Henry VIII’s Succession Problem: Syphilis or Bad Luck?

The tales of Henry VIII’s many wives and failed attempts to father a legitimate male heir to succeed him are legendary. Film studios have often taken on these stories, producing such films as Anne of the Thousand Days (1969), The Other Boleyn Girl (2008), and, most recently, the mini-series titled The Tudors (2007-2010). 

While many monarchs in different times and places have struggled to produce an heir, there is something notable about Henry VIII’s struggle. He is likely one of the first monarchs to suffer from syphilis, pass it along to his wife who in turn passed it along to their children in the form of congenital syphilis.

Henry’s health

Henry VIIIStories of Henry’s failing health in his later years are usually focused on his mammoth weight and the jousting injury he suffered that eventually became immensely ulcerated.  Some scholars have postulated that Henry suffered from type II diabetes, and it is possible that he had diabetes. The diabetes theory, however, does not explain the many tragic miscarriages, stillbirths, and early deaths of his children particularly with his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.

The pregnancies of Catherine of Aragon

Altogether, Catherine of Aragon is known to have had at least six pregnancies (and more that ended early in miscarriage), so she was not infertile, nor was King Henry.  Her first pregnancy resulted in a stillborn daughter. Her second resulted in a son, Henry, Duke of Cornwall, who lived only 52 days. Her third pregnancy resulted in a son who was either stillborn or died very soon after birth and her fourth child was a stillborn son. Finally, with her fifth pregnancy, Catherine delivered a daughter who survived infancy — Mary. Catherine’s sixth pregnancy resulted in a daughter who lived only a few hours. Soon after this last birth, Catherine ceased menstruating.

Of course, pre-natal care was limited in the sixteenth century and it was common for women to miscarry and have stillbirths. Many children did not outgrow infancy because widespread diseases. However, the King and Queen had access to more resources with which to both avoid and treat any ailments. So, even for that time period, the number of stillbirths, miscarriages, and infant deaths from Catherine and Henry’s union was high.  (Four of Henry VII’s children with Elizabeth of York survived infancy, including Henry VIII.) Although many of Henry’s own health problems (skin ulcers, boils, mental disturbances) can be explained by other theories of disease, there is still a solid argument to be made that he had syphilis.

A postmortem performed on Catherine revealed an abnormality of the heart described as “black and hideous with a black excrescence which clung closely to the outside.”  It is possible that this heart irregularity was a saccular syphilitic aneurysm low in the aorta. Syphilis infects the heart affecting the aorta. Syphilis is generally not as transmissible after two years of infection when it enters the latent stage. So, it is possible that Catherine became infected with syphilis and none of Henry’s subsequent wives (or mistresses) became infected. (Thus, Elizabeth I and Edward VI were less likely to have been infected with syphilis.)

According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), today 40% of births to syphilitic mothers are stillborn, 40-70% of the survivors will be infected, and 12% of these will subsequently die in infancy. Now, compare these figures to Catherine:  50% were stillborn, 33% died as infants, and 17% (Mary) lived.

Mary’s health

There is strong evidence that indicates Mary I may have had congenital syphilis. Mary was sickly as a child suffering from poor eyesight, sinus conditions, and severe headaches—all of which can point to congenital syphilis. Mary is also known to have had dental abnormalities, a very strong indictor of congenital syphilis.Mary complained of illness throughout her life and even had two phantom pregnancies, ultimately remaining childless. It is possible that congenital syphilis led to secondary problems, as there are various theories that Mary had a tumor on her pituitary gland and that she died of ovarian cancer.

Mercury

There is no evidence that Henry was treated for syphilis, which, before the twentieth century, was treated with mercury. However, the treatment of syphilis with mercury did not originate until the early 1530s when the physician Paracelsus first prescribed it. If Henry VIII had syphilis as early as 1509 when he married Catherine (or from early in their marriage), his syphilis would likely have been latent (no visible symptoms) by the time Paracelsus first used mercury as a treatment. Therefore it is not likely that Henry would have been treated with mercury unless he contracted syphilis closer to 1530.

Neither is there evidence that Catherine or Mary were treated with mercury. Catherine would have suffered from syphilis on a similar timeline as Henry and so would have missed mercury treatments, too. Mary would have had congenital syphilis, which would not manifest in the same way. So she may have had syphilis in spite of not receiving mercury treatments.

In the end, without physical evidence, it is impossible to say with certainty what medical problems Henry, his wives, and their children suffered. What can be said, though, is that syphilis cannot be ruled out. Thus, syphilis may have played a major part in the succession problems of the English monarchy in the sixteenth century.

Sarah Jane Bodell

Read more about the life of Henry VIII and his six wives in Henry VIII’s Wives: History In An Hour published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats.

One thought on “Henry VIII’s Succession Problem: Syphilis or Bad Luck?

  1. Cushing’s syndrome as well as syphilis? Explain the rages, the poor wound healing, type 2 DM, the weight distribution, ‘moon-face’ and complexion.

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