Everyone knows Henry; famous ginger, head chopper, tantrum thrower, binge eater, wife collector. But while writing Frailty of Human Affairs, I found that beyond those few things, people knew less than I expected. So, instead of writing lengthy discussions about his life, here is a brief round-up, plus the obvious and less-obvious facts on King Henry VIII.
NB: you dapper British people probably know everything
- King Henry loved to party. A childhood of relaxation meant he took the throne without any preparation
- Of Henry’s six famous queens, three of them were named Catherine. That’s weird
- Henry had Anne Boleyn as a queen, Mary Boleyn as a mistress (separately, phew)
- Henry took the throne aged only 17, and held on until age 55
- Henry had England and Wales and Ireland together, but never secured Scotland
- Henry was not a huge fat man his whole life. He was over six feet tall (huge then) and regarded as a handsome, athletic man. (Might be true; people couldn’t write he was ugly, could they). Henry was considered a catch, crown or not
- Henry brought the Protestant faith to England, crushing Catholic rule. It would have happened without him, just slower, and maybe less bloody. Religion is a nightmare
- Henry had a bastard son, named Henry. The poor boy died as a teenager, much the same way as Henry’s legitimate son, at much the same age. Coincidence?
- Henry fell from his horse while jousting in 1536, bursting open his thigh, which never healed, making him in disgusting pain, and probably mad as hell all the time. The same accident likely caused massive brain injuries
- Henry got upwards of 180kgs when he died. That’s upwards of 400 pounds for you Americans, upwards of 30 stone for you Brits. Eww
- Had diabetes been a thing, Henry would probably have been diagnosed due to his weight issues. The obesity is, in theory, part of the brain injury caused by his famous 1536 jousting accident
- Henry loved playing jokes on people, plus dancing and generally goofing around
- Henry was great with languages; he spoke English and French, along with Latin, bits of Spanish (obviously) and even some ancient Greek
Facts you probably didn’t know about Henry VIII
- Henry was a publisher author, writing on the Catholic faith (his love for it, while it suited him), and also wrote music, and the odd love poem
- Henry ruled a spot of Belgium in 1513 when he invaded Tournai. Okay, France owned it then, but still. He gave it back in 1518
- Henry loved tennis (as they played it then).
- Henry said his fourth wife looked as ugly as a horse. He was no oil painting by that stage himself. Poor Thomas Cromwell got beheaded due to her ‘ugliness’ and Henry’s inability to get an erection
- Henry is buried with wife number 3, because she bore a living son, not Katherine his first wife, who he knew since the age of only 10. Dick.
- Henry basically created the English navy. They only had five boats when he took power. They had more like 50 ships by the time he died.
- Henry and Anne Boleyn were not love at first sight. Anne had been floating around court for a while, trying to win a chosen duke for a husband by the time Henry stopped sleeping with her sister and noticed her
- All of Henry’s wives were descendants of King Edward I to some degree. But the nobility was always an inbred lot
- Henry beheaded 72,000 people, including two wives and one Thomas Cromwell!
- Henry lost one million pounds (today’s figures) on gambling in only three years. But he never played with people who couldn’t afford to lose. Kind of nice, I guess…
- Henry’s only descendants are in dispute. Mary Boleyn had two children, rumoured to be his (or at least the daughter, not so much the son). Queen Elizabeth II would be related to Henry if there was a way to prove the link. The facts make a very strong case (it’s hard to hide affairs when babies come out ginger). Current Prince George would be related to Henry on both sides of his family!
- Henry had a fear of illness. He moved constantly to avoid plague and sweating sickness. After Prince Arthur died, it probably made Henry paranoid of the Tudors’ losing the crown. Every little thing needed to be checked out for Henry; he would take no risks (can’t blame him; germs were friggin’ everywhere!)
- It’s claimed Henry had syphilis, but he never displayed symptoms, nor the side effects of syphilis treatment. He was no ladies man; he had his favourites
- Henry was neat and tidy, not the food guzzling pig imagined. He liked to eat in private and was a fastidious hand washer at meal times
- It’s theorised that Henry had Kell positive blood, a blood type that, if passed to a child, it would abort the fetus. That would explain so many dead children, especially for Queen Katherine
- Henry’s beloved sister Mary married his best friend, Charles Brandon, secretly in France. Henry was livid – Charles was only there to collect Mary because her husband of three months, the King of France, had dropped dead
Henry, before he favoured beheading
Little Henry was born 28 June, 1491, at the Palace of Placentia (now demolished) in Greenwich. He was baby number three, the second son of his father Henry VII, the first Tudor king. His mother, Elizabeth, was the great white rose of York, the marriage ending the War of the Roses and civil war in England. He had a comfy childhood as he was not to be king, as his older brother Arthur was groomed for the role. Henry grew up with his mother, older sister Margaret and younger sister Mary. His younger brother Edmund and youngest sister Katherine did not survive infancy.
Childhood was a lavish affair, with many titles given to him and a top-notch education, the spoiled little boy in a household of women. At age ten, Henry was part of his brother Arthur’s wedding to the legendary Princess Katherine of Aragon. Then everything changed for little ginger Henry.
