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The slow death of Henry VIII

Tudor historian Robert Hutchinson considers the last seven years of Henry VIII’s reign – a time when he was a lonely, vulnerable man plagued by illness, bankruptcy and thwarted ambitions

Closeup of Henry VIII's face
Published: June 13, 2022 at 2:15 pm
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Henry VIII is perhaps England's most famous king, although one who is often defined by his marriages rather than who he truly was as an individual. A would-be warrior prince who never quite lived up to his own aspirations, Henry’s final battle was against disease and geriatric decay, and this had a significant impact on how he ruled in his final years.

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In the last seven years of his life, from 1539 through to 1547, Henry is an unfamiliar figure to the man of Hans Holbein the Younger’s famous portrait.

Full-length portrait of King Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger
Full-length portrait of King Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger (Photo by Getty Images)

Now a geriatric monarch, his life is a living nightmare of pain and disease. He is depressed, vulnerable and frightened. Time is rapidly running out for the ageing king, and none of his cherished childhood dreams of battlefield victory and personal glory have been achieved.

How ill was Henry VIII in his later years?

The chronic osteomyelitis in Henry’s legs forced him to walk with a staff from 1540; two years later it required him being hoisted to his first floor Whitehall apartments by a primitive lift, a chair precariously swung up the first floor by sweating Yeomen of the Guard. By 1545, he was carried around in a kind of sedan chair called the King's Tram, lugged by six sweating attendants.

The 1542 inventory of royal possessions uncovers Henry's hidden vulnerability. It includes three walking staffs, all fitted with whistles in the top, as well as two leather trunks or loudhailers, used for shouting.

The king was very rarely alone, but even so he now needed to be able to summon help in an emergency by frantic blasts on his whistles or bellowing through his shouting trunk.

It is apparent that he dreaded falling. And as he now weighed more than 28 stone and had weak legs, he would have required considerable help in getting him back on his feet.

By 1545, Henry’s eyesight was failing. He was purchasing wire-framed spectacles from Germany – 10 pairs at a time – and was forced to give up signing state papers, something which he never enjoyed doing anyway.

Instead, a wooden block with the royal signature carved in raised letters was impressed on documents and the imprint inked in. There had to be safeguards against misuse: documents signed with this dry stamp, as it was called, were listed every month for his approval. After a year, however, the king stopped examining this list and handed over the levers of power to those around him.

What illness did Henry VIII suffer from?

Henry VIII’s famous tantrums were not only a legacy of the Tudor genes. Following his father's insistence on him leading a cloistered, protected life after he became Crown Prince, Henry began to exhibit signs associated with a narcissistic behaviour disorder.

It is characterised – among other things – by exaggerated feelings of self-importance and a chronic lack of empathy towards others; when boxed into a corner, the victim lashes out violently.

In Henry's case, his conviction that he ruled with God's divine approval intensified the symptoms. As God's deputy, when Henry Tudor prayed, he always knew God listened.

In the 1540s his mental condition deteriorated further. Henry was frequently depressed, suffered violent mood swings, and became increasingly psychotic and paranoid. This, coupled with his gross obesity, his moon-like face and slow healing wounds indicates, in my view, that he was suffering from Cushing's syndrome – a rare endocrine abnormality triggered by excessive levels of the hormone cortisol.

Where did this disease come from? Research suggests that traumatic brain injuries – like the one he suffered in the Greenwich Joust in 1536 – caused such neuroendocrine effects.

How did Henry VIII die – and what were his last words?

Towards the end of his life, Henry suffered another indisposition of his legs, but rallied after his doctors cauterised his legs with hot irons to burn away the infected tissue. Nonetheless, it was approaching the time that the king would meet his maker. His doctors knew it, but they were terrified to warn their patient that he was dying.

On 27 January 1547, Sir Anthony Denny – groom of the stool, who looked after the king's most intimate bodily leads in life – undertook this task. He entered the king’s bedchamber that evening and found him conscious. Eventually, Henry agreed that he should see Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, but first, he said, “I would take a little sleep.”

These were to be Henry's last words; shortly after uttering them he sank into a coma.

At the time, Cranmer was at his palace in Croydon, Surrey. It was a freezing day and it took him a long time to get up to Whitehall – he didn't arrive to see Henry until after midnight. Upon entering the bedchamber, Cranmer sat on the great walnut bed and whispered into the unconscious king's ear, urging him to give some sign or token to demonstrate that he still put his trust in God, even through the mercy of Jesus Christ. There was no response.

But then the archbishop grasped the king's hand, and suddenly the dying Henry did wring his hand as hard as he could. Those present took this as conclusive evidence that the king still dwelt firmly in the faith of Christ.

Henry VIII died shortly afterwards, probably around 2am on Friday 28 January 1547, probably from kidney failure.

How old was Henry VIII when he died?

Henry died at the age of 55 years and seven months. He had ruled England and Wales with a mailed fist for 37 years and 281 days.

The Tudor dynasty would continue, through the succession was fragile, with no insurance of a spare male heir (as Henry VIII himself had been).

Nonetheless, after two wives divorced, two more executed, another dying after childbirth, and a terrible litany of stillbirths, miscarriages, and postnatal deaths of his progeny, it was something of a miracle that the Tudor line lived on.

What happened to Henry VIII’s tomb?

Henry had planned a magnificent royal tomb almost from the start of his reign. It was going to boast of his power and might for centuries to come with no one left to gainsay its proud message in marble and metal. To this end, Henry had quite casually acquired great chunks of Cardinal Wolsey’s tomb after his downfall in 1529 – including a black sarcophagus on which a Cardinal’s effigy was supposed to rest.

In this grandiose project, Henry was thwarted – just as he was thwarted in his choice of wives, thwarted in neutralising the Scottish threat, thwarted in his ambitions to win back the crown of France, and thwarted in his quest for a decisive battlefield victory.

The tomb (which was never finished, and Henry never placed in) was destroyed in 1646, and Henry’s own great bronze effigy was melted down to raise money to pay the garrison of Windsor Castle. Four angels, also appropriated from Wolsey’s tomb, were incongruously placed on the gatehouse of Harrington Hall in Northamptonshire, which is now a golf club house. They disappeared and years later, and the Victoria and Albert Museum bought them for £5 million in 2015.

In 1804, plans were made for a new mausoleum beneath Henry VIII’s tomb house, and his monument's last vestiges were swept away. The black sarcophagus made for Wolsey and appropriated by Henry was recycled once again, this time for Admiral Horatio Nelson's tomb in the crypt of St Paul's Cathedral.

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Robert Hutchinson is the author of Henry VIII: The Decline and Fall of a Tyrant (Weidenfeld and Nicholson). This content is excerpted from a lecture given by the author at BBC History Magazine event in 2019: listen to the full talk on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:

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