Research Spotlight: Did bad blood end the Tudor dynasty…literally?

Portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the YoungerBlood group incompatibility between Henry VIII and his wives could have driven the Tudor king‘s reproductive woes, and a genetic condition related to his suspected blood group could also explain Henry’s dramatic mid-life transformation into a physically and mentally impaired tyrant who executed two of his wives.

Research conducted by bioarchaeologist Catrina Banks Whitley while she was an SMU graduate student and anthropologist Kyra Kramer shows that the numerous miscarriages suffered by Henry’s wives could be explained if the king’s blood carried the Kell antigen.

A Kell negative woman who has multiple pregnancies with a Kell positive man can produce a healthy, Kell positive child in a first pregnancy. But the antibodies she produces during that first pregnancy will cross the placenta and attack a Kell positive fetus in subsequent pregnancies.

As published in The Historical Journal (Cambridge University Press), the pattern of Kell blood group incompatibility is consistent with the pregnancies of Henry’s first two wives, Katherine 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 a strong, athletic, generous individual in his first 40 years to the monstrous paranoiac he would become, virtually immobilized by massive weight gain and leg ailments.

“It is our assertion that we have identified the causal medical condition underlying Henry’s reproductive problems and psychological deterioration,” write Whitley and Kramer.

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. 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. Less attention has been given to the unsuccessful pregnancies of his wives in an age of primitive medical care and poor nutrition and hygiene, and authors Whitley and Kramer argue against the persistent theory that syphilis may have been a factor.

A Kell positive father frequently is the cause behind the inability of his partner to bear a healthy infant after the first Kell negative pregnancy, which the authors note is precisely the circumstance experienced with women who had multiple pregnancies by Henry. The majority of individuals within the Kell blood group are Kell negative, so it is the rare Kell positive father that creates reproductive problems.

Further supporting the Kell theory, descriptions of Henry in mid-to-late life indicate he suffered many of the physical and cognitive symptoms associated with McLeod syndrome – a medical condition that can occur in members of the Kell positive blood group.

The precise number of miscarriages endured by Henry’s reproductive partners is difficult to determine, especially when various mistresses are factored in, but the king’s partners 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 spontaneous late-term abortion, stillbirth, or rapid neonatal death 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, and their infants usually lived long enough to be christened.

“Although the fact that Henry and Katherine of Aragon’s firstborn did not survive is somewhat atypical, it is possible that some cases of Kell sensitization affect even the first pregnancy,” the report notes. The survival of Mary, the fifth pregnancy for Katherine 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 alloimmunization with a healthy first child and subsequent late-term miscarriages. Jane Seymour had only one child before her death, but that healthy firstborn also is consistent with a Kell positive father.

Written by Kim Cobb

> Read the full story from the SMU Research blog

About Kathleen Tibbetts

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