Anne Hutchinson, Colonial midwife

Anne Hutchinson, an early Boston, Mass., midwife, was a brilliant and original thinker and an ardent defender of the right of the individual to make up her own mind.

Anne Hutchinson

Anne Hutchinson depicted at her trial

Hutchinson and her family followed their minister, John Cotton, from Boston, England, in 1634. She was a prominent member of her Puritan community in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and a highly regarded midwife, who reportedly attended women in birth free of charge.

Religion was a major focus of her life, but Hutchinson claimed the right to forge her own relationship with God. She soon ran afoul of the Bay Colony's authoritarian leaders, and was charged with heresy.

Hutchinson's major claim to fame lies in the brilliance with which she defended herself in civil and ecclesiastical trials. At the time of her civil trial, presided over by Governor John Winthrop, she was 46 years old, the mother of 14, and pregnant. During the trial, the governor called her an "American Jezebel."

In 1638, Hutchinson was found guilty and sentenced to banishment to Rhode Island just four years after her arrival in the New World.

The leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were so shaken by the quality of both her theological and legal arguments that they determined to educate their religious and civil leaders to withstand future assaults on their authority. That determination became part of the mission of Harvard College, which had been founded in 1636.

After Anne's husband, William Hutchinson, died in 1642, she left Portsmouth, taking her youngest children to the area now known as the Bronx, N.Y., then held by the Dutch. The Hutchinsons unwittingly walked into a bloody altercation between the Dutch and Native Americans that became known as Kieft's War. In 1643 Hutchinson and several of her children were murdered by Indians.

When word of Hutchinson's death reached Boston, the church bells reportedly pealed for a full 24 hours with joy that God had finally taken retribution on this troublesome woman.

Illustration by Edwin Austin Abbey

One family’s tragedy writ large

Jane Seymour, the third wife of King Henry VIII of England, was hardly the first woman to die in childbirth. However, her status as the mother of Henry's only son made her death in 1537, probably from puerperal fever, an outsize event at the time. Although she was never crowned Queen of England -- Henry perhaps withheld that honor until after she had borne him an heir -- Jane was the only one of Henry's six wives to receive a queen's funeral.

Jane Seymour

Jane died about two weeks after the long, difficult birth at Hampton Court Palace of her son, Edward, who would briefly reign as King Edward VI. She was mourned by all of England, and by Henry to a singular degree. He wore black for a year, refrained from marrying again for more than two years, and was buried next to Jane -- and Jane alone -- in St. George's Chapel at Windsor Castle when he died in 1547 at the age of 55.

Even though her importance to the country derived wholly from her status as wife and queen of one of the world's most powerful men, Jane's death in childbirth would reverberate through history.