VIII Things You Probably Didn't Know About Henry VIII

October 23, 2017

That's right, I've decided to go full clickbait style for this blog post because the baby has learned to walk (read: toddle drunkenly towards anything dangerous) and most of my energy is currently devoted to keeping him from cracking his skull wide open.  


When most people think of Henry VIII, they likely think of an old fat man, quite possibly insane, chopping off his wives' heads left and right.  He had six wives in total, divorcing two and executing two of the others, but as Henry himself said, "Chicks be cray-cray."1  The following picture, painted ca. 1536 by Hans Holbein the Younger (technically, it is one of many copies of the original, which was lost in a fire three hundred years ago), in which the titular gentleman is pictured with shoulder pads that put the 1980s to shame (in a transparent attempt to minimize his burgeoning waistline) and truly prodigious codpiece (in a transparent attempt to maximize... well, you know.  Pity that Ferraris hadn't been invented yet), is probably the seminal picture of Henry, painted when he was in his mid-forties. 



Despite the unescapable fact that Henry VIII was most assuredly not a particularly good husband, or that he was increasingly erratic towards the end of his life, he's a more complex and interesting figure than history classes -- or even TV shows depicting parts of his reign -- tend to give him credit for.  Let's delve a bit deeper.  


1) Henry was never meant to be king.  In fact, Henry was the second son of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York.  His brother Arthur -- five years his senior -- was the heir to the throne and, unlike Henry, was the beneficiary of intense preparation for his vocation.  Though he received an excellent overall education, as the second son, Henry may have been intended for a life in the church (a theory which his theological accomplishments as a young man may support).  Since he was not the heir, Henry's childhood was not very well documented, but we do know that his mother and grandmother doted on him, and played a much larger role in his development than in that of his elder brother or, in fact, than was customary in highborn families of the time.  When Henry was 11 years old, Arthur died of "sweating sickness," which is a seemingly extinct illness we still don't fully understand today, but may have been caused by a form of hantavirus.  The young Henry was thus thrust into the role of heir to the throne, but was not allowed to go out in public or perform ceremonial roles that would have been expected of the rank.  When he took the throne at the age of 17, he was still, in many ways, unprepared for the job.        


2) His mother died when he was only 12 years old, and he mourned her loss deeply, as depicted in an illuminated manuscript.  By modern standards, Henry's mother was very unlucky when it came to her children, though by contemporary standards, she probably wasn't much out of the ordinary.  Elizabeth of York gave birth to seven children in total, only four of whom (Arthur, Henry, Mary, and Margaret) survived infancy.  She died of a postpartum infection following the death of her final infant in February 1503 (interestingly, her final pregnancy was probably a reaction to the death of her son, Arthur, which had thrown Henry VII into a state of terror for the continuation of his dynasty; Elizabeth is said to have comforted him by telling him that they were still young enough to have more children, and then attempted to prove it).


An illuminated manuscript, the Vaux Passional, which belonged to Henry VIII, contains an image of the royal family mourning her death, including the young Henry himself, head buried in his arms, sobbing on his mother's deathbed (pictured below).2  I think it's a fascinating look at how our views of masculinity have changed over time, if King "Hey, Ladies, Look at My Codpiece" himself treasured a book that depicted him in such a vulnerable state.




3) As a young man, Henry was a devout Catholic who was named "Defender of the Faith."3 We all know that, as an older man, he broke with the Catholic church over the Pope's refusal to grant him an annulment and proceeded to found own religion that became known as Anglicanism (he thought that the name "I Get to Marry Whoever I Want"ism was just a touch unwieldy).   Years earlier, though, in response to Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses, in his late 20s Henry penned a passionate defense of Catholicism and papal supremacy called, "The Defense of the Seven Sacraments" (Latin: Assertio Septem Sacramentorum).  Should you wish to read this treatise, an English version is available online here.  For his troubles, Pope Leo X awarded Henry the title of Fidei Defensor, or "Defender of the Faith."  That title would later be revoked in the 1530s.


4) Henry was considered the "Handsomest Prince in Christendom," and was in many ways what we would today consider a Renaissance Man.  At a time when the average person was about 5'6", Henry was 6'2", muscular, slim (32 inch waist), and broad-shouldered, with eye-catching red hair.  He was widely considered to be one of the handsomest royals of the day (granted, they may not have been much to look at as a group...).  


