Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Henry VIII's Health and the Beginings of the Church of England

A short article in the current (February 2011) BBC History Magazine suggests that a medical condition affecting Henry may have been responsible for his inability to produce male heirs. This is taken from an article in The Historical Journal, vol 53, no 4, CUP, by Caterina Banks Whitely and Kyra Kramer. Henry may have been "positive for the Kell blood group". The unborn children of fathers with this trait are apparently likely to be attacked by the mother's antibodies. This would explain the number of miscarriages and stillbirths suffered by Henry's first two wives. The condition does not affect all children in the womb, so Mary, Elizabeth and Edward survived. It is also possible that Henry suffered from McLeod syndrome (affecting Kell positive individuals) which can later lead to certain psychological symptoms including depression, paranoia and "unexpected" behaviour. This problem tends to show itself in the 30s and 40s.

Susannah Lipscomb, in her excellent book about Henry's later years, reminds us that something certainly set off anger, suspicion and tyrannical behaviour after 1536. Given Henry's formerly devout adherence to Rome, expressed especially in his rebuff of Luther's sacramental theology, and his search for a theological answer to his desires for both a male heir and Anne Boleyn, it is surely right to ask just how much the establishment of the Church of England owes to his medical (and psychological?) condition at the time. Is this an unfair question? I do not ask it to be disrespectful, but it is not the only question to be asked about the English Reformation.

The above image of Henry is taken from this interesting article about a mural discovered in a private house


  1. Very interesting, Father Abberton. I will have to do some research on the Kell blood group. Thank you.

  2. Hello,

    I am one of the authors of the article in question. Although there is no way to know for certain, in my opinion if Henry had not been effected by McLeod syndrome and fallen into a paranoid hatred of the papacy, I do not believe he would have supported the Reformation. He was devoted to the majority of the tenets of the Catholic Church, including (especially) transubstantiation. Many Reformers were burned to death at the stake during his reign because they believed the host was symbolically, not literally, the blood and flesh of Jesus. However, there were many reformers within his circle who jumped at the chance to dismantle the monasteries and profit from the spoils; some from sincere convictions, some from mere greed.If we are able to exhume Henry's remains, and thus determine conclusively that he was mentally ill at the time of the schism, how do you think that would effect the way he is viewed by the Catholic church?

    Kyra Kramer

  3. Dear Kyra,
    Many thanks for this. It is wonderful to be visited by one of the authors and it may start a lively discussion. I think the Catholic Church today - on the whole - takes a sympathetic view of Henry anyway because he is seen to be so affected by the thinking around him. I have a short essay on my other blog, "Watching, Thinking & praying" about the so-called divine right of kings and how this played a part in Henry's thinking. We also know that henry retained a belief in the Real Presence right up to his death. However, a mental illness would increase the sympathetic side and would then help us to focus more on the real architects of the English Reformation, especially Cranmner (but here we have another problematic character!).
    Thanks again for this interesting reply.

  4. Good heavens! A sympathetic view of a serial killing sex maniac?
    I think not Father.

  5. "A serial killing sex maniac"? Well, if that's all he was, then we have a problem. Why was he like that? Was he entirely evil? it seems to me that the best historians show that he was not entirely evil, but for his very odd behaviour after the deaths of More and Fisher there may be some mitigating facts. His health might be one factor, but there are others - psychological ones from his childhood. I don't think sympathy is entirely out of place. This does not wash over the awful things he did of course, but as Christians we are - even in the worst cases - encouraged to hate the sin and love the sinner. In his case I think this means trying, at least, to understand him. Perhaps you have no sympathy whatsoever - that is your choice. At the very end of his life when the Blessed Sacrament was brought to him he insisted on getting out of bed and falling on his knees. When the priest insisted he get back in bed, Henry remarked that if it were possible he would go under the floor! An evil man perhaps - or perhaps there was something good there which came out at the end, rather like the thief on the cross. It is not for us to judge is it? Condemn the acts by all means, but leave the man to God. In any case how much was his killing influenced by his mental state? This is something only God knows.

  6. Hello again,

    I feel compelled to clarify something about Henry. He was far from the sex maniac he is portrayed as. For his time, he was chaste far beyond what was expected of him. There is significant modern evidence that he did not consummate his relationship with Anne Boleyn until they were married. He married, as opposed to taking as a mistress, the women he loved. In comparison, Francis I of France slept with (it seems) everything in his court that wore a skirt.

    As for a serial killer ... if he were in his right mind then he was indeed hardened to the act of taking human life. But it should be noted that prior to his forties, and the possible onset of McLeod syndrome which would have made him mentally ill, he exiled or imprisoned men who called him "Ahab" from there pulpits, and worse! In 1534 when he killed More and Fisher he was possibly in the grip of extreme paranoia, which would maybe have caused him to think they would kill him unless he got them first. If the theory that Henry was Kell positive for the McLeod phenotype is correct, then his reign after 1532 will have to be entirely reconceptualized.

    We have a website up with the full article and contact information, for the curious:

  7. Of course this would change what we think of Henry: his behaviour becomes that of a sick man too powerful for his sickness to be challenged, rather than that of a "serial killing sex maniac". But that only affects our view of Henry: the objective results of his actions remain the same whatever the motive or cause of them. The English and Welsh people had their religion taken from them

  8. Thank you again Kyra. This is fascinating stuff. Of course, the effect of his actions remain the same, but for those who are interested in the character (as I am)the theory of mental illness actually makes sense of quite a lot that was puzzling before. The behaviour of his later years cannot simply be explained by egoism or insecurity - it has to be more than that.

  9. Whether we condemn Henry or condone him, we are all making judgements Father.
    The latest thinking brands him as a psychopath. I agree that genuine mental illness removes the element of sin but, all too often, today, we see cases of violence and mayhem wrought by those who then claim a mental disorder in order to mitigate their sentence. Peter Sutcliffe attempted this but the courts found him entirely sane.

  10. Richard, may I suggest that we need also to look at Henry in the context of his times. Execution for treason was common - perhaps because of the insecurity of the past (Wars of the Roses etc)and, as far as "religious" execution went, it is now beyond doubt that St. Thomas More approved of the burning of heretics. We can get all this out of proportion unless we avoid the mistake of reading those times in the light of our own (although, given the barbarity of abortion our own times cannot be called enlightened). I am not attempting to exonerate Henry - he was in later life clearly a monster - but I am trying to understand him a bit better and perhaps those days in which he and More and Fisher lived. Please don't think I am attempting anything like an acceptance of what he did - I am just trying to understand it better. I think the latest research certainly helps in this, as well as showing that the English Reformation was based partly on psychopathology as well as greed, moral corruption, theological ignorance, honest misunderstandings - and lies.

  11. Of course, Father, I fully understand your point. Cobbett in his History of the Protestant Reformation relates how, after the Dissolution, thousands perished by the roadside for lack of food, shelter and care. My point is really that we tend to "assess" Henry on his executions (wives and opponents) and forget the masses that also died as a result of his actions designed to top up his coffers and, at the same time, destroy the faith.
    The prison system is full of killers who also made the claim of being of unsound mind.
    It is, as you say, in God's hands.