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What went wrong with Henry VIII?

Henry VIII

Henry VIIIBy Nancy Bilyeau

On Christmas Eve, 1545, the man who had ruled England for 36 years, Henry VIII, appeared before Parliament. All assembled had expected Lord Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley to address them before prorogation. But it was instead a morning for a king’s speech.

Henry VIII did not arrive at Westminster with anything approaching speed or grace. Surpassing 300 pounds, the king suffered astoundingly poor health. He was plagued with severe headaches, constipation and recurrent fever. His foul-smelling, ulcerated legs could barely support him; he was sometimes carried around his luxuriously appointed palaces in a chair and lowered onto his unfortunate horse by a sort of crane.

The king used no notes that day; he spoke with clarity and feeling: “No prince in the world more favoureth his subjects than I do you, no subjects or commons more love and obey their sovereign lord than I perceive you do me.” It was his loathing of religious discord that prompted this special appearance. “I am very sorry to know and hear how irreverently that most precious jewel, the word of God, is disputed, rhymed, sung and jangled in every alehouse and tavern, contrary to the true meaning and doctrine of the same.” He exhorted the MPs to change this by serving as examples, saying: “Be in charity with one another, like brother and brother. Love, dread and serve God, to which I, as your supreme head and sovereign lord, exhort and require you, and then I doubt not the love and league…shall never be dissolved or broken between us.”

It was a speech that brought hardened courtiers to tears. Sir William Petre wrote in a letter: “…but to us, who have not heard him so often, was such a joy and marvelous comfort as I reckon this day one of the happiest of my life.”

Thirteen months after his appearance before Parliament, Henry VIII, six times married, tyrant, charmer, warmonger, scholar and religious reformer, died. And we are left to attempt to understand.

Authors can turn to a wealth of contemporary sources when analyzing the life of the king, especially when compared to the task of analyzing the Plantagenet rulers that preceded the Tudors’. Court papers and documents abound. We have streams of dispatches written by Imperial, Venetian and French ambassadors. We may study the letters of Henry VIII himself, both passionate (to his future second wife Anne Boleyn: “Assuring you that on my part the pain of absence is already too great for me; and when I think of the increase of that which I am forced to suffer, it would be almost intolerable”) and murderous (to the duke of Norfolk, charged with suppressing rebels: “…you shall in any wise cause such dreadful execution to be done upon a good number of every town, village and hamlet that have offended in this rebellion, as well by the hanging them up in trees, as by the quartering them, and the setting up of their heads and quarters in every town, great and small, and in all such places, as they may be a fearful spectacle…”

Armed with all of these sources, many a historian has tried to get his arms all the way around the man with the 54-inch waist. With varying results. The most respected 20th century biographies are Cambridge-educated historian J.J. Scarisbrick’s Henry VIII (1968) followed by Jasper Ridley’s Henry VIII the Politics of Tyranny (1984). There have been many, many others. Writing about the Tudors is a cottage industry in which the pile of bricks for raising new cottages never goes down. And, since Henry VIII led what could fairly be described as a filmic existence, broad-shouldered monarchs have strode across the screen ever since Charles Laughton devoured a drumstick in 1933’s The Private Life of Henry VIII, from Richard Burton and Keith Michell to Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Eric Bana. (The next attempt, by Homeland’s Damian Lewis in Wolf Hall, should prove interesting.)

Yet it’s not easy chronicling the king. For richness of language and delicacy of insight, no book of nonfiction about Henry VIII has matched Thomas Penn’s Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England, David Starkey’s Elizabeth, the Struggle for the Throne, or Mathew Lyon’s The Favourite, on Elizabethan courtier Sir Walter Ralegh, all three worthy successors to Lytton Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex: A Tragic History (1928). It’s as if the Tudor age can best be captured from views of before or after the immediate reign of the sixth Henry. Taking on the man himself seems daunting. Of those written recently, the most intriguing mid-Tudor-age books are of supporting players: Beverly A. Murphy’s Bastard Prince: Henry VIII’s Lost Son and Lauren Mackay’s Inside the Tudor Court: Henry VIII and His Six Wives Through the Writings of the Spanish Ambassador Eustace Chapuys. Another way to enter Henry VIII’s world in style is if the book focuses on a certain aspect, such as Alison Weir’s Henry VIII: The King and His Court, which describes the acquisitive monarch collecting tapestries and clocks as well as wives, setting fashion trends, building palaces at a feverish pace, playing every 16th century sport, and composing music.

