5 things you (probably) didn’t know about Henry VIII

He is largely remembered as a bully who executed his opponents, oversaw the destruction of religious buildings and works of art, and killed off two of his six wives. But is this image wholly accurate? Here, historian Tracy Borman shares five surprising facts about the former king...

c1540, a portrait of King Henry VIII.  (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

1) Henry VIII was slim and athletic for most of his life

At six feet two inches tall, Henry VIII stood head and shoulders above most of his court. He had an athletic physique and excelled at sports, regularly showing off his prowess in the jousting arena.

Having inherited the good looks of his grandfather, Edward IV, in 1515 Henry was described as “the handsomest potentate I have ever set eyes on…” and later an “Adonis”, “with an extremely fine calf to his leg, his complexion very fair…and a round face so very beautiful, that it would become a pretty woman”.

All this changed in 1536 when the king – then in his mid-forties – suffered a serious wound to his leg while jousting. This never properly healed, and instead turned ulcerous, which left Henry increasingly incapacitated.

Four years later, the king’s waist had grown from a trim 32 inches to an enormous 52 inches. By the time of his death, he had to be winched onto his horse. It is this image of the corpulent Henry VIII that has obscured the impressive figure that he cut for most of his life.

 

2) Henry VIII was a tidy eater

Despite the popular image of Henry VIII throwing a chicken leg over his shoulder as he devoured one of his many feasts, he was in fact a fastidious eater. Only on special occasions, such as a visit from a foreign dignitary, did he stage banquets. 

Most of the time, Henry preferred to dine in his private apartments. He would take care to wash his hands before, during and after each meal, and would follow a strict order of ceremony.

Seated beneath a canopy and surrounded by senior court officers, he was served on bended knee and presented with several different dishes to choose from at each course.

 

3) Henry was a bit of a prude

England’s most-married monarch has a reputation as a ladies’ man – for obvious reasons. As well as his six wives, he kept several mistresses and fathered at least one child by them.

But the evidence suggests that, behind closed doors, he was no lothario. When he finally persuaded Anne Boleyn to become his mistress in body as well as in name, he was shocked by the sexual knowledge that she seemed to possess, and later confided that he believed she had been no virgin.

When she failed to give him a son, he plumped for the innocent and unsullied Jane Seymour instead.

 

4) Henry’s chief minister liked to party

Although often represented as a ruthless henchman, Thomas Cromwell was in fact one of the most fun-loving members of the court. His parties were legendary, and he would spend lavish sums on entertaining his guests – he once paid a tailor £4,000 to make an elaborate costume that he could wear in a masque to amuse the king. 

Cromwell also kept a cage of canary birds at his house, as well as an animal described as a “strange beast”, which he gave to the king as a present.

 

5) Henry VIII sent more men and women to their deaths than any other monarch

During the later years of Henry’s reign, as he grew ever more paranoid and bad-tempered, the Tower of London was crowded with the terrified subjects who had been imprisoned at his orders.

One of the most brutal executions was that of the aged Margaret de la Pole, Countess of Salisbury. The 67-year-old countess was woken early on the morning of 27 May 1541 and told to prepare for death.

Although initially composed, when Margaret was told to place her head on the block, her self-control deserted her and she tried to escape. Her captors were forced to pinion her to the block, where the amateur executioner hacked at the poor woman’s head and neck, eventually severing them after the eleventh blow.

Henry VIII was recently voted one of the top 10 historical figures you’re most interested in at the moment in our History Hot 100 poll. See the full shortlist and vote for the person who fascinates you most here!

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