ArcheologyNews reports that a researcher claims Henry VIII didn’t die of a combination of syphillis, obesity related diabetes and malaria, (and perhaps a bit mentally unstable from cerebral syphilis and the mercury used back then to treat it).

No, they claim it was a rare complication of the Kells’ antigen called McLeod syndrome.

Research conducted by bioarchaeologist Catrina Banks Whitley while she was a graduate student at SMU (Southern Methodist University) and anthropologist Kyra Kramer shows that the numerous miscarriages suffered by Henry’s wives could be explained if the king’s blood carried the Kell antigen.

The researcher speculates he had the full blown “McLeod’s syndrome”, that later caused his mental problems too.

This syndrome however is X related and runs in families, and fairly rare (0.5/100thousand) and in men often doesn’t start affecting the body until they are over 50 (Henry died at 57). Yes, a kells incompatibility can affect a second Kells positive child similar to RH problems, yet Bloody Mary was the fifth child…on the other hand, perhaps she was kells negative, since the chance of positive Kells in a child is fifty fifty.

Yet McLeod’s syndrome has a lot of symptoms that Henry did not seem to have. From the NIH website:

  • A family history consistent with X-linked inheritance AND any combination of the following:
    • CNS manifestations
      • Progressive chorea syndrome similar to that seen in Huntington disease including the clinical triad of movement disorder, cognitive impairment, and psychiatric symptoms
      • Seizures, mostly generalized

I don’t remember anyone mentioning that Henry had seizures or chorea, a type of jerky movements when you move.
On the other hand, syphilis was in a full epidemic at the time and is a better candidate for Henry’s lack of offspring and mental instability.

To this day, docs and historians argue if syphilis is merely a varient of yaws, a similar disease found in Africa and spread by skin to skin contact. In Henry’s day although syphilis was usually spread via genital sex, there are some reports that it could also spread via ordinary mucus membrane contact, such as by kissing, a common way to greet friends in Henry’s day.

The epidemic starting in 1495 has long been blamed on Colombus, the theory being that his sailors got friendly with some Native women in the Americas and brought it back with them.

Yet the finding of ancient bones in Europe that show signs of syphilis suggest the disease might predates Colombus. Or, again, the skeletal findings might be from a variation of the disease Yaws.

To complicate matters, the epidemic spread by the increased warfare at the time.

Army doctors are well aware of this problem, since the mercenaries of Charles VIII caught it in Naples, again probably from some friendly locals, and they probably lost the battle of Fornovo because a lot of them were sick. And how did it get to Naples? Maybe from some of Colombus’ sailors who went there after coming home.

The main reason many suggest syphilis behind Henry’s problems is that it not only can cause megalomania, but it can cause premature infants and neonatal deaths.

Yet for Henry VIII, the time line doesn’t make sense.

Full blown cerebral syphilis usually starts withing five to twenty years after the initial infection. However, although Henry’s megalomania could have been early cerebral syphilis, he never deteriorated into the final stage of seizures, confusion, ataxia, and dementia.

Another problem in the time line is that if the syphilis caused Katherine’s miscarriages, when he was in his early 20’s, the tertiary stage should have occured at an earlier age,
So what caused the miscarriages?

Childhood mortality was very high in those days, so losing a lot of children would not be unusual. What was unusual about Henry’s spouses’ obstetrical history is that they had so many second trimester miscarriages and premature children. Usually this is the safest part of pregnancy for a fetus. Incompetent cervix could be the cause of it (from congenital malformations, childbirth injuries, or from induced abortions).One also sees prematurity in women pregnant too often and too quickly. Yet why do both Katherine and Anne Bolyn have premature infants/”miscarriages”, and/or neonatal deaths?  Congenital syphilis is a major suspect here, or maybe not, since Mary was baby number five…

Another problem with the syphilis scenerio was that Katherine of Aragorn did not have signs that she had developed syphilis, nor did Mary  or Elizabeth have signs of  congenital syphillis.  True, syphilis is called the great pretender, since it could show many different symptoms in different people. So not everyone who had it gets every symptom.Yet the complete lack of symptoms goes against the hypothesis.

