Tag Archives: Kyra Kramer

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Across/Beyond Genres with The Tudors: Guest Posts by Novelists, Historians, Cultural Observers, Poets, Memoirists, Artists, and Bloggers

Gingerbread and Tudor Medicine


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


T’is the Season for yummy yuletide foods! There are tables groaning under the weight of roast turkey or ham, brussel sprouts, sweet potatoes, roasted potatoes, stuffing and assorted vegetables. Mugs of hot buttered rum or apple cider are clutched and glasses of cold eggnog are passed around. Not to mention the multitudes of desserts. Mince pies, fruit cakes, pumpkin pies, cookies, gingerbread men, plum puddings, and cakes tick like calorie bombs on sideboards. Then there are candy canes hanging on the tree, and gingerbread houses to be decorated but never eaten because the gingerbread has become the consistency of cardboard.  

There are many other foods, but these are considered some of the most “traditional” Christmas dishes, ala Charles Dickens and American television.

Many of these foods, especially those in the dessert category, are flavored with similar spices. These seasonal seasonings are the reason why the smells of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and cloves are so associated with Christmas that they are the primary aromatics used in scented candles marketed for the holidays. Even the onslaught of “pumpkin flavored” products that flood the market in the fall are more about the flavor of the spices commonly found in pumpkin pie than the flavor of the pumpkin itself.

But why those spices? Yes, they taste good mulled in your apple cider or blended into your mince pie, but there are other spices that would taste nice, too. Why are some foods so mentally linked with winter that people seldom eat them during the warm months? It’s not like they are less tasty in July. And what does any of this have to do with the Tudors?

We eat them in winter and at Christmas because those are the foods and spices that were considered by Tudor medical practitioners to “warm” the body.

The humoral theory of medicine that the Tudors used seems simple, at first glance. The human body was presumed to be made up of four elements: earth, air, water, and fire. Each element was supposed to have its own substances and attributes. Earth was cold and dry, air was warm and wet, water was cold and wet, and fire was hot and dry. Each element made a different kind of humor, or fluid, in the body. Earth made black bile, air made blood, water made phlegm, and fire made yellow bile.  People’s health depended on the mixtures of humors inside of them, which doctors often referred to as a patient’s “complexion”, since the coloration of the skin was believed to be an invaluable diagnostic tool. A physician’s goal was to help people achieve “eukrasia”, or the perfect balance of humors for perfect health. In fact, most Tudors were always seeking to get their ever-changing humors back into the correct ratios.

How did the Tudors alter their humors to keep their internal systems in the perfect equilibrium?

As it turns out, mostly with food. According to science at the time, everything a person ate or drank were aspects of an element; thus a person’s diet would strongly affect the balance of their humors. It wasn’t a simple matter, either. The “rules” about food were variegated in the extreme. The element of a food could change depending on the season, the herbs used to flavor a dish, when the plants were harvested, the age of the animal to be eaten, and the method of preparation. It was also recommended that people change their diets in order to adjust their bodies to the seasonal effects of the weather. In summer the diet should emphasize cooling foods, like lettuce and lamb, prepared and served with cooling ingredients, such as rosewater, lemon and other citrus juices, or vinegar. In winter people were cautioned to eat foods that would heat them up on frosty days, such as beef and pork, and dishes made with “hot” spices, such as mustard and black pepper.

The association between warming spices and foods in during cold weather became so ingrained that those edibles became the “correct” things to consume at Christmastime, and now they are the “traditional” nibbles. For example, people believed that butter warmed the liver, and thus the blood (which was ostensibly made in the liver); thus hot buttered rum and brandy butter (AKA hard sauce). Any meat that was served was roasted, which was thought to be warmest preparation. Is roasted turkey for Christmas familiar to anyone? The stuffing served with that turkey is commonly flavored with sage and onion, both of which warm it up. Brussel sprouts were considered “little cabbages” and were therefore drying to combat the moist humor of cold weather; roasting them made them warmer as well.

This beautiful gingerbread Tudor Rose can be found at the website http://www.godecookery.com/ginger/ginger.htm

This beautiful gingerbread Tudor Rose can be found at the website http://www.godecookery.com/ginger/ginger.htm

Sugar was considered both medicinal and warm, so eating dessert in the winter was just what the doctor ordered. I think we can all agree that Christmas still comes with a few sweet treats? Sugar could also be added to anything that was considered to be cold, like red wine or apple cider, in order to give it enough “heat” to make it safe to drink, which is why recipes for today’s mulled apple cider or wine usually include a sweetener.

Warming spices, like cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves, were also added to foods to heat them up. Fruit was thought to be “cold”, so fruit cakes, which are an inescapable part of the holiday season, would be too “cold” for the winter if there weren’t an excess of these spices in them, plus large amounts of butter, eggs, and sugar. These spices are also added liberally to mince pies for the same reason. Eggnog, the descendant of the Tudor “posset” drink, contains lots of warming sugar and nutmeg.

    This season, while feasting on traditional holiday fare (even if it is only in the form of a gingerbread latte or spiked eggnog or snowman shaped cookie) remember that you owe a flavor debt to the Tudor physician and his medical progenitors.



