Anyone familiar with the TV show Who Do You Think You Are? knows the drill – featured celebrities go on the hunt for their history, diving into the past and discovering really interesting things about relatives long gone. I recently watched the Martin Freeman ep (he of Sherlock and The Hobbit) who, during the course of discovering his great grandparents from the early 1900s had a total of 12 living children, also found a string of unusual infant deaths – four in a row in the space of eight years, with cause of death as ‘stillborn’ and ‘failure to thrive’. So off he goes to find out more from a paediatric consultant at the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital in London. The specialist rules out a few diseases – measles, TB etc – as they would’ve been recognised and therefore put on the death certificates. What he does suggest, though, is congenital syphilis, and recommends another specialist – of sexual health this time – at the Royal Society of Medicine. (the first well-documented outbreak of syphilis – known as “The French Disease” – was in 1494 amongst French troops).
And here’s where it gets interesting, at least for me. The pattern of deaths in the Freeman family turn out to be consistent with the sexually transmitted disease. The specialist explains that some people can be infected and live long lives without any outward show of symptoms. They can also have healthy children, but eventually, as the disease intensifies, their subsequent babies can vary in survival rates: from stillborn to surviving only hours, then living months or a few years. Then some will eventually live to be sickly children/adults. So basically, the intensity of the disease wanes as the years pass, until the couple eventually give birth to healthy children.
The prince of France, like most men of his day, had syphilis. His lover, the Chevalier de Lorraine, had it. Philippe’s first wife Henriette most likely had it. He gave it to his second wife, Liselotte. His brother Louis XIV had it. It was very common, and generally treated with deadly mercury by bathing, ingesting and/or injecting (!)
Philippe fathered eleven children, of which four survived childhood.
- Marie Louise d’Orléans – who lived to be 27 years old and married the King of Spain (no children)
- a miscarriage in 1663
- Philippe Charles d’Orléans, Duke of Valois – died at two years old
- a stillborn daughter in 1665
- stillborn twin sons in 1667
- another miscarriage in 1668
- Anne Marie d’Orléans – died a day before her 60th birthday. Married the King of Sardinia (they had nine children, only two of which survived childhood. Most were stillborn)
- Alexandre Louis d’Orléans, Duke of Valois – died three months shy of his third birthday
- Philippe II, Duke of Orléans – who died at 49 years of age. Married Françoise Marie de Bourbon and had 12 children (four of which were illegitimate and acknowledged), and of those twelve, eleven survived childhood, and seven married, most having children.
- Élisabeth Charlotte d’Orléans – died at 68. Married Leopold, Duke of Lorraine and had 14 (!) children, five of which survived childhood. Of those, three married, and two couples had children.
That is an awful lot of stillbirths. While we do know cleanliness was not a thing in the 17th Century, and knowledge of bacteria and disease was not understood, it is a well-known fact that unsafe health practices and disease make up the large proportion of child deaths. If a child didn’t die at birth or soon after, it was likely a disease would do the job – small pox and measles were particularly rife at the time, and most diseases were transmitted by water and food or human contact. In fact, up until the mid-eighteenth century, 50% of all children died before age ten. (in England, parish records reveal approximately 140 deaths out of 1000 live births in the first year. Fevers, dysentery, scarlet fever, whooping cough, influenza, smallpox and pneumonia killed 30% of children under 15). Compare this terrible mortality rate to today’s less than half a percent.
But back to my theory. As you can see, Philippe’s first-born Marie-Louise survived birth. Then came a miscarriage, then his first born son died at two, then a spate of stillborns and a miscarriage. This appears, on the surface, to be in keeping with Martin Freeman’s ancestors and the information given by the sexual health specialist.
Of course, syphilis cannot be definitively proven as the cause of death. But the possibility is there, thanks to what is now known about this disease and the way it manifests and spreads.