Henry VIII health

Henry VIII’s health report – obesity and impotence

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.

How Anne of Cleves kept her head!

Divorced, beheaded, died. And repeat. That’s how we were taught to remember how the six wives of Henry VIII died. Anne of Cleves was the fourth wife that Henry VIII hated from the moment he clapped eyes on her.

But….figure it out…she was divorced. So – how did she survive?

Henry divorced Catherine of Aragon and ended the power of the Pope in England in order to do so. Then he fell out with Anne Boleyn, his highly intelligent second wife incapable of giving him a son. Wife three was Jane Seymour who had a son but then died shortly after childbirth.

And along came Anne of Cleves.

Dowdy Anne of Cleves. It’s always said that Henry saw a portrait of her by the artist Holbein and decided to marry her – convinced she was stunningly gorgeous. Unfortunately, she wasn’t quite so pretty in real life. In fact, Henry described his new Germanic wife-to-be a “Flanders mare”.

They later divorced.

But Anne is more fascinating than people give her credit. She complied with the request for a divorce and bent over backwards to give the king an easy exit out of the marriage. In contrast – Thomas Cromwell, the leading adviser at court who had recommended this union, lost his head.

DISCOVER: How the Nazis were depicted in the movies

And Henry seems to have been rather nice to Anne afterwards. He showered her with castles and a state pension, gave her access to his children and referred to her as his “sister”. When you consider that the next wife – Catherine Howard – would be executed, Anne must have played the situation very well.

And there is the possibility that Anne of Cleves was not as ugly as depicted by Henry’s propaganda. In fact, the real problem might have been his inability to consummate any marriage by this stage in his life.

I explain further in this episode on Henry VIII from Private Lives of the Monarchs on UKTV – Yesterday TV.

Why Henry VIII had no friends

At the end of his life, the bloated and vindictive Henry VIII found himself without any friends. But you can hardly be surprised when he’d executed so many of them!

Even showering admiration and homage on this volatile monarch was no guarantee that your head would remain attached to your shoulders. Let’s look at friends that Henry VIII had judicially murdered:

HENRY VIII FRIENDS: Cardinal Wolsey

Wolsey was an adviser inherited by the young Henry VIII from his father. He was a top diplomat and by that, I mean his ability to scheme and spin had no equal. Henry had in Wolsey a Chancellor respected all over Europe and elevated to cardinal by Pope Leo X.

The high point for Wolsey was organising the opulent meeting between the King of France and Henry VIII at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520. But in the years that followed, he struggled with the king’s strong desire to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled by the pope.

She had not borne him a son. And the Tudor dynasty had come to power as a result of a very bloody war between factions of the English aristocracy called the War of the Roses. Henry needed to cement the legitimacy of the dynasty and have a male heir. Catherine was clearly not able to do that.

But Wolsey wasn’t able to get the annulment – despite his diplomatic brilliance. He died aged 57 already under arrest and more than likely facing an appointment with the ax and block. With his death, Henry lost a very loyal ally and a great mind. But divorcing Catherine came first.

HENRY VIII FRIENDS: Thomas More

After Wolsey failed to convince the pope, Henry declared himself head of the Church of England. He effectively nationalised the Catholic church and ended over a thousand years of papal authority in his realm. But not everybody was happy with this development.

Thomas More was a highly effective lawyer and humanist thinker. But also an ardent opponent of the Protestant Reformation and the teachings of Martin Luther. He had worked with Wolsey to try and halt the spread of Protestantism into England. Succeeding Wolsey as Chancellor, he pursued his pro-Catholic agenda.

But here was a King effectively embracing this new variant of Christianity to further his desire to divorce Catherine. Thomas More found it impossible to accept the end of papal authority, let alone agreeing to the idea of Henry leading the church in his stead.

When refusing to acknowledge Henry as supreme leader of the church became a crime, More found himself cast as a traitor. He tried to remain on friendly terms with the king but the final nail in his proverbial coffin was not turning up to the wedding between Henry and his second wife, Anne Boleyn.

More was tried for treason and beheaded on 6 July 1535.

DISCOVER: How Anne of Cleves kept her head

HENRY VIII FRIENDS: Thomas Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell was an enthusiastic supporter of the Protestant Reformation – diametrically opposed to the position of Thomas More. He organised the dissolution of the monasteries across England taking the enormous wealth of the Catholic church into the state coffers.

But he tripped up by organising the fourth marriage of Henry to Anne of Cleves – a German princess that the king didn’t like at all. However, the knives were already out for Thomas when he went to the executioner’s block.

After Thomas, Henry never really had an adviser of the same calibre as Cromwell, More or Wolsey. Not just advisers but friends and confidantes. They had served the monarch wisely and loyally. But this was a mercurial and authoritarian character who doesn’t seem to have been much good at keeping either friends of wives.

Here I am on Yesterday TV’s Private Lives of the Monarchs explaining what a wretched figure Henry VIII cut at the end.