Henry VIII is undoubtedly one of the most colourful figures in the history of the English monarchy. His reign was increasingly autocratic and frequently tumultuous — it’s fair to say that the popular image of him as an obese, bloodthirsty control freak isn’t much of an exaggeration.
Famed for his role in the reformation, when his desire for marital annulment led to the creation of the Church of England, Henry VIII is nonetheless most commonly remembered for his succession of wives: Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr. Here are 10 facts you might not have known about the infamous Tudor monarch.
1. He wasn’t expected to take the throne
His older brother Arthur was set to take the throne and married Catherine of Aragon, the daughter of the Spanish king, in 1502. But just four months later, 15-year-old Arthur died of a mysterious illness. This left Henry as next in line to the throne and he took the crown in 1509 at the age of 17.
2. Henry’s first wife was previously married to his brother, Arthur
Arthur’s death left Catherine of Aragon a widow and meant that Henry VII might be required to return a 200,000 ducat dowry to her father, something he was eager to avoid. Instead, it was agreed that Catherine would marry the king’s second son, Henry.
3. He had a relatively lithe figure for most of his life
The enduring image of Henry as fat and sedentary isn’t inaccurate — in his later life he weighed nearly 400 pounds. But prior to his physical decline, Henry had a tall (6 foot 4 inches) and athletic frame. Indeed, armour measurements from when he was a young man reveal a waist measurement of 34 to 36 inches. Measurements for his final set of armour, however, show that his waist expanded to about 58 to 60 inches in the last years of his life.
4. He was a bit of a hypochondriac
Henry was rather paranoid about illness and would go to great lengths to avoid contracting the sweating sickness and the plague. He would frequently spend weeks in isolation and steered well clear of anyone he thought might have been subjected to disease. This included his wives — when his second wife, Anne Boleyn, caught the sweating sickness in 1528, he stayed away until the illness had passed.
5. Henry was a talented composer of music
Music was Henry’s great passion and he was not without musical talent. The king was a competent player of various keyboard, string, and wind instruments and numerous accounts attest to the quality of his own compositions. The Henry VIII Manuscript contains 33 compositions attributed to “the kyng h.viii”.
6. But he didn’t compose Greensleeves
Rumours have long persisted that the traditional English folk song Greensleeves was written by Henry for Anne Boleyn. Scholars have confidently ruled this out however; Greensleeves is based on an Italian style that only arrived in England long after Henry’s death.
7. He is the only English monarch to have ruled in Belgium
Henry captured the city of Tournai in modern-day Belgium in 1513 and went on to rule it for six years. The city was returned to French rule in 1519, however, following the Treaty of London.
8. Henry’s nickname was Old Coppernose
Henry’s less than complimentary nickname is a reference to the debasing of coinage that took place during his reign. In an effort to raise funds for ongoing wars against Scotland and France, Henry’s chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, decided to add cheaper metals to coins and thus mint more money at a lower cost. The increasingly thin layer of silver on coins would often wear off where the king’s nose appeared, revealing the cheap copper beneath.
9. He died in debt
Henry was a big spender. By his death on 28 January 1547, he had accumulated 50 royal palaces — a record for the English monarchy — and spent vast sums on his collections (including musical instruments and tapestries) and gambling. Not to mention the millions he pumped into wars with Scotland and France. When Henry’s son, Edward VI, took the throne, the royal coffers were in a sorry state.
10. The king was buried next to his third wife
Henry was laid to rest at St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle next to Jane Seymour, Edward’s mother. Regarded by many as Henry’s favourite wife, Jane was the only one to receive a queen’s funeral.