Henry VIII, Syphilis and Mistresses by Kyra Kramer

Posted By on June 28, 2014

The birthday boy

The birthday boy

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?

Nope.

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.

Francis I

Francis I

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.

Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII's first wife

Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife

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.

Kyra’s book is available from Amazon.com, Amazon UK or your usual bookstore. Kyra has also written two guest articles on her theory regarding Henry VIII and McLeod Syndrome, here are the links:

Click here to read more about Henry VIII and his birth.

50 thoughts on “Henry VIII, Syphilis and Mistresses by Kyra Kramer”

  1. Pam says:

    What a great article, thanks for posting!

  2. Melissa says:

    I have never done any extensive studies regarding syphilis soyour information regarding the many stages was very helpful. It makes a very compelling argument against the claims of sickness. I am studying history for school and am almost looking forward to one of my professors suggesting this now that I feel better informed!

  3. Miss LilaJoy says:

    It was an ok article. I don’t understand the hostility it was written in though. It isn’t like everyone who follows this site spreads rumors that Henry had syphilis or was boinking everything in sight. Perhaps miss Kyra shouldn’t write when she’s in a bad mood, or maybe take a deep breath between the .cliché terminology.

    1. Claire says:

      It’s supposed to be a jokey tongue-in-cheek article.

      1. Kyra Kramer says:

        Clearly, my tongue was too firmly in my cheek; it kept the humor from getting all the way out. I promise, it was meant to humorous, not hostile.

        1. Claire says:

          Don’t worry, the humour came out fine to me and I chuckled out loud the first time I read it and Tim did too. People just have different sense of humours and likes/dislikes.

        2. Mary the Quene says:

          Nope, the article was straight-up funny. Especially the “Members of his court bathed him and wiped his butt after he pooped,” bit – are you *sure* that you’re not my niece Missy? Because hilariously, that’s something she would have written for sure!! lulz.

    2. Patricia says:

      I thought I was the only one who thought that. Thank you for your comment. However I did find the information useful, since I too thought at one time that he could possibly have contracted syphilis at some period prior to his first marriage, since it is not impossible for him to have rogered a maid or two before his marriage to Catherine. Are we to assume that Henry was a virgin when he married Catherine of Aragon? Somehow I think not.

  4. Rachel says:

    Hilarious and brilliantly written!

    It’s so fun to be informed while I’m laughing myself silly.

    1. Dawn 1st says:

      Totally agree 🙂

  5. irene wallbank says:

    Really interesting article! It is good to see an unbiased depiction of Henry VIII. I had read elsewhere that Henry did not sleep with many women and there is a theory that this was partly because he was brought up with his sisters, so wanted a companionate relationships. The belief that he had syphilis could be partly due to the early death of Edward and the poor health of Mary.

    1. Gail Marion says:

      Perhaps Henry suffered from periodic erectile disfunction. If so, he would select a mistress carefully not wanting such information to circulate outside the confines of a bedroom. Wasn’t Anne Boleyn accused at her trial of gossiping about Henry’s sexual inadequacies?

      1. Camille Dvorak says:

        Henry VIII was injured in a tourney during his marriage to Anne Boleyn, which affected his ability to be as active as he had once been. It doesn’t take long for the body to lose tone, especially because H8 was in his late forties by that time and was gaining weight, and likely developing diabetes, judging from the ulcer in his leg failing to heal. Along with those health issues, impotence is part and parcel of the package.

  6. John Boulter says:

    Very good, I think there is a big myth re Henry and women. As for his sickness in latter years it had nothing to do with the ” French Pox”. Syphilis came via the Middle East, its said that is is a common thing with camels, true or not?
    Outside Sutton Coal FIeld is a area which he gave to the then village of Sutton Coal Field because a young girl saved him when he fell off his horse bore hunting, Nothing is allowed to be built on it at all as per his order and thats how it is today.

