Forensics in History: Henry VIII and His Pathetic Pathology

stamps of henry viii

Henry VIII became the King of England in 1509 at the tender age of 18 years. Henry has fascinated us for 500 years, but he was not remembered for his benevolent disposition. Amazingly, he was once described by a member of the Tudor court as “the most handsome potentate I have ever set eyes on, above the usual height and with an extremely fine calf to his leg and a round face so beautiful it would become a pretty woman.” But over time, like anyone, he weathered.

He is said to have recovered from smallpox at the age of 23, which took away strength and left scars. At the age of 30, he contracted malaria, which continued to plague him. Yet it was Henry VIII’s sporting accidents that changed the world. This story is one of the most fascinating in history — and truly allows us to look back at why forensic science is so useful to help elucidate events that have occurred so far in the past.


Sports injuries: play hard, heal badly.

In 1527, Henry injured his left foot playing tennis. The foot was swollen for a long time, and the King started wearing a single black silk slipper, predating the ‘King of Pop’ (Michael Jackson’s adoption of a single spangled glove) by 470 years. Like Jackson’s fans, Henry’s courtiers quickly picked up the fashion trend. The same year, he began suffering from ‘sorre legge’, likely ulcers on the thigh. Really, these were minor annoyances, but Henry’s temper and disappointment about not being able to father a male heir bought him into conflict with certain institutions. Reacting to pain and power, he broke with the Roman Catholic Church, divorced his first wife and dissolved the monasteries.

Henry was becoming known for excess. His weight increased in spite of his athletic endeavors, and his suits of armor revealed a gradual increase in size. Henry was a tall man, and in his 20’s weighed 15 stone with a 32” waist (around 210 lbs.). But by his 50’s, his waist and increased to 52” and he is thought to have weighed 28 stone (almost 400 lbs).


Did you get the number of the bus that hit me?

If jousting was his joy, it was also his downfall. In full ‘king size’ armor, mounting his horse with a hoist in January of 1536, he was unseated by a jousting spear which hit him in the forehead. He crashed to the ground, pulling the fully armored horse down on top of him. He was unconscious for two hours, his legs were crushed, and he likely broke both long bones. Worst of all, his wife, Queen Anne Boleyn, is said to have miscarried his male child after hearing that his injuries might be fatal. The scars were physical as well as emotional.

From that day forward, his mood changed. Once generous and jolly, he now suffered from headaches and painful leg ulcers. His attitude became more vulgar, unpredictable and cruel. Ultimately, the Queen was executed for a variety of crimes, including losing the male heir and adultery. Her actual crime was simply being there when Henry lusted for Jane Seymour, the other woman.


Royal legs: the good, the bad and the ugly.

Whereas his legs were once admired and provided him with power and advantage on the sporting fields, during the last two decades of his life, they were a source of never ceasing pain. Ulcers, venous disease, injury and carrying enormous weight, the legs wore out. Pathologists who have studied him and his symptoms are certain that he had acquired venous hypertension as a result of deep vein thrombosis (DVT). In his later years, Chapuys, the Spanish Ambassador described Henry’s legs as “the worst legs in the world.”


Wait, there’s more: a litany of suffering.

Headaches, painful injuries, and ulcerated sores: these alone would cause a lot of suffering and a mean temper, but Henry’s voracious appetite contributed to more problems. His risk of hypertension and Type II diabetes was very high. An enormous intake, particularly of high cholesterol foodstuffs including fatty lamb, chicken, game, beef, rabbit, game fowl — up to 13 dishes a day — accompanied by 10 pints of ale and wine were well-documented in the daily Ordinances of Eltham, a log of the Royal diet. The resulting obesity is now known to accelerate peripheral vascular disease and arterial problems, exacerbate ulceration and impede healing. Additionally, grossly swollen legs can cause congestive cardiac failure.

The symptoms made life miserable, not just for the Royal Court.

The most important result was Henry’s reaction to the pain and suffering. He became a monster: bitter, vile, cruel, paranoid and vicious. His subjects, who once hailed him, now despised him. In fact, after his death in 1547 at the age of 56, he was buried outside of London, not in Westminster Abbey like most Royals, but in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. It is said he wanted to be buried next to Jane Seymour, his favorite wife, but perhaps it was because he had become so hated in London.


Tracing an autopsy: through the ages.

Because King Henry VII was the leader of England, his court included many doctors, and these doctors wrote about his injuries, ailments, food intake, weight and treatments in copious fashion. Later day historians such as Robert Hutchinson, pathologists including Dr. Catherine Hood and Lucy Worsley, chief curator of Britain’s Historic Royal Palaces were able to piece together a history of a monarch so overwhelmed by health problems, that he was plagued by paranoia and melancholy.


Your Turn: Are there any other sub-disciplines within forensic science that you believe could help to further tease out aspects of Henry VIII’s life? An armchair historian with a strong opinion on the life and times of this much-maligned monarch? Tell us in the comments. We’d love to hear from you.



Leave a Reply