Book lovers! We’re hosting day 3 of Kyra Kramer’s Book Tour and running an international contest to give away a copy of her fascinating new book: Henry VIII’s Health in a Nutshell. Want a chance to win it? Subscribe to our free newsletter and send us an email by December 27th answering this question (a simple one line response will suffice!) : What was the theory behind why Henry VIII had difficulty fathering children?
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Did Henry’s Blood Type doom his wife’s pregnancies?
Henry VIII had six wives and several mistresses, but only four known children – each born to a different mother. The two women who were in a relationship with him long enough to have multiple pregnancies, Katherina of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, both has a similar reproductive pattern of late trimester fetal loss or stillbirths. The odds are good that Henry is the locus of his generative problems, but what can cause a man to father offspring that die in the womb?
One theory, which I cover briefly in my newest book Henry VIII’s Health in a Nutshell, is that the king had a Kell positive blood type and thus had difficulty fathering children that could survive. The Kell antigen system is determined by a group of antigens on the human red blood cells, in conjunction with the more well-known ABO blood types. About 90% of the English population is Kell negative, so the Kell antigen is uncommon, but not rare. If a Kell positive man impregnates a Kell negative partner, then any Kell positive fetus conceived after the first pregnancy would be attacked by the mother’s antibodies. Subsequent to giving birth to the first Kell positive infant, or miscarrying a Kell positive fetus at any time during the pregnancy, the Kell negative women will develop anti-Kell antibodies, a process called alloimmunization. The mother will now be “allergic” to any Kell positive fetus in her womb. Her subsequent Kell positive pregnancies are at therefore at risk. The anti-Kell antibodies in the mother’s body will attack any Kell positive fetus as though it were a dangerous foreign body. Unfortunately, this means that when a Kell negative woman is carrying a Kell positive fetus the pregnancy almost always results in either a spontaneous abortion during later gestation or stillbirth. Some pregnancies do result in infants born between 31-40 weeks, but without modern medical intervention those babies will usually die within 24 hours of birth.
This is, tragically, the reproductive pattern experienced by Henry’s wives and mistresses:
… every pregnancy fathered by Henry had roughly a 50/50 chance of being Kell negative. Any Kell positive fetus conceived after the first birth would have initiated a deadly alloimmunization within the mother’s womb, but a Kell negative fetus would not be attacked by the mother’s antibodies and would have as much chance of survival as any other healthy baby born during this era. This explains why at least one of his children, Mary, survived even though she was not the first-born of Katherina of Aragon. If Mary, the fifth baby born to Henry’s first queen, did not get the Kell positive gene from her father then she would have been safe in the womb, unlike her Kell positive siblings. Katherina’s second child, the New Year’s Boy, died at less than two months old but his death does not have any characteristics that mark it as Kells related HDN. It is likely that the baby boy was Kells negative, like Mary, and his death was the result of one of the myriad common illnesses that killed infants during this period of history. The pregnancies of Henry’s second queen, Anne Boleyn, were a textbook example of a healthy first child and subsequent late-term miscarriages; any of Anne’s pregnancies conceived after the birth of her daughter, Elizabeth, had unsuccessful outcomes. Henry’s third queen, Jane Seymour, had only one child before her death, but a healthy firstborn is normal with a Kell positive father. The only mistress formally acknowledged to have given Henry a child was Bessie Blount, who produced a healthy firstborn son, but then had no more children by the king.
The reproductive outcomes of Henry’s sexual partners are not the only evidence supporting the theory that Henry was Kell positive. The king’s family tree also shows clear signs of the Kell positive blood type.
In family trees carrying the Kell positive gene the daughters are able to reproduce successfully but male lines tend to die out. This is precisely what occurred in the offspring of Henry’s maternal great-grandmother, Jacquetta Woodville … Her daughters were all able to reproduce, but Jacquetta’s sons were mostly childless. Henry VIII’s mother was one of Jacquetta’s granddaughters, and Henry’s maternal cousins descended from his Woodville grandmother had similar reproductive troubles to his own. In their 2013 article in the Journal of Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (43, 4: 353-360), doctors Stride and Lopes-Floro argued that the reproductive patterns of Jacquetta’s sons are, “clearly relevant in establishing whether she could have been a carrier of the Kell positive gene.”
If Henry did not have a Kell positive blood type, the fetal and neonatal losses experienced by his first two wives and his genealogy are displaying an amazing coincidence to the effects of Kell positive men. Occam’s razor would suggest that the simplest answer is that Henry did indeed have a Kell positive blood type.
Do think the evidence is compelling or not? Give your opinion in the comments section for a chance to win a free copy of Henry’s Health in a Nutshell!
Kyra Cornelius Kramer is a freelance academic with BS degrees in both biology and anthropology from the University of Kentucky, as well as a MA in medical anthropology from Southern Methodist University. She is the author of Blood Will Tell: A Medical Explanation for the Tyranny of Henry VIII, The Jezebel Effect: Why the Slut Shaming of Famous Queens Still Matters, and Henry VIII’s Health in a Nutshell. Her essays on the agency of the Female Gothic heroine and women’s bodies as feminist texts in the works of Jennifer Crusie have been published in peer-reviewed journals .
She has also co-authored two works; one with Dr. Laura Vivanco on the way in which the bodies of romance heroes and heroines act as the sites of reinforcement of, and resistance to, enculturated sexualities and gender ideologies, and another with Dr. Catrina Banks Whitley on Henry VIII.
Ms. Kramer lives in Bloomington, IN with her cute geeky husband, three amazing young daughters, and assorted small yappy dogs garnered from re-homing and rescues. When not working she reads voraciously, plays video games with her family, does cross-stitch, and invents excuses to procrastinate about doing routine house cleaning.
Tweet Kyra Kramer on Twitter: @kyrakramer