Sunday, May 1, 2016

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


Rating: 2 Stars


Let's start with the positives, shall we?



Okay, so the author stated very early on (4% according to my Kindle) that "there is extreme difficulty in proving beyond doubt..." when discussing whether or not Henry was Kell positive and developed McLeod Syndrome later in life.This seemed to me a very good start. After all too many times I have read pompous authors who claim to have solved all the mysteries ever in the whole world on "new" readings of the same old documents, conjecture, etc. There were some reviewers seeming to be all up in a tizzy about the author's subject matter and at first I did not understand. After all, if the other was merely proposing a theory and not presenting it as fact, I do not take issue with that. What I do take issue with is when authors apply modern social norms and medically diagnose people who lived centuries before us. Of course there are a plethora of diseases we know today how to diagnose and treat, so it is not crazy to suppose what possibilities might apply. Again, this is all assuming it remains a theory and does not get injected into our collective consciousness as truth without hard evidence confirming it.

Unfortunately for me and the $3.99 I'll never get back, things went down hill rather quickly. And it is not even because of anything medical related - at first. It is because of all the historical inaccuracies that were presented. The medical portion too would spin wildly out of control, but not for some time. First prime example, it is my understanding that Henry and his mistress Bessie Blount had only one son, Henry Fitzroy, and that their affair ended once she became pregnant with the child. Perhaps there are other children he never acknowledged by her, especially if they were girls I could see why, yet I do not recall a single other author thus far mentioning any children after Fitzroy was born. If there are books that claim such, I would love to know about them.

The writing itself eventually became a distraction in itself and if plagiarism wasn't a thing, I would have seriously considering rewriting the book to make it more readable and less meandering. The author provides background information on each of the marriages in chronological order, but again with the meandering. How rapidly the chapter titled regarding Katherine of Aragon became about Henry VII, the Wars of the Roses, and the Tudors. I thought Katherine and her marriage to Henry would be the main focus of a chapter she lent her name to. As we move into Anne's chapter, the author seemed again to be all over the place. There are two very glaring examples of this. The first comes at 31% when the author is discussing how Henry was treating Katherine even in the break-up of their marriage. In one paragraph she is talking about Henry treating her so badly, them immediately in the next paragraph she claims Henry still treated her with some respect. So, which is it? The second one is directly in regards to Anne, who the author claims she felt bad for what had happened to Katherine: "She at least began to feel some sorrow about Katherine's death, and more importantly, remorse about how Katherine had been treated" (39%). Seriously? I mean, the author uses Starkey as a source for this, but come on. Anne wasn't sorrowful about Katherine's death in a way the author would apparently like you to believe. With Katherine gone, Anne knew it was that much easier for her to be set aside just as Henry has set Katherine aside. Anne was concerned with her own well-being and her own fate. Katherine was not of concern to her.

There are a whole slew of quotes mainly throughout the sections relating to Henry's relationship with Anne that just baffle me for a variety of reasons. Some definitely ensure the author's loss of credibility, either with me personally, or in general for this to be taken seriously as an academic work. Here is just a sampling:

1. Describing Anne Boleyn as "lovely" and "dynamic" (19%)

2. Actual sentence regarding Henry and his pursuit of Anne. "You could almost feel sorry for Henry, if he wasn't being such a putz" (19%). How scholarly.

3. "Is it fair to despise her simply because she was the best in the game?" (20%). Ummm, are you really framing the situation in that context? Her 'game' brought huge, dangerous, disruptive and even deadly changes to an entire nation, very abruptly. Are we supposed to feel sympathy for Anne that people were calling her names and speaking so poorly of her? She was playing her own part in breaking up a marriage - though let's be clear, the majority of the blame lies with Henry alone. Still, I have zero sympathy for Anne for her part.

For the most part, the chapters detailing Henry's marriages are merely re-tellings of already-known information of events that occurred at the time, splashed with interjections of, "he must have done this because he was suffering from McLeod's Syndrome!" To be fair, the exclamation mark is my own, just to emphasize the enthusiasm with which the author abandoned the theory to make this fact.

The author seems to have an issue with marriage and family politics of the 16th century. At one point she claims that while people like to paint Katherine as such a wonderful mother to Mary, there is really no evidence of any maternal concern for Mary. She states Katherine's only concern and goal was to prove that her marriage to Henry was valid. OF COURSE that was her goal. Had the marriage not been valid, Mary would have lost the inheritance that was rightfully hers. Everything Katherine did seems to be for both herself and her daughter. The Anne-bias is strong throughout, but let's still be realistic. She also not only uses a modern medical diagnosis on someone from the 16th century - dangerous, no matter how well-known and well-documented his life may have been - but she wants to apply modern thinking about gender roles. She seems to take issue with the fact that it was accepted that males had affairs but was completely out of the question for a woman to do so. First of all, women did have affairs too, though it was of course kept a much better secret and not generally expected. Secondly though, and more importantly, it was completely out of the question even the idea that a queen would have an affair. A point the author seems to forget is that the legitimacy of the royal line depended on the children being the king's. It doesn't make it right or fair - and seriously, the right and fair thing would be for NO ONE to be having affairs - but again, you can't apply 21st century thinking to 16th century situations.

There was a decent rundown of the accepted medical beliefs and practices of the time. The author included a lot of background information here, including the reliance on astronomy and the belief that the four humors guided health. This idea of these different humors controlling different aspects of body and mind is terribly fascinating to me and I enjoy it wherever I find it. There is also a 'what-if' kind of chapter (around 91%) and was certainly interesting; what if Henry's reign had been different had he not been Kell positive or had McLeod Syndrome? Note: Long before this, at 63% or even earlier, the author had abandoned being objective. She had gone from saying it was a possible diagnosis, to he must have had McLeod Syndrome in order to do the things he did. That aside, it would have been nice to explore these possibilities more in-depth. England, and indeed Europe might look very different today today.

All in all, it should come as no surprise that I say I can not recommend this one. So many times I wanted to stop reading. But for $3.99, I knew I had to finish it. I ended up being highly disappointed with both the presentation of the diagnosis and the historical facts alongside. I have never paid that much for a book for my Kindle and I certainly never will again, though this had been one I was so excited to read. As if there were any lingering doubt by the final paragraph of the entire book, the last line was the final nail of several nails in this coffin:

"How very, very sad it is that because of a mutation in Henry's blood he became a monster, and is now known primarily as a savage tyrant who slaughtered wives and martyred scholars."

Well, there you have it. Henry had McLeod Syndrome and that's that. I guess.


  1. Wow, sooooo glad that you wrote this and that I read it because I love historic books and I have become very fond of reading everything Tudor so this is just a book I'll steer away from!!

    also, LOL at that last sentence. Is that from a real book????!!!

    Cat @ Bubblegum Yellow

  2. I am glad too. I love Tudor history and if I can prevent misinformation and/or nonsense from being spread about the period, I will do my best! The only reason I gave it two stars was for the medical history of the time period - though how much can be trusted when so many other things were wrong is a chance to take. Most of it jived with what I already knew of that time though.

    And seriously, yes, that was the last line. All theory was abandoned and she just went for it: Henry had McLeod's. Who does that??!!


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