In which Wolf Hall is coming

Did you know? I don’t know about your local PBS station, but mine is frothing about this one. I have been watching loads of PBS lately thanks to “Downton Abbey”, “Grantchester”, and the adorable “Great British Baking Show”. (Who knew I could care so much about a Victoria sponge? Which, if we’re honest, sounds like a queenly birth control device.) Anyway, they keep flogging Wolf Hall and I’m keen to start it. It’s gotten mixed reviews in the UK–viewership dropped off dramatically from the first week to the second–and I freely confess to not having read the book. (I started it…)

We still have something like four weeks to go before it airs, but here’s a snippet of something I blogged awhile back about Great Harry:

I’ve always been intrigued by historical puzzles, and the English royal family has had more than its fair share. The princes in the Tower, the royal imposters, the Casket Letters–I know that was Mary, Queen of Scots, but since she was of Tudor descent and her son inherited the English throne, we’ll toss her in there. One of the things that has fascinated me the most is the reproductive history of Henry VIII’s wives. I always thought it was remarkable that his womenfolk–wives and mistresses alike–had successful first pregnancies but multiple failures afterwards. (The single exception to this is the birth of Princess Mary to Katherine of Aragon.) Every other subsequent pregnancy for a partner of Henry VIII ended in miscarriage, stillbirth, or fetal death.

And yes, I know Tudor times were not a rocking age for childbearing. Just the thought of the herb-laden fats they used to cram up…never mind. We won’t talk about it. But even accounting for the difficulties of childbearing at the time, Henry VIII’s partners were woefully unlucky and managed to be unlucky in such a way as to suggest a pattern. It has long been suggested that Anne Boleyn’s reproductive tragedies after bearing Elizabeth in 1533 were due to an incompatible Rh factor. Possible, but that fails to take into account the fact that her predecessor, Katherine of Aragon, had almost precisely the same reproductive experiences. Aside from the live birth of Princess Mary, her history is a painful list of the same afflictions that Anne Boleyn suffered.

So what do they have in common? Henry. The old chestnut about him having syphilis has been pretty well discounted by now, but I came across a riveting article that posits the theory that Henry carried a genetic condition that would have resulted in a pattern of successful first pregnancies, with subsequent pregnancies frequently ending in the death of the child and only occasionally producing a healthy infant. This explanation neatly covers the reproductive history of both of his first wives AND the birth of Princess Mary as the exception to the litany of failed pregnancies. As a fascinating side note, the condition may also carry a complication that can result in erratic judgment, paranoia, and delusions with the onset near the fortieth birthday–another pattern that mirrors Henry’s experiences perfectly. Is it possible to diagnose a man who has been dead for more than four hundred years? Not likely, but it is intriguing to find a possible solution that accounts for his transformation from beloved prince to vicious tyrant and for his many failures in filling the royal nursery.

And a bit of Tudor trivia to bore your friends with: in spite of the fact that Henry VIII took to wife four Englishwomen and both Spanish and German princesses, he and all six of his wives were descended from the Plantagenet King Edward I of England. (As am I. And about nineteen million other people. But still, it’s nice to know.)