The Science Behind…

King Henry VIII and His Wives’ Miscarriages…


Science has come along way in the last centuries, it was able to solve many mysteries which were left unsolved for decades. With advances in technology, DNA analysis, and a better understanding of medical symptoms it’s no surprise that Catherine of Aragon who doctors said had ‘a black patch on her heart.’ died of cancer, a disease not understood at that time but recognized easily today. Technologies and advancements in science shed light on a lot of things dismissed or not understood by Tudor Era England, including the ailments of Henry VIII and the miscarriages of his wives, Catherine and Anne (the latter which he famously had executed after three short years of marriage and nearly eight of courtship).

So what caused a monarch who was basically the Leonardo DiCaprio of his day when he was younger often described as charismatic, eye-catching and even caring, for a member of the Royal family, to be remembered in a tainted more grim illustration of a gluttonous, impaired, selfish ruler with a habit of executing wives on false charges of adultery?

Research which was conducted in 2011 by bio archaeologist Catrina Banks Whitley while still a graduate student at Southern Methodist University and anthropologist Kyra Kramer, claim a Kell antigen blood disorder was a reason for the numerous miscarriages Henry’s wives suffered often late in pregnancy.

So what does that mean?  A Kell negative woman (such as Anne) who has multiple pregnancies with a Kell positive man (Henry VIII) can produce a healthy, Kell positive child in a first pregnancy (Elizabeth is a prime example of this) but the antibodies she produces during that first pregnancy will cross the placenta and attack a Kell positive fetus in any follow-up pregnancies.

As they write in The Historical Journal and also on the popular Tudor website The Anne Boleyn Files, the researchers found a pattern between “the Kell blood group incompatibility being consistent with the pregnancies of Henry’s first two wives, Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn.” If Henry also suffered from McLeod syndrome, a genetic disorder specific to the Kell blood group, it would finally provide an explanation for his shift in both physical form and personality from handsome and agreeable to lackluster and tyrannical . Whitley and Kramer having  “identified the causal medical condition underlying Henry’s reproductive problems and psychological deterioration,” may be the answer to an age-old myth notorious to the time that the LORD was angry with the Monarch for his wife choice .

Many people, even those with minimal historical background, know that Henry married six women, two of whom he famously executed, and broke England’s ties with the Catholic Church – all in pursuit of a marital union that would produce a male heir. His brief, shining moment of glory with the birth of his son Edward was short-lived when the sickly prince died before he even reached his sixteenth birthday. In college, as a history major, most Historians have long debated theories of illness and injury that might explain the physical deterioration and frightening, tyrannical behavior that he began to display after his 40th birthday but not so much to the unsuccessful pregnancies of his wives in an age of newly developing medical care coupled with poor nutrition and hygiene.

As a Kell positive father, if the authors are correct, that means Henry WAS in fact the cause behind Anne and Catherine’s inability to bear a healthy infant after the first Kell negative pregnancy. Which is exactly the same circumstances experienced with women who had multiple pregnancies by Henry. Some may be aware of Henry’s illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, by his mistress Elizabeth Blout this perfectly healthy male birth was the ruler that Henry used to measure and conclude that the fault was of the women NOT the monarch, for the failed births. This is not an accurate measuring stick, however, since Bessie Blout only had one pregnancy by Henry. Also, interestingly enough, most people who are within this blood disorder group are Kell negative, so they experience little to no reproductive issues, it is only with the rare Kell positive father found in Henry VIII that these reproductive issues manifest.

I’d like to stress the emphasis the authors put on fetal mortality being ‘the Kell legacy, not infertility’. Henry was nearly 18 when he married the 23-year-old Catherine of Aragon, widow of his older brother Arthur (but never consummated). Looking at their pregnancies: the first daughter, a girl, was stillborn; the second child, a boy, lived only 52 days and four other confirmed pregnancies followed during the marriage it was documented that three were either stillborn or died shortly after birth. Enter Mary, their only surviving daughter who would eventually be crowned the fourth Monarch in the Tudor dynasty.

The exact number of miscarriages had by Henry’s wives and even less documented mistress is difficult for any historian  to determine, especially when we can’t just hop in a time machine and see for ourselves. Most agree Henry’s wives had a total of at least 11 and possibly 13 or more pregnancies. Only four of the eleven known pregnancies survived infancy. Whitley and Kramer call the high rate of random late-term miscarriages and stillbirths suffered by Henry’s first two queens “an atypical reproductive pattern” because, even in an age of high child mortality, most women carried their pregnancies to term during that time, and even in cases where death was imminent, their infants usually lived long enough to be christened.

The authors of this study explain that if as a potentially Kell positive father, each time Henry impregnated the Kell negative mother, such as Catherine, Anne, or Jane, each pregnancy had from the jump a 50-50 chance of creating Kell positive fetus.  So in layman’s terms this means the first pregnancy usually carries to term and produces a healthy infant, even if the infant is Kell gene positive and the mother is Kell negative. The problem comes with the mother’s following Kell positive pregnancies after the first birth which are at risk because the mother’s antibodies will literally attack the Kell positive fetus as a foreign body, thus causing miscarriage or still-birth. Any baby that is Kell negative will not be attacked by the mother’s antibodies and will carry to term if otherwise healthy. “Although the fact that Henry and Catherine of Aragon’s firstborn did not survive is somewhat atypical, it is possible that some cases of Kell sensitization affect even the first pregnancy,” Kramer notes.

The survival of Mary, the fifth pregnancy for Catherine of Aragon, fits the Kell scenario if Mary inherited the recessive Kell gene from Henry, resulting in a healthy infant. Anne Boleyn’s pregnancies were a textbook example of Kell with a healthy first child, Queen Elizabeth, and subsequent late-term miscarriages two boys which proved to be the final undoing to her relationship with Henry. Jane Seymour had only Edward before her death, but the pattern of a healthy firstborn also is consistent with a Kell positive father, had Jane survived her pregnancy with Edward it is likely, in Kramer’s opinion, we would have seen her miscarry as well in the pregnancies which followed Edward’s birth.

Science was also able to pinpoint several of Henry’s male maternal relatives which followed the Kell positive reproductive pattern. The authors claim to have “traced the possible transmission of the Kell positive gene from Jacquetta of Luxembourg, the king’s maternal great-grandmother,” suggesting the genetic presence of the Kell phenotype within the family.

My thoughts on reading the study conducted by Kramer and Whitley, seem to be a shining example of how advancements in science and medicine can reveal very human elements in otherwise larger than life (no pun intended considering Henry was said to have weighed close to 400 pounds at his death) historical figure. I believe that these findings are very consistent with the patterns we’ve seen documented with the pregnancies of Catherine and Anne. It was much easier to believe that God was displeased with Henry during that time, or his wife was an adulterous witch (Anne) or he was a sinner for laying with his brother’s wife (Catherine), than to explain what actually by today’s standards was a genetic blood disorder but was unavailable to diagnose at that time.

Do you believe Henry VIII was Kell positive? Leave a comment below explaining your thoughts on this topic.

Love you. Mean it.



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