Was Something Wrong With Henry VIII That Made His Wives Miscarry?

Health and medicine explained.
May 15 2013 12:23 PM

Cursed Royal Blood

Was Henry VIII to blame for his wives’ many miscarriages?

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It’s a neat theory. But Moise notes one possible hole in it: Queen Mary. She wasn’t Katherine of Aragon’s first child; Katherine’s previous four children all died in the womb or soon after birth. If Henry did carry the big K antigen, he likely passed it on to one of Katherine’s first four babies, and Katherine would have developed antibodies to it, devastating her later pregnancies. Mary never would have been born.

If Henry had one copy of the gene for big K antigen and one copy of a gene for a little k antigen—if he was what geneticists call a heterozygote—Mary could have inherited the benign little k version and survived. But if Henry was a heterozygote, each of his babies had only a 50-50 chance of inheriting the troublesome big K antigen from him, so you’d expect half of his children to have survived. At most, one-third of them lived.

Kramer, however, who has written a book about her theory, points out that “genetics is a bit like dice … probabilities are not ironclad rules.” She herself has three daughters, though most men, including her husband, have a 50-50 chance of passing on a male chromosome.


Exhuming Henry and testing his genes would be the only way to prove whether Kramer is right, but no one has been willing to pay for that project yet.

If Henry and his wives were alive today, they might not have had to suffer the heartbreak of so many lost babies. We now test all pregnant women for Kell and other blood type antibodies early in pregnancy. If a woman carries antibodies to K antigen, doctors can test her fetus for anemia and transfuse her baby with blood free of big K. Between 92 and 95 percent of big K-antigen babies who receive these intrauterine transfusions survive, Moise says. Before 1963, when the first intrauterine transfusion was performed, all of these babies died.

Had more of Henry’s children lived, he might have secured an heir while still a young man, sparing his kingdom the distraction of his marital exploits and his break with the church.

As for Henry’s marriages and Anne Boleyn’s life—who knows; it’s unclear whether Henry’s tendency to grow tired of his wives had to do with their reproductive misfortunes or his tyrannical temper. Medicine can save a life, but it might not be able to appease the whims of a king.

This story originally appeared in The Last Word on Nothing.

Erika Check Hayden is a San Francisco-based reporter for the science journal Nature, where she covers biomedicine and California science. She also blogs at The Last Word on Nothing.