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Last summer​ at the festival in Hay-on-Wye, I was asked to name a famous person and choose a book to give them. I hate the leaden repetitiveness of these little quizzes: who would be the guests at your ideal dinner party, what book has changed your life, which fictional character do you most resemble? I had to come up with an answer, however, so I chose Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, and I chose to give her a book published in 2006, by the cultural historian Caroline Weber; it’s called Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution. It’s not that I think we’re heading for a revolution. It’s rather that I saw Kate becoming a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung. In those days she was a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore. These days she is a mother-to-be, and draped in another set of threadbare attributions. Once she gets over being sick, the press will find that she is radiant. They will find that this young woman’s life until now was nothing, her only point and purpose being to give birth.

Marie Antoinette was a woman eaten alive by her frocks. She was transfixed by appearances, stigmatised by her fashion choices. Politics were made personal in her. Her greed for self-gratification, her half-educated dabbling in public affairs, were adduced as a reason the French were bankrupt and miserable. It was ridiculous, of course. She was one individual with limited power and influence, who focused the rays of misogyny. She was a woman who couldn’t win. If she wore fine fabrics she was said to be extravagant. If she wore simple fabrics, she was accused of plotting to ruin the Lyon silk trade. But in truth she was all body and no soul: no soul, no sense, no sensitivity. She was so wedded to her appearance that when the royal family, in disguise, made its desperate escape from Paris, dashing for the border, she not only had several trunk loads of new clothes sent on in advance, but took her hairdresser along on the trip. Despite the weight of her mountainous hairdos, she didn’t feel her head wobbling on her shoulders. When she returned from that trip, to the prison Paris would become for her, it was said that her hair had turned grey overnight.

Antoinette as a royal consort was a gliding, smiling disaster, much like Diana in another time and another country. But Kate Middleton, as she was, appeared to have been designed by a committee and built by craftsmen, with a perfect plastic smile and the spindles of her limbs hand-turned and gloss-varnished. When it was announced that Diana was to join the royal family, the Duke of Edinburgh is said to have given her his approval because she would ‘breed in some height’. Presumably Kate was designed to breed in some manners. She looks like a nicely brought up young lady, with ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ part of her vocabulary. But in her first official portrait by Paul Emsley, unveiled in January, her eyes are dead and she wears the strained smile of a woman who really wants to tell the painter to bugger off. One critic said perceptively that she appeared ‘weary of being looked at’. Another that the portrait might pass muster as the cover of a Catherine Cookson novel: an opinion I find thought-provoking, as Cookson’s simple tales of poor women extricating themselves from adverse circumstances were for twenty years, according to the Public Lending Right statistics, the nation’s favourite reading. Sue Townsend said of Diana that she was ‘a fatal non-reader’. She didn’t know the end of her own story. She enjoyed only the romances of Barbara Cartland. I’m far too snobbish to have read one, but I assume they are stories in which a wedding takes place and they all live happily ever after. Diana didn’t see the possible twists in the narrative. What does Kate read? It’s a question.

Paul Emsley’s portrait of Kate Middleton is unveiled, in 2013.

Paul Emsley’s portrait of Kate Middleton is unveiled.

Kate seems to have been selected for her role of princess because she was irreproachable: as painfully thin as anyone could wish, without quirks, without oddities, without the risk of the emergence of character. She appears precision-made, machine-made, so different from Diana whose human awkwardness and emotional incontinence showed in her every gesture. Diana was capable of transforming herself from galumphing schoolgirl to ice queen, from wraith to Amazon. Kate seems capable of going from perfect bride to perfect mother, with no messy deviation. When her pregnancy became public she had been visiting her old school, and had picked up a hockey stick and run a few paces for the camera. BBC News devoted a discussion to whether a pregnant woman could safely put on a turn of speed while wearing high heels. It is sad to think that intelligent people could devote themselves to this topic with earnest furrowings of the brow, but that’s what discourse about royals comes to: a compulsion to comment, a discourse empty of content, mouthed rather than spoken. And in the same way one is compelled to look at them: to ask what they are made of, and is their substance the same as ours.

I used to think that the interesting issue was whether we should have a monarchy or not. But now I think that question is rather like, should we have pandas or not? Our current royal family doesn’t have the difficulties in breeding that pandas do, but pandas and royal persons alike are expensive to conserve and ill-adapted to any modern environment. But aren’t they interesting? Aren’t they nice to look at? Some people find them endearing; some pity them for their precarious situation; everybody stares at them, and however airy the enclosure they inhabit, it’s still a cage.