  7. Jim Whitman says:

    Wonderful and entertaining article that cause me to look up more about syphilis. Excellent explanation at http://jmvh.org/article/syphilis-its-early-history-and-treatment-until-penicillin-and-the-debate-on-its-origins/
    Also enlightening to know that Henry didn’t go around ‘boinking,’ every filly in the stable, as one reader put it so well. After reading so much I had come to believe that he was, as the article states, a relatively loyal husband…until he became dissatisfied of disenchanted with his current ‘love.’
    Thank you again.

  8. Elizabeth Smith says:

    I’ve read her book and would thoroughly recommend it. Of all the kings and queens of England, only poor old George III has more ink expended on his medical history than Henry VIII – and if Kyra’s hypothesis holds good, even today we could only make them both comfortable, not cure them.
    I’ve always liked medical history in terms of biography ( as distinct from the history of medicine!) and I think the porphyria theory of the madness of King George does hold up. Both Mary Queen of Scots and her son exhibited some of the symptoms, but Charles I escaped the defective gene while his sister Elizabeth did not. The condition appears regularly in both the House of Hanover, and the House of Hohenzollern, with whom the Hanoverians regularly intermarried – and in fact with the exception of George, you see the bad cases in the Prussian Royal family.
    In fact, the last recorded case was the Kaiser’s sister Charlotte.

    1. Jillian says:

      Although we can be virtually certain that Henry VIII did not have syphilis due to the absence of both contemporary rumour and recorded mercury treatment, I don’t think that we can be quite so certain about the causes and progress of the disease in Tudor times.

      Although mediieval skeletons have been discovered iwhich appear to show traces of syphilitic disease, as Kyra said, there is some evidence that the strain which affected Europe after 1492 did come from the Americas. Columbus’s fellow captain Martin Pinzon is said to have died of it on his return to Spain, and there was a major outbreak in Naples in 1494 during the French invasion of that kingdom. Mercenaries who had served with Columbus were present during the campaign and many French soldiers took an unwelcome reminder of their activities in the brothels of Naples home with them, hence the nickname ‘The French disease’ or ‘French pox’. French people referred to it as ‘the Neapolitan disease’, but that name never really caught on!

      The progress of the disease also varied from person to person. Although many died quickly, others lived with it for many years without suffering the drastic degeneration mentioned by Kyra. Cesare Borgia, the Emperor Maximilian I and the future Pope Julius II all caught syphilis in the 1490’s but none of them died of it, nor did they display many symptoms beyond periodic outbreaks of the characteristic pustules. Cesare may have even been cured of it by a serious bout of malaria in 1503 (sweat baths later became a common remedy). Maximilian claimed to have been cured by praying at a German shrine, although it seems more likely that the disease never progressed beyond the first stage in him, despite the fact that he had it for over twenty years.

  9. I have always thought that there were more sides to Henry than just a cruel bully, for instance he was happlly married to Katherine of Aragon for around 20 years, Personally I think his need to have a son became an overiding passion which turned into an obsession, and when the man in the street could sire a son and the most powerful man in the kingdom could not, it must have been overwhelmingly humiliating, We may never have had a Church of England if Henry had had sons.

    1. Gail Marion says:

      I can’t agree that Henry was “happily” married to Queen Katherine for about 20 years. Without a surviving son of the union, it must have become an increasingly unhappy time for both of them. Well into 15 years of marriage and the aging Katherine considered over her childbearing years Henry fell in love with Anne Boleyn and, as they say, the rest is history.

  10. Jan says:

    I really enjoyed this article Thing I didn’t know about Henry VIII ! Very well written! Not to mention how life was in Tudor times. Excellent reading!

  11. Jan says:

    I really enjoyed this article Thing I didn’t know about Henry VIII ! Very well written! Not to mention how life was in Tudor times. Excellent reading!

  12. Sofia says:

    Brilliant! Funny and true.

