12 Odd Details History Books Don't Tell You about the Life and Reign of the Infamous Henry VIII
12 Odd Details History Books Don’t Tell You about the Life and Reign of the Infamous Henry VIII

12 Odd Details History Books Don’t Tell You about the Life and Reign of the Infamous Henry VIII

Natasha sheldon - November 29, 2017

12 Odd Details History Books Don’t Tell You about the Life and Reign of the Infamous Henry VIII
An English Testoon. Google Images

Henry Practically Bankrupted England

Henry VIII inherited a country whose economy was sound. However, that quickly changed as Henry’s fiscal policy was- once again- the exact opposite of his fathers’. While Henry VII had been practically parsimonious with money, his son was a spendthrift. Henry’s tutor John Skelton had advised his pupil to be “bountiful, liberal and lavish.” Henry took Skelton at his word, spending freely without much thought of from where the money would come.

The King’s spendthrift habits were the reason why, after his early victories in France, Henry had to pull out of the wars of the Holy League: because he could not afford the costs. War, however, was not the only place the King lavished the cash. As well as commenting on the physical splendor of his body, foreign diplomats also remarked upon the jewels and gorgeous clothing the King wore. Henrys’ love at opulence did not stop at himself. He loved to build, with his lavish palace of Nonesuch in Surrey ‘the highest point of ostentation.”

All of this expenditure needed finance. While Henry could spend money, he was not very adept at generating it. Ironically, to pay for his wars with France, Henry had raised taxation- just scant years after dismantling his father’s unpopular tax system. When Henry wanted to return to war in 1525, Cardinal Wolsey came up with “The Amicable Grant”; a forced loan levied on between one-sixth and one-tenth of the goods of the laity and one third on that of the clergy. Unratified by parliament, it was profoundly unpopular, and after some passive resistance, which threatened to become more violent, Henry and the Cardinal abolished it.

Matters became worse during the last years of Henrys’ reign when the King’s overspending led to “The Great Debasement.” The amount of gold and silver in coins was reduced and replaced partially or wholly with copper, thereby reducing the real value of money and pushing up prices. In 1542, the mint introduced the English shilling or Testoon, a copper coin covered with a thin veneer of silver to imitate the old silver shilling. This veneer quickly wore off to reveal the copper beneath, earning Henry the nickname “copper nose.” Unlike Henry VII, Henry VIII bequeathed to his son, Edward, a country that, if not bankrupt, was in a dire financial state.

12 Odd Details History Books Don’t Tell You about the Life and Reign of the Infamous Henry VIII
A monastery being ‘dissolved’ and its goods confiscated by the Kings’ commissionaires. Google images.

The Dissolution of the Monasteries was about Money – Not Religion

Despite following hot on the heels of Henry VIII’s decision to break with Rome and declare himself Head of the Church of England, the dissolution of the monasteries was not about religion but money. There was, in fact, little or no opposition to the Dissolution with those affected. Most ex-nuns and monks took their pensions and melted away into Tudor society quietly- whatever their personal views. Those who lost their lives were executed for denying Henry’s new ecclesiastical authority- not because the King was bringing down the holy houses of England and Wales.

The richness of England’s Church was noteworthy. At the beginning of Henrys’ reign, one foreign diplomat observed that: “There is not a parish church in the kingdom so mean that it has not crucifixes, candlesticks, censers, patens, and cups of silver.” This ecclesiastical wealth must have become a provoking temptation to a King quickly running through his treasury. As early as 1525, Cardinal Wolsey began to look for ways to make money from the monasteries. He started by suppressing all of those with less than seven inmates. However, it was under Wolsey’s protégé, Thomas Cromwell that asset stripping the church would become a full-blown policy.

In 1530, Thomas Cromwell took over as chancellor. Having promised to make Henry “the richest king that ever was in England, in 1535, the new chancellor ordered the Valor Ecclesiasticus, an extensive evaluation of the Church in England’s assets. The reports of his commissioners, showed- as was expected- that the monasteries had become lax and wasteful. But the Valor also showed that church lands alone were worth £120,000 a year- around £36 million pounds today. Henry was now the supreme head of the church in England. Those properties were his- and he had every right to claim them back if the church mismanaged them.

Parliment passed an act which initially suppressed all monasteries with a revenue of under £200 a year. In 1536, it went further, and now all monastic houses were required to submit, and their inhabitants quit. These lands and assets immediately doubled the royal coffers. Henry also made a further profit by selling land onto interested nobles and gentlemen. In four years all of the 500 religious houses in England had been abolished and their assets seized by the crown.

12 Odd Details History Books Don’t Tell You about the Life and Reign of the Infamous Henry VIII
Giving Alms to a Beggar. Google Images.

Henry’s Reign led to Massive Social Change

One consequence of Henry VIII reign was the opportunity for greater social mobility amongst those with the money and scruples to take advantage of the changing times. This was epitomized by Henry’s own councilors. Cardinal Wolsey was the son of a butcher, and Thomas Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith and brewer and Sir Richard Rich the son of a merchant. All rose socially because of their service to the King and in the case of Cromwell and Rich, established their families as part of the aristocracy

However, this social mobility extended beyond the King’s court. In all, during Henry’s reign, around a fifth of England’s’ overall wealth was redistributed with the dissolution of the monasteries. Some former monastic property was awarded to men who had been of service to the King or whose support he valued. Others, however, were sold off to the middling classes: lawyers, merchants, and doctors. These people who had money but no established pedigree. Now, they were able to establish their families as part of the landed gentry.

