3/24/09 - henry VIII

In today's excerpt - on the 500th anniversary of his ascension to the throne, we read that England's King Henry VIII went from a benevolent monarch with a 35 inch waist to cruelty and a 54 inch waist:

"Henry was clearly good-looking. The Venetian ambassador Sebastian Giustinian described him as 'the handsomest potentate I ever set eyes on.' ... Henry was gifted in other ways too. He demonstrated great intelligence and mental acuity. ... As a skillful linguist, Henry spoke French, Spanish and Latin. He was a talented musician and composer. ...

"Ambassadors noted how beautifully he danced, while an observer of the 1513 campaign against France recalled the king practising archery with the archers of his guard and how 'he cleft the mark in the middle, and surpassed them all, as he surpasses them in stature and personal graces.' He was fond of tennis ... and was also 'a capital horseman, and a fine jouster'. Henry delighted in hunting, tiring eight or ten horses a day before exhausting himself. ... Perhaps most surprisingly of all, commentators almost universally described his nature as warm and benevolent. ...

"What a contrast this is to reports of Henry VIII in later life. The most obvious change was in the king's appearance. Between the ages of 23 and 45 his waist and chest measurements increased gradually from 35 to 45 inches. After his 45th birthday in 1536, he quickly became gross -- by 1541 his waist measured 54 inches, his chest 57. But this was the least of the changes. Instead of being known for the ease of his companionship and gentle graciousness, the older Henry was reputed to be irritable, capricious and capable of great cruelty. ...

"His volatile moods [became] a source of anxiety for his counsellors. He was violent with some -- he would 'beknave' his erstwhile closest confidant and chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, twice a week hitting 'him well about the pate'. Others he berated -- after Cromwell's execution in 1540, Henry blamed his advisers for having 'upon light pretexts, by false accusations ... made him put to death the most faithful servant he ever had'. ... Henry had become a misanthropic, suspicious and cruel king, and his subjects began (discreetly, for such words were illegal) to call him a tyrant. ...

"The year 1536 contained all the ingredients necessary to catalyse, foster and entrench this change. It was Henry VIII's annus horribilis. In the course of one year, the 45-year-old king suffered threats, betrayals, rebellion, disappointments, injury, grief and anxieties on a terrific scale. A near-fatal fall from his horse in January 1536 left this great athlete of the tiltyard injured and unable to joust again, when for Henry the pursuit of physical masculine activity was strongly linked to his sense of self. This injury was also the key to his later obesity. Henry's wife, Anne Boleyn, suffered a miscarriage of a male child on the same day as his first wife's funeral. ... Anne was 'discovered' to be an adulteress [which] provoked her rapid arrest, trial and execution on May 19th. ...

"In July, soon after Henry had forced his daughter Mary to swear to her own illegitimacy, Henry's only son, the illegitimate Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond and Somerset, died aged 17, leaving the king entirely heirless."


Suzannah Lipscomb


'Who Was Henry VIII?'


History Today


April 2009 Volume 59 Issue 4


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