A few years ago I saw the Prince of Wales at a public award ceremony. I had never seen him before, and at once I thought: what a beautiful suit! What sublime tailoring! It’s for Shakespeare to penetrate the heart of a prince, and for me to study his cuff buttons. I found it hard to see the man inside the clothes; and like Thomas Cromwell in my novels, I couldn’t help winding the fabric back onto the bolt and pricing him by the yard. At this ceremony, which was formal and carefully orchestrated, the prince gave an award to a young author who came up on stage in shirtsleeves to receive his cheque. He no doubt wished to show that he was a free spirit, despite taking money from the establishment. For a moment I was ashamed of my trade. I thought, this is what the royals have to contend with today: not real, principled opposition, but self-congratulatory chippiness.

And then as we drifted away from the stage I saw something else. I glanced sideways into a room off the main hall, and saw that it was full of stacking chairs. It was a depressing, institutional, impersonal sight. I thought, Charles must see this all the time. Glance sideways, into the wings, and you see the tacky preparations for the triumphant public event. You see your beautiful suit deconstructed, the tailor’s chalk lines, the unsecured seams. You see that your life is a charade, that the scenery is cardboard, that the paint is peeling, the red carpet fraying, and if you linger you will notice the oily devotion fade from the faces of your subjects, and you will see their retreating backs as they turn up their collars and button their coats and walk away into real life.

Then a little later I went to Buckingham Palace for a book trade event, a large evening party. I had expected to see people pushing themselves into the queen’s path, but the opposite was true. The queen walked through the reception areas at an even pace, hoping to meet someone, and you would see a set of guests, as if swept by the tide, parting before her or welling ahead of her into the next room. They acted as if they feared excruciating embarrassment should they be caught and obliged to converse. The self-possessed became gauche and the eloquent were struck dumb. The guests studied the walls, the floor, they looked everywhere except at Her Majesty. They studied exhibits in glass cases and the paintings on the walls, which were of course worth looking at, but they studied them with great intentness, as if their eyes had been glued. Vermeer was just then ‘having a moment’, as they say, and the guests congregated around a small example, huddled with their backs to the room. I pushed through to see the painting along with the others but I can’t remember now which Vermeer it was. It’s safe to say there would have been a luminous face, round or oval, there would have been a woman gazing entranced at some household object, or perhaps reading a letter with a half-smile; there may have been a curtain, suggestive of veiled meaning; there would have been an enigma. We concentrated on it at the expense of the enigma moving among us, smiling with gallant determination.

And then the queen passed close to me and I stared at her. I am ashamed now to say it but I passed my eyes over her as a cannibal views his dinner, my gaze sharp enough to pick the meat off her bones. I felt that such was the force of my devouring curiosity that the party had dematerialised and the walls melted and there were only two of us in the vast room, and such was the hard power of my stare that Her Majesty turned and looked back at me, as if she had been jabbed in the shoulder; and for a split second her face expressed not anger but hurt bewilderment. She looked young: for a moment she had turned back from a figurehead into the young woman she was, before monarchy froze her and made her a thing, a thing which only had meaning when it was exposed, a thing that existed only to be looked at.

And I felt sorry then. I wanted to apologise. I wanted to say: it’s nothing personal, it’s monarchy I’m staring at. I rejoined, mentally, the rest of the guests. Now flunkeys were moving among us with trays and on them were canapés, and these snacks were the queen’s revenge. They were pieces of gristly meat on skewers. Let’s not put too fine a point on it: they were kebabs. It took some time to chew through one of them, and then the guests were left with the little sticks in their hands. They tried to give them back to the flunkeys, but the flunkeys smiled and sadly shook their heads, and moved away, so the guests had to carry on the evening holding them out, like children with sparklers on Guy Fawkes night.

At this point the evening became all too much for me. It was violently interesting. I went behind a sofa and sat on the floor and enjoyed the rest of the party that way, seeking privacy as my sympathies shifted. And as the guests ebbed away and the rooms emptied, I joined them, and on the threshold I looked back, and what I saw, placed precisely at the base of every pillar, was a forest of little sticks: gnawed and abandoned. So if the queen’s glance had swept the room, that is what she would have seen: what we had left in our wake. It was the stacking chairs all over again; the scaffolding of reality too nakedly displayed, the daylight let in on magic.

