As a child, one monarch of England fascinated me more than any other. It had to be Henry VIII. What other king worked his way through six wives, changed the religion of the country and presented such an iconic image of himself. Built like a quarterback with a generous beer belly. Yet his macho image belied paranoia, chronic obesity and possible impotence.
His own public relations projected robust good health and strength. Yet his fallibility has been only too obvious to his critics. Charles Dickens despised Henry calling him “a disgrace to human nature and a blot of blood and grease upon the history of England”. Strip away the image control in his portraits and Henry was a psychological and physical mess.
So here’s a run down of the king’s health issues in one blog post.
What exactly did this king suffer from ?
FIND OUT MORE: Me dressed as Henry VIII on TV
Smallpox: In 1513, Henry VIII’s health hung in the balance as he endured an attack of smallpox. In 1980, the World Health Organisation declared that smallpox had been eradicated thanks to 150 years of vaccinating. But before that – for centuries – this disfiguring disease was rampant across Europe. And at the age of 23, Henry VIII successfully shook off the disease. He was lucky. The death rate from this virus-born illness in the Tudor era was very high.
Malaria: A disease associated with the tropics these days. But even into the 19th century, malaria was prevalent in England. The “Essex Ague” affected people all over the Thames estuary on account of the area’s marshlands having not yet been drained. The fetid air that rose off the swamps was believed to the cause – whereas we now know the culprit is a parasite carried by mosquitoes. Once you had malaria, there would be periodic fits or “shakes”. Henry VIII contracted it around the year 1521.
Brain damage: There is concern these days about the health impact on the brain of contact sports like boxing and American football. So imagine the risks posed by jousting on horseback with long lances. Henry VIII began his reign as a sporty chap with a muscular physique. But he suffered some appalling jousting accidents. In 1524, he was caught above the eye with a lance after which he experienced terrible migraines. But worse in 1536 when his horse fell on top of him and he lay unconscious for two hours, unable to speak. This is believed to have accounted for a range of disorders from violent mood swings to possible impotence.
Henry’s impotence has excited increasing interest in recent years. Could it account for the rotten comments he made about Anne of Cleves and subsequent divorce? One theory attributes the Tudor droop to a blood condition inherited from his great grandmother, Jacquetta Woodville. His failure to perform and to produce a male heir from different women might have been the result of the presence of the Kell antigen in his blood that could in turn lead to a condition called McLeod syndrome which can spark psychosis.
Leg ulcers: This is probably the best reported of his many dire health issues. The crushing of Henry’s legs under his horse led to the formation of appalling ulcers that could be smelled several rooms away. Treatment was more like torture with the application of poultices and bleeding that contaminated the wounds leading to fevers and near death. Unbelievably, his doctors even used red hot pokers on the ulcers. Little wonder that Henry VIII took a personal interest in medicine – possibly hoping he could cure himself.
Henry’s legs are a bit of a mystery. They started out being one of his finest attributes. He showed them off in his paintings with a garter to accentuate his bulging calves. But towards the end of his life, the diplomat Eustace Chapuys bravely declared that Henry had “the worst legs in the world”. Some have conjectured that syphilis may have been at the root of the problem. But there’s no evidence of Henry being treated for this sexually transmitted disease, nor any of his many wives contracting the “great pox”.
DISCOVER: How Anne of Cleves kept her head
Obesity: Henry VIII’s obesity seems to have been a consequence of other health issues, particularly the injuries sustained from his jousting accidents. Last summer I went to look at his suits of armour at the Tower of London. You can see how Henry ballooned from an athletic 30-something with a 32-inch waist to a chronically obese 50-something with a 52-inch waist.
As he got older, I think it’s fair to say he engaged in comfort eating on a magnificent scale. We have some of the royal menus that for a single meal contain a vast mountain of protein. Giggots of mutton plus veal, swans, larks, venison, pheasant, carp and the list goes on. All washed down with beer, ale and wine.
One can safely assume that Henry would have suffered from diabetes and hypertension in the latter years of his life and growing heart problems. He passed away at the age of 55 – a grim picture of ill health. His coffin was vast and seated on top was a huge wax effigy of the great man himself – still terrifying the populace from the grave.