Pre-eclampsia (typically characterized by new-onset hypertension and proteinuria in the second half of pregnancy) represents a major determinant of the global burden of disease1,2. Its pathophysiology involves placental dysfunction, but the mechanism is unclear. Viral infection can cause organ dysfunction, but its role in placentally related disorders of human pregnancy is unknown3. We addressed this using RNA sequencing metagenomics4-6 of placental samples from normal and complicated pregnancies. Here, we show that human herpesvirus 6 (HHV-6, A or B) RNA was detected in 6.1% of cases of pre-eclampsia and 2.2% of other pregnancies. Fetal genotyping demonstrated that 70% of samples with HHV-6 RNA in the placenta exhibited inherited, chromosomally integrated HHV-6 (iciHHV-6). We genotyped 467 pre-eclampsia cases and 3,854 controls and found an excess of iciHHV-6 in the cases (odds ratio of 2.8, 95% confidence intervals of 1.4-5.6, P = 0.008). We validated this finding by comparing iciHHV-6 in a further 740 cases with controls from large-scale population studies (odds ratio of 2.5, 95% confidence intervals of 1.4-4.4, P = 0.0013). We conclude that iciHHV-6 results in the transcription of viral RNA in the human placenta and predisposes the mother to pre-eclampsia.