Saturday, May 15, 2010

History Saturday - Henry VIII and Syphilis - Part 2

Jonathon Rhys-Meyers from "The Tudors" as Henry VIII

This Saturday continues my Henry VIII series and takes a look at how syphilis affects pregnant woman and how it effects the women who bore Henry children.


The above phrase was used early in the 1900’s to refer to a pregnant woman who had syphilis. If the syphilis bacteria is in a pregnant woman’s bloodstream, it can cross the placenta at anytime during the pregnancy and infect the growing fetus.

In today’s age of modern medicine, if this is detected early in a pregnancy, the woman and fetus can be treated. Again, medicine was not advanced enough in the 1500’s to treat this. Syphilis in a pregnant woman, left untreated, can cause a miscarriage, still birth, or a baby who dies soon after birth. Syphilis increases preterm delivery and intrauterine growth restriction.

Here are the stats: If a pregnant woman has untreated syphilis, 25 percent of the pregnancies result in a miscarriage or a still birth. Between 40-70% live birth children result in a syphilis infected infant. This infection in an infant is known as congenital syphilis.

An infected baby born with syphilis would have all or some of the following symptoms: jaundice, swollen arms and legs, a weak cry, possibly pneumonia, sores, rashes, and fevers. If left untreated, as infants grow into children and teenagers, they will have symptoms of late stage syphilis: damage to their bones, teeth, eyes, ears, and brain.

Now armed with this information, it’s time to visit the 1500’s. Doctors knew syphilis existed in Henry’s day. The standard, proven treatment was mercury, believe it or not. They just didn’t understand how syphilis ravaged the body.


Henry Tudor, Henry VII’s second son, was born on June 28, 1491. Little is known about his childhood. He was groomed for a vocation in the church while Arthur was groomed for the throne. In 1494, Henry was made the Duke of York. He was fluent in Latin, French, and Spanish.

On 14 November, 1501, Prince Arthur married Katherine of Aragon, from Spain. He was 15, she was just shy of her 15th birthday. Prince Henry was 10. Four months later in March 1502, Arthur died. The most likely cause was consumption, untreated tuberculosis, given the symptoms he had.

In 1502, 10 year old Henry became Henry VII’s heir. From that time on, he was groomed to take the English throne. Henry VII had a problem, now. He had taken Katherine’s Spanish dowry, spent it, and had no desire to give it back, yet that was what was expected of him, so he promised that Henry would marry Katherine when he was old enough. Still, Henry VII wasn’t thrilled with allowing a marriage between his son and Katherine and he kept putting it off. Henry VII did receive the required Papal Disposition to marry Katherine and Henry, but he did not act on it.

A year after losing his heir, Henry VII lost his beloved wife, Elizabeth, who died in childbirth in 1503. Henry VII was 46 years old. He made half-hearted plans to marry and have more children, but never carried them out. Henry VII died in 1509, at the age of 52. It was reported he never really emotionally recovered from the loss of Arthur and Elizabeth.

Henry VIII came to the throne on April 22, 1509. He was two months shy of his 18th birthday. He was young, handsome, and virile. He was physically active and enjoyed tennis as well as jousting. A picture from that time shows him to be a thin lad. Henry VIII was well educated and just days before he turned 18, he married Katherine of Aragon on 11 Jun 1509. She was 24 years old.

No one knows much of Henry VIII’s time as the Prince of Wales between 1502-1509. We can only suppose a 10 year old boy grew into a 18 year old man. Henry continued his education and excelled in physical sports. Now here, it is my assertion that during this time he became sexually active and contracted syphilis from an undocumented sexual conquest. After all, a young teenage prince having sexual relations with an older woman of questionable habits wouldn’t be unheard of in Henry’s day. Can we all picture a 16 year old boy having his first sexual encounter? Of course. It is an educated guess on my part, but also realistic to believe Henry VIII was not a virgin when he celebrated his wedding night to Katherine in 1509.

