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King Henry VIII was the King of England from April 21, 1509 until his death on January 28, 1547. He was the second Tudor King after his father Henry VII, and played an important role in the English Reformation, turning the country into a Protestant nation. He was famously married six times, and beheaded two of his wives. Today Henry’s exploits are still regarded as eyebrow-raising; below are 41 head-rolling facts about this notorious monarch.


41. The Unexpected King

Henry was never expected to rule. His brother Arthur was older and next in line for the throne, but, although only recently married, he died in 1502 at age 15, leaving 10-year-old Henry as the official successor.

40. Princes Just Want to Have Fun

Henry wasn’t much into governing. Most mornings he didn’t get out of bed until 8 am (late for the times), and he preferred to go hunting or hawking rather than work. He would usually fill his evenings with gambling, dancing, or cards, which didn’t leave him much time to meet his obligations.

39. Quite the Catch

Aside from being the heir to the English throne, Henry VIII was an attractive catch in his youth. He was 6’2″ and had auburn hair. He was also athletic, sporting, musical, and well-read.

38. Wife Swap

Henry’s father wanted to solidify the family’s alliance with Spain, so he offered Arthur’s widow, Catherine of Aragon, in marriage to Henry. The Pope gave the two special dispensation to marry.

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37. He’s So Done with Her

In 1516, Queen Catherine gave birth to Henry’s first healthy child, Princess Mary, but her failure to produce a boy presented problems for Henry, who was desperate for a male heir to secure the royal lineage.

36. A Way Out

A passage in Leviticus states that a man who marries his brother’s wife will be childless, so Henry began looking for a way out of the marriage (I guess girls didn’t count). He petitioned the Pope for an annulment but was refused.

35. No Permission Needed

Deeply enamoured with (and secretly married to) his mistress Anne Boleyn, who was now pregnant, Henry finally decided that he didn’t need the Pope’s permission when it came to the Church of England. In 1533, the new Archbishop of Canterbury presided over the trial that declared Henry’s first marriage annulled, and his new marriage valid. Henry would then declare that he, not the pope, was the head of the Church of England, kicking off a little thing called the English Reformation.

34. First of Her Name

The child Boleyn was carrying would become Queen Elizabeth I.

33. Germaphobe

Henry VIII was paranoid about getting sick and dying, and was especially afraid of contracting the plague. Whenever there was an outbreak of illness, he made a point of isolating himself until it passed, even leaving London for a year when a severe wave of sweating sickness hit.

32. Done with Her Too

When Anne Boleyn also failed to bear Henry a son, he again grew disenchanted with the union. The King had her tried for adultery, treason, and witchcraft; she was beheaded in 1536.

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31. Third Time’s the Charm?

Within 24 hours of Anne Boleyn’s execution, King Henry VIII actually became engaged to his mistress Jane Seymour. Seymour eventually gave him his long-desired son, but she died two weeks after giving birth. She was the only of Henry’s six wives to be buried with him, and Henry considered her his first “true wife.”

30. Uncrowned

Unlike Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour never had a coronation. Nonetheless, she was the only one of his wives to receive a Queen’s funeral.

29. Renaissance Tinder

To choose his fourth wife, Henry was sent paintings of possible partners. He chose Anne Cleves over her sister Amalia, but was unhappy with his choice when he finally saw her in person. He called her a “fat, Flanders mare,” and had the marriage annulled after just six months. At least she kept her head!

28. Off with Her Head!

Sixteen days after annulling his marriage to Anne of Cleves, Henry (now 49) married the 19-year-old Kathryn Howard. She had been Anne of Cleves’ lady in waiting. Less than a year into their marriage, rumors of her infidelity began, and after gathering evidence of her promiscuity, Henry had her executed in 1542.

27. Outlived, Outlasted

Henry’s sixth and final wife Catherine Parr managed to not only hang onto her head, she also outlived her husband. Catherine Parr also played a key role in restoring Mary and Elizabeth to the line of succession after Henry, by annulling his marriages to their mothers, rendered them illegitimate.

26. Give and Take

Henry VIII was the only English monarch to rule any part of Belgium—well, technically. In 1513, he captured the town of Tournai, which at the time was part of France, during the Battle of the Spurs. In 1518 he returned it to France for the sum of 600,000 crowns, as part of the Treaty of London.

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25. Weren’t Six Wives Enough?

