It is well known that King Henry VIII had no luck in trying to father a male heir until he married the third of his six wives, with Prince Edward being born to Jane Seymour in 1537, 28 years after Henry had come to the throne in 1509.
Henry was quite ready to place the blame for his misfortune on his first two wives, divorcing Catherine of Aragon after 24 years of marriage and having Anne Boleyn executed after being married to her for three years. However, it is entirely possible that it was his own health condition that was the cause of the problem all along.
It has been suggested (by researchers Catrina Banks Whitley and Kyra Kramer) that Henry had what is known as Kell blood, caused by a genetic abnormality. When a Kell-positive man fathers a child, so they assert, the mother’s antibodies will attack the foetus during pregnancy, leading to stillbirth or miscarriage.
This does not happen on every occasion, which is why three of the ten pregnancies of Henry’s first three wives led to the birth of live children, namely Mary, Elizabeth and Edward. However, the other seven pregnancies failed.
There is another condition that is known to be suffered by Kell-positive individuals, and only by them, namely McLeod Syndrome. The symptoms are both physical and mental, the latter including paranoia, depression and socially inappropriate conduct. The disease usually becomes apparent only after the victim has reached their 30s or 40s.
This pattern seems to fit Henry VIII quite well. As a young man he was very much an outgoing and fun-loving person who was greatly admired. However, things went downhill after he reached his 40s, which was when he divorced Catherine of Argon, executed Anne Boleyn and created the Church of England by rejecting the authority of the Pope.
The deterioration in Henry’s character led to him becoming a suspicious and ruthless tyrant with a quick temper. This is perfectly consistent with a diagnosis of McLeod Syndrome.
A fascinating "what if"
It should surprise no-one that this analysis is not accepted universally, with some objectors questioning the assertion - mentioned above – that a father’s Kell blood would affect a foetus. Apart from that, the theory might seem to have much to recommend it.
However, if the theory is correct, it could be the fact that an inherited gene had huge consequences for the later history of England.
If Henry had been able to father a healthy male heir with Catherine of Aragon, early in his reign, not only would his marital life have been very different – Catherine died in 1536, so he might well have remarried, but who to? – but there would have been no need to break with Rome or dissolve the monasteries.
The later history of England would therefore have been very different. Princess Elizabeth (the daughter of Anne Boleyn) would never have been born and so there not have been an “Elizabethan Age”, with all that that entailed.
History is full of “what ifs” – that posed by King Henry VIII’s health is just one of many!
© John Welford