Friday, April 12, 2013

Blood Will Tell A Medical Explanation of the Tyranny of Henry VIII by Kyra Cornelius Kramer

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Personal Kindle Library
Read: April 11, 2013

With his tumultuous love life, relentless pursuit of a male heir, and drastic religious transformation, England’s King Henry VIII’s life sounds more like reality television than history. He was a man of fascinating contradictions—he pursued a woman he loved for almost a decade only to behead her less than four years after their marriage. He defended Catholicism so vigorously that he was honored as Defender of the Faith, but he went on to break with Rome and have himself declared Supreme Head of the Church of England. Worst of all, the King who began his reign praised as “hero” and “lover of justice and goodness” ended it having metamorphosed into such a monster that he was called the "English Nero." What could have caused these incredible paradoxes? Could there be a simple medical explanation for the King’s descent into tyranny? Where do the answers lie? Blood Will Tell.

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Image by Andreas Praefcke,
(CC-BY-3.0), via Wikimedia Commons
When I think of royal families affected by medical maladies, my mind jumps immediately to the Romanovs or the Hapsburgs, not the Tudors, yet it is this latter family that is the focus of Kyra Cornelius Kramer's Blood Will Tell. 

Kramer presents an interesting theory, that Henry VIII might have been kell positive and suffered from McLeod's syndrome, and supports the idea with several well known events from Henry's first two marriages to support her conclusions. The presentation, however, is not flawless. 

Particularly in the king's latter years, Kramer frequently drops all pretense of suggestion and slips, referring to her suppositions as outright fact. Throughout the book she also fails to adequately address and/or discount other explanations for Henry's behavior, relying on vague blanket statements that all of Henry's other conditions could have coexisted with her diagnosis. 

Most concerning, however, is the frequency at which Kramer entirely ignores Henry and focuses on the behavior and character of his wives. Perhaps I missed it, but I thought, as the title suggests, the focus of this piece was Henry's health and how it related to his policies. While the book does touch on these subjects, it also boasts a comprehensive play by play of court life over the course of his reign. To be perfectly honest I often felt Kramer lost her way and forgetting her thesis, became mired in entirely irrelevant chapters of Tudor history (i.e. the motivations behind Katherine Howard's affair with Thomas Culpeper and the regard in which the English people viewed Anne of Cleves).

My criticisms are not meant to discredit Kramer, her theory is plausible and certainly gives one reason to pause. No, I simply feel her argument might have been stronger had she approached it differently and that on the whole, the content of her work wanders from time to time. 

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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.
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