Born on June 28, 1491, he was the second son of King Henry VII of England and Elizabeth of York. Henry VIII became heir to the throne upon the death of his eldest brother, Arthur Prince of Wales, in 1502. Henry ascended to the throne upon the death of his father on April 21, 1509. He was 17 years old, 6’4″ tall, athletic, handsome, exuberant, and intelligent. Early on, his subjects admired and praised him, but as he grew more unpredictable and tyrannical, his countrymen became disenchanted and fearful of their sovereign.
First let’s talk about Henry’s life and the 6 wives. Henry was second in succession for the throne, after his brother Arthur, who died suddenly at the age of 15, 4 months after his marriage to Katherine of Aragon (daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain). Henry then took Katherine as his first wife on June 11, 1509. The marriage between Katherine and Arthur was never consummated and a special papal dispensation was issued allowing Henry to marry Katherine. Reportedly, they were initially very happy, and the people of England held the royal couple in high regard. The couple suffered the loss of a male child and numerous miscarriages. They had only one child who survived, a daughter named Mary.
Obsessed and unable to reconcile not having a male heir, Henry turned sour on his first marriage. By 1526, Henry began his most famous affair with Anne Boleyn, and sought an annulment of his marriage to Queen Katherine. However, getting an annulment or divorce wasn’t easy. Henry was catholic, with deep ties to the Roman Catholic Church. Henry petitioned the Pope for an annulment. A religious and political debate continued for over 6 years. Katherine stood her ground as a devout Catholic, and maintained that she was the true wife of Henry VIII and the rightful Queen of England.
In 1533, Anne Boleyn became pregnant and Henry needed to conclude his petition for annulment or a divorce. When the Papal Council denied Henry’s wishes, Henry renounced Catholicism, broke the Church of England away from Papal authority, and declared that authority over the English Church belonged to the monarchy. Henry then had a divorce declared from Katherine and married wife number 2, Anne Boleyn. Anne promised Henry a son, but gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth. She had numerous pregnancies but suffered multiple miscarriages and was unable to produce a male heir. Anne was married to Henry less than 3 years when he had her executed on charges of adultery, incest, and treason. Many felt the secretary of state, Thomas Cromwell, set Anne up for the charges and that she was actually innocent, though it was believed that Anne had Queen Katherine poisoned and caused her death.
Henry had his own lady in waiting in the wings. Immediately after Anne’s execution, Henry married Jane Seymour, wife number 3, who fulfilled the obligation of a Tudor wife and bore a son, Edward IV, but Jane died in childbirth. She would always be known as Henry’s most beloved wife.
Not a widower for long, Henry married wife number 4. Needing an alliance with Germany, and wanting more sons, the King agreed to a marriage to the noblewoman Anne of Cleves. However, the marriage was never consummated. Henry wanted to rid himself of Anne before he even married her. They mutually consented to end the marriage, and a grateful Henry bestowed upon Anne the title of “good sister” and gave her a very generous severance package.
The revolving door of wives continued to spin, and next up was Kathryn Howard, wife number 5. Kathryn was a first cousin to Anne Boleyn and lady in waiting for Anne of Cleves. She was young and gay, and the King referred to her as his “rose without thorns.” Sixteen days after he was free of Anne, they married; Henry was 49 and Kathryn was 19. Kathryn managed to lift the King’s spirits; however, she was flirtatious by nature and sought the attention of other men. Rumors led to evidence of infidelity and Kathryn was executed and buried near Anne Boleyn.
Henry’s final marriage was to Katherine Parr, wife number 6. This Katherine was 31 years old and a widow who was planning on marrying Thomas Seymour, brother of Jane Seymour, wife number 3, but when the King showed interest and asked for her hand, Katherine felt obliged to marry him. They were married for a short period of time, and within months of the King’s death, Katherine secretly married Seymour, which caused a scandal.
So much for Henry’s wives.
The Tudor court was a patron of the Royal College of Physicians, where men studied medicine, astronomy, music, and mathematics. Medical practice during the time period followed a holistic approach. Doctors were more like consultants trying to treat the body and the soul. The Tudor court also had many apothecaries who were skilled herbalists, and Henry had much faith in the many medicines they provided for him. They used herbs like willow bark, arnica, mandrake, rosemary, and lavender to remedy maladies. There were also surgeons used to treat battle injuries, or called in by doctors when bleeding was necessary.
