The King’s Curse-Philippa Gregory: Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

Since I’m a firm believer in analyzing what makes a book excellent and/ or popular, I

Welcome to my blog!

Welcome to my blog!

chose “The King’s Curse” by Philippa Gregory. Gregory is a historian and writes extensively about the English monarchies leading up to the time of the Tudors — blood lines, marriages, relationships, supporters, enemies, battles, plots, alliances and betrayals. You get the picture.  What Gregory does exceptionally well is using what’s real as a springboard to a great story. Even though she studied the facts, she often disregards them or spins them into quite a yarn in order to entertain. You shouldn’t take all that happens in her books as a factual account. Sometimes, Gregory tells us in the Author’s Note at the back of the book what is real and what isn’t, but not always. We will discuss today how the fictional curse was most likely the factual disease called Kell’s Syndrome with McLeod’s Syndrome as a complication. So, the curse was not in the words, but in the genes.

Let’s investigate Kell Syndrome according to the theories of Whitley & Kramer. Bioarchaeologist, Whitley and anthropologist,  Kramer explain the genetic syndrome. A Kell positive man and a Kell negative woman can have a healthy first Kell positive baby but subsequent pregnancies are endangered unless the mother receives treatment to prevent a problem with other pregnancies. The problem gene is passed through the males only.  Whitley & Kramer believe that Henry VIII was Kell positive so his first child with Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour and Bessie Blount were first pregnancies for the mothers  so the first child was born healthy but all subsequent pregnancies ended in tragedy for each of these women except Jane Seymour, who died giving birth to her first child, Edward VI. In the days of the Tudors, there was no knowledge of this syndrome so any following pregnancies would most likely result in miscarriages, stillbirths  or early deaths. (This is similar to babies born to mothers with RH negative blood factors which is a contemporary issue handled by modern medicine.)  A common complication of Kell Syndrome is McLeod’s Syndrome which causes erratic, violent behavior in its victims who suffer from paranoia, anger and is a type of bi-polar  disorder. There could be little argument that Henry VIII’s  behavior was anything but extreme, unwarranted, cruel and self-serving.

In a previous book, “The White Queen” Gregory strongly hints that Margaret Beaufort, mother of  Henry VII and  paternal grandmother of Henry VIII, may have been responsible for the apparent deaths of  Elizabeth Woodville’s sons,  Edward and Richard, the two princes held in The Tower. According to Gregory, Beaufort’s only ambition in life was to bring her son to the throne as Henry VII  –  plotting and scheming  to take the throne by force since her son was not in the rightful line of succession according to the populace. Gregory also plays down the popular theory laying blame on Richard III, brother of the deceased Edward IV, and the boys’ uncle. In this book, Gregory also tells the story of Elizabeth Woodville (Edward IV’s queen) cursing the killers of her  two young sons in concert with her daughter, Elizabeth who will later become Elizabeth of  York, Queen of Henry VII. Had they lived, these boys would have been rightful heirs to the throne at that time. The curse calls for death upon the son of the killer and all future grandsons so that the bloodline could not continue.

Let’s take a look at “The King’s Curse.”  The story is actually told from the point of view of Margaret Pole, a beloved and trusted cousin of Henry VIII. Margaret and her family were also subject to the whims of the monarch. Loyalties shifted but were kept hidden. Margaret did her best to keep herself and her grown children in the good graces of the king. She was not entirely successful, but you’ll have to read the book to find out what happened to her and her family.  The focus of this blog post is not on Margaret but on Henry VIII.  Spoiler Alert-I will tell you this: at sixty-eight years old, she was the oldest person to be executed by order of Henry VIII.

Henry VIII had six wives and at least three mistresses. After the many late-term miscarriages and stillbirths, only four of his children lived past infancy: Mary I (daughter of Katherine of Aragon), Elizabeth I (daughter of Anne Boleyn), Edward VI (Son of Jane Seymour) and Henry Fitzroy (son of Bessie Blount, a mistress). Henry blamed the women for his lack of male heirs, but his genetic makeup was most likely responsible. Edward succeeded his father and died at age fifteen. Henry Fitzroy was illegitimate but his death preceded that of Edward VI. This left Mary and Elizabeth but the throne did not easily transfer to them. Both women died childless although both took turns on the throne of England.

Let’s understand the bloodline. On Henry’s mother’s side: Jacquetta of Luxembourg was the mother of Elizabeth Woodville who was the mother of Elizabeth of York who was the mother of Henry VIII through her marriage to Henry VII. On Henry’s father’s side: Margaret Beaufort by her marriage to Edmond Tudor  was the mother of Henry VII, her only child. The two families were merged when Henry VII married Elizabeth of York. They had four living children. Arthur, Henry, Margaret and Mary. Arthur married Katherine of Aragon but died of illness a short time after. Henry married Katherine, his brother’s widow. Their daughter, Mary later became Mary I. Henry later claimed that Mary was illegitimate since he had his marriage to Katherine of Aragon annulled claiming that her marriage to his late brother, Arthur was indeed consummated and that Katherine tricked him into marrying her. Although Henry was deeply in love with Katherine for many years, he began to make irresponsible and crazy decisions at this time beginning  with his whirlwind affair and marriage to Anne Boleyn. The once much-loved king began a reign of terror against his court, his subjects and his own family.

In Philippa Gregory’s Author’s note:  Regarding consummation of the marriage between Katherine of Aragon and Arthur … “As a historian, I can examine one side against the other and share these thoughts with the reader. As a novelist, I have to fix the story with one coherent viewpoint, thus the account of Katherine’s first marriage and her decision to marry Prince Harry is fictional and based on my interpretation of the historical facts.”  She goes on to say, “interestingly, Whitley and Kramer trace Kell Syndrome back to Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford, the suspected witch and mother of Elizabeth Woodville (wife of  Edward IV). Sometimes, uncannily, fiction creates a metaphor for a historical truth: in a fictional scene in the novel, Elizabeth (Woodville), together with her daughter Elizabeth of York, curse the murderer of her (Woodville’s) sons, swearing that they shall lose their son and their grandsons, while in real life her genes —unknown and undetectable at the time— entered the Tudor line through her daughter (Elizabeth of York, mother of Henry VIII) and may have caused the deaths of four Tudor babies to Katherine of Aragon and three to Anne Boleyn.”

Jacquetta was the maternal great-grandmother of Henry VIII.  Her daughter, Elizabeth Woodville and granddaughter, Elizabeth of York would have unknowingly cursed their own family if they in fact spoke against the killers of their sons and brothers, respectively. There are references to the irony of this situation in both books. Even though this curse is fictitious, Gregory plays it like it’s real. In truth, this Kell Syndrome is believed to have been passed down through Jacquetta of Luxembourg. Her daughters had many children but her sons’ marriages were not as fruitful. This reinforces the idea of the males being affected by the syndrome.

Adherence to the facts can interfere with creativity. It makes a much better story if you take the truth, toss it and blow it up. Would you rather read about poor Henry VIII’s genetic afflictions or about a curse from the descendants of a suspected witch? You see, to entertain is the purpose after all.

Next week’s blog  – “Pompeii-The Movie: The 2014 Blockbuster That Wasn’t”

© 2014 All rights reserved. No part of this content may be reprinted or used in any form without express permission from Elaine Donadio Writes.

To hear Philippa Gregory tell about “The King’s Curse” watch this video.




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Saturday, March 14, 2020- Barnes & Noble, Massapequa, NY 12:00-4:00pm

December 2014
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