We can be sure the queen was not traumatised by my staring, as when next we met she gave me a medal. As I prepared to go to the palace, people would say: ‘Will it be the actual queen, the queen herself?’ Did they think contact with the anointed hand would change you? Was that what the guests at the palace feared: to be changed by powerful royal magic, without knowing how? The faculty of awe remains intact, for all that the royal story in recent years has taken a sordid turn. There were scandals enough in centuries past, from the sneaky little adulteries of Katherine Howard to the junketings of the Prince Regent to the modern-day mischief of Mrs Simpson. But a new world began, I think, in 1980, with the discovery that Diana, the future Princess of Wales, had legs. You will remember how the young Diana taught for a few hours a week at a kindergarten called Young England, and when it was first known that she was Charles’s choice of bride, the press photographed her, infants touchingly gathered around; but they induced her to stand against the light, so in the resulting photograph the nation could see straight through her skirt. A sort of licentiousness took hold, a national lip-smacking. Those gangling limbs were artlessly exposed, without her permission. It was the first violation.

When Diana drove to St Paul’s she was a blur of virginal white behind glass. The public was waiting to see the dress, but this was more than a fashion moment. An everyday sort of girl had been squashed into the coach, but a goddess came out. She didn’t get out of the coach in any ordinary way: she hatched. The extraordinary dress came first, like a flow of liquid, like ectoplasm emerging from the orifices of a medium. It was a long moment before she solidified. Indeed the coach was a medium, a method of conveyance and communication between two spheres, the private and the public, the common and the royal. The dress’s first effect was dismaying. I could hear a nation of women catching their breath as one, not in awe but in horror: it’s creased to glory, how did they let that happen? I heard the squeak as a million ironing-boards unfolded, a sigh and shudder as a collective nightmare came true: that dream we all have, that we are incorrectly dressed or not dressed at all, that we are naked in the street. But as the dress resolved about her, the princess was born and the world breathed out.

Diana was more royal than the family she joined. That had nothing to do with family trees. Something in her personality, her receptivity, her passivity, fitted her to be the carrier of myth. She came near to claiming that she had a healing touch, the ancient attribute of royal persons. The healing touch can’t be felt through white gloves. Diana walked bare-handed among the multitude, and unarmed: unfortified by irony, uninformed by history. Her tragedy was located in the gap between her human capacities and the demands of the superhuman role she was required to fulfil. When I think of Diana, I remember Stevie Smith’s poem about the Lorelei:

There, on a rock majestical,
A girl with smile equivocal,
Painted, young and damned and fair,
Sits and combs her yellow hair.

Soon Diana’s hairstyles were as consequential as Marie Antoinette’s, and a great deal cheaper to copy.

In the next stage of her story, she passed through trials, through ordeals at the world’s hands. For a time the public refrained from demanding her blood so she shed it herself, cutting her arms and legs. Her death still makes me shudder because although I know it was an accident, it wasn’t just an accident. It was fate showing her hand, fate with her twisted grin. Diana visited the most feminine of cities to meet her end as a woman: to move on, from the City of Light to the place beyond black. She went into the underpass to be reborn, but reborn this time without a physical body: the airy subject of a hundred thousand photographs, a flicker at the corner of the eye, a sigh on the breeze.

For a time it was hoped, and it was feared, that Diana had changed the nation. Her funeral was a pagan outpouring, a lawless fiesta of grief. We are bad at mourning our dead. We don’t make time or space for grief. The world tugs us along, back into its harsh rhythm before we are ready for it, and for the pain of loss doctors can prescribe a pill. We are at war with our nature, and nature will win; all the bottled anguish, the grief dammed up, burst the barriers of politeness and formality and restraint, and broke down the divide between private and public, so that strangers wailed in the street, people who had never met Diana lamented her with maladjusted fervour, and we all remembered our secret pain and unleashed it in one huge carnival of mass mourning. But in the end, nothing changed. We were soon back to the prosaic: shirtsleeves, stacking chairs, little sticks. And yet none of us who lived through it will forget that dislocating time, when the skin came off the surface of the world, and our inner vision cleared, and we saw the archetypes clear and plain, and we saw the collective psyche at work, and the gods pulling our strings. To quote Stevie Smith again:

An antique story comes to me
And fills me with anxiety,
I wonder why I fear so much
What surely has no modern touch?

