Monthly Archives: June 2014

Happy 523rd Birthday to Bluff King Hal!

HenryBDayThe following article is a guest post by Kyra Kramer, author of Blood Will Tell: A Medical Explanation for the Tyranny of Henry VIII.

The fact that the King has returned to dust does make it hard to get him a birthday present, though. Clearly, the only option one has is a personal gesture of goodwill. To that end I will do my best to elucidate on a topic that I am sure still bothers him beyond the veil of death, bless his egotistical heart: the idea that he was ugly.

If there is one common misapprehension that Henry VIII would wish to debunk, it is probably the one wherein he was gross in every possible way. Heaven knows “modest” and “humble” were not adjectives used to describe him, so the fact his image in the public imagination is usually that of a fat and pus-oozing old lech must be making him spin in his grave.

When the King was young he was a prime bit of manflesh. The young Henry was described, in the private letters of more than one foreign ambassador or other court contemporary, as having incredible physical beauty. His hair was red-gold, he had very fair skin, and apparently his face was so lovely it would have looked good on “a pretty woman”. Not only that, he could sing. He was the teen heart-throb of the Tudor dynasty.

Measurements for his armor also show that Henry was well over six feet tall and had a godlike body. A man’s legs were an especially important feature for masculine beauty in those days, and Henry had a first-rate set of limbs. He was vain about them (as he was about everything), bragging that his legs “had a good calf”. The fashion of the time made much of a man’s lower body, and Henry certainly looked hot in a doublet and hose when he was young. Henry, with his long and muscular legs encased in the skin-tight hose that were topped with an enormous codpiece made of stiffened (insert own joke here) cloth and his broad chest covered in a gem-encrusted doublet, had to have been an impressive sight. I am sure most of the ladies of the court, and likely some of the guys as well, would admire Henry as he moved among them, resplendent as both a man and a king.

Henry’s body wasn’t just for show, either. The King was a very, very good athlete and demonstrated outstanding abilities in several medieval sports. He was a particularly good equestrian, and could ride for more than thirty miles without needing a break. Anyone who has ever ridden a horse can tell you that riding a horse is not a passive activity; your thigh and core muscles in particular have to be strong in order to keep your seat. He could also joust better than any of his court contemporaries, which was not an easy thing to do. (Contrary to rumor, Henry always lost games with good grace and people who could beat him would win significant sums of money — people did not “let” him win.) Jousting was an incredibly difficult and demanding sport that could easily lead to fatal injuries.

Moreover, the King was also extremely good at tennis. Back then tennis was played in an indoor court and used hard leather balls packed with wool, or even human hair, and was more like squash than tennis as we know it today. Modern tennis is certainly not a sedentary sport, but squash is even more physically demanding. Since Henry was recorded more than once stripping down to his shirt during physical exertion, I’m pretty sure the sight of sweat-soaked linen clinging to his muscular chest and back was one of the reasons people crowded around to watch him play.

Henry was also a skillful archer, and could shoot an arrow as well as most of the bowmen in his guard. These were longbows, people. You had to be built like a brick house just to nock the arrow on the string of the bow. The pull weight on those things was around 200 lbs. Although the average male height was around 5’8”, the archers whom Henry competed with were typically about 6’ 2” or 6’3” with thickened bones to compensate for the weight of their extra muscle mass.

Henry may have been vain, but to be frank he had a damn good reason for his vanity. No wonder he couldn’t quite believe that Anne Boleyn was serious when she told him that she only wanted to be his subject, not his mistress. As a personable, intelligent, and handsome king,“no” was probably not a word he encountered overmuch.

Now, let’s raise a symbolic toast to this amazing King in honor of his birthday. History may have been served by his obtaining more inner beauty, but let no one question the pulchritude of his exterior.

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Congratulations to our Competition Winners!

photo(8) A few weeks ago, we challenged readers to write a short story, poem, or short play about Anne’s Coronation, told from one of three viewpoints:

1.) Anne’s viewpoint
2.) Henry’s viewpoint
3.) An observer in the crowd’s viewpoint.

All of the entries were excellent, and we thank all of you who took the time to write a piece for the contest. Two, however, stood out for their creativity, style, and fidelity to the period.
The winners are Peggy West and Alisha White, whose pieces can be found below!


The Guest

By Peggy West

From inside the sewing room of a dressing room in the depths of the Hall, my mother whispered that people call the new queen “Nan Bullen”.

She said, “Highborn but it makes no matter. Getting round with the king’s baby before a marriage blessing. And now crowned queen. Nobody scolds the pope. In the Spanish days, we knew who God was. God was not a fat man wearing furs and clucking about with coiled beet skins for hair.”

She turned the dress inside out. “More velvet for the new queen. Days and nights of royal feasting and plain people are to pay a good sum for their fancy meals but first run alongside the coach, calling out hosannas to a whore.” My mother’s lips were so full of pins that who can tell what words she spits? Still, I wish my father was here to shush her.

I said, “The king is who the king says he is.” But I know that we have had stolen from us our best idea of God.

We shook out the dress. We felt along the seams, our knuckles crawling. We gripped the bodice in our fists. We lined up the pins on a footstool. I counted them to make sure we had removed them all. It would never do for the new queen to get a stick from a pin on a day like this.