The untreated syphilis in Henry’s body was in the active phase when he began having sex with Katherine. I would say Henry was in the primary or secondary phase of syphilis during this time, having recently contracted it. When he bedded his wife, he had to have had an open sore and transmitted the infection to her. Katherine contracted syphilis from Henry and it was untreated in her body as it was untreated in his.

Now we’re going to take a look at Katherine’s childbearing years. Katherine’s first child was a stillborn girl born around or about Dec 31, 1509. It is my strong assertion, based on the medical documentation of her pregnancies, that this stillborn and her further pregnancies were a result of “syphilis of the innocent.” Later on in 1510, she became pregnant again. In January 1511, she gave birth to a son named Henry. He died two months later. Young Prince Henry was sick from birth, suffering from symptoms of a baby born with congenital syphilis. He died 52 days after he was born.

During this time, Henry VIII took his first documented mistress, Elizabeth FitzWalter. I would use as evidence that Henry VIII had a very healthy sexual libido and he freely took mistresses to satisfy his sexual desires. He also strived to be very discrete about it so little is known about how often he enjoyed these conquests, but I would agree with Alison Weir (see her book, the Six Wives of Henry VIII) that it did happen on a regular basis.

Two years later in 1513, Katherine was pregnant a third time. She later lost the child, a boy. The baby was either stillborn or died shortly after birth. Again, I assert that this third pregnancy is strong proof that the syphilis bacteria in Katherine’s bloodstream was highly potent. Knowing the stats as I mentioned above, pregnancies have a 25% chance of ending in a miscarriage or stillborn. Katherine had three pregnancies and had yet to deliver a child that would live past the first year of its birth. During this time, in 1513, Henry VIII was 22 and suffered a bout of small pox, which fortunately, did not leave him scarred.

Katherine’s 4th pregnancy in 1514 resulted in another stillborn son. She was now 29. Katherine’s 5th pregnancy came to term in February 1516 and she gave birth a girl named Mary. Mary grew into childhood but the doctors noted she suffered from poor eyesight, sinus conditions and headaches. She was considered a sickly child, even from birth. Given what we know about congenital syphilis, Mary suffered from this condition from the moment she was born. We’ll take a further look at Mary later on.

Katherine’s 6th pregnancy in 1517 resulted in a miscarriage. Catherine’s 7th and last pregnancy was in 1518. She gave birth to a girl who died a few days later. Katherine was 33 during this last pregnancy. In 1522, when Katherine was 37, it was reported she went through menopause and was unable to have more children, but the syphilis in her bloodstream, a wedding night gift from Henry VIII, had done its work well.

Henry’s next documented and well known mistress was Elizabeth Blount. Weir puts the dates of their affair between 1514-1519. Henry VIII was 28 years old in 1519. Elizabeth Blount gave birth to a healthy baby boy that year. I assert that Henry was in the latent in the phase of syphilis when he had his affair with Elizabeth Blount. He probably entered the latent phase of the disease anywhere between 1510-1519, but probably earlier if he had infected Katherine in 1509. Henry did not have any open sores when he had sex with Elizabeth Blount, thus he did not give the infection to her and she did not transmit it to her child via the placenta. There is no documentation supporting that Henry Fitzroy, Blount’s child, was a sickly child. In fact he lived until 1536. He was 17 years old when he died and according to the documentation, while not confirmed, he probably died from consumption. It is because of this that Henry VIII felt confident he could have a “normal” son.

I assert that Henry had many unnamed mistresses. These women met nothing to him – he used them to satisfy sexual urges, while the Queen, his emotional lover was pregnant. I believe, as Alison Weir does, that the king conducted numerous short and secret affairs.

In 1522, Henry, 31, had two children – a legitimate girl who suffered from congenital syphilis and a healthy son. He also had his father’s long ago counsel haunting the outer recesses of his reign. He wanted an heir who he could leave his throne to and that heir had to be a boy. A girl simply would not do. Henry then began making preparations to name his son with Elizabeth Blount as an heir – just in case.