The Tudor era endured the onset of an illness known as “sweating disease” that claimed the lives of robust adults and children, including Henry’s brother Arthur. Neither flu-like, nor a plague, the sweating sickness (or sudor anglicus) first surfaced in England in the summer of 1485 and struck at least 4 times over the next century before disappearing. Very often fatal, this disease caused fever, profuse sweating, headaches, and extreme shortness of breath. Death usually came quickly, with a change from good health to death occurring within a few hours of onset. Medical historians have never clearly identified the origins of the disease, but it is thought it could possibly have been an early rendition of hantavirus pulmonary syndrome.
Henry never suffered from sweating disease. Reportedly, King Henry had suffered from smallpox and malaria, and at 44 had a leg badly injured in a jousting accident, from which he recovered, but later the area reopened and he suffered severe recurring ulcerations. He could no longer exercise regularly and became obese, his weight going up to more than 320 lbs. Reportedly, he suffered an unquenchable thirst, and had night sweats and open ulcers on both his legs and feet, consistent with a diagnosis of insulin deficiency and diabetes. He was an insomniac and suffered from frequent headaches. As he aged, he showed signs of mental decline, severe depression, a short temper, and personality change. It is rumored that while he was king, he enjoyed many affairs and had contracted syphilis, which could explain the mental issues, paranoia, and leg ulcerations as well. He had a series of strokes affect him, indicative of high blood pressure and/or poor circulation. Experts have speculated that he suffered from an endocrine problem called Cushing’s syndrome as well.
Historians and researchers have argued that Henry may have also had McLeod syndrome, a genetic disorder that occurs in individuals with a Kell-positive antigen blood disorder. This would account for the multiple miscarriages on secondary pregnancies suffered by multiple wives, and account for the mental instability he demonstrated later in his life. The disease also weakens the musculoskeletal system.
Henry spent his last days bedridden. The stench in the room from his ulcerations was foul and rotten. His doctors feared telling him that he was dying because the Treason Act, which Henry made law, forbade anyone from predicting or speaking of the king’s death. It is said that his archbishop, Thomas Crammer, finally admitted to Henry that his death appeared imminent. He died on January 28, 1547 at 56 years of age. He had reigned for 38 years. Life expectancy during this era was 50 years if you survived infancy, though other nobles did live longer. It’s most likely that Henry died of a combination of all of his ills, and had heart failure in the end.
The funeral route was walked from Syon Abbey to Windsor Castle in procession. Legend has it that en route, during the night, his body imploded in the coffin and his blood leaked through to the ground. Henry VIII was buried in Windsor Castle next to his third wife, Jane Seymour.
His son, Edward VI succeeded him. Henry’s will provided for an order of succession wherein it dictated that his son, Edward, should succeed upon his death. If Edward then died without heirs, his daughter Mary should then succeed, followed by Elizabeth. All 3 eventually ruled: Edward from 1547 until 1553, followed by Mary I, who rejected the Church of England and embraced Catholicism, from 1553 until 1558 , and finally Elizabeth I, who ruled from 1558 until 1603, and is revered as one of the most impressive English monarchs. Her period of rule is referred to as England’s Golden Age. The Tudor line ended with Elizabeth, who died unmarried and childless. Henry VIII remains one of the most famous kings in English history.
- 1515, a contemporary description of Henry VIII. English History Web site. http://englishhistory.net/tudor/henrydes.html.
- Cohen J. Did blood cause Henry VIII’s madness and reproductive woes? March 4, 2011. History Web site. http://www.history.com/news/did-blood-cause-henry-viiis-madness-and-reproductive-woes.
- Hurren ET. King Henry VIII’s medical world. Historic Royal Palaces Web site. http://www.hrp.org.uk/Resources/Elizabeth%20HurrenFINAL.pdf.
- Keynes M. The personality and health of King Henry VIII (1491-1547). J Med Biogr. 2005;13:174. http://jmb.sagepub.com/content/13/3/174.full.pdf.
- Sohn E. King Henry VIII’s health problems explained. NBC News Web site. March 11, 2011. http://www.nbcnews.com/id/42041766/ns/technology_and_science-science/t/king-viiis-health-problems-explained/#.UeHZMWQiGN8.
- The sweating sickness returns. Discover Magazine Web site. June 1, 1997. http://discovermagazine.com/1997/jun/thesweatingsickn1161.