Henry VIII is probably one of the most well-known English kings. His lasting fame is usually linked with his turbulent reign, history of bloody executions and violent and unpredictable temper. Henry VIII ruled England for almost 40 years, during which he married six times, separated England from the Catholic Church and dissolved almost all monasteries in the country.
Below are some of the most fascinating and intriguing facts about the life and reign of Henry VIII of England.
He Was Not Supposed to Be King
Henry was born on June 28, 1491, to King Henry VII of England and his wife, Elizabeth of York. He was their third child and second son. His older brother, Arthur, Prince of Wales, was expected to succeed his father on the English throne.
However, when Arthur died at the age of 15 of sweating sickness, Henry was left first in line to the throne. When he became king in 1509, aged only 17, Henry married his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon.
Henry Was Extremely Handsome
Contrary to the image of an angry tyrant which was formed at the later stage of his life when Henry’s health deteriorated, the king was extremely athletic and handsome in his youth. He was said to enjoy sports, such as fencing, real tennis and riding. One foreign ambassador described him as “the handsomest potentate I have ever set eyes on…” and “with an extremely fine calf to his leg, his complexion very fair…and a round face so very beautiful, that it would become a pretty woman”.
In fact, Henry became the first English king to write and publish a book in 1521, called Defense of the Seven Sacraments. The book was written at the time when Protestantism swept over Western Europe. Henry’s book defended the authority of the Pope, for which he was rewarded by the title of “Defender of the Faith.”
Only twelve years later, Henry broke with the Roman Catholic Church, but never renounced the title. Henry was also among the best educated rulers of his time.
He Was a Hypochondriac
Henry was keenly interested in medicine. He founded the Royal College of Physicians in 1518 and enacted many measures that improved public health. Early in his reign, Henry had a paranoid fear of sickness. When an outbreak of the sweating sickness hit London in 1517-18, he left the city and spent nearly a whole year in seclusion.
The king personally prepared medicines in the form of salves and ointments from compounds such as ground pearls and white lead for the treatment of his friends and, later, for himself.
He Did Not Hesitate to Execute His Opponents
Henry VIII earned a notorious reputation as the king who executed more than 57,000 people during his reign. More people were executed during his reign that any other English monarch before or after him. Later in his reign, as his health deteriorated, Henry became increasingly capricious and cruel.
Henry ordered the deaths of two of his wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, both of whom were beheaded at Tower Hill, London. Among his victims were many of his ministers and prominent nobleman, such as Thomas Cromwell, Thomas More and John Fischer.
The king enjoyed an active lifestyle during most of his life. Henry’s prowess at jousting, tilting, hunting and tennis was legendary ‘not only very expert in arms, and of great valour, and most excellent in his personal endowments, but … likewise so gifted and adorned with mental accomplishments of every sort that we believe him to have few equals in the world’.
Nevertheless, the king was plagued by injuries, in 1527 he injured his foot playing tennis. A jousting accident in 1536 left him unconscious for several hours and caused serious health problems.
During his last years, he suffered from painful ulcers on his legs and had trouble standing and walking. He put on an enormous amount of weight; suits of armor showed that his waistline, which had measured 32 inches in 1512, grew to 54 inches.
At the time of his death in 1547 at the age of 55, Henry weighed nearly 400 pounds.
His Ghost is Said to Haunt One of His Palaces
The story of Henry VIII does not end with his death. Centuries later, it was reported that the king’s ghost was seen wandering around one of his favorite palaces, Hampton Court in London. In 2003, a CCTV camera caught a ghostly image dressed in XVI century fashion at Hampton Court Palace. The figure was dubbed ‘Skeletor’.
His fifth wife, Catherine Howard, is reported to haunt Hampton Court. Her ghost has become known as “The Screaming Lady of the Haunted Gallery”.