On Sunday 13th February, there was a report on The Daily Express and Sunday Express website entitled “Queen Asked: May We Dig Up Henry VIII?”. The article opened with the following:-

“THE Queen is to be asked for permission to exhume the body of Henry VIII in a bid to prove that a rare ­disease caused his ferocious temper and may have driven him to have two of his six wives executed.

American researchers Catrina ­Whitley and Kyra Kramer believe that Henry had “Kell-positive” blood, and ­suffered from the related genetic ­disease McLeod’s syndrome.

Dr Whitley, a bioarchaeologist, said: “This could vindicate Henry in history. Knowing he was mentally ill offers a different explanation for why Henry, who was greatly loved as a young prince, became a ­tyrant in ­later life.”

Was Henry VIII Kell Positive?

Now, this request for permission to exhume Henry VIII’s body is based on a new theory published in an article in “The Historical Journal” entitled “A New Explanation for the Reproductive Woes and Midlife Decline of Henry VIII” by Catrina Banks Whitley and Kyra Kramer. As the Daily Express says in the excerpt you can read above, Whitley and Kramer believe that Henry VIII was positive for the Kell blood group and that this was responsible for the miscarriages and infant deaths of Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, and also caused him to suffer with the related genetic disorder, McLeod Syndrome, which they think could have caused “physical and mental impairment”. I have read Whitley and Kramer’s full article and here are the key points they make:-

  • That Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn had “numerous miscarriages”.
  • That there was “a shift in the king’s policies and in his personality is noticeable as he entered middle age, supporting David Starkey’s observation that there were ‘two Henry’s … one old, the other young. And they are very, very different’.”
  • That Henry VIII “was positive for the Kell blood group, with the complication of McLeod syndrome, an X-linked medical condition of some (but certainly not all) Kell positive patients.”
  • That “a Kell positive father frequently causes negative reproductive outcomes for his reproductive partner after the first Kell negative pregnancy”.
  • That McLeod Syndrome, which has a “mean onset” of 30-40 years “is symptomized by cardiomyopathy, muscular myopathy, psychiatric abnormality, and motor nueropathy”, that “Henry VIII experienced most, if not all, of these symptoms” and that it explains “his psychological deterioration”.
  • That “considering the king’s partners had a total of at least eleven, and possibly thirteen or more pregnancies, fertility was clearly not Henry’s problem. Rather, foetal and neonate mortality were the crux of his reproductive troubles since only four of the eleven known pregnancies survived into infancy.”
  • That “just as in the Rh blood system, genetic incompatibility between the phenotype of the father and mother can cause significant difficulties when trying to produce offspring” but that” it is the rare Kell positive father that creates reproductive problems” and that the mother “develops antibodies in response to the foreign positive phenotype.”
  • That when a Kell negative mother becomes pregnant by a Kell positive man, each pregnancy has a 50/50 chance of being Kell positive, and that the first pregnancy is usually carried to term and results in a healthy baby. However, subsequent pregnancies are at risk.
  • That the Kell positive gene can be traced back to Jacquetta of Luxembourg, mother of Elizabeth Woodville and Henry VIII’s great-grandmother.
  • That McLeod Syndrome begins to manifest between the ages of 30 and 40 and that as well as muscle weakness and nerve deterioration, symptoms include paranoia, depression, personality alterations “and even schizophrenia-like behaviors”, and that the symptoms become progressively worse.
  • That Henry VIII’s paranoia and the way “he started to eliminate all those regarded as a threat to the throne” can be explained by McLeod Syndrome.
  • That “Henry’s succombing to McLeod Syndrome is also apparent in the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn” and that his paranoia is shown clearly in his treatment of Cromwell, the Pole family and religious reformers.

