The 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.