Then there is a question of Mercury.

Mercury, commonly used to treat many diseases in those days (especially syphilis), can also cause behavior problems, even in smaller doses. So was Henry as “mad as a hatter”?

(Hat makers in Victorian England often developed signs of mercury poisoning as an occupational hazard.)

Again, there is no history that he developed other signs of mercury poisoning, such as paraesthesias, vision and hearing impairment, slurred speech, anxiety, hallucinations, irritability, depression, lack of coordination, and tremors.

True, his court might have been afraid to note such “weaknesses” in their letters and covered it up. But Chapuys, an ambassador whose gossip filled correspondence was the “Wikileaks” of it’s day, makes no mention of such problems when he was assigned to the court.

Another theory behind Henry’s behavior is that it was caused from a jousting accident in his youth.

Again there is little evidence of cognitive defects in his later years. Yes, one can get impulse control disorders and violent outburst after brain trauma, but there are few signs that Henry suffered from the other symptoms commonly seen as post concussion sequella, such as headache, memory problems, sleep problems, dizzyness, and apathy.

But what about Henry’s medical problems? Were his leg ulcers from tertiary syphilis, as some claim?

Probably not. Non healing diabetic and varicose vein ulcers are common, and even with today’s antibiotics hard to heal.

So we are left with obesity and diabetes as the cause of many of Henry’s medical problems.

Henry VIII is often seen as a glutton, so this allows the modern diet puritans to blame him for his obesity and probably diabetic leg ulcers…., 5000 calories a day! Horrors?….yet those who condemn his diet forget that it was this was same diet that made him tall and energetic as a young man.

Five thousand calories might be much to much food for a sedentary King, but not too much for an energetic young king who wrestled and jousted and danced with the rest of the court.

The problem we docs run into with such “jocks” is that they actually do need 5000 calories to keep going at age 20, but as they age and their activity slowly decreases, they often don’t cut their diet to match their activity. Hence as they age, they tend to get obese with all the problems of diabetes and metabolic syndrome…all of which Henry, based on his portraits, probably did have.

But what is behind Henry’s paranoia, temper tantrums, and his obsession to get a male heir?

Yet was this an unrealistic worry?  The memory of the recent Wars of the Roses was close enough to suggest that the “obvious” solution to his problem, that of marrying Mary to a local nobleman, might actually have resulted in a resurgence of these terrible civil wars in England.

When one puts into perspective the carnage and sufferings of these wars, not only the obsession for a son, but the religious “persecuations” on all sides can be seen as a lesser evil than restarting a war that pits brother against brother.(although I should add that some historians cynically claim that Henry exaggerated the casualties to support his obesession). And even a superficial reading of the history suggest that paranoia and suspicion of others was an appropriate response to the court intrigues of those days.

As for temper tantrums, chasing women, anger against one’s wife or ex wife, and other parts of Henry’s story that so entertain readers of history: well,  such behavior (minus the beheading) can be found in today’s newspapers without having to resort to blaming rare medical syndromes.

The best argument against an organic cause of Henry’s mental instability is is his choice of  the saintly and well educated Catherine Parr as his sixth wife and companion of his old age. This alone shows his judgement was not impaired.

Henry had no children with the childless Catherine, but we will never know if it was because he refrained from consummating the marriage from lack of desire or from the inability to do so (diabetes is a common cause of impotence).

Catherine however, was not infertile despite her previous childless marriage: she remarried after Henry’s death and promptly conceived a child, dying of childbirth fever.

So was Henry VIII demented or mad? Probably not, at least according to today’s standards.

Did he suffer from organic mental problems? Sorry, given the absence of other neurological signs and symptoms, we can speculate but not diagnose any organic reason for his behavior.

And what “did in” Henry VIII?

I suspect it was from complications of obesity and diabetes. These problems are common enough given the history.

And his terminal illness resembles the unhealed ulcers, lethargy, and weakness caused by the numerous complications of poorly controlled diabetes, something, alas, that we docs see all the time in our office.


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. She writes medical essays at Hey Doc Xanga Blog.

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