On New Year’s Day of 1511, Queen Katherina of Aragon gave birth to the son she and King Henry VIII had been yearning for. The newborn was named Henry after his father and he appears to have been a normal and healthy baby, prompting widespread and prolonged celebration.
Henry and Katherina were thrilled with their new son, whom they hoped would be the first of many. Henry VIII went on a pilgrimage to a shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary in order to give thanks for the birth of his heir, and the proud parents hosted a tournament at Westminster in mid-February to celebrate his arrival.
What does the birth of a healthy baby mean vis-à-vis the hypothesis that Henry VIII had a Kell positive blood type that caused his wives to miscarry in the third trimester? Actually, the birth of a healthy infant is completely compatible with the hypothesis, because the little boy would have been one of Katherina’s lucky Kell negative infants, and was therefore able to thrive during gestation.
Of Katherina’s known pregnancies only five would reasonably be expected to be at risk for alloimmunization in the womb. (There are circumstances wherein the first baby, her stillborn girl, would have possible been exposed to Katherina’s antigens, but first babies are typically untouched by alloimmunization.) Usually, it is the pregnancies subsequent to the first gestation that are at risk of alloimmunization, so the queen’s last five infants would have been threatened by hemolytic disease of the newborn. If the New Year’s Prince was Kell-negative, then the ratio of Kell-positive or Kell-negative infants born to Katherina looks more balanced; of the five pregnancies, 3 would have been Kell-positive and 2 would have been Kell-negative.
Sadly, the newborn Prince Henry died a few weeks after his birth, on February 22. No one knows for certain what killed the little boy. Unfortunately, there were a seemingly endless number of reasons a baby could die in infancy during the sixteenth century. What is known for sure is that his loss caused his parents profound grief.
The queen, “like a natural woman, made much lamentation, howbeit by the king’s good persuasion and behavior, her sorrow was mitigated, but not shortly.” The king put on a brave face, as was expected of him, but his heart could have been no less heavy than his wife’s. This was not only his child, his son was the embodiment of the dynasty Henry hoped to continue. The king’s hopes, ambitions, and paternal love were all bound up in the prince’s swaddling cloths … which would perform cruel double duty as the baby’s shroud.
If the baby had lived to remain Henry VIII’s heir, he would have altered the course of English – and thus Western – history. It seems like such a huge turning point of history to rest on the body of one small infant.