  13. Diane Wilshere says:

    One of the reasons the syphillis story survives is the play and film written by Robert Bolt, A Man For All Seasons. It is stated by the Everyman narrator at the end of the script. Also I have a 1940 historical medical book called Mere Mortals that not only repeats the Henry had syphillis, but also claimed Mary I and Edward VI had congenital syphillis based on studying their portraits. Oh, and that Anne Boleyn suffered from postpartum nymphomania. (That particular chapter is absolutely hilarious)

    1. Camille Dvorak says:

      Oh I can definitely see that…. after my children were born I was so full of boundless energy that I wanted to jump everything with an upright stave..

  14. Julie B says:

    Nice article…loved the humor!

  15. Penny R says:

    Yes, anyone who wants to see a pretty accurate albeit movie depiction of what syphilis really does to the human body watch a wonderful period piece with Johnny Depp called The Libertine. Johnny Depp’s transformation to a living corpse will go a long way into proving there’s no way Henry could have had the disease. It’s like any maligned historical figure, say the Magdalene for example, once the whisper of scandal is hinted at it must be true. Brava to Kyra Kramer for a wonderful article and being persistent against the critics.

    1. Christine says:

      Yes I saw that film and Johnny Depps nose rotted away also the disease makes you go mad and blind, Winston Churchills father Lord Randolph Churchill suffered from the same disease , it is particularly nasty and very avoidable, Henry never had those symptons it was just a theory in Victorian times put forward by some Edinburgh doctors to explain why his wives suffered miscarriages, and then many writers thought it must have been true but Henry was never treated for syphilis with the medicine at the time which was mercury , and his wives was never treated for it either, he had a dreadful temper but he was never mad it was ill health that made him like that, for example his ulcerated legs which caused him a lot of misery and his worry about the succession, history hasn’t really been kind to Henry V111 in a lot of ways, his need to have a son was to blame for many of his actions, it was his obsession, and England’s welfare.

  16. RxPhan says:

    Some of the evidence used by some historians claiming that Henry VIII had syphilis are found in his portraiture and remaining armor. According to these historians, Henry had syphilis because of the size of his codpiece. His was larger than life (so to speak) for two reasons: 1. Because he was the King and therefore “larger” and grander than any other males in court, kingdom, or the known world. 2. He had a large codpiece because his genitalia were swollen and tender because of the “pox” and he needed the extra “space” for comfort.

    1. Gail Marion says:

      Recent research links penis size to finger size, and Henry’s portraits indicate short fingers. Accordingly, and respecting the conclusion that he did not suffer from syphilis, it’s a fair to guess that Henry extra large codpiece was to distinguish himself apart from ordinary men.

  17. Tracy Green says:

    Your book is the single most fascinating book I have ever read on the subject of Henry VIII. I recommend it to every Tudor history fan I meet. It is the first work that explained satisfactorily the great change in Henry’s personality as well as the reason he struggled to have a male heir. It made me not only sympathize with his wives as most books have but it made me empathize with Henry for the tragic medical condition that caused him so much emotional pain. I will continue to avidly read any and everything you publish on this subject.

    1. Kyra Kramer says:

      You. You are my new best friend.

  18. Banditqueen says:

    Happy royal birthday to King Henry the Great Our Greatest Monarch and hail Henry. I have to party.

  19. NGB48 says:

    Funny and scholarly…..a rare and welcomed approach!

  20. AnneFan says:

    So funny! Thanks for the chuckle this morning. Happy Birthday HVIII !

  21. oblivietto says:

    I enjoyed the article and especially appreciated it because I recently was told (by a misinformed and very stubborn teacher at my daughter’s high school) that Henry’s health and reproductive problems resulted from a roaring case of syphilis. The author’s educated and humorous thoughts on the matter were refreshing and welcome. In addition, her book offers a most convincing explanation of Henry’s wives’ enormous difficulty bearing live, healthy children. I found her theory compelling and, like so many things about Henry’s wive’s stories, terribly sad. I’ve recommended the book to several friends. Well done!

