Blood Will Out by Kyra Cornelia Kramer

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This promised a lot and delivered nothing. What a let-down! It was supposed to be presenting the theory that the stillbirths and miscarriages suffered by two of Henry VIII’s wives, and the change in Henry’s behaviour when he was in his 40s and 50s, were due to his being Kell 1 positive and having a disorder, found only in Kell 1 positive individuals, called McLeod Syndrome.

When a foetus has inherited a Kell 1 positive gene from its father, but the mother is Kell 1 negative (which over 90% of the population are), the mother can produce antigens which act against the foetus and (I’ve got this off a website, so I hope it’s right) can lead to severe foetal anaemia, sometimes resulting in miscarriage, stillbirth, or death shortly after birth. It doesn’t, however, happen in a first pregnancy, as the mother hasn’t then become sensitised against the negative antigens. McLeod Syndrome occurs only in Kell 1 individuals, and almost exclusively in men, and can lead to (again, I’ve got this from a website) heart problems, muscular problems, seizures, twitching and, significantly in terms of this book, major behavioural changes, usually from the age of about forty onwards.

I can certainly see why the author might have come up with this theory. Henry, once a dashing young Renaissance prince, turned into a tyrant, almost a monster, in later years. A lot of people believe that there might have been a medical cause for it: the head injury which he suffered during a jousting accident in 1536 has been suggested as a possible explanation although, as the author quite rightly points out, he was acting both cruelly and irrationally well before then. Also, there must surely have been some sort of medical explanation for Catherine of Aragon’s obstetric tragedies. Anne Boleyn’s two miscarriages, one of which occurred shortly after Henry’s accident and was attributed to the shock, could perhaps have been sheer bad luck, but with poor Catherine it happened too many terms. Deaths in infancy were common in Tudor times, but late miscarriages and deaths very soon after birth suggest that there was an underlying cause.

However, the author presents no convincing arguments to back up her theory. She doesn’t even really present it as a theory. Nor does she even explain properly what being Kell 1 positive or having McLeod Syndrome mean – or point out that a) McLeod Syndrome is incredibly rare and b) Henry doesn’t seem to have exhibited any of the physical symptoms of it. The book reads rather like a below average standard A-level essay – regurgitating a load of information about Henry VIII’s reign (most of it totally irrelevant – what on earth have Jane Seymour’s ideas on fashion, Catherine of Aragon’s parents involvement with the Inquisition or the raw treatment given to Anne Boleyn by male historians got to do with whether or not Henry was affected by a genetic blood disorder?) and the medical practices of the time, with a comment every so often, in a ah-I’d-better-refer-back-to-the-title kind of way, that this must have been because Henry was Kell positive and had McLeod Syndrome. It was interesting enough, because Henry VIII’s reign and marital history are interesting, but it didn’t in any way present an argument in favour of her theory. I understand that some research has been done suggesting that a lot of Jacquetta Woodville’s male descendants had problems producing heirs, but none of that was mentioned here.

Furthermore, the style of writing really wasn’t appropriate for what was supposed to be a scholarly work. “You could almost feel sorry for Henry if he wasn’t such a putz.” “Why did other people glom on to the outlandish tales?” “You feel [if affected by osteomyelitis] like you are death on toast.” Not impressed!

Short of someone digging up Henry’s bones and testing them for the Kell positive gene, which isn’t going to happen, there’s no way of proving whether this theory is likely to be true or not – but it should be possible to present a convincing argument in favour of a theory, and this book did nothing of the sort.

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