 This 1513 painting of a 22-year-old Henry (anonymous artist) doesn't seem to capture his charismatic good looks, unless you drink a few beers, squint really hard, and look at a different painting.


In addition to his good looks, he was no slouch in the brain and merry-making department.  He was an avid and skilled athlete, particularly loving jousting, hunting, and tennis; he also played at least three instruments, could sight read music, and sing passably well.  His most famous surviving composition is not Greensleeves, as is often thought, but Pastime With Good Company, a song about the joys and virtues of having fun and hanging out with friends, making this the least depressing drinking song to ever come out of the British Isles (one variation is available on the relevant Wikipedia page for your enjoyment).  In addition, he liked to gamble -- dice were his particular poison -- and read and wrote English, French, and Latin fluently.  If all that weren't enough, he was also heavily involved in the construction of several buildings, as well as the improvements of others: his touch can be found on, for example, Westminster Abbey and the Palace of Whitehall.  As is often the case with intelligent people, Henry gathered other smart people around him, and his court, in its early years, was a bustling center of European culture and science.    


5) His obesity and increasingly bad temper were largely the result of an injury suffered during a joust in 1536.  In January of that year, Henry called for feasting and celebration following the news of the death of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.  Then, in what can only be described as poetic justice, Henry was unhorsed during a joust later that month and suffered a leg injury.  Incidentally, the news of his injury caused his second wife, Anne Boleyn, to miscarry the male heir he so desperately sought; this loss is often considered to be the turning point in their marriage, which would eventually end in her execution on trumped-up charges of adultery, incest, and witchcraft.  Henry's injury never truly healed.  Instead, it festered and ulcerated for the remainder of his life, requiring occasional re-opening to drain the pus.  It left Henry in great discomfort and unable to participate in the sports that he loved.  With the loss of his physical activities and exercise, and a diet estimated at about 5000 calories a day, Henry started to gain weight.  The path of his weight gain can be traced through the changing dimensions of his custom-made armor.  By the end of his life, his waist had ballooned to 54 inches and he weighed over 300 pounds.  The changes in his body and his inability to be as active as he desired to be had a serious effect, as one might imagine, on his mental well-being and his mood.  Many trace his later mood swings and erratic behavior to this frustration and constant physical pain; others have theorized that he may have suffered a traumatic brain injury during the jousting accident.


6) Though he blamed his wives for it, Henry's seeming inability to father many healthy offspring was likely due to his blood type.  Though he had six wives, Henry had only four known children who survived infancy.  His first wife, Catherine of Aragon, had six pregnancies: three stillbirths, two infants who died shortly after birth, and one surviving daughter, Mary.  Anne Boleyn had two miscarriages, including the aforementioned baby boy, and one surviving daughter, Elizabeth.  His third wife, Jane Seymour, gave him the male heir he desired, Edward, and then passed away within two weeks of childbirth from postnatal complications.  Finally, a mistress, Bessie Blount, gave him the only illegitimate child we know for certain to have been Henry's, a boy named Henry FitzRoy.  Of his final three wives: he never consummated his marriage to Anne of Cleves, and no pregnancies were ever reported during his marriages to Catherine Howard or Catherine Parr (given his ever-worsening physical condition, one wonders if he was even capable of performing his husbandly duties by that point).  


Historians have often debated why his wives had such trouble maintaining healthy pregnancies.  Many theories have been put forth, including the popular (though now largely discredited) theory that he suffered from syphilis.  The current theory is that Henry belonged to a rare blood group known as Kell positive.  The first baby of a Kell positive father and Kell negative mother is usually fine, but some of that baby's Kell positive blood will get into the mother's body, either during fetal development or during birth, and that leads her to produce Kell antigens that will afflict future fetuses and cause late-term miscarriages, stillbirths, or infant deaths.  The survival of three of Henry's firstborn children -- Henry FitzRoy, Edward, and Elizabeth -- is consistent with this pattern, as are Anne Boleyn's subsequent miscarriages after Elizabeth's birth, and Catherine of Aragon's various losses (the survival of Mary, her fifth pregnancy, might indicate that Mary inherited the recessive Kell gene from Henry, rendering her impervious to her mother's antibodies).  Advocates of this theory have examined Henry's family tree and believe that they have traced the trait as far back as his maternal great-grandmother, Jacquetta of Luxembourg; they explain that the pattern of reproductive failures among her male descendants suggests the presence of the Kell phenotype in the family.