Now, while this is all very interesting, I can’t say that I believe this theory at all, it just hasn’t convinced me. I’m not a medical expert, but when I Googled McLeod Syndrome, I found that symptoms included “limb chorea [irregular contractions], facial tics, other oral movements (lip and tongue biting), seizures, a late-onset dementia and behavioral changes”. Well, I’m not aware of Henry VIII having seizures or tics. The article I found also suggested that it usually manifests around the age of 50 and is slowly progressive. Henry VIII was in his 40s in the 1530s when it is said that his behaviour became more tyrannical.

As far as Henry being Kell positive is concerned, I did find that when a Kell negative woman is pregnant by a Kell positive father maternal antibodies can be transferred across the placenta and can cause severe anaemia and serious complications, but I’m not sure that there is enough evidence to conclude that Henry VIII was Kell positive and I guess that this is why the Queen is being asked for permission to exhume his body.

Does it Explain his ‘Reproductive Woes’?

The whole theory depends on what we believe about the obstetric history of Henry VIII’s wives and mistresses. According to Sir John Dewhurst, there is only evidence for Catherine of Aragon having six pregnancies and although this is quite a large number her first child was stillborn whereas her second child lived for 52 days and her fifth pregnancy resulted in Princess Mary. In my opinion that really doesn’t tie in with Henry VIII being Kell positive. Dewhurst goes on to say that there is only evidence to support Anne having two pregnancies (Eric Ives says three), the first resulting in a healthy baby girl, Elizabeth, and the second a miscarriage. I’m just not sure that we can say that Henry VIII had “reproductive woes” when we also consider that he had a healthy son by Bessie Blount, a possible two children by Mary Boleyn and a healthy son by Jane Seymour. We don’t have enough data to conclude that Henry was Kell positive and I don’t think that Catherine’s obstetric history was at all unusual in a time of poor hygiene and a lack of knowledge concerning ante-natal care. Even today, we all know women who have suffered miscarriages or still-births for no apparent reason, these tragedies are a sad fact of life.

Henry VIII’s Tyranny

As far as McLeod Syndrome is concerned, I’m more inclined to believe that Henry’s paranoia, mood swings and tyranny were due to a combination of factors:-

  • Pain – Living with constant pain, as Henry was, is bound to make you grumpy, impatient and irrational. I know a simple headache can cause me to lash out at my husband!
  • Frustration – Henry’s leg ulcers made it impossible for him to enjoy activities like tennis and jousting, and that must have been so frustrating for the sport-loving king. He also must have been embarrassed by the smell from his leg and the way that he had to depend on others.
  • Challenges to his authority – Monarchs had to deal with challenges to their authority quickly and brutally, that was the way of the world and the way to keep your throne. Others had to be deterred from rebelling or challenging him.
  • Head injuries – Henry VIII had two jousting accidents, both of which involved him hitting his head, and he suffered headaches as a result of these accidents. The second accident resulted in the King being unconscious for two hours so Henry may well have suffered an injury to his brain in this accident. When I wrote about Henry’s jousting accident recently, many people commented on how they had known friends and relatives to undergo complete personality changes after suffering a head injury so this may well be a factor in Henry’s worsening behaviour and mood swings.
  • Henry’s personality – Historian J.J.Scarisbrick makes the point that “Henry was not notably more cruel afterwards [after his 1536 accident] than he had been before” and I think that Henry always had cruelty in his character. We may look on his reign and think that his behaviour got worse but is it simply because he was dealing with more threats and problems?

It is so hard to know, isn’t it? We all have our own theories about Henry VIII’s psyche and behaviour. So, should we exhume his body and take hair and bone samples to find out if Henry did suffer from a genetic disorder?


That is just my opinion but I believe it for the following reasons:-

  • I don’t want to see a mess being made of St George’s Chapel, a place of worship.
  • It sets a dangerous precedent and we’ll have ancient tombs being unearthed all over the place.
  • It strikes me as disrespectful in that we would be doing it simply to satisfy our own morbid curiosity, it does not benefit us in any way.

If renovation work was being carried out on the Chapel then I might feel differently, but it’s not.

What do you think?

Should he be exhumed and was he Kell positive?

Notes and Sources

Further Reading

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