Your cheeky guide to the dynasty

Recap: “Inside the Body of Henry VIII”

Portrait of Henry VIII

Image via Wikipedia

Last night, National Geographic channel re-ran their special “Inside the Body of Henry VIII” and I finally caught the whole thing. I’d seen clips but I wanted the whole enchilada, and have recapped it for you…

The aim of the program seems to be, as Jerry Seinfeld might muse, “Henry VIII…What’s the deal with him??” Our hosts are on a mission to find out, combining history, science, and medicine. They are Dr. Lucy Worsley, historian with adorable bobbed haircut and barrette, Robert Hutchinson, Henry VIII biographer, and Dr. Catherine Hood, medical doctor.

The questions up for grabs are: Did Henry have diabetes? How about syphilis? A hormonal disorder? What effect did those jousting injuries have? Why couldn’t his wives conceive or stay pregnant? Why was he so fat? Why was he so angry?? They start with …

Family History — Henry was the third child of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. As a little boy, he was well-built and healthy. Soon his father contracted tuberculosis, which we have treatment for these days but then it meant you were probably a goner. Dad may have passed it to his heir, Prince Arthur, who died soon after. Next up, Henry! At the age of 17, he had the crown but no TB. Whew!

Infections — Henry was a strong teen king, athletic and all that. But London was a filthy, rat-infested mess at that point. Five years into his reign he comes down with a fever, which was probably smallpox. Dr. Hood talks about the pustules and shows us gruesome pictures. To review: vaccines are good, mmmkay?

At nearly 30, he gets another fever. This was probably malaria, which was going around due to all the marshes in the area to host all those mosquitoes. Henry suffered repeated bouts of the disease and it’s thought to have contributed to his paranoia, which turned to flat-out hypochondria. Luckily for him, he wasn’t able to Google the heck out of his symptoms at the time which surely would have made things 10 times worse.

At this point, Dr. Worsley is standing in front of a bit of [the Thames?] river with the most gorgeous blackening English sky overhead. Love! On we go to …

Sporting Injuries — We see Henry’s armor, which gives us a good idea of his size, and the obnoxious codpiece, which gives us a good idea of his, well, moving on. Henry was 6’1″, a virtual giant for Tudor times. His calves were divine, which was part of his appeal. Whereas today, Men’s Health magazine seems to run the same “great abs” cover story every month, at that time they would be most interested in lovely legs on a man.

Right, so on to the head injury he got in a moment of temporary stupidity/distraction as he forgot to lower his mask in a game that involves a long, pointy lance. Henry was lucky to have only sustained minor injury, as he could have lost his eye or worse. His migraines can be traced back to this particular event.

This sporty guy also enjoyed squash and tennis, which led to another injury in 1527, a wrenched foot. For some time afterward he had to baby his foot by wearing soft slippers; his faithful courtiers followed suit in sympathy. Awww.

At age 36 he developed a varicose ulcer, brought on by those fashionable but constrictive garters. Today this kind of thing heals very slowly, so it’s a wonder he didn’t die of blood poisoning at the time.  As it were, his docs still went by the whole four-humours thing, examining stools, tasting urine, employing the most recent advances in medical science. Bring on medical historian Steve Bacon, dressed as a Tudor physician and bearing glistening black leeches. He places them on some victims/volunteers, and they claim it feels like a pinprick. Apparently leeches leave an anticoagulant under your skin when they are removed, so you keep bleeding. I learn something new every day!

Sexual Health — Where the bloody hell is a son for this guy?? That is the question the hosts are now trying to answer. Poor sanitation may have contributed to Cat of Aragon’s mostly-unsuccessful pregnancies but did syphilis also play a role? The Tudor cure for that STD was mercury (the stuff we can no longer use in thermometers so now I’m forced to make do with a flexible digital gadget which is always at least 2.5 degrees off). For six weeks, the afflicted would be confined to bed and treated with mercury, which made them sweat and salivate.  There’s no record of Henry VIII being out of commission for so long, or of having the telltale skin rotting (ew) syphilis brings. Biographer Hutchinson concludes that, while the king may have been a carrier of the disease, this is a “case not proven.”

By his mid-40s, Henry still has no son. HEIR FAIL. So “The Great Matter” comes about and he imposes his will and his new church on the country. And then we have…

Back to Injuries — January 1536, another jousting accident, but this is The Big One. The armoured king is racing with his armoured horse at top speed, and the latter lands atop the former. That’s gotta hurt. In fact, Henry is unconscious for two hours. To drive home the point of how disastrous this was, the Royal Marines Trauma Surgeon recreates the event by dropping a 1500 pound weight from a crane onto a big fat pig from 14 feet above. I have to wonder where PETA is. Although the pig is already dead, the organization can usually find something to crow about in similar situations.

