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King Henry VIII's Madness Explained

King Henry VIII's madness explained. Learn more about King Henry VIII's madness in this article.

Among a long list of personality quirks and historical drama, Henry VIII is known for the development of health problems in mid-life and a series of miscarriages for two of his wives. In a new study, researchers propose that Henry had an X-linked genetic disorder and a rare blood type that could explain many of his problems.

By suggesting biological causes for significant historical events, the study offers new ways to think about the infamous life of the notorious 16th-century British monarch, said Catarina Whitley, a bioarchaeologist who completed the research while at Southern Methodist University.

"What really made us look at Henry was that he had more than one wife that had obstetrical problems and a bad obstetrical history," said Whitley, now with the Museum of New Mexico. "We got to thinking: Could it be him?"

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Plenty of historians have written about Henry's health problems. As a young man, he was fit and healthy. But by the time of his death, the King weighed close to 400 pounds. He had leg ulcers, muscle weakness, and, according to some accounts, a significant personality shift in middle age towards more paranoia, anxiety, depression and mental deterioration.

Among other theories, experts have proposed that Henry suffered from Type II diabetes, syphilis, an endocrine problem called Cushing's syndrome, or myxedema, which is a byproduct of hypothyroidism.

All of those theories have flaws, Whitley said, and none address the monarch's reproductive woes. Two of his six wives -- Ann Boleyn and Katherine of Aragon -- are thought to have suffered multiple miscarriages, often in the third trimester.

To explain those patterns, Whitley and colleague Kyra Kramer offer a new theory: Henry may have belonged to a rare blood group, called Kell positive. Only 9 percent of the Caucasian population belongs to this group.

When a Kell positive man impregnates a Kell negative woman, there is a 50 percent chance of provoking an immune response in the woman's body that attacks her developing fetus. The first baby of a Kell positive father and Kell negative mother is usually fine. But some of the baby's blood will inevitably get into the mother's body -- either during development or at birth, leading her to produce antibodies against the baby's Kell antigens.

As a result, in subsequent pregnancies, babies may suffer from extra fluid in their tissues, anemia, jaundice, enlarged spleens, or heart failure, often leading to miscarriage between about 24 and 28 weeks of pregnancy.

Ann Boleyn is a classic example of this pattern, Whitley said. According to some accounts (and there is still much dispute about the details, including how many pregnancies there actually were), Elizabeth -- Anne's first daughter with Henry -- was born healthy and without complications. But her second and third pregnancies miscarried at about month six or seven.

Katherine of Aragon carried as many as six pregnancies. Only her fifth led to the birth of a live and health baby, a daughter named Mary.

In addition to Henry's problematic blood type, the researchers propose that he also had a rare genetic disorder called McLeod syndrome. Carried on the X-chromosome, the disease generally affects only men and usually sets in around age 40 with symptoms including heart disease, movement disorders and major psychological symptoms, including paranoia and mental decline.

The disease could explain many of Henry's physical ailments, the researchers propose. It could also explain why he may have become more despotic as he grew older and why he shifted from supporting Anne to having her beheaded.

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"This gives us an alternative way of interpreting Henry and understanding his life," Whitley said. "It gives us a new way to look at the reasons he changed."

Without any genetic evidence, however, there's no way to know for sure whether the new theories are right, said Retha Warnicke, a historian at Arizona State University and author of The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn: Family Politics at the Court of Henry VIII.

Other conditions could explain the miscarriages, she said. Until the late 19th-century, midwives did not wash their hands. And in Henry's time, up to half of all children died before age 15.

As for Henry's woes, dementia could explain his personality shifts, she added. Lack of exercise -- after an active youth -- combined with a hearty appetite could have led to his obesity and related ills.

"Could is the big word," Warnicke said. "It's an interesting theory and it's possibly true, but it can't be proven without some clinical evidence, and there is none."

A portrait of a middle-aged Henry VIII painted by Hans Holbein appears in this photo.

Sept. 16, 2012 --

The remains of Richard III, the monarch immortalized as a villainous hunchback by William Shakespeare and the last English king to die in battle, might have been discovered in a parking lot in Leicester. DNA analysis is still needed to confirm the findings, and that could take up to 12 weeks, according to researchers at the University of Leicester. While we wait, let's look at other royals known to have vanished from history.