In looking at royalty we are always looking at what is archaic, what is mysterious by its nature, and my feeling is that it will only ever half-reveal itself. This poses a challenge to historians and to those of us who work imaginatively with the past. Royal persons are both gods and beasts. They are persons but they are supra-personal, carriers of a blood line: at the most basic, they are breeding stock, collections of organs.

This brings me to the royal bodies with whom I have been most concerned recently, those of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII. Long before Kate’s big news was announced, the tabloids wanted to look inside her to see if she was pregnant. Historians are still trying to peer inside the Tudors. Are they healthy, are they sick, can they breed? The story of Henry and his wives is peculiar to its time and place, but also timeless and universally understood; it is highly political and also highly personal. It is about body parts, about what slots in where, and when: are they body parts fit for purpose, or are they diseased? It’s no surprise that so much fiction constellates around the subject of Henry and his wives. Often, if you want to write about women in history, you have to distort history to do it, or substitute fantasy for facts; you have to pretend that individual women were more important than they were or that we know more about them than we do.

But with the reign of King Bluebeard, you don’t have to pretend. Women, their bodies, their reproductive capacities, their animal nature, are central to the story. The history of the reign is so graphically gynaecological that in the past it enabled lady novelists to write about sex when they were only supposed to write about love; and readers could take an avid interest in what went on in royal bedrooms by dignifying it as history, therefore instructive, edifying. Popular fiction about the Tudors has also been a form of moral teaching about women’s lives, though what is taught varies with moral fashion. It used to be that Anne Boleyn was a man-stealer who got paid out. Often, now, the lesson is that if Katherine of Aragon had been a bit more foxy, she could have hung on to her husband. Anne as opportunist and sexual predator finds herself recruited to the cause of feminism. Always, the writers point to the fact that a man who marries his mistress creates a job vacancy. ‘Women beware women’ is a teaching that never falls out of fashion.

Anne Boleyn, in particular, is a figure who elicits a deep response, born out of ignorance often enough but also out of empathy. The internet is abuzz with stories about her, as if everything were happening today. Her real self is hidden within the dramas into which we co-opt her. There is a prurient curiosity around her, of the kind that gathered around Wallis Simpson. Henry didn’t give up the throne to marry her, but he did reshape his nation’s history. So what was her particular attraction? Did she have a sexual secret? A special trick? Was she beautiful, or ugly? The six fingers with which she was credited were not seen during her lifetime, and the warts and wens and extra nipple that supposedly disfigured her were witches’ marks produced by the black fantasy of Catholic propagandists. Her contemporaries didn’t think she was a great beauty. ‘She is of middling stature’, a Venetian diplomat reported. A ‘swarthy complexion, long neck, wide mouth, bosom not much raised, and in fact has nothing but the English king’s great appetite, and her eyes, which are black and beautiful’. It was said, though not by unbiased observers, that after her marriage she aged rapidly and grew thin. If this is true, and we put it together with reports of a swelling in her throat, and with the description of her by one contemporary as ‘a goggle-eyed whore’, then we’re looking, possibly, at a woman with a hyperthyroid condition, a woman of frayed temper who lives on the end of her nerves. It often surprises people that there is no attested contemporary portrait. Just because an unknown hand has written ‘Anne Boleyn’ on a picture, it doesn’t mean it’s an image from the life or even an image of Anne at all. The most familiar image, in which she wears a letter ‘B’ hanging from a pearl necklace, exists in many forms and variants and originates at least fifty years after Anne’s death.

So much close scrutiny, and none of it much help to posterity. Anne was a mercurial woman, still shaped by the projections of those who read and write about her. Royal bodies do change after death, and not just as a consequence of the universal post-mortem changes. Now we know the body in the Leicester car park is indeed that of Richard III, we have to concede the curved spine was not Tudor propaganda, but we need not believe the chronicler who claimed Richard was the product of a two-year pregnancy and was born with teeth. Why are we all so pleased about digging up a king? Perhaps because the present is paying some of the debt it owes to the past, and science has come to the aid of history. The king stripped by the victors has been reclothed in his true identity. This is the essential process of history, neatly illustrated: loss, retrieval.

