Did Henry VIII have a genetic/medical condition that prevented him from having healthy male children?
January 5, 2009 8:33 AM   Subscribe

Why couldn't Henry VIII have living male children (except Edward) and then, why did Edward die so young? Medical explanations?

I went on an extended Philippa Gregory kick over the holidays and now I'm curious about Henry VIII and his inability to sire an heir. So I did a whole bunch of googling last night and discovered that the syphilis theory, which I vaguely remembered from years ago, has been thrown out. (scroll down; the text was actually taken from some other site I visited that I can't find now.) Apparently there was some talk that he and Katherine of Aragon were Rh incompatible, but then how did Mary make it to term? One site I found suggested that it was diabetes (warning, geocities link, really horrible yellow background!) and pointed to the early deaths of Henry's male relatives (brother Arthur, Edward and Henry Fitzroy, Henry's illegitimate son with Bessie Blount) as proof. Can diabetes do that? Is it sex linked like that? Another website (warning, guy may be a nut. Hard to say.) put forward a lot of the questions I'm curious about. Any takers for this old mystery? Any medical explanations? Is there a disease that is so sex linked it attacks males in utero and yet lets girls live? Although, of course, there weren't even as many girls as one might think, given Henry's number of women and assumed, um, predilections.
posted by mygothlaundry to Grab Bag (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Why couldn't Henry VIII have living male children (except Edward)

As you mentioned, he also acknowledged Henry FitzRoy as his son. And who knows how many sons he had that he didn't acknowledge.

Didn't both Edward and Henry FitzRoy die of tuberculosis? I think it was just harder to stay alive back then.
posted by amro at 8:50 AM on January 5, 2009

Edward's cause of death remains debatable. You'll find sources ascribing his early demise to tuberculosis alone, and others attributing his death to tuberculosis and measles. This New England Journal of Medicine abstract offers a hypothesis that Edward may have first contracted measles, (whose virus suppresses immunity to tuberculosis), then developed rapidly progressing TB.
posted by terranova at 8:51 AM on January 5, 2009

I don't see anything particularly surprising about the number of boys in the things I can easily see.

One says that Henry had six kids by his first wife, 2 girls, three boys, one unrecorded, of which only one survived infancy. None of this seems very surprising for 15xx.

Looking at legitimate children who survived infancy, one out of three was a boy, which isn't surprising. Half, if you count FitzRoy.

How many children of each sex do your sources say he had?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:59 AM on January 5, 2009

his inability to sire an heir

It doesn't follow that because he didn't sire an heir, he couldn't. It may seem that because he tried pretty much everything and failed, that he was incapable, but he may have just been unlucky. As amro points out, there were more ways to have bad luck back then.
posted by bricoleur at 9:01 AM on January 5, 2009

Response by poster: Huh. My sources say he had only one child with Katherine of Aragon, his first wife and that was Mary. All her other pregnancies ended in miscarriages or were stillborn; there were no other living children. There was Henry Fitzroy the bastard, who died as a young adult and then with his second wife, Ann Boleyn, he had Elizabeth plus a miscarriage, also male, and then Edward with the third wife and nothing after that.
posted by mygothlaundry at 9:05 AM on January 5, 2009

He had at least two daughters who lived well into adulthood, and at least two sons who died before reaching 20, most likely of TB, like their grandfather Henry VII. On the one hand, there may be sex-linked differences in susceptibility to tuberculosis.
The X-chromosome has a gene that influences the likelihood of contracting tuberculosis. ... Women have two X chromosomes, whereas men have only one. Women are therefore twice as likely as men to have an effective version of the gene. This may explain why tuberculosis (TBC) is more common in men than in women.
And when you look at TB infections in modern Germany, you will see more infected men than women. On the other hand, Afghan women are more susceptible than Afghan men, probably because of their lifestyle.

