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Blood Will Tell: A Medical Explanation for…
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Blood Will Tell: A Medical Explanation for the Tyranny of Henry VIII

by Kyra Cornelius Kramer

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3.5 stars. This book expounds upon an interesting theory that Henry VIII carried Kell-positive genes, and may also have suffered from a condition called McLeod syndrome.

Kramer starts off explaining why Henry did not, could not have had syphilis, despite persistent rumors to the contrary. This also shows how persistent a rumor can be, over time. A Victorian physician postulated this theory in 1888 as a possible explanation for Henry’s problems with reproduction and his later tyrannical behavior. This theory was soundly refuted in 1931, yet it continues to be repeated to this day.

Kramer’s theory, about Henry being Kell-positive, and having McLeod syndrome, is also a theory, and while it makes for an interesting essay and perhaps scholarly presentation, I am not sure that it is strong enough to carry an entire book. The story of Henry VIII and his six wives is retold here, with frequent insertions as to the McLeod syndrome in some places as possible cause for erratic behavior, in others stated as firmly as if it is a demonstrated scientific fact. But as Kramer herself pointed out about the syphilis rumor, simply repeating something over and over again does not make it true.

The author holds a Masters degree in Medical Anthropology, a field many of us probably did not realize existed. Could her theory be true? Absolutely, but until and unless the body of Henry VIII is exhumed and tested, there is no way of knowing for sure.

The chapter I found most interesting was about the development of medicine, and the interweaving of astrology, in Tudor historical times. The role of John Dee, Elizabeth’s astrologer, and others suddenly makes much more sense now. The insight on how diet was thought to affect the body, and the different “humours” of the body, and how balancing this needed to also take into account the role of the planets upon the body, was fascinating. I also enjoyed the clarity and separating out the roles of the medical professionals: the doctors/astrologers, the nurses/herbal women, the apothecaries, and the surgeon-barbers all had different parts to play, although from a modern viewpoint, many of the treatments seem ridiculous or barbaric.

That chapter makes it worthwhile for a Tudor fan to read the book, IMO. Much of the rest is a retelling of the story that we’ve heard before, from other historians and novelists. The author’s voice is inconsistent: in some places very scholarly, in others almost Gossip-Girlish. There are also minor but annoying typos. For example, after making a big deal out of the way she was going to refer to Catherine of Aragon as Katharina, in some places she’s referred to as Catherine anyway. There’s mention of the “wracking” of Anne Askew and others.

I’m glad I read this, and I hope, someday, that we really discover whether or not this medical theory is true. If you’ve never read anything on Henry VIII and his wives, but saw The Tudors, this is not a bad book for an overall recap of the period, but you might want to consult other books as well. ( )
  writerbeverly | May 1, 2014 |
This book explores the theory that HenryV111 had a blood condition (kell positive) which explains the frequency of failed pregnancies in his wives, and his later personality change. The first chapters rather laboured this theory, but the book gathered pace and interest, and challenged some of the stereotypical images we have of Henry's wives. ( )
  pelmel | Dec 28, 2013 |
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This book is dedicated with affection and respect to my parents,

Wanda and Lewis Cornelius.

Thanks for watching my girls,

Mom.  You rock.
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Henry VIII did not have syphilis.
Quotations
A patient's astrological ills would have been hard for a physician to treat.   Even today, it is very difficult to move things around in the solar system.  For one thing, there are no convenient ways to grasp most planets.  For another, it's a real challenge to find oven mitts large enough to grasp the sun.  (chap. 5: Tudor Medicine)
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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The author and Dr. Catrina Banks Whitley first collaborated on the article “A New Explanation for the Reproductive Woes and Midlife Decline of Henry VIII”, which was published in the December 2010 issue of The Historical Journal.
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With his tumultuous love life, relentless pursuit of a male heir, and drastic religious transformation, England’s King Henry VIII’s life sounds more like reality television than history. He was a man of fascinating contradictions—he pursued a woman he loved for almost a decade only to behead her less than four years after their marriage. He defended Catholicism so vigorously that he was honored as Defender of the Faith, but he went on to break with Rome and have himself declared Supreme Head of the Church of England. Worst of all, the King who began his reign praised as “hero” and “lover of justice and goodness” ended it having metamorphosed into such a monster that he was called the "English Nero." What could have caused these incredible paradoxes? Could there be a simple medical explanation for the King’s descent into tyranny? Where do the answers lie?

Blood Will Tell. 

This book started five years ago with a conversation about the Showtime series The Tudors. I was complaining to Dr. Catrina Banks Whitley that the show, while accurate in some places and featuring the pulchritudinous glory of Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Henry Cavil, would reinforce the belief that it was Henry’s wives, not the King himself, who were the reason for the shortage of surviving offspring. I had done quite a bit of research about male-mediated negative reproductive outcomes in graduate school, so it was natural that I would see Henry as the source of the sad fetal loss his wives endured.  

Within twenty-four hours, Dr, Whitley had found a potential reason why the King only had four living children in spite of six wives and a least three mistresses. If Henry had a Kell positive blood type, then any fetus conceived after the first pregnancy that was unfortunate enough to inherit the Kell blood type would be attacked by the mother’s antibodies, and would not survive. Moreover, if Henry had a Kell positive blood type then he may have also suffered from McLeod syndrome, which would have explained his radical personality change after his fortieth birthday.  

I wholeheartedly agreed with Dr. Whitley’s postulation, and together we spent two years collaborating on a paper outlining this theory and the historical evidence which supported it. The result was the article “A New Explanation for the Reproductive Woes and Midlife Decline of Henry VIII”, which was published in the December 2010 issue of The Historical Journal.  

After the theory’s publication, I felt there was still so much of the King’s story left to tell that I decided to write a book to share more of the information with anyone who was interested. The book tells about the Henry’s health, how the Tudor physicians would have understood his illnesses, his complex love life, the way his behavior altered over time, and how his mental state affected his court and his kingdom. Furthermore, I did my best to correct some common historical inaccuracies seldom addressed in non-academic works, and tried to explain how cultural gender ideologies have frequently influenced the public's conceptions about Henry’s wives.  

[retrieved 7/3/13 from Amazon.com]
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With his tumultuous love life, relentless pursuit of a male heir, and drastic religious transformation, England's King Henry VIII's life sounds more like reality television than history. He was a man of fascinating contradictions-he pursued a woman he loved for almost a decade only to behead her less than four years after their marriage. He defended Catholicism so vigorously that he was honored as Defender of the Faith, but he went on to break with Rome and have himself declared Supreme Head of the Church of England. Worst of all, the King who began his reign praised as "hero" and "lover of justice and goodness" ended it having metamorphosed into such a monster that he was called the "English Nero." What could have caused these incredible paradoxes? Could there be a simple medical explanation for the King's descent into tyranny? Where do the answers lie? Blood Will Tell.… (more)

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