[Interesting side note: The same researchers, Catrina Banks Whitley and Kyra Kramer -- a bioarchaeologist and an anthropologist, respectively -- also believe that Henry may have suffered from McLeod's syndrome, a genetic disorder that exclusively impacts Kell-positive individuals.  Sufferers of McLeod's, which tends to onset between the ages of 30 and 40, experience muscle weakness, heart disease, and dementia-like cognitive decline.]4


7) One of the two wives he beheaded for adultery actually was cheating on him.  Catherine Howard, Henry's fifth wife, is something of a mystery.  Only around 16 or 17 years old when she wed the 49 year old king in 1540, she was queen for under a year and a half before she was stripped of her title and executed, making her one of the least successful contestants on the Game of Thrones.  Very little primary documentation remains of her as a person: there is one letter that she wrote still in existence, her later written confession, and possibly one portrait (historians disagree on whether the portrait actually depicts Catherine or someone else, but general consensus is that it does).  She was raised in rather lax conditions, and was far less educated than any of Henry's other wives, but was, despite her age, sadly worldly; as a young teenager of 13, she was repeatedly molested by her music teacher, then became lovers with a relative's secretary, Francis Dereham, at 15 (possibly with plans to wed).  Her uncle, the powerful Duke of Norfolk, finagled a spot for her at court as a lady-in-waiting to Henry's fourth wife, Anne of Cleves.  A young, attractive, vivacious lady-in-waiting was bound to catch Henry's eye, especially in comparison to Anne, whom he refused to touch and referred to grumpily as a "Flanders mare."  He annulled the marriage to Anne in early July 1540,5 and wed Catherine later that month.


As teenage queen to a much older, obese, and probably mentally ill king, Catherine seems to have listened to her hormones rather than whatever common sense she may have possessed and embarked on a romance with a courtier named Thomas Culpeper.  She met with him in private, these trysts having been arranged by one of her ladies-in-waiting (incidentally, the lady-in-waiting was Jane Boleyn, the widow of George Boleyn who had been executed five years earlier for allegedly sleeping with the queen, his sister, Anne.  Little did I know when I began learning about the Tudors that the Telenovela dramatic structure didn't actually originate in Spanish culture).  Around the same time, people who knew of Catherine's past began blackmailing her for favors and positions at court.  


The news of her scandalous history made its way to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cramner, a man who disliked Catherine's family and saw the scandal as a way to topple his political rivals.  During the subsequent investigation, a love letter from Catherine to Culpeper was discovered in her chambers in which the young queen describes herself as "Yours as long as life endures," and claims that she has never wanted anything more than to be with him at that moment.  This letter -- the only surviving writing by Catherine other than her later confession -- was used as evidence of her adultery.  Culpeper and Dereham were arrested and executed.  The former was merely beheaded, the latter was hanged, drawn, and quartered; their heads were impaled on spikes on London Bridge for the next four years as a warning to those who would cross the king.  Catherine herself was beheaded on 13 February 1542, having spent the previous evening practicing laying her head on the block gracefully so she wouldn't disgrace herself at the last second.  Popular folklore says that her final words were, "I die a queen, but I would rather have died the wife of Culpeper."  However, there's no known contemporary documentation of those words.  Henry is reputed to have said only, "Some people are reporting that I overreacted.  Fake news! SAD." 


 The official title of this portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger is "Portrait of a Lady, perhaps Katherine Howard."  


8) Despite how large it looms in our cultural imagination, the Tudor dynasty (of which Henry was only the second monarch) did not survive Henry's children.  In (very) brief:  As discussed earlier, Henry had four children survive infancy.  His bastard son, Henry FitzRoy, was never legitimized, though it came very near to happening.  FitzRoy passed away from a lung complaint, possibly tuberculosis, in July 1536 at the age of 17.  Henry's legitimate son by Jane Seymour, Edward VI, succeeded Henry to the throne upon Henry's death in January 1547.  He was only nine years old at the time.  Edward never married and fell ill in 1553 at the age of 15 (another possible case of tuberculosis).  He named as his heir, his cousin Lady Jane Grey, rather than his sister Mary, as Mary was Catholic.  Upon Edward's death, Lady Jane was queen for a matter of days before she and her husband, Guilford Dudley, were arrested for treason and beheaded on behalf of powerful people who supported Mary.  The kingdom now experienced a crippling shortage of head spikes on London Bridge.