Filed under Across/Beyond Genres with The Tudors: Guest Posts by Novelists, Historians, Cultural Observers, Poets, Memoirists, Artists, and Bloggers

Henry a Psychopath?

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

Henry VIII remains a titan in the public imagination, and a certain amount of sensationalism comes with his notoriety. And by “a certain amount” I mean “a whole big bunch”. The latest headline to trumpet Henry’s infamy popped up on his birthday, declaring “Henry VIII Would Be A Modern Day Psychopath: When ranked against the ‘psychopathic spectrum’, the king – who beheaded two of his wives – scored 174 against a ‘starting’ psychopath score of 168”.


Now, I have been “interviewed” by the press. I have had several friends and colleagues who have also been “interviewed” by the press. The biggest takeaway I’ve gotten from those experiences has been that there is nothing on this sweet green earth that cannot be spun, skewed, or stretched to make a story a little more catchy. This is absolutely painful to academics who would murder their careers if they ever misquoted or paraphrased this loosely with someone else’s words; we are left gaping like a landed trout when it happens because it was unfathomable that anyone would do such a thing. Furthermore, when reporters just flat out make stuff up (or get it wrong if you are feeling generous) we are even more gobsmacked because falsifying information or giving non-factual data is anathema to the academic mindset. It usually doesn’t occur to us that a non-tabloid professional would brazenly do such a thing until it is too late and we are staring bumfuzzled at words/thoughts that we did not say being attributed to us.

Therefore, I am not going to critique Professor Kevin Dutton’s findings or the his book, The Wisdom of Psychopaths, until I know more about what it actually says.  I’ll just content myself by stating that the information as it is presented in the article is mostly crap.

It is crap first and foremost because it takes Henry VIII out of historical context. Professor Dutton is a psychologist and I am fairly sure he knows his stuff since he is an honorary affiliate member of Magdalen College, which is part of Oxford University. Nevertheless, psychology is not history. Nor is it particularly adept at looking at the sociocultural context of its subjects. In fact, psychological theories are based largely on “weird” people, i.e  the subject of psychology experiments are usually Western, Educated, from Industrialized and relatively Rich societies which are usually in Democratic countries.

Without a doubt, Professor Dutton would be an expert in finding a psychopath or measure psychopathic qualities/tendencies in modern weird humans. However, Henry VIII was more royal “we” than royal weird. He was Western and Educated, but his country was not particularly industrialized, or comparatively rich, and beyond contestation not a democracy. How does a psychopath test apply to a man who was raised to believe that royalty was appointed by God Himself and the a monarch was divinely ordained on the great chain of being as an inherently better person than all other men? How do you find someone to be egocentric when they have been taught from birth that the King and England are one and the same? How do you judge a person as ruthless that has been carefully schooled in what happens to rulers who fail to be ruthless?

As for scoring Henry VIII “very highly for emotional detachment” … in what decade? Prior to 1535 that man was as emotionally detached as Bella Swan in those odes to dysfunctional co-dependance, the Twilight books. He was devoted to his first wife, Katherina  (that is how she signed her name) of Aragon, and was considered amazingly faithful to her by the standards of his time. David Starkey even called Henry almost “uxorious” in his adoration of his regal wife. When he later wanted to divorce her and try for a male heir he ripped holes in the fabric of European religion and politics to marry Anne Boleyn rather than make an “acceptable” marriage with a foreign noblewoman or princess.

Yeah, that’s really emotionally detached right there.

Even after he became mentally compromised (if the Kell/McLeod theory is correct) in the early 1530s he still focused a great deal of attention on the woman he was in love with. His love for Anne didn’t turn into indifference — it became scalding and implacable hate. He practically set up a shrine to Jane Seymour when she died shortly after the birth of their son. He could not keep a politically expedient marriage to Anna of Cleves functioning because he didn’t love her enough. He went bonkers when he found out his fifth wife, Katheryn Howard, had not been a virgin when they wed. He wanted to be married so much that he all but forced Kateryn Parr to accept his proposal.

Jeeze Louise, how emotionally attached do you have to be to not be a psychopath?

Personally, I don’t think Henry VIII is a psychopath when he is viewed in historical context. If the Kell/McLeod theory holds water, his crimes were largely the result of uncontrollable paranoia and mental deterioration. If the theory is not correct, his actions could just as easily be ascribed to a man suffering from a delusional disorder — which opens another can of worms because how do you determine if a King is feeling “grandiose”? If the King had paranoid delusions, how would that effect his psychopathic score?

I am actually interested in reading Professor Dutton’s book, because armchair evals done by experts fascinate me. But unless the book offers much more compelling evidence than the article suggests I will continue to consider Henry VIII to not be a psychopath.

Then again, some people argue that like Norman Bates Henry VIII was a little obsessed with his mother


Filed under Across/Beyond Genres with The Tudors: Guest Posts by Novelists, Historians, Cultural Observers, Poets, Memoirists, Artists, and Bloggers, Guest Blogs