How big did Henry get?

For many, the lasting image of Henry VIII is that of a corpulent, overweight monarch; but as a young man he was hugely athletic, enjoying hunting, tennis and especially jousting:

“The King, being lusty, young and courageous, greatly delighted in feats of chivalry”.

Recorded by Edward Hall, in The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and Yorke.

Although food was plentiful at court, this was obviously balanced with the King’s athletic lifestyle. However, a fall from his horse in 1536 marked a turning point which would lead to the King’s expanding waistline. Aged 44, he was still an avid jouster, and was competing in a tournament at Greenwich Palace when he was unhorsed by an opponent.

A Spanish ambassador (Eustace Capuys) present at the event reported that:

“On the eve of the Conversion of St. Paul, the King being mounted on a great horse to run at the lists, both fell so heavily that every one thought it a miracle he was not killed.”

The fall, which left him unconscious for two hours, may have aggravated a leg ulcer which became inflamed frequently throughout the rest of Henry’s life, and left him unable to partake in the activities he had once so enjoyed. In fact, this was the last time he would ever joust. In 1538 the ulcer became blocked with a blood clot. The King was close to death for nearly 12 days, and although he recovered, his condition worsened in old age. Obesity is thought to have been at the heart of his deteriorating health, including gout, piles and constipation (for which he was treated with rhubarb, a traditional remedy for this ailment).

You can see how rapidly he grew following his fall. At six feet and two inches he was always a large man, but aged 23 (in 1514) he had an athletic physique, with his chest measuring 42 inches and his waist 35 inches. By his fall in 1536 he had expanded somewhat to a chest circumference of 45 inches and a 37 inch waist.

However in the five years following his fall he grew immensely. In 1541, aged 50, his chest measured 57 inches and his waist 54 inches. Only specially chosen large horses could carry him, and by 1545 he was being carried by a chair called a ‘tramme’, which was used to manoeuvre him up and down stairs, and to his chambers.

You can see Henry’s changing physique by examining portraits captured at different points in his life on the Historic Royal Palaces website.

His health continued to deteriorate, and by the end of his life he had enormously swollen legs, and suffered from night sweats, thought to have been brought on by chronic heart failure and his obesity. Dr Elizabeth T Hurren (Oxford Brookes University) paints a shocking picture of Henry near the end of his life:

“His obesity was in fact the root cause of his excessive night sweats. It is likely that he was diabetic too. He often had an unquenchable thirst, a key symptom of insulin deficiency. Henry was limp and lame. Daily he suffered shortness of breath. The court apothecaries tried to alleviate his ulcerated legs with poultices. The smell of the bandages was often very offensive. The ulcerated wounds festered with the pus oozing out. Henry’s household accounts show the he spent vast sums on perfumes to disguise the smell of decay emanating from his beleaguered body”.

In the next Step, we’ll be joined by the Science team from the University of Reading to find out more about the impact of Henry’s diet on his health.

You can read Dr Hurren’s article ‘King Henry VIII’s Medical World’ in full or if you would like to find out more about Henry’s medical health, see Milo Keynes ‘The Personality and Health of King Henry VIII (1491-1547)’, Journal of Medical Biography (2005), 13, 174-183.

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This article is from the free online course:

A History of Royal Food and Feasting

University of Reading