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Edward V and Richard, Duke of York Before Richard III assumed the throne, there was only one person standing in his way: his nephew, Edward V. Only a boy at 12 years old, Edward V was unprepared for the responsibilities of the crown left to him by his father, Edward IV, who entrusted Richard as Protector until the boy came of age. The future king Richard III in short order imprisoned Edward V in the Tower of London, along with his younger brother, Richard, Duke of York. The uncle then declared Edward IV's marriage invalid, and therefore his heirs were illegitimate. Richard III assumed the throne and the two boys disappeared from history shortly thereafter. Although remains belonging to two children were discovered in the 17th century by workers renovating a section of the Tower, the bones were never conclusively identified as belonging to the two boys.

Harold II Even though Harold II might have had one of the most famous deaths of any monarch in English history, his final resting place is unknown. Harold II assumed the throne in 1066. That same year, William the Conqueror led an army of Norman invaders into England. The armies of William and Harold met at the Battle of Hastings in October. After hours of fighting, with victory within his grasp, Harold was, according to legend, either shot in the eye or stabbed with a sword. His body was then mutilated and dismembered. Although the site of Harold's death is known, what followed after is a matter of some speculation. According to popular accounts, William had Harold's body buried in secret, even though Harold's mother offered a sum to claim the body.

Henry I When Henry VIII was engaged in his campaign against Catholicism, he seized church lands and raided monasteries. In the process, his men disturbed and even destroyed the final resting places of the monarchs who came before him. In fact, Henry VIII even likely caused the destruction of the tomb of his namesake: Henry I. Henry I was the son of William the Conqueror, and reigned for nearly 30 years from 1106 to 1135. Although he crowned himself king in 1100, his reign was disputed by his older brother, Robert, who had been away fighting in the Crusades. Henry initially was able to buy Robert off, but the two later came into conflict again, which was only resolved in 1106 with Henry's army capturing Robert in battle and imprisoning him for life. Henry spent much of his time away from England, often frequenting Normandy. In order to rule in his absence, he created a bureaucracy that would efficiently govern and run the affairs of state, the most important duty of which was to collect taxes. Following the death of his son, Henry was left with only one legitimate heir, his daughter. When Henry died in 1135, his daughter's rule was rejected by the English nobility and civil war ensued.

Pharaoh Userkare If famous kings who died within the last 1,000 years are difficult to find, then an obscure pharaoh that lived some 4,300 years ago must be close to impossible. The reign of Userkare, the second pharaoh of the Sixth Dynasty, has been shrouded in mystery, partly due to the fact that his tomb had not been discovered. In 2010, Giulio Magli, professor of archaeoastronomy at Milan's Polytechnic University, suggested a possible final resting place for the pharaoh. as reported by Discovery News' Rossella Lorenzi. The search, however, is still ongoing.

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Queen Nefertiti Obscure royals are bound to escape history's notice. But when the ones who really left their mark manage to elude discovery, that's another story entirely. Ancient Egypt's Queen Nefertiti might be the most sought-after royal yet undiscovered. She died over 3,300 years ago, but was made famous in the modern era following the discovery of the 19-inch limestone, painted bust of her, seen here. Nefertiti was, in the words of Discovery News' Rossella Lorenzi, "the royal wife of the 'heretic' pharaoh Akhenaton, who initiated a new monotheistic religion that involved the worship the sun god Aton." Despite pursuits to find her tomb, including one such expedition funded by the Discovery Channel, no archaeologist has yet found where Nefertiti is buried.

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Emperor Jianwen When you're emperor of a nation as large as China, you'd think someone would notice your disappearance. Emperor Jianwen (1377-1402) was the second emperor of the Ming Dynasty, and nearly led it to ruin. Failed efforts to gain greater control over territory within his empire, which was governed by his uncles, led to the outbreak of civil war. When troops belonging to one of Jianwen's uncles attacked Nanjing, then the capital under the Ming Dynasty, the imperial palace caught fire, supposedly killing Jianwen and his concubines. However, an alternate version of events suggests Jianwen secretly escaped in the midst of the battle and took refuge in a monastery, where he lived out the rest of his days.

Anastasia Nikolaevna Although no longer missing, the final resting place of Anastasia Nikolaevna, daughter of tsar Nicholas II, the last monarch of Russia, was a nearly century-long mystery that ended in 2009. Along the way, false reports, witnesses and impostors claiming to be the deceased grand duchess turned up. The idea that somehow Nikolaevna had escaped execution gripped popular imagination, including an animated film in 1997. In 1991, speculation that Nikolaevna survived the massacre that claimed her family was bolstered by the discovery of a mass grave. Buried there were the remains of the tsar, his wife and three of their daughters. Traces of the two remaining children, a son and another daughter, were not at the site. In 2007, a grave in Yekaterinburg, Russia, proved to be the final resting place of the two remaining children. Two years later, researchers announced that DNA analysis confirmed that the remains were of the two young royals.