On 2 April, 1502, just twenty weeks into marriage, Prince Arthur died of sweating sickness at Ludlow Castle in Wales. Suddenly Henry was next in line to be king. His parents Henry and Elizabeth had adored Arthur and trained him well, and now were terrified to lose their only son, and possibly peace in their country if Henry didn’t ascend the throne. But Henry took on no royal duties, and while he was elevated in status, he could never go anywhere.
Queen Consort Elizabeth could do only one thing to help her country; have another son, in case something happened to Henry. She fell pregnant and gave birth to a daughter, Katherine, who died after birth. Sadly, Henry then lost his precious mother to childbirth fever. But the kingdom couldn’t wait; within months Henry was betrothed to his brother’s widow, and his sister Margaret was sold off to be Queen of Scotland. Henry and his sister Mary, three years younger than himself, became even closer in a world which hid them away in preparation for the future, he as King of England, her as Queen of France.
As Henry aged, he disliked the idea of marrying Katherine of Aragon, and called off the arrangement, leaving Katherine in poverty in London, as her Spanish king father would not take her back and her powerful mother died.
Henry VII died on 21 April 1509, which left 17-year-old Henry as the King. He buried his father and decided to marry the 23-year-old Spanish princess after all, his father’s dying wish (maybe; sounded good, right?). They had a small wedding but had a dual and incredible coronation at Westminster. Henry and Katherine were a happy couple, lucky considering arranged marriages.
Henry, the young, prudish, king ready to take power
It was time to start beheadings. Men Henry disliked, or were found guilty of crimes, were quickly dispatched; men disliked by Henry VII were pardoned or released and Henry VIII’s enemies were chopped. But as Henry found his way, his first daughter was stillborn in early 1510. New Year’s Day 1511 brought a precious boy named Henry, who died a few weeks into his short but celebrated life. More stillborn sons in 1514 and 1515 brought strain to the happy couple, before Princess Mary was born healthy in early 1516. Katherine again bore a stillborn daughter in 1518, bringing an end to the royal offspring.
Henry had a few mistresses, as was custom when a woman was pregnant (which was a lot). He kept Anne Hastings early in his marriage, and then Elizabeth Blount from 1516. Blount gave birth to a bastard son named Henry in 1519, and he was made a duke, despite being illegitimate. A king’s manhood needed soothing after all, and a son did that greatly.
It wasn’t all sleeping around. Henry invaded France in 1513 while pregnant Katherine invaded Scotland and killed their King, who was married to Henry’s sister Margaret. War in France went badly, but Henry’s beloved sister Mary was made the French Queen for a few months and then peace reigned. With young kings in England, France, Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, Europe was unusually calm. England and France had the famous Field of Cloth and Gold in 1520, a lavish peace treaty signing, and Henry was named Defender of the Faith by the Pope in 1521, as Henry was a jovial king, but also a well-read and religious man.
But there was no legitimate son and heir. Henry was still young, and in 1525, was sleeping with Mary Boleyn, who was rumoured to have birthed two ginger children (Catherine and Henry; pick new names, people!), but were officially considered her husband’s children. But by 1526, Henry was deeply in love (lust? womb envy?) with Mary’s sister, Anne.
Henry needed to find a way out of a marriage nearly twenty years old.
Then we move to the part of Henry’s life people know.
When the Pope refused to annul his marriage to Katherine, and Cardinal Wolsey, King’s closest friend and advisor, couldn’t help him (and then died on the way to his trial and execution!), Henry got Thomas Cromwell, Wolsey’s secretary, to change the laws of England and crush the Catholic Church’s power in England, creating the Church of England and Protestant reform. Henry married Anne in 1533 and Katherine, the perfect wife for over twenty years, was stuck out in the countryside in poverty.
But Anne gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth, and had two miscarriages. Henry’s cut off Anne’s head on fake charges of adultery in 1536. He married Anne’s lady-in-waiting, Jane Seymour, ten days later and she bore a son in 1537, only to die weeks later. Henry then married a German Protestant noble Anne of Cleves, to help fend off Catholic enemies domestically (the country was half of fire over the religious changes as monasteries were ruined) and abroad, only to find Anne ugly. Henry annulled Anne of Cleves, cut off Thomas Cromwell’s head as punishment for the idea, married Catherine Howard, an English teenager only one-third of his age, but cut her head off 18 months later for adultery. So Henry married another Catherine, Catherine Parr, then bankrupted the country losing in a war against France, and then died fat, old, cranky and possibly mentally ill. But he had his precious male heir (who died as a teenager, but that is another story).
The Henry I write of in Thomas Cromwell’s life is from 1529 onwards, a man touching 40 and desperate to gain a son. It is all before his brain injury, his changes and his rampant tantrums, though they will make their presence felt! What kind of man was Henry before he became old and bitter? That I have been able to create for myself.
Up next – Cardinal Thomas Wolsey
all photos auto-linked to source for credit