Did a blood disorder cause Henry VIII's reproductive woes?

On January 1st 1511, Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon lost their son Henry, Duke of Cornwall, after the child lived for only 52 days. It was not the first child they lost, a stillborn daughter was delivered 11 months before, and it would not be the last. So why did Henry have so much trouble producing children? And what caused him to descend into mental instability and physical agony in the second half of his life?

The life of England’s King Henry VIII is a royal paradox. We all know he was a lusty womaniser who married six times and canoodled with countless ladies-in-waiting. But in an era before reliable birth control, he only fathered four children who survived infancy. Handsome and vigorous in the early years of his reign, he ballooned into an ailing 300-pound tyrant whose capriciousness and paranoia sent many heads rolling—including those of two of his wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard.

In 2011, Catrina Whitley and her colleague Kyra Kramer wrote about the reasons behind Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn’s many miscarriages and stillbirths. Interestingly, they assert that it was not Henry’s queens who ‘failed’ to provide the king with an heir, as history so often remembers them, and neither was it the women who were in some way physiologically responsible for the many miscarriages and stillbirths. Instead, the problem lay in Henry VIII himself. They argue that the same theory that explains Henry VIII’s reproductive problems also helps explain why Henry VIII became a paranoid tyrant in his later years.

This new theory proposes that Henry VIII was positive for the rare Kell blood group. They state, “Kell negative woman who have multiple pregnancies with a Kell positive male will suffer repeated miscarriages and the death of Kell positive foetuses. This pattern is consistent with the pregnancies of Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. In a first pregnancy, a Kell-positive man and a Kell-negative woman can have a healthy Kell-positive baby together. In subsequent pregnancies, however, the antibodies the mother produced during the first pregnancy can cross the placenta and attack a Kell-positive fetus, causing a late-term miscarriage, stillbirth or rapid neonatal death."

The researchers suggest that Henry’s blood carried the rare Kell antigen—a protein that triggers immune responses—while that of his sexual partners did not, making them poor reproductive matches.

The survival of the three firstborn children—Henry FitzRoy, Elizabeth and Edward—is consistent with the Kell-positive reproductive pattern. As for Katherine of Aragon, the researchers note, “it is possible that some cases of Kell sensitisation affect the first pregnancy.” And Mary may have survived because she inherited the recessive Kell gene from Henry, making her impervious to her mother’s antibodies.

While an exact number is hard to determine, it is believed that Henry’s sexual encounters with his various wives and mistresses resulted in at least 11 and possibly more than 13 pregnancies. Records indicate that only four of these yielded healthy babies: the future Mary I, born to Henry’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon, after six children were stillborn or died shortly after birth; Henry FitzRoy, the king’s only child with his teenage mistress Bessie Blount; the future Elizabeth I, the first child born to Anne Boleyn, who went on to suffer several miscarriages before her date with the chopping block; and the future Edward VI, Henry’s son by his third wife, Jane Seymour, who died before the couple could try for a second.​

After scanning higher branches of Henry’s family tree for evidence of the Kell antigen and its accompanying reproductive troubles, Whitley and Kramer believe they have traced it back to Jacquetta of Luxembourg, the king’s maternal great-grandmother. “The pattern of reproductive failure among Jacquetta’s male descendants, while the females were generally reproductively successful, suggests the genetic presence of the Kell phenotype within the family,” the authors explain.

Additionally, Henry VIII may have suffered from McLeod syndrome, a genetic disorder of the Kell blood group system, that only affects Kell-positive individuals. This condition causes physical and mental impairment consistent with his ailments and explains his weakened muscles, dementia-like cognitive impairment and the drastic change between the age of 30 and 40. Furthermore, they support their theory by tracing the reproductive history of Henry’s maternal male relatives as well who also displayed the Kell positive reproductive pattern. You will remember that Henry’s great grandmother was Catherine of Valois, whose brother King Charles VI of France was labelled as ‘crazy Charles’. And then there was her son, Henry VI.

There were two Henrys: the young Henry and the old Henry. The young Henry was handsome, spry and generous, a devoted ruler who loved sports, music and Katherine of Aragon. The old Henry binged on rich foods, undermined his country’s stability to marry his mistress and launched a brutal campaign to eliminate foes both real and imagined. Beginning in middle age, the king also suffered leg pain that made walking nearly impossible and ended in a suppurating wound that never healed until his death.

So is time to absolve Henry VIII of his bloodthirsty reputation and cut him some slack as a Kell-positive McLeod syndrome sufferer? If Whitley and Kramer have anything to do with it, we may finally get a definitive answer. They are in the process of asking England’s reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth, for permission to exhume her distant relative and perform DNA tests on his hair and bones.

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