Henry VIII’s constipation – guest post by Seamus O’Caellaigh

Posted By on March 26, 2018

A big welcome to Seamus O’Caellaigh who visits us today as part of the book tour for his wonderful new book Pustules, Pestilence and Pain: Tudor Treatments and Ailments of Henry VIII. Here is an article based on an extract from his book about a complaint that Henry VIII suffered in 1539 and how it would have been treated.

Over to Seamus…

Modern people do not like talking about using the bathroom, and especially avoid talking about issues with constipation, haemorrhoids or diarrhoea. The king, however, had no privacy, and his movements were never inconspicuous. In fact, he had a ‘Groom of the Stool’ who oversaw his most private business. In 1539, his constipation appeared to be more than just a minor issue, and the issues were recorded by the most intimate of his courtiers.

During Henry’s 36-year reign, he had four Grooms of the Stool. From 1509 to 1526 the role was taken by Sir William Compton. Sir William was knighted during this time and also acted as an Under-Treasurer of the Exchequer, Chancellor of Ireland and sheriff of a few regions. After Sir William, came Sir Henry Norris, who was Groom of the Stool for ten years. His term ended with his execution as one of the four men found guilty with Queen Anne Boleyn and her brother. Sir Thomas Heneage then held the office for a decade, followed by Sir Anthony Denny for just two years, as the king passed away in 1547.

The following letter was written by Sir Thomas Heneage, Groom of the Stool, to Thomas Cromwell in September 1539:

“I received your letter this morning, although your servant came over night; ‘for by th’advice of the physicians the King’s Majesty went betimes to bed, whose Highness slept until two of the clock in the morning, and then his Grace rose to go to the stool which, by working of the pills and glister that his Highness had taken before, had a very fair siege, as the said physicians have made report; not doubting but the worst is past by their perseverance, to no danger of any further grief to remain in him, and the hinder part of the night until 10 of the clock this morning his Grace had very good rest, and his Grace findeth himself well, saving his Highness saith he hath a little soreness in his body. And I would have had his said Majesty to have read your letter, but would that I should make to him relation thereof, whereat his Grace smiled, saying that your Lordship had much more fear than required.’ I will send your bills as soon as his Grace has signed them. The long tarrying of your servant here was by my command. Hampthill, Friday, between 10 and 11 a.m.”1

With the diet that Henry ate, it is no wonder that he had some digestive issues. Henry, of course, was not the only one eating at the Tudor court. In one year, meat consumption totalled 1,240 oxen, 8,200 sheep, 2,330 deer, 760 calves, 1,870 pigs and 53 wild boars and they drank 600,000 gallons of beer. A Declaracion of the Particular Ordinances of Fares for the Dietts to be served to the King’s Highnesse, the Queen’s Grace, and the sides, with the Household2 shows that an awful lot of meat and not enough fibre were consumed at Henry VIII’s court. It is no wonder he was troubled by constipation.

In my book, I include a recipe for a ‘glyster’, or enema, from Bullein’s Bulwarke of Defence by William Bullein. Bullein talks of using dock, a broad-leaved wayside plant with large tap-roots, or rumex, for a glyster being sodden. He says it will move the belly to be laxative. The fluid for the glister should be made like a decoction, or boiled mash, and the plant product strained from the remaining water. Then the fluid is placed in the pig bladder, another bag, or a syringe. The bag is attached to a tube and the tube inserted into the rectum. The bag is then squeezed, forcing the fluid into the rectum.

Dioscorides wrote about the types of dock and that “all of these (boiled) soothe the intestines.”3 However, the process of an enema without a herb or chemical other than a natural saline, will have a desired effect just by filling the rectum with fluid, expanding out the walls of the rectum, and making it easier for the stool to move.

When researching this treatment, I assumed that the dock had little to do with the treatment, however, on further investigation, I found that it contains anthraquinone.4 “Besides their utilization as colourants, anthraquinone derivatives have been used for centuries for medical applications, for example, as laxatives and antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory agents. Current therapeutic indications include constipation, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and cancer.”5 It appears that this treatment, along with laxative pills made from myrobalan, aloe and scammony (recipe also by Bullein), could very well have been the reason for Henry’s “very fair siege”.

Pustules, Pestilence, and Pain

Henry VIII lived for 55 years and had many health issues, particularly towards the end of his reign.
In Pustules, Pestilence, and Pain, historian Seamus O’Caellaigh has delved deep into the documents of Henry’s reign to select some authentic treatments that Henry’s physicians compounded and prescribed to one suffering from those ailments.

Packed with glorious full-colour photos of the illnesses and treatments Henry VIII used, alongside primary source documents, this book is a treat for the eyes and is full of information for those with a love of all things Tudor. Each illness and accident has been given its own section in chronological order, including first-hand accounts, descriptions of the treatments and photographic recreations of the treatment and ingredients.

You can click here to find out more about the book.

Author Bio

Seamus O’Caellaigh has always been interested in the Tudor dynasty and the many uses of plants. He grew up learning about plants from his grandmother Anne Kelley and mother Diane Prickett. Their love of plants has manifested in Seamus through his love of being out in the wild looking for medicinal plants, through his spending lots of time in the family garden and through spending time in the woods in the Pacific Northwest. He is most often seen with his head down, looking at the plants along the path and not at what lies ahead.

Having joined a pre-1600s recreation group, Seamus found a way to incorporate his love of the Tudors with a study of medicinal plants from that time period, along with the many herbal books written from the 1st century to the turn of the 17th century. Nothing makes Seamus happier than finding an obscure reference, or his son Jerrick bringing him a plant for “Dad’s Plant Projects.”

Seamus’s book tour has also included these blogs:

Notes and Sources

  1. Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 14 Part 2, 153.
  2. “Ordinances for the household made at Eltham in the XVIIth year of King Henry VIII A.D. 1526”, 174 in Nichols’ A collection of ordinances and regulations for the government of the royal household, made in divers reigns. From King Edward III. to King William and Queen Mary….
  3. Dioscorides de materia medica: being an herbal with many other medicinal materials., Book 2, 263.
  4. Schilling, Judith A., and Sean Webb. Nursing Herbal Medicine Handbook. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins, 2006.
  5. Malik, Enas M., and Muller, Christa E., “Anthraquinones As Pharmacological Tools and Drugs”, Medicinal Research Reviews 36.4 (2016): 705-48. Web. 18 Jan. 2017.
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