Blood will tellOne of the two newly written biographies reviewed here also focuses its gaze, but in this case on Henry VIII’s fraught health. Kyra Cornelius Kramer, an author and medical anthropologist with a degree from Southern Methodist University, advances the theory that the reproductive disasters of Henry’s first two wives and his mounting paranoia and viciousness during his last decade can both be traced to medical conditions he suffered from, undiagnosable in the 16th century. Kramer collaborated with Catrina Banks, a Ph.D. with the Office of Archaeological Studies Museum of New Mexico, on the article “A New Explanation for the Reproductive Woes and Midlife Decline of Henry VIII”, which was published in the December 2010 issue of The Historical Journal. A confessed Tudorphile who enjoys the novels of Jean Plaidy, Kramer then expanded the pair’s medical theories into a book: Blood Will Tell: A Medical Explanation of the Tyranny of Henry VIII.

Despite having six wives and two confirmed mistresses, Henry VIII fathered one legitimate son, two legitimate daughters (although their status fluctuated due to his divorces), and one acknowledged son born outside of any marriage. Fertility was not actually the problem; his first two queens conceived but suffered a series of miscarriages and stillbirths, as well as having babies who died shortly after birth. It’s well known that Henry VIII’s lack of a male heir drove him to seek a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, whom he’d married when young. Catherine, the prestigious daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand, was six years older than her husband and, even more fatefully, the widow of Henry’s brother, Arthur, Prince of Wales. Over a two-decades-long-plus marriage, Queen Catherine conceived at least six times. Only her fifth pregnancy resulted in a living child: the daughter who became the future Mary I. Just around the time he fell deeply in love with an alluring and accomplished commoner, Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII initiated annulment proceedings from Queen Catherine, claiming his conscience troubled him because he married his brother’s widow in violation of Leviticus. After a long, desperate struggle that tore the kingdom from obedience to Rome (the pope delayed ruling and then sided with Catherine of Aragon, not Henry VIII), he married Anne in 1533. But her first child was a daughter, the future Elizabeth I, and her next two pregnancies ended in miscarriage. “I see God will not give me male children,” the king said to his wife after her miscarriage in January 1536. Within six months, Queen Anne was arrested for treason, tried, condemned and decapitated. Henry’s rapidly acquired third wife, Jane Seymour, managed to produce a living son, the future Edward VI, before herself dying of puerperal fever.

The central theory of Blood Will Tell is that Henry VIII showed positive for a blood-group antigen known as Kell, a genetic condition discovered in the 20th century. Kramer writes: “The obstetrical losses suffered by Henry’s first two Queens are similar to documented cases of Kell affected pregnancies, which only occur when the father of the fetus has a Kell positive blood type but the mother has the more common Kell negative blood type. When a Kell negative woman conceives a baby with a Kell positive man, she experiences Kell sensitization, wherein her body becomes ‘allergic’ to any fetus that is Kell positive like the father. Although the first pregnancy is usually safe, since the mother’s body needs at least one Kell positive pregnancy to become sensitized, any subsequent Kell positive fetus will almost always die.”

The theory, extrapolated from facts about Henry’s and his queens’ histories, is unprovable. It does solve the mystery of why procreative tragedies struck both his first and second wives. High infant mortality, poor medical hygiene and a dose of bad luck have up to now been the most probable causes. As for the fact that the last three wives never became pregnant at all, the marriage to his fourth queen, Anne of Cleves, was not consummated, and by the time Henry VIII wed teenage Catherine Howard in 1540, his health was fairly ruined. Wife No. 6, Catherine Parr, never conceived by her morbidly obese royal husband, but she had a daughter with the man she married next.

But Kell positive is only part of Kramer’s medical explanation for the riotous life of Henry VIII. She goes further, theorizing that the king suffered from a rare genetic disease connected to Kell-positive blood called McLeod syndrome, discovered in 1961. About the time of a patient’s fortieth birthday, physical and psychological symptoms appear and worsen over time: muscle weakness and nerve deterioration, memory loss, paranoia, depression, impulsivity, and even schizophrenia-like behavior.

