Wednesday, 12 October 2011

King Henry VIII - Fat or Fiction?

Henry with Jane Seymour, his third wife.

I thought it would be fun to compare Henry VIII, as created in TV series, The Tudors, with accounts of the real king.
 In his later life King Henry VIII was famed for being obese:

“ …[King Henry VIII] laboured under the burden of extreme fat and [an] unwieldy body.”
Edward, 1st Baron Herbert of Cherbury.

However chief executive producer of The Tudors, Morgan O’Sullivan was refreshingly honest about his attitude to Johnathan Rhys Myers portrayal of the ageing king:

“We still want him to be appealing. We don’t want to destroy his good looks. An exact portrayal of Henry is not a factor that we think is important.”

Henry VIII reigned from 1509 to 1547 and in his youth was evidently a very handsome man:

“His majesty is the handsomest potentate I ever set eyes on.” Venetian visitor.

At 6 ft 2 inches he was tall, even compared the average height of a UK man today, at 5ft 9 inches. He was an active man who loved to hunt, joust, wrestle and play tennis but food played a prominent part at his court. In one year alone Henry’s court consumed 1240 oxen, 8200 sheep, 2330 deer, 760 calves, 1870 pigs, 53 wild boar and innumberable birds from swans to peacocks, fish and even whale, accompanied by 600,000 gallons of ale.

Food was used as a demonstration of England’s cultural superiority, a demonstration to visiting princes and foreign diplomats of her levels of wealth and luxury. But it was perhaps two factors that doomed Henry to his eventual morbid obesity: ill health which meant he could no longer exercise, and the death of his beloved third wife, Jane Seymour. Accounts suggest that after Jane’s death in 1536, twelve days after giving birth to their son, Edward, King Henry turned to food for comfort.

Studies of Henry’s suits of armour also speak of a steady increase in his girth:

1512    32 inch waist
1520    35 inches        
1545    54 inches
Jowly portrait by Matsys.

By 1544, a portrait by Cornelys Matsys showed Henry’s cheeks sagging with fat and eyes mouth mere slits in the blubber and by 1546 he could hardly walk and had to be carried around in special chairs called “Trams.” It was around this time that Henry, famously, had to be winched on and off his horse.

Henry died 28 January 1547, aged 55. His cadaver was placed in a lead coffin within a 6ft 10 inch elm chest and it took 16 yeoman of exceptional strength to manoeuvre the coffin.

Modern medical assessment suggest that at his death Henry had a BMI of 35 (normal 20-25) and weighed around 30 stones (normal for a 6ft 2 inch man is 13 stone) and was morbidly obese.

“Fat Henry sat upon the throne
And cast his eye on harm sir.
No, no Sir cook, I do propone
I think I’ll have the lamb sir.”
19th century nursery rhyme.
A romanticised version of Henry with the wife who outlived him.

But let’s leave the final word to The Tudor’s star, J. Rhys Myers himself. The actor made it clear he never intended to pig out to get into character.

“ …[actors] are not famous because they’re pug ugly.”

And he argued it there was no point selling historical drama featuring “… a big, fat 250 lb red-haired guy with a beard.”

Got to admire his honesty!

 So do you think JRM was right to go for glamour, or should he have bulked up?

A younger Henry with Anne Boleyn.


  1. Glamour every time:-) x Wonderful, Grace. I adore your blog posts. x Thanks for sharing. xx Much love and hugs. xx

  2. Although I'm pleased they didn't turn Henry into something grotesque as he aged. I think they could have added a few inches to his girth (middle aged spread). Hardly any man stays the same shape as the years roll by.

  3. To be honest, Elizabeth and Ann, because of Henry's lack of ageing I completely lost interest in The Tudors as it was aired 'live' for the first time. It was some time later that I saw a repeat and suddenly 'I got' what the producers were trying to do ie give up on any pretence of historical accuracy. Once I understood that I LOVED the series!!!

  4. I loved The Tudors! History from a textbook is so horribly dry. It's just a bunch of dates, names and places. Wish a "sanitized" version, i.e., delete some sex scenes, could be offered to school students. Then, we would have people who "get" history and enjoy it. Of course, had a chunky person played Henry, the series probably wouldn't have been as popular. I love how the series seems to have opened up to a whole group of books being written about the Tudor time period. Wouldn't it be wonderful if they made more series like this? Wow!

  5. He really did get mega fact, remarkable decline for a man who was such a handsome and athletic young man. I think poetic licence in things like The Tudors is okay up to a point, but the fatness of Henry VIII in his later years is a huge part of his character and his monstrosity. They didn't shy away from his horrible leg ulcers, after all. I'd have thought in the final series he could have enjoyed some additional girth without everyone turning off in disgust!

  6. Nothing seems to accurate; the wives have today's long hair styles.

    When I watch period shows, it is for all the luscious reality. I want to learn what things were like then. I never watched this.

  7. I never watched the Tudors because nothing in or about it was period. The costuming was 'Bethan (Elizabethan), and yes, Henry didn't age as he shold have. If you just like a 'fantasy' version of the middle ages then yes, this show is for you, but if you like a bit to a lot more realism, then don't bother with it.

    Henry's rich diet was the death of him. All those rich foods and little to no grains and vegetables wasn't the best.

  8. I haven't actually watched this series, but it is certainly true that he only became fat in his old age and had been handsome and athletic in his youth. His obesity may not only have been due to his rich diet. He also suffered from an ulcerated leg in old age, which would have prevented him from exercising. And many historians believe that he also suffered from syphilis, probably throughout most of his adult life. Although I have no idea whether this would contribute to obesity, it must surely have affected his general fitness level.

  9. A great job Grace. I didn't watch the series, but I learned long ago, movies and TV aren't the best place to learn about history -- the real stuff. Even books get it wrong sometimes.
    And, it's surprising Henry made to 55 with all that weight and his general health.

  10. This is my first visit to your Blog, Grace and I'm very impressed - it's looks lovely and is so interesting. I write futuristic, but that doesn't mean I'm not interested in history, I love it and I really enjoy reading historical romances and watching historical tv series - although I have to say I missed most of The Tudors somehow!

  11. I fell in love with the Showtime version of Henry and it led to the awesome Gregory books which were another experience on their own. The sex, glamour, costumes and intrigue were fascinating and kept me watching. I couldn't get enough of them and hated that it was a mere 4 year run. This could have easily entertained me for a decade. I for one was glad they used a slimmer version rather than the portly historical version of Henry. Somehow, seeing that rear climbing into so many beds would have not been a pleasant sight.

  12. Thank you to everyone who left a comment...and Lisa, your last sentence puts the argument very elegantly!
    Grace x

  13. It was definitely Hollywood Henry, wasn't it?

    I'm afraid I thought it was trite, irredeemable rubbish - God only knows what attracted JRM to it - apart from the enormous pay-check, that is...oops, there I think we may have it, folks!

  14. Get real Grace. How many of us would have been so hooked on the series without a beautiful actor? Or bought the DVDs? :) He was a fascinating man, though (Henry, not Jonathan)

  15. The series was done so well in many ways. However, to alter history, especially keeping Henry young and slim, was not necessary and diminished the overall value and enjoyment of the series. All the other characters were well cast. Such a pity!!!


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