Britain’s King-Sized Monarch: 5 Fascinating Facts about Henry VIII
Britain’s King-Sized Monarch: 5 Fascinating Facts about Henry VIII

Britain’s King-Sized Monarch: 5 Fascinating Facts about Henry VIII

Patrick Lynch - May 12, 2017

King Henry VIII is arguably the most famous monarch in British history. He was a larger than life character known for having six wives, eating huge amounts of food and executing a lot of people. A significant number of British historians consider him the worst monarch in British history because of his cruelty, spendthrift nature and a generally dictator-like approach. For example, he made himself the head of the Church of England and eliminated the Pope’s authority thus changing the course of history.

There are a number of things about Henry VIII that are taken as fact. For example, a lot of people perceive him as a morbidly obese tyrant with an unquenchable lust for women, ale, and meat. While a lot of this is true, it turns out that Henry is a complex character and a serious injury suffered late in life could have been to blame for much of his erratic behavior. In this article, I will look at 5 things you probably didn’t know about Henry VIII.

Britain’s King-Sized Monarch: 5 Fascinating Facts about Henry VIII
Henry VIII as a young man. Keyword Suggests

1 – He Only Became Obese Later in Life

Henry is often portrayed as a roly-poly tyrant given his huge size and penchant for executing wives. He was approximately 6ft 2 inches tall (possibly even taller) which made him a relative giant for the time. Indeed, Henry reportedly towered above almost every member of his court. Given his notorious temper and power, he must have been an extremely intimidating individual.

However, Henry wasn’t always an obese tyrant. When he became king in 1509, he was 17 years of age and in excellent shape. He inherited the good looks of Edward IV, his grandfather and was an athletic king at the beginning. Henry was once described as an Adonis, and the muscular monarch regularly competed in jousts where he supposedly excelled. Armor dated from his younger days suggests that Henry had a 32-inch waist, 39-inch chest and weighed between 180 and 200 pounds; a healthy weight for his height.

In fact, Henry only started to balloon in weight in his mid-forties, and that was due to a leg injury suffered in a joust in 1536. The serious wound did not heal properly and turned ulcerous. As a result, the king became increasingly incapacitated and turned to food and drink for comfort. Many historians believe the king had diabetes later in life and his daily calorie intake must have been truly astonishing. The sedentary Henry would eat up to 13 dishes a day with almost every meal consisting of large amounts of meat. He reportedly drank up to 10 pints of ale a day, and his daily caloric intake was at least 5,000 calories.

On top of his gargantuan mass, Henry probably suffered from an array of physical maladies including severe constipation, repeated infections, sores all over the body and possibly Cushing’s syndrome. The King reportedly became mad towards the end of his reign and matters were not helped by the incompetence of his physicians. To be fair to them, they were only following standard practice at the time; but refusing to heal the sore on his leg in the belief the ‘illness must pass out of the body’ clearly destroyed Henry’s health. Whenever the wound began to heal, physicians would cut it open again with the abscess filled with gold pellets to keep the sore running.

The last set of armor belonging to Henry showed a waist measurement of 58 to 60 inches which meant he probably weighed at least 320 pounds by the time of his death. Some historians believe he was approximately 390 pounds at his heaviest.

Britain’s King-Sized Monarch: 5 Fascinating Facts about Henry VIII
Jane Seymour by Hans Holbein The Younger. Royal Central

2 – He Was No Ladies Man (Compared To Other Kings)

Surely the fact he had six wives meant he was adept at wooing the fairer sex and also suggested a voracious sexual appetite? Not so according to historians who suggest that having so many wives was a sign that he did not fare well with the ladies. On the surface, Henry was something of a ‘catch.’ The young Henry was tall, attractive and muscular with stunning reddish-gold hair. As well as being athletic and brave, Henry enjoyed singing and playing instruments such as the lute.

However, Henry was a long way from being a lothario. Although he had six wives, his marriage to Katherine of Aragon lasted for 22 years and didn’t end until 1533 when she had failed to produce a son. In other words, most of Henry’s prime was spent married to the same woman. This isn’t to say that he didn’t have affairs. He had dalliances with women of the court including Lady Elizabeth Blount who gave birth to an illegitimate son called Henry FitzRoy. But by the standards of European monarchs of the age, he was relatively subdued when it came to women. The illegitimate son convinced him that his inability to produce a male heir was his wife’s fault. As a result, he actively sought a divorce by any means necessary.

