymour and Queen Kateryn Parr, though Kateryn’s child was fathered by her fourth husband, Thomas Seymour.  Parr’s deathbed scene is perhaps one of the most chilling death accounts of the century, beheadings included.
Although Semmelweis was outcast from the community of physicians for his implication that they themselves were the transmitters of disease, ultimately, science and modern medicine prevailed.   Today, in the developed world very few of the newly delivered die due to Puerperal Fever.  Moms no longer need fear that the very act of bringing forth life will ultimately cause their own deaths and therefore can happily bond with their babies, instead.


[1] The Doctors’ Plague: Germs, Childbed Fever, and the Strange Story of Ignac Semmelweis, Sherwin B Nuland, WW Norton, 2004


[2] Oliver Wendell Homes: The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever

{Main photo credit: Copyright Meg McGath, used with permission.}
{ Jane Seymour photo credit: Queen Jane Seymour, courtesy of wikimedia. By Hans Holbein – egE1bExAbnBDgg at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain, }
{ Elizabeth of York photo credit: By Elizabeth_and_Henry.jpg: Malden, Sarah, Countess of Essex (c. 1761-1838)[1][2] derivative work: Jappalang (Elizabeth_and_Henry.jpg) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, }

7 Comments On This Topic
  1. Kimberly Eve
    on Sep 6th at 6:32 pm

    Such a fascinating post and just amazing that anyone survived or lived very long considering all the germs and health issues that were so prevalent during the Tudor era.
    I am reminded reading this how strong Queen Elizabeth I was physically and spiritually when you consider that she survived small pox!

  2. sandrabyrd
    on Sep 6th at 6:41 pm

    She was! I was just writing a blog about her eating habits and I think one of the reasons she was so healthy is that she ate and drank sparingly and exercised (dance, hunting, morning walks) so regularly. A lesson for the 21st Century!

  3. Jennifer
    on Sep 6th at 7:16 pm

    Awesome post. I’d love to know more about the account of Katherine Parr’s death. How scary it must have been to become pregnant during that time period.

  4. Joanna Backman
    on Sep 6th at 7:20 pm

    Just a side note, Katheryn Parr was Henry VIII’s widow and married to another man when she gave birth to his baby and died of the fever. She and Henry did not have children together.

  5. Meg
    on Sep 6th at 8:45 pm

    I really enjoyed this blog. When I wrote my blog, I was thinking of Jane Seymour as well, but then I remembered that it was actually three Tudor Queens that died. Henry’s mother also died giving birth to a daughter named Katherine. Excellent work and makes us feel lucky to live in the times that we do.

  6. sandrabyrd
    on Sep 6th at 9:08 pm

    I agree, Jennifer! They must have had such mixed emotions. It’s amazing how it stalked them all, Meg. Joanna, I see how the verbiage could have been ambiguous and I’ve amended that. Thanks for pointing it out!

  7. Lori Thomas
    on Sep 6th at 11:35 pm

    Very interesting & very sad what happened to these women. Glad that we know how to prevent this from happening nowadays.