On June 24, 1509, Henry VIII received the crown of England. But as his reign progressed, he grew desperate for a son who’d carry on the Tudor dynasty. When the pope wouldn't annul his first marriage so that Henry could wed again, he took matters into his own hands.
Henry was a king who hadn’t been expected to rule — he only took the throne because his older brother had died — but he ended up embarking upon a religious reformation, cracking down on dissent and marrying a grand total of six wives. In honor of Henry’s coronation, and the unexpected chain of events that followed, here are some surprising facts about the Tudor monarch.
1. Henry Just Wanted to Have Fun
When Henry ascended to the throne, he seems to have followed a philosophy of working to live, not living to work. Most mornings he didn’t get up until eight o’clock (making him a late riser for the times). Once he was out of bed, he preferred hunting or hawking over the business of governing.
When his outdoor activities ended, Henry could find time to meet some of his obligations, but work had to be completed quickly — his nights were usually filled with dancing, gambling or playing cards.
This isn’t to say that Henry wasn’t the man in charge — he met regularly with his secretary and ambassadors, and he had a prodigious memory that helped him make an array of kingly decisions. But while ruling the land, he also made sure to enjoy himself.
2. Henry Was an Author
When Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses challenged papal authority, Henry managed to pull himself away from hunting in order to support the church in Rome by writing Defense of the Seven Sacraments (Assertio septem sacramentorum) in 1521. This 30,000-word text became a best-seller.
To thank Henry — who was the first English king to write and publish a book — the Pope named him “Defender of the Faith.” Though Henry later broke with the Catholic Church, he never relinquished this title.
3. Henry Wasn't Great with the Ladies
Besides the whole ruling a kingdom thing, what else made a young Henry attractive? Well, he was tall (over six feet), in good shape (thanks to his love of hunting and jousting) and had beautiful reddish-gold hair.
If there had been a Tudor equivalent of Match.com, Henry also could’ve shared the fact that he was an accomplished musician who sang and played instruments such as the recorder and the lute. In addition, he composed and arranged music himself (his work includes "Pastimes with Good Company," but, contrary to rumor, he wasn’t the man behind "Greensleeves").
However, all this didn’t make Henry a smashing success with the opposite sex. As Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch of Oxford University told The Telegraph in 2015, "His sexual shenanigans were not all that great by the standards of most monarchs of the time. He had six wives but having six wives is proof that you’re not really good with ladies — not the other way around."
4. Henry the Hypochondriac
Though Henry was a healthy young man, he was still paranoid about getting sick and dying. Given the times, there were plenty of illnesses for him to worry about, but two particular concerns were the sweating sickness (a common and often deadly ailment) and the plague.
During outbreaks, Henry tried to minimize his risk of infection by steering clear of those who might’ve been exposed to disease. When a severe wave of the sweating sickness hit in 1517-18, Henry left London for nearly a year. At one point during the outbreak, the king refused to see ambassadors (however, his isolation was limited because he needed servants to take care of him).
Henry was so committed to self-preservation that when his paramour Anne Boleyn caught the sweating sickness in 1528, he stayed away until the illness had passed (though he did send a physician to check on her). Anne didn’t hold a grudge about this and went on to wed Henry in 1533 — however, considering that their marriage ended with her being beheaded a few years later, perhaps she should have been warier of Henry’s devotion to his own self-interest.
5. Henry Didn’t Age Well
Precautions against the plague and the sweating sickness helped keep Henry safe from those diseases, but he wasn’t able to protect himself entirely against ill health.
As he grew older, particularly once he entered middle age, Henry put on a massive amount of weight. Suits of armor showed that his waistline, which had measured 32 inches in 1512, grew to 54 inches; Henry weighed nearly 400 pounds when he died in 1547. In his later years, the king also suffered from painful ulcers on his legs and had trouble standing and walking.
In fact, given Henry’s health problems, his last wife, Catherine Parr, was often like a nurse to him. Still, she survived her husband with her neck intact, so, all in all, things could’ve turned out much worse for her.
6. The Antigen Hypothesis
Was Henry’s blood responsible for his difficulty in siring a male heir? In 2011, bioarchaeologist Catrina Banks Whitley and anthropologist Kyra Kramer shared their theory that Henry was a member of the rare blood group that is positive for the Kell antigen. This means that if the king impregnated a woman, and the baby inherited Kell-positive status, the mother would build up Kell antibodies. Though that first pregnancy would likely not be affected, future Kell-positive fetuses would be attacked by those antibodies.
The fact that Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, experienced many miscarriages and the loss of children soon after birth fits this theory. (One daughter, Mary, survived; though Mary wasn’t the result of a first pregnancy, winning the genetic lottery could’ve helped her to survive — if she’d been Kell negative, her mother’s antibodies wouldn’t have affected her).
Henry’s other partners fall into the expected pattern. While Anne Boleyn had a healthy firstborn, Elizabeth I, her subsequent pregnancies ended in miscarriage. Henry’s other known children — Edward VI and the illegitimate Henry Fitzroy — were also first pregnancies for their respective mothers.
Obviously the science to prove or disprove this hypothesis didn’t exist in the Tudor era, but it wouldn’t have mattered if it had — anyone who tried to tell Henry that he was the real problem would’ve been risking her head.
7. We Still Don't Understand Henry
Henry’s been dead for several centuries, but researchers and biographers still wonder how to explain the paranoia, volatility and tyrannical behavior he demonstrated in later years. Among the theories:
- Henry had syphilis: Probably not, as this speculation has been credibly debunked. For example, if Henry had been given mercury — the go-to treatment for syphilis at the time — it would’ve been almost impossible to hide the side effects.
- A jousting accident left Henry with brain damage: The king did have a serious jousting accident in 1536… but he didn’t display a sudden personality change afterward, so this theory is also questionable.
- Henry had McLeod syndrome: This syndrome could account for Henry’s later mobility issues; it also results in cognitive impairment. Lastly, it’s tied to the Kell blood group, so the pregnancy problems experienced by Henry’s partners are another indication in its favor.
Whatever future research proves (or disproves), it’s certain people will continue to be interested in uncovering just what made Henry tick.