Did Henry VIII of England – he of the six wives – have a blood disorder to blame for his epically bad conduct? According to bioarcheologist Catrina Banks Whitley and anthropologist Kyra Kramer…sure. In research published in The Historical Journal, they argue that a single blood protein, the Kell antigen, might be to blame both for his wives’ many miscarriages and for his bizarre paranoid mid-life behavior.
If a father carries Kell antigen but the mother doesn’t, there can be an immune reaction that leads to late-term miscarriages after an initial successful full-term pregnancy. The Kell antigen also can cause McLeod Syndrome, associated with muscle and nerve issues and psychiatric disturbances. These observations could add up to a tidy explanation for the pregnancy losses and for the outrageous behaviors of a man who ordered two wives beheaded and started a fight with the pope.
Henry VIII began his rule as an athletic, strapping young fellow, tall and fit (measurements of his armor indicate as much), with an excellent education and a huge capacity for philosophizing, music, and women. This shining start dimmed through his reign as his six wives suffered many late-term miscarriages and stillbirths and lost children in early infancy. In fact, only four children of possibly 13 or more pregnancies among his wives and mistresses survived infancy. Even in a time of high childhood death rates, miscarriages weren’t this common, and these losses were shocking. Henry saw them as the hand of God, punishing him…or his wives. In the cases of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, he personified that punishing hand by having them executed.
The man himself grew grossly obese in middle age, unable to carry his expanding bulk on a stinking ulcerous leg that refused to heal, a condition some have blamed on syphilis or diabetes. Whitley and Kramer suggest that his inability to walk and possibly psychotic behavior point to Kell-caused McLeod Syndrome. They’ve even traced a potential path of the Kell antigen gene in the king’s family tree. Just two generations back, Whitley and Kramer pinpointed a great-grandmother as the beginning of a long line of reproductively challenged male descendants, including Henry.
Diagnosis in hindsight requires guesswork. It’s certainly tempting to blame a blood protein for the behavior of a mercurial, obese man willing to kill wives and create a new church all to ensure a male heir. There’s no certainty that this or any other cause is at fault for Henry VIII’s dramatic changes in body and mind. That said, Catrina Banks Whitley and Kyra Kramer, in arguing for Kell as the agent, at least give another option for what might have driven a monarch like Henry VIII to have wives and friends beheaded…and to go off his head himself.
Dr. Emily Willingham came to EarthSky from The Biology Files. Her background includes a PhD in biological sciences, a bachelor's degree in English, and a published book: The Complete Idiot's Guide to College Biology. She is a scientist, writer, editor, teacher, autism & ADHD parent, and "all around opinionator." Says Emily: "Got an English BA & biology PhD, & I'm not afraid to use them, often together."