Thank you so much to Kyra Kramer, author of Blood Will Tell: A Medical Explanation of the Tyranny of Henry VIII, for writing this guest article to celebrate the anniversary of Henry VIII’s birth, which happened on 28th June 1491. I’m sure Henry would appreciate her words. Over to Kyra…
Today is Henry VIII’s 523 birthday!
How, pray tell, does one commemorate the birth of a king that most people remember as a tyrannical, head-chopping, syphilitic skirt-chaser? By publicly refuting some of the myths about him, of course. It’s that little something special you give a man who has everything.
Entire libraries of books have been written about Henry VIII, so I am clearly not going to debunk every commonly believed fable in one post. Thus, today I will be only be addressing the idea that Henry was a lecher with a venereal disease.
First, and I cannot repeat this often enough, Henry did NOT have syphilis.
This myth (which keeps spreading like poison ivy rash even after being soaked in the oatmeal bath of medical knowledge) was started in 1888 but had been debunked pretty well by 1931. For God’s sake, Herbert Hoover was in the Oval Office the last time any serious academic gave this theory any credence, yet the idea that Henry had syphilis keeps popping back up and it is even sometimes taught in history classes by teachers who didn’t check their information closely enough.
But what about the miscarriages and stillbirths his wives suffered, you ask? Weren’t those losses the result of Henry infecting his wives with the French Pox?
For Henry to have given his first wife syphilis, thus causing her many miscarriages and stillbirths, he would have had to contract it by or before he was 17 years old. That means the King would have had it for more than 30 years. Henry would have developed the tertiary stage of syphilis by then since it usually appears within 3-10 years after you catch it. This stage of syphilis is what you would call hard to miss. For one thing, your nose can fall off. Seriously. Late stage syphilis results in gaping sores in the lymph node areas, destruction of the nasal cavity, loss of the front teeth and the destruction of the roof of the mouth, a worm eaten appearance of the skull, and includes large red sores on the scalp and on the shins. These aren’t things that royal doctors or people at court are going to overlook. Nor could he had hidden his condition with wigs and powder and cloths. Members of his court bathed him and wiped his butt after he pooped; his body was not something he kept to himself.
Furthermore, it’s not like the physicians of that time were unaware of syphilis and would have missed Henry’s symptoms. Doctors would have recognized the disease and would have treated the King accordingly with the medicines available to them. The most common treatment for syphilis in the Tudor time period involved dosing patients with massive quantities of mercury or “Chinese wood” (don’t go there), but there is no record of Henry ever being given either treatment. The fact that he was royal wouldn’t have stopped them from reporting it either. It was well known that Henry’s contemporary, the French king Francis I, was believed by his doctors to have syphilis and was being treated him with extreme amounts of mercury. Believe me, if Henry had syphilis everyone in Europe would have heard about it because it was the job of every ambassador to report court gossip as much as court policy.
Since I am busting myths today, let me just say that syphilis did not come from North America and it was not brought back to Europe by men on Christopher Columbus’ ships. That’s hooey. Archaeologists have dug up the syphilitic skeletons of people in Europe who died from this illness before Columbus was even born, let alone sailed to the Bahamas. Syphilis became a serious epidemic shortly after Columbus returned home from his genocidal jaunt, but that had everything to do with military movements during war and nothing to do with a handful of sailors.
Even if Henry did have syphilis (which he did not) it cannot explain his reproductive problems. Syphilis can cause miscarriage, but it only when the mother has contracted the disease. Three of his surviving children were their mother’s first babies, so it could be argued those infants survived because the women had not yet contracted syphilis from the king, but Henry’s daughter, Mary, was the sixth or maybe even seventh pregnancy for Henry’s first wife. Mary would certainly have been affected, especially if syphilis was to blame for the queen’s miscarriages before Mary was even conceived. Also, none of Henry’s surviving offspring showed signs of congenital syphilis, which isn’t exactly a subtle physical condition. So next time someone tells you Henry VIII had syphilis please do me and the world a solid and tell them that he wasn’t poxed.