 Edward VI, early 1850s, painted by circle of William Scrots.


Then Mary, Henry's elder daughter, took the throne at the age of 38; she reigned from 1553 until her death in 1558.  She married Philip of Spain in 1554, desperate to produce an heir and keep her Protestant half-sister, Elizabeth, away from the throne.  In September 1554, she began to experience enough of the symptoms of pregnancy -- morning sickness, weight gain, stoppage of menstruation -- to convince herself, her doctors, and the members of her court that she was pregnant.  She continued to seem pregnant through the following July, but then her abdomen flattened and her body returned to normal, proving her to have gone through a false pregnancy (also known as phantom pregnancy or hysterical pregnancy), likely due to her intense yearning for a child.  


Mary blamed what she had gone through on God's punishment for having tolerated "heretics" in her kingdom.  Thus followed a harsh crackdown on Protestants in England in a period of chaos, imprisonments, and burnings that has left her with the nickname, "Bloody Mary."  Fortunately, this behavior of blaming one's problems on a specific group of people has never repeated itself in European history.  After a visit by her husband in 1557, Mary believed she was pregnant again, but again, there was no child.  By mid-1558, she was in constant pain, weakened by what is today believed to be either ovarian cysts or uterine cancer.  She passed away, still childless, on 17 November 1558 during an epidemic of influenza, grudgingly turning the throne over to Elizabeth.


 Mary I, by Hans Eworth, 1554.  A woman who was clearly disappointed by life and took to burning people to cope.  She should have tried chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream first, maybe.


And we all know about Elizabeth I, the "Virgin Queen."  Of course it was widely expected that the 25 year old would marry and sire heirs, but she never did.  The reasons why have been hotly debated by historians for centuries: some believe that her early experiences with her stepfather, Thomas Seymour, in which he molested and groomed her for marriage, put her off of physical affection for life, while others believe that she knew herself to be infertile.  Still others think that she was determined to wed no man but her beloved childhood friend, Robert Dudley, and finally others are convinced that her childhood of being a political pawn taught her to place her destiny and her throne in no one else's hands.  Whatever the reason, Elizabeth continued to entertain suiters until she was about fifty years old.  


 Elizabeth I, the "Hampden" portrait, painted by Steven Van Der Meulen, 1563.  This is the earliest known full-length portrait of the queen, most interestingly painted before the emergence of any "Virgin Queen" symbolism.  Van Der Meulen also did a great job of capturing just how uncomfortable that dress must have been.


Though her reign was long (44 years) and largely fruitful for England, burning far fewer religious and political opponents than Tudor tradition demanded, like her more briefly reigning sister and brother before her, Elizabeth died childless.  Upon her death in 1603, the throne passed to her first cousin twice removed, James VI of Scotland who thereupon became known as James I of England.  James was a Stuart rather than a Tudor, thus beginning a new era in English history.  The Tudor dynasty lasted for 118 years, with nearly 40% of that time devoted to one monarch, Elizabeth.  


In the end, Henry's desperate quest for a son to ensure his family legacy failed.  Two of the three Tudor monarchs who followed him were women, and one of them presided over an English Golden Age.  Henry probably rolled over fast enough and long enough in his grave to have powered a small city for years.    




1 It's entirely possible that I didn't have the energy to research actual Henry VIII quotes for this blog post.


2 The manuscript is available for viewing in full through the National Library of Wales' website. 


3 This makes him famous for his later use of both headsmen and irony.


4 The information on Henry's potential medical conditions was largely gathered from the articles, "King Henry VIII's Health Problems Explained," and "Did Blood Cause Henry VIII's Madness and Reproductive Woes?"


5 Anne of Cleves seems to have been the most sensible of Henry's wives: when he told her that he wanted a divorce, she didn't argue.  Her cooperation gained her a generous settlement (including estates), the unofficial title of Beloved Sister of the King, her freedom, and a much longer life than she would have had if she had contested the annulment. 


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