To return to Henry VIII: almost the first thirty years of his reign were shaped by his need for a male heir. Religious and political activity cluster around the subject. Not all the intelligence and diligence of his ministers could give Henry what he most needed. Only a woman could: but which woman? Neither of Henry’s first two wives had trouble conceiving. Royal pregnancies were not announced in those days; the news generally crept out, and public anticipation was aroused only when the child quickened. We know Katherine of Aragon had at least six pregnancies, most of them ending in late miscarriages or neonatal deaths. She had a son who survived for seven weeks, but only one child made it past early infancy, and that was a daughter, the Princess Mary. Anne’s first pregnancy was successful, and produced another girl, the Princess Elizabeth. Then she miscarried at least twice. It was not until his third marriage that Henry had a son who lived. Both those daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, were women of great ability, and in their very different ways were capable of ruling; but I don’t think this means that Henry was wrong in his construction of his situation. What he feared was that his bloodline would end. Elizabeth found the puzzle of whom she could marry too difficult to solve, so that her reign was dominated by succession crises, and she was indeed the last of the Tudors. The line did end: just a lot later than Henry had imagined.

Anne Boleyn wasn’t royal by birth. Her family were city merchants dignified into gentlefolk, and her father had married into the powerful and noble Howard family. She became royal, exalted, at her coronation when, six months pregnant, she walked the length of Westminster Abbey on a cloth of heaven-blue. It was said she had won Henry by promising him a son. Anne was a power player, a clever and determined woman. But in the end she was valued for her body parts, not her intellect or her soul; it was her womb that was central to her story. The question is whether she could ever win the battle for an heir: or was biology against her? At his trial Anne’s brother, George Boleyn, entertained the court by telling them that Henry was no good in bed. Conception was thought to be tied to female orgasm, so the implication was that what George called Henry’s lack of ‘skill’ was the problem.

Yet clearly he was able to make his wives pregnant. Was something else wrong? The old notion that Henry had syphilis has been discarded. There never was any contemporary evidence for it. The theory was constructed in the 19th century, as part of a narrative that showed Henry as a sexual beast justly punished for his promiscuity. In fact Henry constrained his sexual appetites. He had few mistresses compared to other grandees of his time. I think it was more important to him to be good, to be seen to be good, than to be gratified in this particular way. In fact I think we can say that the old monster was a bit of a romantic. Later in life, when he married Anne of Cleves, he didn’t want to have sex with a woman with whom he wasn’t in love; it was a scruple that baffled his contemporaries.

Recently a new hypothesis about Henry has emerged. In 2010 a paper by Catrina Banks Whitley and Kyra Cornelius Kramer appeared in the Historical Journal, called ‘A New Explanation of the Reproductive Woes and Midlife Decline of Henry VIII’. It suggested that Henry had a blood type called Kells positive. People who are Kells positive carry an extra antibody on the surface of their red blood cells. The blood type is rare, so we can assume Henry’s wives were Kells negative, and that their lack of compatibility was the reason for the multiple reproductive failures. When a woman who is Kells negative conceives by a man who is Kells positive, she will, if the foetus itself is Kells positive, become sensitised; her immune system will try to reject the foetus. The first pregnancy will go well, other things being equal. As with rhesus incompatibility, it takes one pregnancy for the woman to develop the sensitisation. But later children will die before or just after birth.

To a certain point this fits Henry’s story. He had a healthy illegitimate son by Elizabeth Blount: that was a first pregnancy. His first child with Anne Boleyn was a healthy girl, and his first child with Jane Seymour a healthy boy; Jane died soon after Edward’s birth, so we don’t know what would have happened thereafter. With Katherine of Aragon the pattern is more blurred. Mystery surrounds her first pregnancy, much of it made by the queen herself, who perhaps didn’t want to admit that she had miscarried; so we know the pregnancy didn’t work out, but we don’t know what happened. One of Katherine’s doctors thought it was a twin pregnancy and it may have failed for any number of reasons. So Katherine’s healthy child, Mary, was not her first. But every child fathered by Henry had a chance of being Kells negative, and the paper’s authors suggest that this is how Mary survived.