So there are both genetic and cultural factors that may make either sex more likely to get TB, but you can't rule out plain old chance as well. Henry's sons may have lived lives more exposed to TB, there may have been a familial factor they were more likely to inherit, or it may just have been their rotten luck.
posted by maudlin at 9:14 AM on January 5, 2009

And the differences in live birth rates for sons and daughters may have just been chance as well. It's not as if he had 20 healthy daughters and no sons.
posted by maudlin at 9:17 AM on January 5, 2009

Best answer: It was commoner than one might think to be childless, outlive all one's children, or have daughters only - Lawrence Stone's "The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800" was an eye-opener for me. Also reading Tuchman's "A Distant Mirror" - the protagonist around whom the book was centered, Enguerrand de Coucy, had two daughters by his first wife, one by his second, and an out-of-wedlock son. Henry VIII's brother-in-law Louis XII of France had two daughters, no sons.

Henry may have been unlucky, but he was by no means alone - poor sanitation and primitive medical treatments, as well as infertility due to infections, venereal disesases and so on, meant that most people didn't reproduce like rabbits, even the aristocracy who had a better diet and living conditions.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 10:04 AM on January 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

All her other pregnancies ended in miscarriages or were stillborn; there were no other living children.

Some of these children could have been male. Losing children, regardless of sex, was incredibly common back then. And I might be wrong, but I'm pretty sure that male infant mortality rates, even now, and in most species, are higher than female. I have no idea why or even if that's true, but internet sources of uncertain veracity back me up.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:48 AM on January 5, 2009

You will need to take into account that fecundity was not as constant as it is today so getting pregnant, and carrying it full term, would have been chancier. Women reached menarche later than they do today. Also, they didn't smoothly run through their monthly cycle of fertility and flux like their modern counterparts due to poor nutrition and stress from disease. While nobles would have had access to a better diet, they weren't busy making sure they were getting enough folic acid and avoiding small beer.
posted by Foam Pants at 11:53 AM on January 5, 2009

Best answer: Did you notice the Tudors & Medicine page of the Tudorswiki? The section called "King Henry's Medical Record" makes mention of "Chronic Headaches, bladder trouble & a possible tumor of the testicles" in 1528.

Interesting. At any rate, after his first marriage he was over 35, a factor in miscarriages. So if Catherine of Aragon had her own troubles with carrying a healthy child to term, and then the older Henry with his possible dodgy testicle, probable diabetes and general increasing ill health might have been the main reason for failures with his other wives - so he basically misses his window of opportunity. And let's not forget inbreeding. It seems that all his wives were related to him? The teenyweeny gene pool probably wasn't beneficial.

Just a thought: What if testicular deficiency due to a tumor or somesuch was responsible for his great weight gain? Hm.

And then, of course, the tender mercies of the doctors... lord only knows what measures they took to try help out with the whole male heir thing.

Here's a similar question, btw: Possibility that Henry VIII was the cause of the high mortality of his offspring?
posted by taz at 11:54 AM on January 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

Sorry! That first link should have gone here!

There's another discussion over there that wanders into a lot of different theories about this, too.
posted by taz at 12:01 PM on January 5, 2009

I'm tentatively convinced there is a there there.

I can only sketchily recall an essay I read back in the late 80's to the effect that Elizabeth I was the 'Virgin Queen' not from any lack of desire or opportunity, but because she was physically incapable of having intercourse. I think it said she had consulted a surgeon about removing an impediment, but did not go forward with the operation.

If there was some kind of congenital, hereditary urethral problem, for example, I think it's conceivable it wouldn't hit females as hard as it did males, might worsen more for males at puberty, and might make it difficult for both males and females to have sex successfully.

On preview, interesting to read Henry VIII might have had bladder trouble; that would fit with urethral problems, perhaps.
posted by jamjam at 12:14 PM on January 5, 2009

The Times has one of their very quick health articles today: Are some men more likely to father boys? Apparently, "men carry a gene that determines the percentage of X and Y chromosomes in their sperm, and that the gene comes in three alleles, or versions. One produces mostly X chromosomes, another mostly Y, and the third yields equal numbers of both." So, it's possible he was more likely to father daughters than sons.
posted by crush-onastick at 11:16 AM on January 11, 2009

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