Servants should never be seen. We save the noble from triumph that slides too quickly to tribulation, as is nature’s course. Would the new queen blame us if a pinpoint tapped her skin? The old queen never held us to our faults. Her disdain was thrilling. They say the divorce will kill her.

Myself I am to be married days from now. For one afternoon I will be the princess of the day. They say I will have have 5 children because my mother did. Will I please the people of my husband’s family when I am their princess? Through alertness, I have learned to count. They say I will never learn to read because my husband does not.

At my wedding, something will be said of God. Guests will ask me for a story of Anne Boleyn.

A flock of ladies let go at the door and suddenly the new queen stood before us. She was a spire of beauty. She wore silk underthings and a crown and the bump at her belly strained against the fabric. Her eyes darted about as we stood on stools above her. She raised her arms high in the air.

“Be careful of the crown,” she said. She twitched her hips to get the dress past the bump at her waist. We fastened her in.

We trailed the ladies into a room where men jumped up to standing and bowed. Others withdrew into the drapes. The ermine cloak shot with gold was caught about the new queen’s throat, the starpoint broach affixed but her eyes went wild. She pulled off the clip and threw it to the tiles, letting the cloak pool about her new queen slippers like melting snow. The new queen screamed for water. She coughed again and again into velvet. People ran toward her. She took a cup from me. (As she drank, her fingers tapped a book on a table.) She said, in french I suppose, the word “fatigue”.

My mother was called on when the new queen could not sit in comfort on the coach seat. Footman pushed and pulled us up. We could not curtsey to the king because there was no room on the floor. Our elbows settled in each other’s knees as we groped for the new queen’s waist to pull out stitches and sew new ones. The king pinched the new queen.

The new queen leaned out and looked behind her. She leaned out and looked ahead of her. She gave off the clear-eyed look of an adventurous woman who has lost everything yet hopes that what she has lost can be found ahead. I sighed for the human race.

“I am finally grand,” she said to me. “Stay with me. I may need you because I swell by the moment. Put your head on the floor.” My mother handed me a needle then stepped down to the ground.

The coach pulled out into a shoutless crowd.


Maid of Revenge

By Alisha White

The witch from Kent sits on St. Edward’s Chair under a canopy of gold cloth. She holds a scepter in one hand and a golden rod in the other, a double strand of pearls about her neck. A few yards away I stand in the congregation with nine other Maids of Honor trying not to faint under the weight of heavy Baltic fur. The English nobility, the French Ambassadors, and the Heads of State fill the gallery of St. Peter’s chapel in a sea of red, purple, and gold. It is sweltering in here and my legs are beginning to cramp.
I gaze up at the High Alter where the Archbishop of Canterbury is placing a bejeweled crown on the head of Anne Boleyn. Her eyes are sharp, catlike, tilted on either side of her nose. My attention is immediately drawn to her hair. Thick, long, black, it slithers down her spine with the sheen of a water serpent fresh from the Thames. She is heavy in the middle for she is six months gone with child. And she best pray the child is a prince.
While the mass is being sung I close my eyes and let my mind drift back to the previous spring at Richmond Palace. It was a warm morning, much like today, and I was sitting with Queen Catherine in her state apartments busy with needlepoint when King Henry barged in unannounced. His large face was red and sweaty from the morning hunt. He was matter of fact, sparing Catherine’s feelings none, as he said, “I’ve come to tell you the divorce is final. I am to marry Anne Boleyn.”
The prideful daughter of Isabella of Castile was reduced to a blubbering heap of black velvet right then and there. She clung to the king’s broad waist with her frail arms pleading with him. I remember the scene vividly.
“My King!” she wailed from the floor. “I beseech you! Do not give up on our marriage. There is still hope. I can give you a son. I can give England an heir. I will forgive you this folly like I have the others before and we shall be happy again, my love, you will see.”
“My decision is final. I will wed Mistress Anne and you will remove to Kimbolton Castle at once. Be gone from me.”
And that was that. Queen Catherine was queen no more.

I open my eyes and scan the vaulted ceiling of St. Peter’s chapel espying a circle of latticed screen from which a flicker of candle can be seen. I know King Henry is up there watching from a secret passage, happy and eager, while poor Catherine is withering away, far from court, in a country castle.
Poor, poor, Catherine.
I bring my eyes back to the High Alter where Lord Talbot announces the removal of the queen to Westminster Hall where a feast has been laid in her honor. A warm June breeze floats through the corridor and briefly, ever so briefly, the scent of honeysuckle sweeps in from the garden.
Falling in step with the other Maids of Honor I throw a cursed glance in the direction of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. He leads the queen into the hall on a parade of victory with us maids following behind. I do not partake in their celebratory nature. Together they are responsible for the bereavement of my beloved Catherine. They have brainwashed the king and convinced him not only to divorce Catherine but to declare the Princess Mary a bastard. I curse them both with the flees of a thousand wild boar.
I come to stand along a back wall and the Lady Howard draws up beside me. She holds her stubby nose high and wears a sarcastic smile on her lips. She too is a Maid of Honor, but we are not friends. Lady Howard is loyal to the Boleyns and I am loyal to Catherine of Aragon. It is likely we will be enemies.
“Mistress Margery,” a male’s voice interrupts the awkwardness.
I turn to see the handsome Duke of Suffolk holding out his arm.
“Would you allow me to escort you to your seat? The queen has requested you dine at her table.”
Ah, I think to myself with a smile. Let the games begin.

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