Fat and furious (but was it his fault?): Henry VIII

Fat and furious (but was it his fault?) Everyone knows Henry VIII was an obese insomniac with a foul temper, but a new book asks: was he really a terrible tyrant or the victim of a nasty disease?

  • A new book recounts the life of King Henry VIII who reigned for almost 38 years
  • Tudor expert Robert Hutchinson questions if Henry had Cushing’s syndrome
  • The condition counts irritability, insomnia and weight gain among symptoms
  • King Henry VIII ballooned to an estimated 28st in the last years of his life
  • As his grip on England, Wales and Ireland grew stronger, treason laws expanded
  • His fifth wife was executed less than two years after their wedding



by Robert Hutchinson (W&N £20, 432pp) 

The bride was 19, petite, vivacious and flirty, with a mass of auburn hair tumbling down her back. The groom, 30 years older, was enormously fat, flatulent, possessed of a volcanic temper and with ulcerated legs so putrid that their stench could be detected several rooms away.

It was not a match made in heaven.

The marriage of Henry VIII to Katherine Howard in July 1540 is one of many dark episodes in this grimly compelling account of the last seven years of Henry’s reign.

Once handsome, charismatic and athletic, the king had become a grotesque parody of his former self, but as he wooed Katherine he felt rejuvenated.

Tudor expert Robert Hutchinson, recounts the life of King Henry VIII (pictured) who died in January 1547 at the age of 55, after reigning for almost 38 years 

‘So amorous of her that he cannot treat her well enough,’ a French diplomat reported breathlessly.

It didn’t take long for the marriage to go horribly wrong. Within a year, gossip reached the besotted monarch that his fifth wife, his ‘blushing rose without a thorn’, was not the innocent he had supposed. Before she caught Henry’s fancy, Katherine had slept with her lute teacher and had also been intimate with another man. Even more scandalously, one of her female friends had often shared the bed with them.

The king reacted with a mixture of rage and self-pity, calling for a sword so he could kill Katherine with his own hands and sobbing as he cursed his ‘ill-luck in meeting with such ill-conditioned wives’.

Queen Katherine’s fate was sealed when a letter was discovered written by her to Thomas Culpeper, a gentleman of the Privy Chamber and a great favourite of Henry’s. Unwisely, Katherine had signed it ‘Yours as long as life endures’.

Less than two years after her wedding, Katherine was led to the small green within the Tower of London where, six years before, Henry’s second wife Anne Boleyn — who, bizarrely, was Katherine’s cousin — had been beheaded. After her execution, Katherine’s body was laid to rest a few feet away from Anne.

Reading this book makes one heartily glad not to have lived during Henry’s reign. Katherine was relatively lucky in having been dispatched so quickly. One of her lovers was convicted of treason and his sentence was to be dismembered: an observer recounted how people who were killed in this way ‘spoke always till their hearts were pulled out of their bodies, which was a piteous death’.

Henry VIII (pictured with Anne Boleyn) throughout his life contracted smallpox, survived malaria and was plagued by weeping leg ulcers

In the latter years of Henry’s reign, his iron grip on England, Wales and Ireland grew ever stronger and the treason laws were greatly expanded. Even a joke or a drunken song poking fun at him could result in a death sentence. If you wanted to settle a score with a troublesome neighbour, accusing them of slandering the king was an effective way of doing so, especially as Henry’s henchmen were enthusiastic users of torture to extract confessions, whether real or invented.

And if you weren’t tossed into prison, there was the ever-present risk of illness waiting to carry you off. Bubonic plague, which could kill you within 24 hours, was a frequent occurrence. If you dodged that, you might still fall victim to the ‘English sweating sickness’, most likely viral pneumonia, or else measles, typhus, smallpox or even malaria.

Henry was a raging hypochondriac, and no wonder: at various times he had contracted smallpox, survived four bouts of malaria, suffered blows to the head while jousting, and was plagued by weeping leg ulcers.

But Tudor expert Robert Hutchinson dismisses the widely held idea that Henry also had syphilis. He favours the theory, first put forward a decade ago, that Henry had Cushing’s syndrome, a rare endocrine disorder.

Katherine Parr (pictured) who was aware of Henry’s reaction to those who wouldn’t bend to his will, felt that she had no option but to marry him despite being in love with Thomas Seymour

Contrary to popular legend, Henry was quite a dainty eater and not prone to chucking chicken carcasses over his shoulder, yet in the last years of his life he ballooned to an estimated 28st and had a gargantuan 54-inch waist.

People with Cushing’s syndrome put on a huge amount of weight around their trunk, their skin is easily damaged and slow to heal, and they are often prone to irritability, depression, melancholia, anxiety, insomnia and sudden mood swings — all of which accurately sums up Henry VIII’s behaviour.

Having dispatched Katherine Howard, Henry set his sights on the twice-widowed Katherine Parr. She was no beauty, but was admired for her spirited personality, her calm intelligence and her graceful dancing. The only snag was that Katherine was deeply in love with Thomas Seymour, brother of Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour.

HENRY VIII: THE DECLINE AND FALL OF A TYRANT by Robert Hutchinson (W&N £20, 432pp)

When she heard of the king’s interest in her, Katherine exclaimed in horror: ‘Better to be his mistress than his wife!’ The dashing Thomas Seymour was summarily posted to Brussels and Katherine, well aware of what happened to those who did not bend to Henry’s will, had no option but to marry him.

The marriage was reasonably successful: she was a kind stepmother to his children, was good at soothing Henry’s temper, and tended to his various ailments.

Hutchinson, author of several books on Tudor history, moves the narrative along at a brisk pace but has an unfortunate tendency to indulge in cod psychology, as when he states (without any evidence) that in marrying Katherine Parr, who was still in love with his one-time brother-in-law, Henry’s ‘unconscious craving for an incestuous union was satisfied’.

And referring to Katherine Howard as a ‘bimbo’ and calling Henry an ‘ogre’ rather detracts from the scholarliness of this well-researched book.

Henry VIII died in January 1547 at the age of 55, having been king for almost 38 years. Wars against Scotland and France in the final few years of his reign had all but bankrupted the country and it would take two decades for his successors to put the economy on a sound footing again.

In a suitably macabre finale to his bloody reign, the massive elm casket that held his body sprang a leak, and stray dogs were seen darting around the church where he lay in state, lapping eagerly at the king’s earthly remains.


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