Between 1518-1522, Henry VIII and Katherine continued to have sexual relations, but Katherine did not get pregnant. It wouldn’t have made a difference. The syphilis bacteria was in her bloodstream and any pregnancy would have little chance of success. Henry found sex with her distasteful now because he reported she suffered from a gynecological condition. What that was, history does not say. As for Elizabeth Blount, once she had Henry’s son, he did not have any more relations with her.


It is believed that in 1522 or 1523, Henry took Mary Boleyn as his mistress until Henry became infatuated with Anne Boleyn, Mary’s sister. During the time of Mary’s affair with Henry VIII, she gave birth to two children, a girl and a boy. Both children were healthy. While Mary was a married women, once she began having sexual relations with the king, she would not have been allowed to sleep with anyone else. There is strong evidence that Henry VIII was the father of Mary’s two children. Again, he was in the latent phase of syphilis. These children were born healthy, with no signs of sickness, and lived long, rewarding lives. Henry did not see fit to acknowledge being their father. He was most likely lulled into a false confidence that he could get a legitimate heir, (if he married someone else) and he had Henry Fitzroy alive and thriving, being groomed to be his heir as well.

In 1524, Henry VIII, now 33, suffered from his first bout of malaria. This would reoccur the rest of his life. In 1526, now 35, Henry suffered from a serious jousting accident. He began to have migraines from it. He also began to suffer from leg ulcers. From this point on, Henry suffered from symptoms of syphilis in the tertiary phase. It was documented that while Henry was in his late 30’s, he underwent a major personality change from being a benevolent ruler to an irrational and hot-tempered despot. His enemies, i.e., Cardinal Wolsley, did not know his mercy and neither did his wives.

In 1525, as Mary was recovering from her second birth, a son she named Henry, her sister, Anne caught his eye. Henry then began his dogged pursuit to make Anne his wife. By now he realized Katherine would never have more children and he needed to have a legitimate son.


The period between 1525-1533 is known as the king’s great matter because Henry so actively sought to divorce Katherine. In the end, he discarded her to live away from the court. He considered them divorced at this point, but the Catholic Church did not. In January 1533, Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn. He was 42 years old. Henry and Anne’s only living child, Elizabeth, was born in September of that year. I assert that when Henry first began having sex with Anne, he did not have any open sores and did not give her syphilis. Once Anne’s pregnancy was discovered, Henry stopped having sex with her, as was the custom in that time. Thus, she did not contract syphilis in the initial year of her marriage. Elizabeth was born healthy and thriving. There is no medical documentation from the 1500’s that proves otherwise. However, after Anne gave birth to a healthy daughter, I assert that Henry had a flair up of secondary symptoms. Henry gave syphilis to Anne at this point in time. In January 1534, Anne was pregnant again, but due to poor record keeping, the child was either stillborn or a miscarriage. It was rumored she was pregnant shortly after this, but no conclusive proof from reputable sources at the time exist.

In January 1536, Henry suffered from another serious jousting accident. He was 44 years old. Henry was unconscious for several hours before recovering. However, when he did, he was reported to be suffering from aggravated fits of blind rage, severe migraines, and sore throats, symptoms indicative that his syphilis was indeed in the tertiary stage.

Also, in January 1536, Anne suffered her last miscarriage. It was reported the child was a fifteen week old male fetus. Henry was now stunned to witness Katherine’s successive childbirth failures play out again in Anne Boleyn. He sought options to rid himself of Anne. In May 1536, Anne Boleyn was beheaded and Henry married Jane Seymour.