Meanwhile, he had become enamored by a woman named Anne Boleyn in 1525, but she initially rejected his advances. It was a strategic move by Boleyn as she knew it would only serve to deepen the king’s fascination with her. The plan worked as Henry pushed Cardinal Wolsey into helping him secure the divorce. He executed the cardinal and replaced him with Sir Thomas More even though More was also against the idea. By 1533, it was clear that nothing would stop Henry having his way. He broke from the Church of England and demoted the Pope, so he became the supreme leader of the church. With his new ‘power,’ he annulled his marriage to Katherine.

When Henry persuaded Boleyn to become his mistress, he was apparently shocked by the sexual knowledge she possessed. She claimed to be a virgin, but Henry was convinced that she was not. By 1536, Henry had moved on to Jane Seymour so to get Anne out of the way; he had her executed on charges of adultery; mainly because Anne was unable to produce a male heir. By all accounts, Henry truly loved Jane but his joy at the birth of a male heir, Edward, was short lived as Jane died a few weeks afterward due to complications with the childbirth.

After a short and unhappy political marriage to Anne of Cleves who he married in 1540, Henry fell for Catherine Howard and divorced Anne. Unfortunately for him, Catherine, a woman he called “a rose without a thorn,” conducted extramarital affairs with at least two men. Along with two of these men, she was executed. Henry’s sixth and final marriage, in 1543, was to Catherine Parr who was in love with Sir Thomas Seymour. Fortunately for her, she did not cavort with Seymour while married to Henry and survived their four-year marriage which ended with Henry’s death in 1547.

In many ways, Henry could be seen as a ladies’ man as he had six wives and a number of mistresses. However, he was apparently a prude behind closed doors, and his slew of sexual conquests paled into comparison with the norm for monarchs of the 16th century.

Britain’s King-Sized Monarch: 5 Fascinating Facts about Henry VIII
Jousting. Independent

3 – He Was A Poor General

Although he was athletic, strong and brave as a young king, Henry VIII was a poor commander regarding military strategy and the ability to understand the long-term consequences of his actions. Matters weren’t helped by the fact that he preferred to play rather than govern. He used to wake up at around 8 am which was incredibly late by the standards of the time.

Once he got out of bed, he would typically hunt rather than tend to the business of government. When he eventually finished with his outdoor fun, Henry would not spend too much time attending to his obligations because he wanted to dance, drink and gamble at night. One of the things that prevented disaster was Henry’s intellect and outstanding memory which allowed him to make decisive decisions quickly. It is important to note that Henry was not supposed to be king. His older brother was groomed for the role but died before he had the chance to rule.

Despite his desire to party rather than rule, England was in an almost constant state of war during Henry’s reign. He tried to conquer Scotland repeatedly and made a complete mess of things. In the beginning, there appeared to be hope for an alliance as Henry was on friendly terms with James IV of Scotland but this possibility was dashed when France and Scotland reviewed the ‘Auld Alliance’ in 1512. Unfortunately for the Scots, James died at the Battle of Flodden in 1513. When the Francophile Duke of Albany governed Scotland as regent in 1515, Henry made it clear that he would try to subdue the enemy.

He offered to make a truce with Scotland in 1523 in return for deposing Albany, but the Scots refused. Henry retaliated by attacking the Borders that year. When Albany sailed to France in 1524, James V became king, and due to the French defeat at Pavia in 1525, Henry had no reason to worry about Scotland becoming a base for a French invasion. Nonetheless, he was never able to control the Scots who began to sympathize with France in the 1530s.

In a purely military sense, Henry never increased England’s standing army to the point where it could become a force in Europe. While other nations evolved their military might through the use of pikemen and hand guns, England continued to use outdated longbowmen and billmen. When he joined forces with Charles of Spain to fight the French in 1542, Henry was too fat to ride a horse and had to be carried on a litter; hardly an inspiring sight for his men. While Charles saw sense and signed a treaty with France, Henry struggled on and bankrupted himself. By the end of his reign, which was characterized by war, Henry only managed to conquer the minor port of Boulogne; the French took that back soon after the king’s death.

Britain’s King-Sized Monarch: 5 Fascinating Facts about Henry VIII
Anne Boleyn. Hever Castle

4 – He Was a Hypochondriac

Although he certainly suffered from a wide range of health problems throughout the course of his life, Henry was the very definition of a hypochondriac. While he was still a fit, active and healthy young man, the king was paranoid about becoming ill and dying. Admittedly, there were plenty of illnesses worth worrying about in the 16th century, and Henry was terrified of catching the plague and sweating sickness. The latter was a common ailment that was often fatal.

