Target Health Blog

King Henry the VIII (1491-1547)

October 29, 2018

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History of Medicine
Source:

Portrait of Henry VIII by the workshop of Hans Holbein the Younger, 1497/8 (German)Graphic credit: Workshop of Hans Holbein the Younger 1497/8 (German)Details of artist on Google Art Project - eAHC0d0WiemXSA at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain,https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21878559

Henry the VIII cultivated the image of a Renaissance man, and his court was a center of scholarly and artistic innovation and glamorous excess, epitomized by the Field of the Cloth of Gold. He scouted the country for choirboys, taking some directly from Cardinal Wolsey's choir, and introduced Renaissance music into court. Musicians included Benedict de Opitiis, Richard Sampson, Ambrose Lupo, and Venetian organist Dionisio Memo.

Henry himself kept a considerable collection of instruments; he was skilled on the lute, could play the organ, and was a talented player of the virginals. He could also sight read music and sing well. He was an accomplished musician, author, and poet; his best known piece of music is "Pastime with Good Company" ("The Kynges Ballade"). He is often reputed to have written "Greensleeves," however, the composer is unknown. He was also an avid gambler and dice player, and excelled at sports, especially jousting, hunting, and real tennis. He was known for his strong defense of conventional Christian piety. The King was involved in the original construction and improvement of several significant buildings, including Nonsuch Palace, King's College Chapel, Cambridge and Westminster Abbey in London. Many of the existing buildings Henry improved were properties confiscated from Cardinal Wolsey, such as Christ Church, Oxford; Hampton Court Palace; the Palace of Whitehall; and Trinity College, Cambridge.

Henry was an intellectual, and as the first English king with a modern humanist education, he read and wrote English, French and Latin, and was thoroughly at home in his well-stocked library. He personally annotated many books and wrote and published one of his own. To promote the public support for the reformation of the church, Henry had numerous pamphlets and lectures prepared. For example, Richard Sampson's Oratorio (1534) was an argument for absolute obedience to the monarchy and claimed that the English church had always been independent from Rome. At the popular level, theatre and minstrel troupes funded by the crown travelled around the land to promote the new religious practices: the pope and Catholic priests and monks were mocked as foreign devils, while the glorious king was hailed as a brave and heroic defender of the true faith. Henry worked hard to present an image of unchallengeable authority and irresistible power.

As a large well-built athlete (over 6 feet [1.8 m] tall and strong and broad in proportion), Henry excelled at jousting and hunting. More than pastimes, they were political devices that served multiple goals, from enhancing his athletic royal image to impressing foreign emissaries and rulers, to conveying Henry's ability to suppress any rebellion. Thus, he arranged a jousting tournament at Greenwich in 1517, where he wore gilded armor, gilded horse trappings, and outfits of velvet, satin and cloth of gold dripping with pearls and jewels. It suitably impressed foreign ambassadors, one of whom wrote home that, "The wealth and civilization of the world are here, and those who call the English barbarians appear to me to render themselves as such." Henry finally retired from jousting in 1536 after a heavy fall from his horse left him unconscious for two hours, but he continued to sponsor two lavish tournaments a year. He then started adding weight and lost the trim, athletic figure that had made him so handsome. Henry's courtiers began dressing in heavily padded clothes to emulate - and flatter - their increasingly stout monarch. Towards the end of his reign his health rapidly declined.

Henry married his last wife, the wealthy widow Catherine Parr, in July 1543. A reformer at heart, she argued with Henry over religion. Ultimately, Henry remained committed to an idiosyncratic mixture of Catholicism and Protestantism. The reactionary mood which had gained ground following the fall of Cromwell had neither eliminated his Protestant streak nor been overcome by it. Parr helped reconcile Henry with his daughters, Mary and Elizabeth. In 1543, an Act of Parliament put them back in the line of succession after Edward. The same act allowed Henry to determine further succession to the throne in his will.

Late in life, Henry became obese, with a waist measurement of 54 inches (140 cm), and weighing over 400 pounds. He had to be moved about with the help of mechanical inventions. He was covered with painful, pus-filled boils and possibly suffered from gout. His obesity and other medical problems can be traced to the jousting accident in 1536 in which he suffered a leg wound. The accident re-opened and aggravated a previous injury he had sustained years earlier, to the extent that his doctors found it difficult to treat. The chronic wound festered for the remainder of his life and became ulcerated, thus preventing him from maintaining the level of physical activity he had previously enjoyed. The jousting accident is also believed to have caused Henry's mood swings, which may have had a dramatic effect on his personality and temperament. His contemporaries considered Henry in his prime to be an attractive, educated and accomplished king. He has been described as "one of the most charismatic rulers to sit on the English throne." He was an author and composer. As he aged, Henry became severely obese and his health suffered, contributing to his death in 1547. He was succeeded by his son Edward VI.

The theory that Henry suffered from syphilis has been dismissed by most historians. Historian Susan Maclean Kybett ascribes his demise to scurvy, which is caused by a lack of fresh fruits and vegetables. Alternatively, his wives' pattern of pregnancies and his mental deterioration have led some to suggest that the king may have been Kell positive and suffered from McLeod syndrome. According to another study, Henry VIII's history and body morphology may have been the result of traumatic brain injury after his 1536 jousting accident, which in turn led to a neuroendocrine cause of his obesity. This analysis identifies growth hormone deficiency (GHD) as the source for his increased adiposity but also significant behavioral changes noted in his later years, including his multiple marriages. Henry's obesity hastened his death at the age of 55, which occurred on 28 January 1547 in the Palace of Whitehall, on what would have been his father's 90th birthday. He allegedly uttered his last words: "Monks! Monks! Monks!" perhaps in reference to the monks he caused to be evicted during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Henry VIII was interred in St George's Chapel in Windsor Castle, next to Jane Seymour. Over a hundred years later, King Charles I (1625-1649) was buried in the same vault.

King Henry VIII composed and played, the music and the lyrics of the piece, called: Pastime with Good Company.The song was the cultured King's greatest success, a song written in 1509 shortly after his coronation entitled "Pastime with Good Company." So popular was this catchy tune with its raucous lyrics, that it "broke out" of his court and quickly spread through England becoming a national hit. People sung it in the streets and in the taverns and before long it travelled into Europe! It also endured the passage of time, being handed down orally to later generations; Henry's daughter Queen Elizabeth I, herself an excellent keyboard player, said that this was her favorite song.

Henry VIII in 1542Graphic credit: After Hans Holbein - The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain,https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=152965

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