The surgeon deduces that the king survived only because of his armor, and even then I am gobsmacked that he survived at all. Certainly, though, his brain rattled around sufficiently in his skull. If his frontal lobe were affected, the team mentions, his personality was most definitely affected by this.

His leg ulcers stopped draining which made him black in the face, so his docs would cauterise the wounds with hot irons so they could drain. The monarch who once displayed stunning legs now had gams covered in runny sores which could be smelled from three rooms away. Gah!

Costumed Steve Bacon returns to show us the scary medieval amputation devices of the day. Only 10 percent of amputees survived back then, so no one wanted to take the chance with Henry. He therefore got to keep his nasty, stinking leg.

Diet  — Between his 20s and his 50s, the tall king went from a 32″ waistline to a 52″ one, from a 39″ chest to a 53″ one. He was now nearly 400 pounds! So Dr. Worsley takes us for a trip around the supermarket for “Henry’s weekly shop.” This is fantastic. She piles beef, lamb, chicken, pork, and rabbit into a cart while we learn he also ate peacock and swan. Tesco may have been out of those. She heaves 70 pints of ale and lots of wine in as well, and tops it off with what looks like 24 bags of white bread. By-passing the produce section, she states this was food for peasants so the [constipated] monarch ate none of it, although he did fancy strawberries.

In the virtual autopsy, we see just what kind of a number this diet did on Henry’s insides. There’s a thick subcutaneous layer of fat, of course, and a fatty liver. His enlarged heart pumps furiously in his chest, and he’s clinically obese — at high risk for high blood pressure and type-2 (late-onset) diabetes. In fact, diabetes seems to be a definite to this crew, and I have to agree.

The program airs again on Tuesday, the first of February at 6:00 pm ET. Check this link for more updated info.


  Anne Barnhill wrote @

I can’t wait to see this–hubby taped it for me–it all sounds so interesting! Thanks for the heads-up and the summary.

  Diana Freedman wrote @

I DVRed this show as well as the Elizabeth I program; can’t wait to watch them after work! I plan on reviewing them as well. Love your blog! 🙂

  Carly (Swim, Run, Om) wrote @

Hey girl! I saw where you tweeted me so I figured I would just head over here and answer. Of course, this is a program on Henry and I found it incredibly informative. I wasn’t aware that he had malaria. My main problem was the oversimplification of Henry’s “Great Matter,” and I realize that comes from me being an Anne Boleyn fanatic. Obviously, they could only cram so much into a one-hour special on the medical maladies of Henry.

Also, I don’t think there was enough of a focus on Henry’s mental health, and I think he did show a capacity to be cruel before his jousting accident in 1536. Yes, he had several health problems that would put Mr. Rogers in a bad mood, but at the end of the day my personal opinion is that Henry VIII was ultimately a mean guy.

All in all, I really liked the show! I first saw it back in November or December, and was happy to see it again last night. But I could have gone for another hour for a more in-depth analysis.

  Rosina wrote @

Great site…just one error…Henry died in 1547, the second jousting
accident was in 1536.

  barbalexander wrote @

You are right! Thanks. Must’ve needed a 2nd cup of coffee when I got to that bit. =D

  barbalexander wrote @

Hi Carly, thanks for your feedback! I do think they limited info on the Great Matter to focus on the “inside Henry’s body” topic, and they may have glossed over his previous mental state as well in favor of physical evidence of disease/injury in his body. Interesting that you bring up Anne Boleyn, as there is quite a focus on her in the “Secrets of the Virgin Queen” special (recap coming later today) in such a way that I was thinking, “That is not so much a ‘secret’ of Elizabeth I as it is juicy tidbits on her mom!'” So look for that blog post for some more AB. =)

  Best of Recent Blogs #12 « London Historians' Blog wrote @

[…] Recap: “Inside the Body of Henry VIII” by Tudor Tutor London Remembers by Caroline’s Miscellany Inside the Fleet: Exploring London’s Lost Rivers by the Great Wen “When I Please”: The one about Sarah Knight by Lucy Inglis Watch a Large Ceremonial Procession along the Mall this Sunday by IanVisits Book Review: London’s Country Houses by austenonly “The Queen is Slowly Sinking” by the Victorianist Waiters and Hotel Workers by Lee Jackson […]

  A Different Lara wrote @

Great recap! I’ve taped the show (I didn’t have the heart to tape the Elizabeth show because I’ve heard it’s just a resurrection of rumors we’ve already heard) and I can’t wait to see it!

  LouisaCornell wrote @

Any chance on it coming out on DVD in the States? I would LOVE to see it!

  facebook wrote @

i love it

  Heide Clerc wrote @

Hello. impressive job. I did not imagine this. This is a splendid story. Thanks!

  Megan wrote @

This was fascinating! And furthers my desire to have the National Geographic Channel. Thank you for sharing/writing up! 🙂

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