16 Strange Things About Henry VIII That History Books Don’t Tell You

We all know he killed a bunch of his wives, but what sort of man was he really?

Henry VIII is notoriously famous for killing two of his wives, but it seems unfair to judge him solely on the basis of his domestic relationships. So who was this bloodthirsty conundrum? An athletic person and an egomaniac, Henry VIII would strut around and show off his chiseled legs, and invite ladies to the 1500s version of the gun show (spoiler alert: we’re talking about his biceps). But that doesn’t really answer the question, does it? Henry arranged marriages and played tunes in his spare time, and he had quite a love of animals, but that just scratches the surface of how profoundly weird this guy was.

1. The highest ranking royal servant was Henry’s toilet attendant.

Photo: Wellcome Images/via Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0

In Henry’s court, one’s proximity to the king was a symbol of their importance. Henry only allowed a select few the honor of standing in the same airspace as him. During his reign, only a lucky four men got the job of “Groom of the Stool”, the physically closest, and by association, most important position. These men helped Henry clothe and unclothe as he went to and from the bathroom, and controlled access to the monarch. They even controlled some of Henry’s finances and had power over a stamp of his signature.

2. He weighed so much, a crane had to be used to put him in his horse saddle.

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Henry was once a very fit and athletic man, but he let himself go. Sources say he gained north of 400 pounds. At one point it became impossible for him to mount a horse by himself, so he needed a crane to do the heavy lifting (pun intended) for him. His waist was rumored to be in the neighborhood of 50 inches and some scholars believe he needed a rudimentary form of wheelchair to move around.

3. Henry was very pro-pope once upon a time.

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Although Henry VIII is notorious for dividing himself with Rome and introducing the Anglican faith, in his youth, Henry was a very vocal supporter of Catholicism at its prime. He was a supporter of the papacy, he sent tin from Cornwall to decorate one pope’s new palace, and might have been considering a future with the Church (before his brother’s death changed things). Henry was a vehement opponent of Martin Luther, and went as far to write a pamphlet called Defense of the Seven Sacraments. Pope Leo X was such a fan of Henry’s enthusiasm that he granted him the title of “Defender of the Faith”. Kind of ironic once you consider what has happened since.

4. Henry VIII loved his dogs.

Photo: Encyclopedia Britannica/Public Domain/via Wikimedia Commons

Even though Henry didn’t seem like he was capable of loving animals, he had a special bond with dogs. He kept several greyhounds and beagles and fed them bread and not meat, so as to discourage them from biting. He gave his dogs velvet collars and silk coats and anyone who bought back lost canines would be compensated with a big reward. To show his support in difficult times, Henry gifted Charles V, a Roman Emperor, 400 dogs that were consequently trained to attack the opposition.

5. Henry once had intentions of marrying two of his children.

Photo: Lucas Horenbout/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Henry’s inability to produce a legitimate male heir was confounding him, and at some point he became so desperate he decided to plan a very sick wedding. He had an illegitimate son with Elizabeth Blount and he also had a legitimate daughter from his wife Catherine of Aragon.

Henry did have a legitimate reason, however. He did not want the country to descend into chaos, as they would have no real ruler (although it still doesn’t excuse what he tried to do). His son, Henry Fitzroy, was named duke of Richmond and Somerset. Henry wanted Fitzroy to become his successor, with his daughter, Mary, as his wife. The pope gave his consent, but luckily for everyone, Fitzroy married someone else.

6. Henry was an early pioneer of dressage in England.

Photo: Hans Liefrinck II/Public Domain/via Wikimedia Commons

Henry loved horses almost as much as he loved receiving praise from people, so one day he decided to combine the two in what became an early version of dressage (or the thing you see at the Olympics with the horses doing tricks). An avid horse rider, Henry would participate, and he would fare well in these competitions as he had a knack for making horses jump very high.

7. For all the things he was good at, Henry was never great at writing love letters.

Photo: Frans Pourbus the Younger/Public Domain/via Wikimedia Commons

Henry VIII wrote a bunch of love letters to his second wife, Anne Boleyn, before they got married. In those letters, Henry expressed the distress he felt when Anne played coy, or at least he tried to. The letters still survive as of today and they say, “My mistress and friend: I and my heart put ourselves in your hands, begging you to have them suitors for your good favor.” Another excerpt reads, “Wishing myself (specially an evening) in my sweetheart’s arms, whose pretty dukkys I trust shortly to kiss.” “Dukkys” is being used here to refer to Anne’s breasts.

