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 ?

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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”.

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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.

cigarettes healthy

When cigarettes were healthy for you!

I grew up in a haze of blue smoke in the 1970s generated by a chain smoking father. He’d started puffing at least twenty years before when advertising campaigns by tobacco manufacturers asserted that cigarettes were healthy for you.

From the 1930s to the 1950s, ads in magazines and newspapers often included family doctors announcing what brand they preferred and how the smooth taste was good for your throat. It seems like a sick joke now but back then…it was mainstream.

As if enlisting the medical profession wasn’t bad enough, the cigarette makers also featured healthy people in their ads. This included top sports figures like Joe DiMaggio, one of the greatest baseball players of all time. Despite his heavy smoking habit he lived to 84 years of age before lung cancer finally finished him off.

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One of the main culprits for this kind of advertising associating being healthy with smoking was the RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company and its Camel brand. In 1946, it launched a campaign with the slogan: More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.

Doctors were indeed surveyed by the advertising company just after receiving complimentary packets of Camel cigarettes. At the time, the majority of physicians smoked compared to today when the figure is reportedly down to single figures in percentage terms.

Evidence that lung cancer was on the rise was pretty compelling by the 1940s and the link to tobacco had already been made. The use of doctors and sporty types indicates the industry recognised a looming problem. They hoped to overwhelm it with adverts portraying the habit as part of a healthy lifestyle.

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One tactic was to have these informed or healthy people stating that lower quality brands of cigarettes had indeed irritated their throat or lungs. But once they’d opted for Camel or Lucky Strike or whatever brand was featured in the ad – the problem went away. This was backed up with reports and data allegedly compiled by doctors on the improvements seen in their own smoking experience.

References:

Werner C. A., “The Triumph of the Cigarette,” American Mercury 6 (1925): 419–420; W. M. Johnson, “The Effects of Tobacco Smoking,” American Mercury 25 (1932): 451–454; A. G. Ingalls, “If You Smoke,” Scientific American 154 (1936): 310–313, 354–355

Burnham J. C., “American Physicians and Tobacco Use: Two Surgeons General, 1929 and 1964,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 63 (Spring 1989): 1–31

Snegireff L. S. and O. M. Lombard, “Survey of Smoking Habits of Massachusetts Physicians,” New England Journal of Medicine 250 (24) (1954): 1042–1045; “The Physician and Tobacco,” Southwestern Medicine 36 (1955): 589–590

Homosexuality and the abuse of psychology

Homosexuality throughout history has been a matter of concealment, adapting or risking an open expression of your sexuality. In the last hundred years, it’s clashed head on with the relatively new science of psychology.

My parents both worked in psychiatric care in the 1960s and I recall a particular book they had about gay men called – The Homosexual Outlook. It was a classic work of post-war psychology that would be laughed at now – by most people.

That psychology tome on homosexuality had an unintentionally hilarious chapter titled On the gayest street in town and it detailed, as if describing the mating rituals of an animal species, how gay men hook up.

Two strangers approach each other gingerly and then one chap might say – ‘say fellow, have you got the time?’ Apparently, they would then analyse how the other person was holding their cigarette and on the basis of that decide whether to take things further!

Ironically, this 1953 psychology study was actually a defence of homosexuality – but you’d struggle to think so today. This was a time when American gay men were still firmly in the closet with a few heroic exceptions. And the world of psychiatry still treated same sex relationships as a disorder.

Early psychology and homosexuality

Go back another 50 years and you have the best selling work on psychiatry – Degeneration – by Max Nordau. He thought that human beings were gradually degenerating as a result of urbanisation.

Writing in the 1890s when Europe was enjoying a cultural and artistic boom, all Nordau could see was decadence and the destruction of human minds. And he saw the open display of homosexuality as a big part of the problem.

He had several targets and one of them was – Oscar Wilde. Nordau was particularly offended that Wilde had “walked down Pall Mall (an upmarket street in London) in the afternoon dressed in doublet and breeches with a picturesque biretta on his head and a sunflower in his hand”.

Nordau – speaking for many conservative chaps in the world of psychology – angrily dismissed this very visible expression of homosexuality as “anti-social ego mania”.

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Dressing up for the sake of it is mental illness!

In a rather curious abuse of psychology, Nordau attempts to argue that human dress is primarily about exciting the opposite sex in order to encourage procreation.

Because Wilde is dressing just to annoy people, he “evinces a perversion of the instinct of vanity”. Say that phrase with a Germanic accent and you capture the flavour of Nordau!

Psychology versus the homosexuality of Oscar Wilde

And he goes on: “Oscar Wilde apparently admires immorality, sin and crime”. Nordau was particularly shocked that when Wilde was asked about the real-life murder of a woman called Helen Abercrombie, he blithely remarked: “Yes, it was a dreadful thing to do – but she had very thick ankles”.

He puts this all down to Wilde’s uncontrolled ego and – in a more sinister observation – says that Wilde “is a pathological aberration of a racial instinct”.

Oscar Wilde – flamboyant or mentally ill?

In truth, Nordau wasn’t a great psychiatrist. In fact, he was a conservative snob and bigot who cloaked his prejudices in the upcoming science of psychology.

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But, incredibly, up until the 1960s, homosexuality was still viewed as a mental disorder with some linking it to narcissism and a dysfunctional ego. The American Psychiatric Association only voted in 1973 to de-classify same sex relationships as a mental illness.

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And incredibly, the World Health Organisation only removed homosexuality from its ICD classification in 1992. ICD stands for “ego-dystonic sexual orientation”.

Nordau would have approved of that classification! But thankfully the world of psychology has mended its bridges these days with the reality of homosexuality.