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.

Look What They Found in Ye Olde Tudor Family Attic (Part 3)

Welcome to the final installment in the Vivat Rex! exhibit posts — I’ve realized that I’d been giving away a lot in these posts and don’t want to ruin the experience for anyone who can get to the Folger Shakespeare Library for this super spread. But I can’t resist mentioning a few more gems …

* A pre-Reformation case holds a little devotional book which Henry had given to Lord Protector Somerset, and which was then passed on to Mary I. She was lucky to have gotten it at all, as her fanatical brother (takes one to know one, I guess) had most books such as this destroyed. Under an illustration of the Blessed Virgin Mary is the queen’s careful, round handwriting: “Marye the quene Ave Maria.” Around these words, she drew a few simplistic crosses, with tiny dots at the tips. I found this touch endearing! (Photos of this piece are not allowed.)

* In the case regarding the king’s Great Matter (his obsessive need to give Cat of Aragon the boot because he was surely being punished by God for marrying his brother’s wife), there hangs a large letter from Cat to her nephew, Charles V. Charles was the Holy Roman Emperor (as well as being Charles I of Spain) and a huge proponent of nixing the Reformation, so part of her February 1531 letter was thanking him for having her back in this matter. Anyway, what struck me most about it was her chicken-scratch handwriting, complete with cross-outs and overwrites. I imagine stress and desperation had a lot to do with this; it was a bit painful to look at in that respect. (Again, photos not allowed.)  

* In one of the “Break with Rome” cases, there is a prayer book (below; click for a larger image) that belonged to a Reformer. You can see that certain passages have been crossed out, and the word “pope” is scratched out (left page, sixth line down).


The gift shop at the rear of the exhibit hall is a treasure trove of Tudor-era goodies. Lots are geared toward Henry VIII specifically and range from the serious (such as David Starkey books, books on the Reformation, and informative DVDs) to the flat-out-fun (such as the “disappearing wives” mug, a House of Tudor board game, and a set of plush Christmas ornaments featuring the monarch and all his lovely maidens). It being the Folger Shakespeare Library, there are also lots of neat Shakespearean-themed gifts, including Elizabeth I items.

The docents’ desk at the entrance has great activity flyers for kids, such as a Tudor family tree with space for children to fill out their own tree. Hopefully they will not need to include family members who have been beheaded!

**Special thanks to docents Jennifer Newton and Michael Neuman for their time, assistance, and knowledge.

Look What They Found in Ye Olde Tudor Family Attic (Part 2)

I spent yesterday morning at our local mall, strolling beneath the tinsel and red baubles to the sounds of Frank Sinatra’s Christmas album. It’s only the first week of November! But I adore Christmas so I can’t complain, and I got a tiny bit of shopping done as well.

Who knows how long I’d have been there if my list were as long as Henry VIII’s from New Year’s Day 1539! (click for a larger view)

On display as part of the Vivat Rex! exhibition, the scroll is 8 1/2 foot long scroll and lists recipients from most to least important. In the top pic it is easy to see three “to” sections: The first is to “the Lorde Prince [Eddie],” the next is to “the Lady Mariee,” and finally “to the Lady Elizabeth.”

Because of the wrinkle, it is difficult to see “to the Lady Margret Doughtles” after that, followed by the list of bishops. I’m able to make out “Canterbury,” “York,” “Lincoln,” and “London.” Maybe you can figure out more? The second pic (below) is the lower half of the scroll, and lists the goods for dukes and lords, earls, and duchess and countesses.  

Near this scroll is a bittersweet spot in history, the account of another New Year’s Day, that of 1511. In Holinshed’s Chronicles, we see the whole shebang celebrating the birth of  Henry and Cat of Aragon’s son, Prince Henry (who died nearly two months later).

The noted festivities included a pageant “glistening by night as though it had beene all of gold and set with stones” and jousts with “certeine lords apparelled, they and their horsses in cloth of gold and russet tinsell…Then came the king under a pauilion of cloth of gold and purple veluet embrodered, and powered with H. and K. of fine gold.”

The next post will wrap up the peek at this fine exhibit, including some chat about Catherine of Aragon’s letter to her nephew, and a Reformist vs. a Traditionist face-off in the pages of a Tudor-era prayer book.

Look What They Found in Ye Olde Tudor Family Attic (Part 1)

Finally, I made it to the Vivat Rex! exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C. last week, and it did not disappoint! Most of the exhibit is in a gorgeous hallway panelled in dark wood with an ivory embossed ceiling, the perfect setting for these grand and historically-rich books and manuscripts.

The first case is, to me, one of the most interesting in the exhibit. It has just enough items linking the power-hungry man we know to his humble (?) beginnings. Elizabeth of York’s little prayer book has  her loopy-scratchy writing inside: “Madam j pray yow Remember me in yowr good prayers yawr mastras Elyzabeth R.” (Now there’s a kreetiv spelling of that name I’d never seen before! Remember that even names weren’t spelled in a standardized way at the time.) There is a beautifully illustrated page from Hall’s Chronicle showing how Henry VIII eventually became the personification of  Chez York plus Chez Lancaster.

And this copy of Cicero, on which schoolboy Hal marked his territory with charming loopy writing, “Thys Boke Is Myne Prynce Henry.” (click for a larger view)

I was pretty taken with one particular goodie in this case, though, and that is the list of, ahem, qualities that Henry VII told his ambassadors to look for in the young dowager Queen of Naples when he was back on the market after his dear wife, Elizabeth of York, died. The ambassors were to note the length of the girl’s fingers, if her hands were fat or thin, her breasts and “pappes” big or small, her complexion clear, and her neck “long or short or misshapen.”

There are several cases devoted to Henry as “Defender of the Faith” including (wait for it) the actual bull signed by Pope Leo X declaring Henry so. It is small but impressive, considering the weight it held and what was to follow.  Then Leo said something like “But that’s not all! There’s more!” and presented the king with the real treasure in the same case, the Golden Gospels of Henry VIII. 

This serious tome has satiny cranberry-coloured vellum pages stained with berries and gracefully decked out in neat gold Latin printing. Rumor has it this impressive book was made for the coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III in 983. No way was Henry regifting this!

(Photos of the book aren’t allowed and for the life of me I haven’t been able to find a photo of it online. But there’s a formal page about its details on this page.)

Want to see pics of Henry VIII’s looooong holiday shopping list from the 1538-39 season? You’ve got to wait for the next blog post, coming tomorrow!