If this is true, it makes the history of Henry’s reign a different sort of tragedy: not a moral but a biological tragedy, inscribed on the body. The efforts of the wives and the politicians and the churchmen didn’t avail because a genetic lottery was in operation. What makes the hypothesis persuasive, to some minds, is Henry’s later medical history. Some individuals who are Kells positive go on to develop a collection of symptoms called McLeod syndrome. In early life Henry was, by all contemporary accounts, a creature of great beauty. He excelled in every sport. We wonder, of course, did his opponents let the king win? But Henry was not a fool and though he was susceptible to flattery he didn’t need flattery of that simple kind; and besides, in a dangerous pursuit like jousting, where one armoured man on an armoured horse is charging at another headlong, the outcome is difficult to control. I think we can take it that he was a star. He collected a number of injuries that stopped him jousting, and then in middle age became stout, eventually gross. He developed a weakness in his legs, and by the end of his life was virtually immobile. It also seems to some authorities that he underwent personality changes in mid-life. It was said that as a young man he was sweet-natured; though the claim would have had a hollow ring if you were Richard Empson or Edmund Dudley, ministers to his father, whom he executed as soon as he came to the throne. But it’s incontrovertible that as Henry aged he became increasingly angry, irrational, wilful and out of control. He fits the picture for McLeod syndrome: progressive muscular weakness and nerve deterioration in the lower body, depression, paranoia, an erosion of personality.

Some historians see the year 1536 as a turning point for Henry, personally and politically: that was the year in which Anne Boleyn was beheaded. Certainly his later years were very sad ones for a man who had been so magnificent and imposing. Pathology is at work, but of what kind? It seems to me that there are more obvious explanations for his poor health and the deterioration of his character, and the authors of the original paper didn’t really understand the external pressures on the king later in his reign. Henry had suffered accidents in the tiltyard and one of his legs was permanently ulcerated. He probably had osteomyelitis, an infection in the bone. His leg caused him chronic pain and historians – and, I’m afraid, doctors – underestimate what chronic pain can do to sour the temper and wear away both the personality and the intellect. When we call him paranoid, we must acknowledge he was right to think his enemies were everywhere, though he was increasingly bad at working out who they were.

As for depression, he had a great deal to be depressed about: not just his isolation on the world stage, but his own decay and deterioration. He had magnificent portraits created, and left them as his surrogates to stare down at his courtiers while he retreated into smaller, more intimate spaces. Yet he was quite unable to keep private what was happening to his own body. The royal body exists to be looked at. The world’s focus on body parts was most acute and searching in the case of Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife. No one understood what Henry saw in Jane, who was not pretty and not young. The imperial ambassador sneered that ‘no doubt she has a very fine enigme’: which is to say, secret part. We have arrived at the crux of the matter: a royal lady is a royal vagina. Along with the reverence and awe accorded to royal persons goes the conviction that the body of the monarch is public property. We are ready at any moment to rip away the veil of respect, and treat royal persons in an inhuman way, making them not more than us but less than us, not really human at all.

Is monarchy a suitable institution for a grown-up nation? I don’t know. I have described how my own sympathies were activated and my simple ideas altered. The debate is not high on our agenda. We are happy to allow monarchy to be an entertainment, in the same way that we license strip joints and lap-dancing clubs. Adulation can swing to persecution, within hours, within the same press report: this is what happened to Prince Harry recently. You can understand that anybody treated this way can be destabilised, and that Harry doesn’t know which he is, a person or a prince. Diana was spared, at least, the prospect of growing old under the flashbulbs, a crime for which the media would have made her suffer. It may be that the whole phenomenon of monarchy is irrational, but that doesn’t mean that when we look at it we should behave like spectators at Bedlam. Cheerful curiosity can easily become cruelty. It can easily become fatal. We don’t cut off the heads of royal ladies these days, but we do sacrifice them, and we did memorably drive one to destruction a scant generation ago. History makes fools of us, makes puppets of us, often enough. But it doesn’t have to repeat itself. In the current case, much lies within our control. I’m not asking for censorship. I’m not asking for pious humbug and smarmy reverence. I’m asking us to back off and not be brutes. Get your pink frilly frocks out, zhuzh up your platinum locks. We are all Barbara Cartland now. The pen is in our hands. A happy ending is ours to write.

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Vol. 35 No. 6 · 21 March 2013

Hilary Mantel appears to endorse the postulate of Catrina Banks Whitley and Kyra Cornelius Kramer that the ‘reproductive woes and midlife decline of Henry VIII’ can be explained by his Kell blood group and the McLeod syndrome (LRB, 21 February). Their clinical analysis is well argued but they make a significant error in stating that the McLeod syndrome ‘is exclusive to Kell positive individuals’. The McLeod syndrome is associated with a rare X-linked genetic variant of the XK blood group system. The XK gene is inherited independently of the Kell blood group system. Therefore, had Henry suffered from the McLeod syndrome, there would still have been an 80 per cent probability of his being genetically K-negative.