  22. carrie king says:

    I enjoyed the article immensely. Your tongue-in-cheek humor is just my style. Good job. If you didn’t get it go find your sense of humor and pin it to yourself. So I would like to hear your theory on just what made Henry the angry brat he was later in life. By today’s standards he would have been a bloody dictator.

  23. Kyra Kramer says:

    Dear people who are recommending my book,

    I love you and want to have your babies.

    Sincerely,
    Kyra Cornelius Kramer

    1. Dawn 1st says:

      as long as we haven’t got syphilis, I presume….lol 🙂

      1. Claire says:

        Now you’ve got me chuckling Dawn!

      2. Camille Dvorak says:

        Bwahahaha

  24. steven rainbow says:

    A very poor piece I felt, you descended into childish talk of Sex when a more measured and medical tone would have given your copy depth,which it lacked thoughout. As for the Court proferring it’s Sons to Henry if he had been a Sodomite. The throw away comment displays a 21st Century mindset about Homosexuality. It was a Sin that was abhorred by all and the few who Homosexual trod a very careful path to avoid detection and punishment,ridicule and scorn.The possibility of Henry having Syphilis tied in with the very high miscarriage rate suffered by Henry’s wives so it was a legitimate theory to put forward,although a deeper research would have left the theory greatly weakened.

    1. Camille Dvorak says:

      Oh lighten up.

  25. Gail Marion says:

    The historical accusations of Royal Kings acquiring syphilis abound but we don’t hear anything of this highly contagious disease being contracted by their wives? I’m thinking in particular of noted sufferer Francis I of France who was married to Eleanor of Austria for 17 years, bore him 3 children, and survived him for another 10 years.

  26. Beth says:

    Kyra, Your writing is informative and funny at the same time! I read a great deal of nonfiction, and some of it is difficult to complete!
    Steven, go start your own blog and make it a stuffy one. You might want to
    first brush up on your capitalization and punctuation.

    1. Margaret says:

      He’s stating his opinion which we are all entitled to do. I agree with you that some of the nonfiction writing is extremely hard to follow and puts me to sleep! This article gave me a chuckle. I was expecting a dry piece with medical terms I might need to look up. It took me by surprise.

  27. Tanya says:

    Enjoyed this article. Written with great sense of humor while being informative at the same time….thanks

  28. Margaret says:

    I appreciated the humorous touch of the article, but at times it seemed a little juvenile. Not necessarily a bad thing- just different from other articles I’ve read on here before. I guess I wasn’t expecting it, so it was a little surprising. And I know this is petty, but it could have used some editing. Enough with the criticisms. It was informative and has led me to believe that Henry was not as bad as he could have been when it came to being faithful to his queen du jour.

  29. AK says:

    For persons interested in the medical history of syphilis, get and read Pox by Deborah Hayden.

    Re: Henry, my hunch is part of his troubles may have originated from injuries incurred from falls during hunts and the concussion he suffered while jousting.

    We are learning very much more about traumatic brain injury these days. Sudden rages, and frustration from being unable to let off emotions whilst exercising can be hard on even a private citizen; the effects on a monarch can be inculculable.

    Henry VIII: The Mask of Royalty by Lacey Baldwin-Smith is excellent.

  30. Maryann Pitman says:

    Henry respected Katherine for most of their marriage. Until he decided to marry Anne, he was generally quite discreet in his affairs, with the exception of his decision to acknowledge and elevate Fitzroy. Perhaps sex wasn’t really all that big a deal to him, or he was just really careful. In those days, his reputation mattered a good deal to him, and he likely preferred to keep the Queen quiet.

    The effects of frustration over the divorce and his numerous injuries and falls, as well as possible illness changed him a great deal, but even as he aged he was never really the womaniser as was Francis I.

  31. History Nut says:

    Interesting post. In his Memoirs written by Margaret George ( she read some 300 books to write this ) his own physicians tell him he has Syphilis. Certainly would explain many of his ailments and state of mind in the end there…

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