8. Henry was weirdly fond of his calves.

Photo: Unknown/Public Domain/via Wikimedia Commons

Henry had a competitive spirit to him that was highlighted in a conversation with the Venetian ambassador. He asked whether Francis I, his nemesis (and Ruler of France) was fat, and then asked about his legs, “What sort of legs has he?” The ambassador replied, “Spare”. Henry would subsequently strip and show off his own calves. The ambassador would later recount, “Whereupon he opened the front of his doublet, and placing his hand on his thigh, said ‘Look here! and I have also a good calf to my leg.'”

9. His legs weren’t the only thing he would show off (spoiler alert: it was his music).

Photo: William Powell Frith/Public Domain/via Wikimedia Commons

Henry was an excellent musician and his competitive spirit would propel him into patronizing performers whenever he got the chance. He even sang duets with a few of his friends. He would spend a lot of time on instruments like the lute and virginals. He had a vast collection and each instrument would be fashioned with valuable metals.

10. Henry was the unlikely harbinger of a health revolution.

Photo: Wellcome Images/via Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0

Despite a vast, vast multitude of mostly negative attributes, Henry did something beneficial every once in a while. He founded the Royal College of Physicians and also passed laws to control medicine practice. He was the first to place drug regulation laws, as he called for apothecaries’ wares to be checked, so that he could make sure customers were not being taken advantage of. Supervision of sewers was taken a lot more seriously under his rule, and London’s water supply and drainage also benefited.

11. Henry is also the unlikely reason as to why London has so many parks.

Photo: Internet Archive Book Images/flickr/No known copyright restrictions

Apparently Henry VIII was fond of vast empty fields, which he used for recreational purposes like riding, hunting, and picnicking. He used to purchase vast fields just so he could use them later on. He would totter from one field to another to check out the fields or to clear his head or whatnot. Modern day Hyde, Regent’s, St. James’, and Green park all owe their current day existence to their unlikely hero; Henry VIII.

12. The end of Elizabeth I’s reign also saw the end of Henry’s lineage.

Photo: VSmithUK/flickr/CC-BY 2.0

Henry never really recognized his illegitimate children, save for Henry Fitzroy, who died early on. Henry did, however, have three legitimate children, all three of whom went on to rule England. None of the children produced any heirs, so the lineage of Henry VIII ended around 1601.

13. Henry VIII hated his older sister more than you hate yours.

Photo: Daniël Mijtens/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

While Henry’s brother died when Henry was young, Henry still couldn’t catch a break as his sisters were more than he could handle. His elder sister, who was as feisty as Henry (if not more), was sent off to Scotland to get married to James IV, the King at the time. She gave birth to James V, but the death of James IV forced her into frugal times. Desperate to have the same lifestyle she once did, she lived off her brother, much to his contempt. She even tried to serve as Henry’s regent before she married a Scottish noble, the Earl of Angus, by her own choice. To say Henry wasn’t fond of her living off him and picking her own husband would be an understatement.

14. Henry’s younger sister was equally annoying.

Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Henry’s younger sister was originally married to King Louis XII of France, who died soon after. She made her brother promise that her next husband would be one of her own choosing, in the aftermath of Louis’ death. She then chose Henry’s commoner Charles Brandon. As can be predicted, Henry obviously disagreed vehemently, saying that her marrying Charles would rob him of the opportunity of making alliances by using her. Mary and Charles still got married however, and their lineage included Lady Jane Grey, the notorious “Nine Days Queen”.

15. He started the use of the title of majesty in England.

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Apparently, Henry felt that the title of ‘Grace’ or ‘Your Highness’ failed to do him justice as he ruled by ‘the grace of God’. He formulated a ‘royal cult’ and used them to appoint himself the title of ‘Majesty’. By 1520, the title had proliferated and pretty much everyone was using it. The word itself also had a few regal connotations. It invoked an almost godlike glory going back to ancient times. Suffice it to say, nobody had an ego the size of Henry VIII

16. Henry’s penchant for violence may not have been his fault.

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Henry’s predilection toward violence has grown famous over the years and many theories have been proposed. One that gained a significant amount of traction was genetic insanity. His great grandmother, from his father’s side, Catherine of Valois, Princess of France, was the daughter of infamously insane King Charles VI, and her lineage shows signs of struggling with the same problems. But this is just one of many compelling theories.

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