Any speculative differential diagnosis to account for the unfortunate obstetric histories of Henry’s wives might well include haemolytic disease of the foetus and newborn (HDFN) due to maternal alloimmunisation by a foetal red cell antigen. However, prior to the introduction of blood transfusion, HDFN due to anti-K (Kell) would have occurred less frequently than it does today. Furthermore, the natural history of the disorder makes it unlikely that all of Henry’s conceiving wives and mistresses, had he been K-positive, would have been afflicted in the way the historical record seems to demand. Without the certainty that Henry was K-positive, the argument is further weakened.

A medical maxim aimed at curbing fanciful diagnoses reminds the clinician that common disorders account for the vast majority of ailments. The McLeod syndrome is extremely rare. Henry’s several problems as described by Whitley and Kramer would not put this diagnosis near the top of my list.

Gerald Smith
London W4

Vol. 35 No. 7 · 11 April 2013

I’m indebted to Gerald Smith for his expert take on the health of Henry VIII (Letters, 21 March). I don’t in fact endorse the Whitley-Kramer postulate that Henry was Kell positive and went on to develop McLeod syndrome; I just throw it on the table, because it’s an interesting idea that encourages us to think again about the unhappy pregnancies of Henry’s first two wives and his own late-life afflictions. If biology was working against him, his striving for a healthy male heir, which conditioned so much of the history of his reign, was an even sadder enterprise than we have imagined.

If Henry had been the lecher of legend, and had slept with more women and sired more children, we would have more to go on. I think the Whitley-Kramer explanation is maybe overelaborate. As Smith says, the McLeod syndrome is very rare. There are more common conditions that could have led the later Henry to be obese, immobile, suspicious and miserable. And, as I said in my lecture, we should not underestimate the way that chronic pain (in his case from a leg ulcer) afflicts not just the body but the personality and the intellect.

As for the two unhappy wives, there’s no reason to suppose that their pregnancies failed for a shared reason. Henry may have thought so – in each case, God was not pleased with him – but we don’t have to think the same. Again, we don’t have all the information. We can’t be sure how many babies were lost, because the Tudors didn’t ring the bells for a royal miscarriage. Katherine of Aragon’s long history of multiple miscarriages and neo-natal deaths suggests more than common misfortune, but Anne Boleyn’s pattern of two or possibly three miscarriages is harder to read. The third wife, Jane Seymour, died after giving birth to her first child, so we don’t know what pattern might have emerged. And none of Henry’s later wives conceived. It’s interesting that Katherine’s surviving daughter, Mary, was an undergrown child and suffered poor health through her life, while Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Elizabeth, enjoyed a glowing girlhood and proved to be a tough old bird.

People do tend to believe the worst of Henry, and it’s taken years to shake off the old notion that he had syphilis. So any new ideas are worth airing. And – I speak feelingly, as a person of expanding girth and diverse afflictions – a bit of posthumous sympathy doesn’t go amiss.

Hilary Mantel
Budleigh Salterton, Devon

Vol. 35 No. 9 · 9 May 2013

Some of Hilary Mantel’s assertions about the two daughters of Henry VIII reiterate the conventional but increasingly suspect dichotomy between them (Letters, 11 April). Although an ambassador’s report did describe Mary as ‘not tall’, that does not endorse Mantel’s view of her as an ‘undergrown child’, and I am unaware of any evidence that does. Mary’s health, like that of most of her contemporaries, varied considerably, but from her own accounts her ailments were often due to seasonal allergies. The many ways that Mary was an admired ornament of Henry’s court were described by ambassadors at the time.

We know much less about the early years of Anne Boleyn’s daughter, but Mantel’s version of Elizabeth’s ‘glowing girlhood’ apparently ignores her consistent relegation to the status of the king’s least important child. Indeed, at one point he barred his younger daughter from his court and from communication with him for the better part of a year.

Judith Richards

Vol. 35 No. 5 · 7 March 2013

Hilary Mantel urged the media, when dealing with royal stories, not to ‘behave like spectators at Bedlam’ (LRB, 21 February). They have behaved like the inmates instead.

Walter Hemmens
Knockholt, Kent

Will the duchess be given a right of reply?

Yvonne Smith
Leura, New South Wales

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