Queen Mary I of England (a.k.a. Mary Tudor, a.k.a "Bloody Mary") succeeded to the throne of England in 1553 and is best known for her ultimately futile attempt at returning England to Catholic rule. Her husband, Prince Philip of Spain was immensely unpopular and Mary's failure to produce a proper heir virtually assured that she would be succeeded by her Protestant half-sister, Elizabeth. Despite being in her late 30s and unlikely to conceive, Mary announced her pregnancy in 1554 and had thanksgiving masses to celebrate. She experienced violent morning sickness, her abdomen grew and Mary began to prepare for the coming birth. She went into labour after a grueling nine months and the bells of London rang out. And then the labour pains ended... Her condition continued and as the months dragged on it became apparent that Mary had never been pregnant. She sank into a deep depression and her husband looked for excuses to leave her and return to Spain (it was only a political marriage, after all). It was largely a result of Mary's disappointment that the vicious persecution of Protestants began in earnest (which is what earned her the "Bloody" label) . She announced a second pregnancy some time later but few took this one seriously and Philip returned to Spain. Mary eventually died at the age of 42, (probably of ovarian cancer), still dreaming of a perfect Catholic heir.
While cases of pseudocyesis (false pregnancy) rarely become a matter of geopolitical importance, it does happen in humans and animals alike. The actual symptoms (morning sickness, cessation of menstruation and tender breasts) can be so convincing that expectant mothers and medical doctors are often fooled. Distended abdomen is the most common physical symptom with intestinal bloating causing women to appear increasingly pregnant over time. Even the quickening associated with fetal movements can be detected. A small minority of women experiencing pseudocyesis undergo false labour as well. While the average age for pseudocyesis is in the early 30s, cases in women as old as 79 and as young as 6 have been reported.
In one classic case reported in an early medical text: "A woman, married late in life, mistook the "change of life" for pregnancy, and passed though all the usual symptoms attendant upon that condition,including enlargement of the abdomen, tumefaction (swelling) pain in the breasts, morning nausea, and even swelling of the lower extremities. At the expected "term" regular pains occurred, exactly simulating those of labor, and physician and attendants were summoned to this extraordinary scene where nothing was wanting, save for the presence of the baby."
Counseling to deal with issues of disappointment and grief that women who have discovered that their pregnancies were false can be effective, especially with the very real depression that often follows. Proposed explanations for false pregnancy range from the psychodynamic to the hormonal although the actual incidence has declined with improved diagnostic procedures (especially ultrasound). Although the causes of pseudocyesis remain unclear, it is a prime example of the power that the mind can have over the body, especially when it comes to self-deception.