Mary’s health was perhaps most affected by the situation surrounding Anne Boleyn and her father. In April of 1531, she was ill with ‘hysteria’ for several weeks. She was by then 15 years old, and her illness perhaps coincided with the onset of menstruation. She apparently suffered from painful periods and the emotional ups and downs that come with them. She herself described them as times of melancholy, and she was often depressed. Catherine of Aragon was not allowed to comfort her daughter after this particular illness in April 1531 as the visit was perhaps vetoed by Anne Boleyn.
When she was sent to serve her half-sister Elizabeth at Hatfield, she required meals at times that did not fit in with the rest of the household, a separate and more expensive diet and the freedom to take copious amount of exercise, which was believed to be good for her menstrual problems and her mental health as well. In the summer of 1534, Mary was seriously ill, and her illness would last for up to two years at varying intervals. During this time she probably feared an imminent execution, which must have weighed heavily on her mind. She received help from the Imperial Ambassador, who feared that Mary was being neglected. In a surprising move, her father sent his physician to examine her. He wrote to Thomas Cromwell,
‘I came to my Lady Mary this day at 7 o’clock, whom I find in a mean state of health, but at the beginning of her old disease. I have caused her mother’s physician to be sent for, with the apothecary. The cause of this rumour by the ambassador, as I can learn, comes from two things: that she (Mary) being diseased in her head and stomach, my lady Shelton sent for Mr Michael, who gave her pills, after which she was very sick and he so much troubled that he said he would never minister anything to her alone; and thus signified sharply to the ambassador’.
Mary received pills from the apothecary, but she had a severe reaction to them, and she became very nauseous. Her mother pleaded to have her daughter with her,
‘The comfort and cheerfulness she would have with me would be half her cure. I have found this by experience, being ill of the same sickness’.
Her menstrual troubles are impossible to diagnose at this stage, but dysmenorrhea, ovarian cysts, and endometriosis can be considered. The stress of the time most likely made her illness worse. She was seriously ill by being psychologically abused for the weeks leading up to her signed submission. After signing the submission, the imminent threat of execution was averted, which must have helped somewhat. By late 1537 she still suffered from ill-health intermittently, but she was now comfortable and lived like a King’s daughter. After her father’s death, her half-brother Edward VI succeeded to the throne, and she was sick in November of 1547 as she was inspecting her estates in Norfolk. She was expected to return in November but was sick with melancholy at the time. She admitted she always suffered from it around this time of year, so perhaps this was some sort of seasonal affective disorder. She did not return to London until the new year.
The attack on her religion in Edward’s reign weighed heavily on her mind and unnerved her. She wrote, ‘My general health and the attack of catarrh in the head from which I am suffering do not permit me to answer them (the letter she had received) in detail, sentence by sentence‘. When she went to court in March 1551 for further discussions, she was so unwell that she received news from her bed. If she was perceived as the sickly and defenceless Princess, they were mistaken, because, despite all of this, she would soon be England’s first Queen regnant. 1
During her marriage to Philip II of Spain, she suffered several false pregnancies, which we shall discuss in a separate article.