As with a possible link between the obstetric history of Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn and Kell-positive blood, the actions of Henry VIII past his 40th birthday support the possibility of McLeod syndrome. But Kramer admits that there is no record of the king exhibiting facial tics, another of its symptoms. Moreover, Henry VIII’s health fits, in part, other diagnoses, from Type II Diabetes to Cushing’s syndrome. There is a certain irony in our armchair doctoring of Henry VIII. In his lifetime, Henry VIII was a known hypochondriac, fleeing the capital when plague or the sweating sickness appeared and assembling his own cabinet of potions and cures.

When confronting syphilis, the one disease Henry VIII certainly did not have, Kramer exhibits frustration. She writes: “Today, in spite of the fact that syphilis has been ruled out as the cause of Henry’s troubles for almost 100 years, the idea that the King had this particular sexually transmitted disease keeps resurfacing. Regardless of the fact that it is untrue, it continues to be taught in history classes, included in nonfiction works, and is now discussed ardently on the Internet.” Welcome to the dark side of our fascination with the 16th century. If junk science is unproven theories presented as scientific fact, the Tudors are too often the victims of junk history. Religious propagandists’ claims, folk tales, inventions by novelists, and over-reaching historians have created almost an alternative world. The most recent claim to make the Internet rounds, that Elizabeth I was actually a man, is not worthy of discussion.

When called upon to relay the life of Henry VIII, Kramer steers clear of the junk. Blood Will Tell focuses on the king’s health, but it is also a straightforward narrative of the reign, focusing on the six wives with sympathy and insight. As the king deteriorates physically and mentally, Kramer repeatedly raises the possibility of McLeod syndrome. In discussing the downfall over a minor matter of Bishop Stephen Gardiner, who had served the king in various capacities for decades, she writes, “…if Henry’s brain was being affected by McLeod syndrome, his paranoia was likely beyond anything he could recognize or even attempt to control.”

Henry_VIII_John_matusiakNo such allowances are made in Henry VIII: the Life and Rule of England’s Nero, by John Matusiak, the British teacher and historian who previously authored a biography of Henry V. In his telling, neither a genetic disease nor a brain injury suffered in a 1536 joust comes close to excusing the actions of Henry VIII, who Matusiak says formed a “dependence on brutality” that became a “consuming addiction.”

The earliest chapters of the book are the most persuasive. Matusiak disdains the usual description of Henry VIII’s boyhood as guided by a loving mother, Queen Elizabeth of York. Instead, he makes a case that the queen had little to do with Prince Henry’s upbringing, which was dominated by a pious and hypercritical grandmother, Margaret Beaufort, and a bitter and misogynist tutor, John Skelton. When Henry VII’s favorite son, Prince Arthur, died in 1502, he turned his attention to “the spare” and did not much like what he saw. Over the next seven years, the aging king gave Prince Henry next to no responsibility and watched, with dismay, as his heir became consumed with fantasies of chivalry and war.

Matusiak’s arguments, while bracingly original, are weakened by lapses in writing style – Margaret Beaufort is described as “the old lady”—and errors in fact. He calls Edmund de la Pole, a rival for the throne executed in 1513, Edmund Pole, confusing separate families of the nobility. Charles V was not “a tasteless advertisement for the perils of interbreeding,” since his parents were not by any means closely related. Henry Mannox, the lascivious music instructor of Queen Catherine Howard, was not executed.

In both books, the Henry VIII depicted in his last decade is erratic, profligate and ruthless, a frightening figure who ordered the executions of his fifth wife and her accused lovers, his “most faithful servant” Thomas Cromwell, his mother’s elderly cousin Margaret Pole, and Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, who was a pioneer of English poetry. Yet how do we explain the king’s speech to Parliament and other lucid and inspiring episodes? How do we square Henry VIII’s horrible history with women with the fact that he named his sixth wife, Catherine Parr, as regent of the realm while he sailed for France and one last war? Or his decent treatment of all three of his children during this same decade? It was Princess Elizabeth who in an awe-stricken letter described Henry VIII as “matchless and most benevolent father.” For the rest of her life she revered him. To Queen Elizabeth, her father was neither victim nor Nero. He was the man captured by Hans Holbein the Younger in his famous mural for the palace of Whitehall: callous yet glorious—and riding the world.


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of an award-winning trilogy of thrillers set in the reign of Henry VIII: The Crown, The Chalice, and The Tapestry. For more information, go to

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