During the all-too-regular outbreaks of these diseases, Henry would go out of his way to avoid anyone who might have been exposed to the infection. During 1517-18, there was a severe outbreak of sweating sickness in London, and Henry left the capital for almost a year. He even refused to see ambassadors at one stage. He was still exposed to some degree as he couldn’t live without his servants.

While he was reportedly infatuated with Anne Boleyn, his keen sense of self-preservation overrode any love for his paramour when she became infected with sweating sickness in 1528. Although he sent a doctor to check on her, Henry stayed well away until all traces of the illness passed. Boleyn clearly didn’t hold it against him since she married him five years later.

For a man so keen to avoid illness, his life was ruined by it. Even before his jousting accident, Henry suffered from smallpox when he was 23 and malaria when he was 30. The open sores on his legs and sporting injuries led to further bouts of malaria later on. Henry had varicose ulcers on his left leg in his mid-thirties and in 1524; he was struck by a lance above the right eye during a joust. He suffered from migraines for the rest of his life.

However, things went completely awry with his health once he received that terrible wound in 1536. Henry put on a huge amount of weight in a relatively short time and the many sores on his legs, along with the festering wound, made it tough for him to walk. Other problems included mental issues, syphilis and a series of strokes due to his sky-high blood pressure. Add in his failing eyesight, and you have the story of a man who was completely falling apart before the age of 50. Admittedly, the average life expectancy at the time was 45.

Britain’s King-Sized Monarch: 5 Fascinating Facts about Henry VIII
Henry VIII family portrait in 1545. Luminarium

5 – He Was Always a Tyrant

There are those who try to defend Henry’s actions and claim he only became a tyrant after the 1536 accident. However, his conduct throughout his reign suggests he was a nasty piece of work who merely became unbearable due to mental illness later in life. His excesses were initially borne out of frustration; he was angry at the Pope for drawing out his annulment to Katherine and forced Parliament to pass a law declaring him as the head of the Church of England.

This action removed England from the Pope’s authority, and he executed anyone who got in his way including Thomas More and Cardinal Wolsey. He closed all England’s monasteries and stole their wealth which he frittered away. Henry inherited the equivalent of £375 million in today’s money when he became king in 1509. He managed to spend all of it due to his ill-conceived continental wars and his court, which was one of the most lavish of all time. He devalued England’s coinage in 1526 and again in 1539 and died in debt.

Henry executed more people than any other monarch in British history. Although matters escalated in his later years, he had people killed long before his mental illness took hold. His paranoia and ill-temper became out of control after 1536, and the Tower of London was home to countless subjects who were imprisoned on Henry’s orders. From the late 1530s onward, Henry had numerous members of the Pole and Courtenay families executed. They were apparently conspiring against him, and their royal blood meant they had a legitimate claim to the throne.

One of the bloodiest executions was of the Countess of Salisbury, Margaret de la Pole in 1541. When the 67-year-old woman was told to put her head on the chopping block, she panicked and tried to escape. She was pinned to the block, and the executioner tried to behead the unfortunate woman. Alas, he was an inexperienced executioner by all accounts, and it took him 11 strikes to finish the job.

It was in Henry’s later reign that he started to go through several wives and in 1540; he executed his old friend Thomas Cromwell. As well as executing his wife Catherine Howard in 1542, Henry had her uncle Henry executed in 1547 based on accusations from a rival family, the Seymour’s. According to John Stow, a historian of the age, Henry had around 70,000 people executed during his reign. While this is surely an exaggeration, he did murder hundreds if not thousands of people.

While Henry was always a suspicious individual, his personality changed after his 1536 accident, and he became insanely paranoid. Apparently, the severe accident rendered him speechless for 2 hours and his wife at the time, Anne Boleyn, was told the king would die. The shock of this terrible news resulted in her miscarriage. The unborn child was male, and Henry reportedly turned against her almost immediately by saying they would never have a male child. Within six months, Anne was dead.

The fall probably resulted in damage to the brain’s frontal lobe which explains the personality change. Researchers believe he could have suffered from McLeod Syndrome which is a genetic disorder. It would explain why his wives had so many miscarriages. The king spent his last days on earth as a bedridden mess. The smell from his many ulcerations was foul, and while he was clearly on his last legs, doctors were afraid to tell him he was dying because of the Treason Act. Henry created this act which made it a capital offense to speak about the king’s death. Apparently, Thomas Cranmer broke the news and on January 28, 1547, King Henry VIII died; he was 56 years of age.