Why is the rumor that Henry VIII had syphilis so persistent? Well, as I said in my book:
The celebrated portrayal of Henry as a philandering beast is the reason syphilis is so readily connected to his name. The acquisition of a sexually transmitted disease is, erroneously, culturally conceptualized as the end result of promiscuity, rather than of the bad luck of having one infected sex partner. There is a fixed social ideology about illnesses that are transmitted through sexual activity; there is an assumption that they are indicators of wanton lasciviousness on the part of the infected person, as opposed to being the unfortunate consequences of sex with a single infected partner. Sexually transmitted diseases are also socially imbued with a feeling of “punishment”, a sort of retribution for an impure life, so the idea that the King could not easily have the son he wanted because he was infected with syphilis further reinforces this narrative.
Which brings us to the second bit of hogwash I am pouring out of the cultural bottle; Henry was a playboy.
Au contraire. For a King in that era, Henry was practically chaste. Sure, by today’s standards he was a cheater who couldn’t keep it in his codpiece, but in the days of yore he could have been the poster boy for sexual restraint. Even though he had a few mistresses, and had a son with one of them, he was one of the most faithful monarchs in Europe. He was at least displaying the sixteenth century’s version of royal fidelity, in that most of his affairs were extremely discrete and he didn’t name an “official” mistresses.
Moreover, he tended to confine his affairs to times when his Queen was pregnant. People thought it was dangerous to the health of both mother and baby for a woman to have sex during certain months when she great with child. Marital sex would have necessarily been ruled out during those months. Like most men of his time period, the King believed that if his wife wasn’t sexually available, then it was perfectly permissible for him to do the nasty with other women. It was just how things were done. It was even considered necessary for a man to get some strange when he couldn’t do the what-what with his wife, because letting the male “fluids” build up was believed to be very bad for a man’s health. When you look at the fact that most noblemen and almost all other European Kings had multiple bedmates, and there was absolutely nothing anyone’s wife could do about it except cry, Henry was moderation and chastity personified.
His relative fidelity was even more remarkable considering his access to temptation. If the Ladies of the English court can be likened to a garden, the reality is that the King could pluck any flower he happened to find appealing. If Henry saw a rosebush he liked, perhaps one sporting big pink blossoms that didn’t droop at all, then it was his for the plucking. Yet even though the garden he could pluck from was vast he didn’t go around plucking everything in sight. He really wasn’t a casual plucker. Instead he plucked only a few blooms and he didn’t pin them to his lapel where they were right in the Queen’s face.
This is remarkable, considering that his associates in court would have been more than happy to let him pluck everything in their gardens as well. Cardinal Wolsey, who as the Lord Chancellor practically controlled the English government on Henry’s behalf, was accused of acting as “the King’s bawd”, a pimp who guaranteed the King his choice of court hotties. Even if the accusations against Wolsey were untrue, there were plenty of fathers, uncles, and husbands who paraded their daughters, nieces, and wives before the King in order to try to secure his affections. Frankly, they would have paraded themselves, their sons, and their nephews in front of Henry, if he has swung that way. The family members of the King’s side-pieces expected to transmute their kinswoman’s ‘favors’ into political and financial favors for themselves, since almost invariably the family of the King’s mistress would receive swag like court positions, titles, and lands. Some of the more ambitious couturiers practically staked their young and pretty female relations out like goats, hoping Henry would nail one of them and start forking over loot to her accommodating husband, father, or brother.
In light of the historical and medical realities, let us celebrate Henry’s birthday by remembering him as the sexually reserved, non-syphilitic monarch he was.
- Henry VIII, Kell Positive Blood Type and McLeod Syndrome – Part 1
- Henry VIII, Kell Positive Blood Type and McLeod Syndrome – Part 2
Click here to read more about Henry VIII and his birth.