Others, however, suffered when the monasteries closed. These were the ordinary people, who had relied upon the monks and nuns for employment, medical care and social aid. Many tenant farmers found themselves turned off their lands when the new owners decided to turn small-scale farms over to the larges scale, highly profitable sheep farming.

While former nuns and priests were awarded a pension- if they had participated in the voluntary surrender of their monastery-their lay servants were left with no recompense. Left without employment or a roof over their head, these ex-monastic employees joined the rest of the displaced rural population heading for a new life in the towns.

Slum housing in England’s towns increased to house the lucky few that could afford a roof over their heads. However, the old, sick or unskilled found themselves lost in the ever-swelling begging communities. Their situation was made worse because the limited medical and social care offered by the monasteries had not been replaced. Vagrancy became such a problem that in 1545, many of London’s homeless were forcibly conscripted onto the ships of Henry VIII’s navy, effectively as galley slaves.

12 Odd Details History Books Don’t Tell You about the Life and Reign of the Infamous Henry VIII
The Execution of Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham. Google Images.

Henry Executed his Rivals to the Throne

As his reign progressed, Henry VIII developed a tendency to execute any distant Plantagenet relatives who were potential rivals for the throne. The reason for this paranoia was complicated, but at its heart lay the newness of the Tudor dynasty.

All claims to the throne were based on descent from Edward III, the last monarch to predate the War of the Roses. Henry’s strongest claim to the throne lay through his mother, Elizabeth of York, the daughter of Edward IV. His father, Henry Tudor, could only claim a few drops of Edward IIIs’ blood through his mother, Margaret Beaufort who was the great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt, one of Edward IIIs’ younger sons.

However, even Henry’s claim through his mother was awkward. Richard III had declared all of Edward IV’s children with Queen Elizabeth Woodville illegitimate because of Edwards pre-contract of marriage with another woman. It had taken an act of parliament to re-legitimize Elizabeth. Then there was the question of Edward IV’s legitimacy as there was a scurrilous rumor that he was not the son of Richard, Duke of York.

At first, none of this worried Henry too much. The Tudors had given England peace- and the people loved their young King. In the first twenty years of his reign, Henry only executed two of his Plantagenet relatives- and both for proven acts of treason. In 1513, Edmund de la Pole, third duke of Suffolk (and Henry’s cousin on his mother’s side) was beheaded for attempting to enlist foreign support to take the crown. This execution was followed by Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, a direct descendant of Edward III who was executed for “imagining the death of the king’ by consulting fortunetellers.

However, after the break with Rome, Henry was well aware that there was a growing faction who wanted to return to the Pope and that required another monarch. In 1539, he executed his first cousin Henry Courtney, marquis of Exeter. That then left the most severe Plantagenet threat: the family of the Countess of Salisbury.

Margaret, Countess of Salisbury, was the daughter Edward IV’s brother, the Duke of Clarence. Her son, Reginald, Cardinal Pole, was in exile over the split with Rome. However, her other son, Henry remained in England, with a growing family of potential royal replacements. So the Poles had to go. Henry was beheaded in 1540. Even Thomas Cromwell admitted that he ‘little offended save that he is of their kin.” His 67-year-old mother quickly followed, while her grandson, young Henry was kept imprisoned in the tower until he died in 1542.

12 Odd Details History Books Don’t Tell You about the Life and Reign of the Infamous Henry VIII
Henry VIII as an older man..Google Images.

His Love of Sports Destroyed Henry’s Health

Henry VIII started his reign as a handsome, athletic Prince. By the time of his premature death at 55, the King was grossly overweight, plagued with gout and ulcers and unable to walk very far, let alone dance, hunt or enjoy any of the ‘Pastymes’ he held so dear. So how had this fit, healthy, active monarch come to such an end?

In fact, the pastimes Henry loved destroyed him. His first serious accident was in 1524 during a joust. The King failed to lower his visor and was hit by his opponent’s lance just above his right eye. From then onwards, he suffered from regular migraines.

By the age of 36, the King was beginning to suffer from varicose ulcers, probably caused by the tight garters he used to accentuate the calves he was so proud of. But the final blow came in 1536 when the 44-year-old king took part in a jousting tournament at Greenwich Palace. The king, clad in full armor was thrown from his similarly armored horse-which then fell on top of the monarch. Henry lay unconscious for two hours and for a time was not expected to live, causing his wife Ann Boleyn to miscarry the male heir she was carrying.

However, Henry regained consciousness and recovered. However, he was never the same again. The most immediate effect of the accident was to prevent the king from jousting anymore. However, the accident made Henrys’ other health problems worse- and brought issues of its own. The King’s mobility began to decline due to his injuries and the ulcers, which became progressively worse, causing his legs to swell and leak a smelly discharge.

A side effect of all this was Henry also began to gain weight. Henry’s declining mobility could not have helped but nor did his diet. Henry ate an estimated thirteen dishes a day, consisting mostly of meat and game. He topped this off with a daily ten pints of beer (water was considered unsafe) and plenty of wine. So it is little wonder the Kings measurements changed drastically. Changes to the King’s armor between his 20s and his 50s show that Henry’s waist expanded by 20 inches- with 17 inches of that within just four years. His 29-inch chest grew to 53 inches, and by the time of his death in 1547, he is estimated to have weighed 28 stone.