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Publicado el día: 15 Abr 2024

In fact Henry constrained his sexual appetites

In fact Henry constrained his sexual appetites

The theory was constructed in the 19th century, as part of a narrative that showed Henry as a sexual beast justly punished for his promiscuity

Yet clearly he was able to make his wives pregnant. Was something else wrong? The old notion that Henry had syphilis has been discarded. There never was any contemporary evidence for it. He had few mistresses compared to other grandees of his time. I think it was more important to him to be good, to be seen to be good, than to be gratified in this particular way. In fact I think we can say that the old monster was a bit of a romantic.

Later in life, when he married Anne of Cleves, he didn’t want to have sex with a woman with whom he wasn’t in love; it was a scruple that baffled his contemporaries

Recently a new hypothesis about Henry has emerged. In 2010 a paper by Catrina Banks Whitley and Kyra Cornelius Kramer appeared in the Historical Journal, called ‘A New Explanation of the Reproductive Woes and Midlife Decline of Henry VIII’. It suggested that Henry had a blood type called Kells positive. People who are Kells positive carry an extra antibody on the surface of their red blood cells. The blood type is rare, so we can assume Henry’s wives were Kells negative, and that their lack of compatibility was the reason for the multiple reproductive failures. When a woman who is Kells negative conceives by a man who is Kells positive, she will, if the foetus itself is Kells positive, become sensitised; her immune system will try to reject the foetus. The first pregnancy will go well, other things being equal. As with rhesus incompatibility, it takes one pregnancy for the woman to develop the sensitisation. But later children will die before or just after birth.

To a certain point this fits Henry’s story. He had a healthy illegitimate son by Elizabeth Blount: that was a first pregnancy. His first child with Anne Boleyn was a healthy girl, and his first child with Jane Seymour a healthy boy; Jane died soon after Edward’s birth, so we don’t know what would have happened thereafter. With Katherine of Aragon the pattern is more blurred. Mystery surrounds her first pregnancy, much of it made by the queen herself, who perhaps didn’t want to admit that she had miscarried; so we know the pregnancy didn’t work out, but we don’t know what happened. One of Katherine’s doctors thought it was a twin pregnancy and it may have failed for any number of reasons. So Katherine’s healthy child, Mary, was not her first. But every child fathered by Henry had a chance of being Kells negative, and the paper’s authors suggest that this is how Mary survived.

If this is true, it makes the history of Henry’s reign a different sort of tragedy: not a moral but a biological tragedy, inscribed on the body. The efforts of the wives and the politicians and the churchmen didn’t avail because a genetic lottery was in operation. What makes the hypothesis persuasive, to some minds, is Henry’s later medical history. Some individuals who are Kells positive go on to develop a collection of symptoms called McLeod syndrome. In early life Henry was, by all contemporary accounts, a creature of great beauty. He excelled in every sport. We wonder, of course, did his opponents let the king win? But Henry was not a fool and though he was susceptible to flattery he didn’t need flattery of that simple kind; and besides, in a dangerous pursuit like jousting, where one armoured man on an armoured horse is charging at another headlong, the outcome is difficult to control. I think we can take it that he was a star. He collected a number of injuries that stopped him jousting, and then in middle age became stout, eventually gross. He developed a weakness in his legs, and by the end of his life was virtually immobile. It also seems to some authorities that he underwent personality changes in mid-life. It was said that as a young man he was sweet-natured; though the claim would have had a hollow ring if you were Richard Empson or Edmund Dudley, ministers to his father, whom he executed as soon as he came to the throne. But it’s incontrovertible that as Henry aged he became increasingly angry, irrational, wilful and out of control. He fits the picture for McLeod syndrome: progressive muscular weakness and nerve deterioration in the lower body, depression, paranoia, an erosion of personality.