During the king’s sexual relations with Anne, it was reported by her that Henry, on occasion, had a hard time sustaining an erection. In fact, Henry had been married to Jane Seymour for seven months before Jane conceived a child. While sources at the time can’t confirm Henry might be going impotent, I suggest this is strong circumstantial evidence he was. After all, we knew he was very virile. Katherine and Anne got pregnant by him almost immediately after consummating their physical relations with him. Also, while Jane Seymour died in childbirth, Edward, Henry’s son by her, was the last known child from Henry VIII. Henry did not get Anne of Cleaves pregnant in their brief marriage. Anne was reported telling one of her ladies that while he was on top, he tried and tried, but could not sustain an erection. In Henry’s next marriage to Katherine Howard, it was reported that due to his weight, she had to get on top of him. Katherine was documented often complaining that Henry could not sustain an erection. As for Henry’s last wife, Katherine Parr, while unconfirmed, I doubt they attempted sexual intercourse. Parr outlived Henry and entered into a marriage with Thomas Seymour, Jane’s brother. Parr gave birth to a healthy girl who never showed any signs of congenital syphilis.

The interesting question history now poses is this: Did Edward VI suffer from congenital syphilis?

It is interesting to note that during Jane Seymour’s pregnancy, Henry developed a strange lesion on the side of his nose, a further tell-tale symptom of tertiary syphilis and secondary symptoms. Also, during this time, Henry started to go prematurely gray and grow fat. Within four years, his doublet would have expanded to fit 3 of the biggest men of the time.

Jane Seymour suffered a hard, three day labor. Reports as to her son’s health were mixed. As for Jane, the childbirth was excruciating. Given the documented evidence that exists, there was probably a tear in her perineum which got infected and this infection developed into perpetual fever which killed her. She did not die from symptoms of syphilis. Ironically, Henry had ordered clean sheets and the finest linens for his son, while Jane recovered in dirty and unsanitary conditions. If he had ordered the clean sheets and hygienic conditions for her, she might have lived.

History is inconsistent as to Prince Edward’s health in his early years. One source documents he had a healthy, lusty cry, while the other states, “he was never a robust child.”

Circumstantial evidence leans toward Edward having congenital syphilis. After all, his sister, Mary, suffered from it and she was now 20. Henry and Jane had unprotected sex for seven months before she conceived. Remember that lesion he developed on his face? His secondary symptoms were active. I assert that Henry had an open sore while his secondary symptoms of syphilis were flaring up and he gave Jane syphilis.

Weir writes that Edward thrived under the care of a wet nurse. Henry imposed high standards of hygiene regarding his son, yet Edward did have reported problems teething. This would be a symptom of congenital syphilis. When Edward was four it was reported he had a bad fever. He was occasionally ill in childhood and suffered from poor eyesight, but enjoyed good health until the last six months of his life. Again, a child with congenital syphilis could display all of this and be considered “healthy.” Mary Tudor’s own health demonstrated this.

In 1546, Henry VIII was 54 years old. He could barely walk and became absentminded. When he finally died, the stench of his bursting leg ulcers consumed the room.

Interestingly, the king’s doctors never thought for one minute he suffered from syphilis.

When Henry died, his 9 year old son came to the throne under a regency due to his age. Edward VI died when he was 15. The general consensus of the medical doctors was consumption, and while it was probable Edward did suffer and die from this, most of the symptoms given for his poor health in the last six months of his life are consistent with congenital syphilis. Edward was now a teenager and exhibiting signs of the tertiary phase. His symptoms included hair loss, the loss of his nails, swollen legs and arms, flu-like symptoms, chronic coughing (possibly due to the consumption) and rash-like bed sores. It was noted that he ejected a greenish-yellow, black and pinkish matter from his mouth which would support a diagnosis of consumption. However, I assert that the totality of symptoms also indicate Edward had congenital syphilis and tertiary stage symptoms which contributed to his death.


NEXT: A look at Henry's children who survived to adulthood.


  1. I read every word. Fascinating. It took me 19 minutes. (Now I'm late for movie night.) How long did this take you to write it? To research it? I hope you get a few books out of your research!

  2. Liana, it took a while to research it. When I found that book at work written in the 1940's about Syphilis of the Innocent and discovered the symptoms and how it affected pregant woman, I just knew at that point Henry had it and had given it to his women. What amazes me is the amount of material and dismissal on the fact Henry didn't have it.