Henry VIII had at least 10 mistresses over the course of his six marriages, beginning approximately a year after his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

Henry VIII in the series “The Tudors”

24. Groom of the Stool

Some of the most important of Henry VIII’s attendants were his bathroom attendants. These men got the title “the Groom of the Stool,” and they helped dress and undress the king before and after going to the bathroom, and assisted with bodily functions and washing. Not just mere servants, all of Henry VIII’s grooms were knights.

23. Not Exactly Poetic

Henry VIII was known for many things, but eloquence with a pen was not one of them. His love letters to Anne Boleyn were painfully awkward and sappy. In them, he expresses his angst at her coyness, and mentions wanting to kiss her breasts, which he refers to as ‘dukkys.’

22. Dr. King Henry

Henry VIII was distrustful of doctors, and had a book of prescriptions to treat his own ailments. He even made some of the remedies himself, including an ointment to heal ulcers.

21. Heavy Lifting

As Henry entered middle age, he put on a large amount of weight. His once 32-inch waist grew to 54 inches, and he weighed nearly 400 pounds at his death. In his later years, he also suffered from ulcers on his legs and found standing and walking painful. Rumour had it that when he could no longer mount his horse by himself, a crane was used to hoist him into the horse’s saddle.

20. Died in Debt

Henry VIII lived an extravagant lifestyle, and by the time he died, he was massively in debt. When you factor in the 50 palaces, his 70 ships, his tapestry collection, and his 6,500 handguns, it’s not hard to understand why.

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19. Musical Monarch

Music was an integral part of court life, playing a part in processions, coronations, funerals, baptisms, and more. Henry VIII owned 78 flutes, 78 recorders, five bagpipe sets, and a harpsichord. While he did not, as was once believed, write “Greensleeves,” he did write “Helas Madame” and “Pastimes with Good Company.” The latter was covered by Jethro Tull.

18. Went Through Twenty Printings

Henry VIII’s book Defense of the Seven Sacraments supported the Catholic Church and attacked Martin Luther. The book went through 20 editions and earned him the title of “Defender of the Faith” from Pope Leo X. Ironically, he was later excommunicated for his role in the English Protestant Reformation (you know, see above).

17. Gambling Addiction

Henry VIII was also an excessive gambler. His favorite game was Primero, which was an early version of poker, but he was reportedly very bad at it. Records show that he lost hundreds of pounds per day, and he may have gambled away as much as a million pounds (in today’s money) between 1529 and 1532.

16. Stop Trying to Make “Majesty” Happen, Henry

Henry VIII adopted the term “Majesty” for himself after Holy Roman Emperor Charles V began being called “Majesty.” Before Henry VIII, English kings were addressed as “Your Grace” or “Your Highness.”

15. Coppernose

By the end of his reign, Henry VIII’s funds were so low that he was forced to lower the percentage of silver in British coinage until it was mostly copper with a silver coating. He earned the nickname “coppernose” because the silver coating wore away from the image of Henry’s face, beginning with the nose.

14. A Personality Shift

In 1536, a fully armored Henry was thrown from his armored horse during a jousting tournament. The horse fell on top of him, and he was unconscious for two hours. Although he recovered from the accident, he had serious leg problems for the rest of his life, and some historians believe it caused a brain injury that seriously affected his personality. After the accident, they say, he became a cruel tyrant, and was a far cry from the sporty, promising, generous young prince he had been.

13. Destruction of Monasteries

Between 1536 and 1540, Henry VIII set out to destroy the English monastic system in an effort to supress political oppression—oh, and to obtain the wealth of these monasteries. During that time, he took over 800 monestaries, abbeys, nunneries, and friaries. Many were sold to landowners, some were taken over and became churches, and others were simply left to ruin. The few monks who resisted were executed, and those who surrendered were paid off or provided for.

12. Father of the Royal Navy

Henry VIII was responsible for developing England’s maritime fighting force, and is referred to as the “father of the Royal Navy.” He was the first king to make England a serious sea power, and at the time of his death, he increased his fleet from five to around 40 ships.

11. Standard Punishment for Poisoners

When the Bishop of Rochester’s cook took vengeance on his ungrateful master by adding a poisonous herb to a dish, Henry ordered that the cook be boiled alive in his own pot rather than hanged. This became the standard punishment for poisoners for the next five years.

10. Put it in Rhyme

School children in Britain learn a simple rhyme to help them remember the fate of each of Henry VIII’s wives. Titled “The Six Wives of Henry Eighth,” the rhyme goes ““Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived.”

9. Field of the Cloth of Gold

In the 16th century, it was extremely important for a king to appear powerful, and they did so by hosting outrageous events. In 1520, Henry VIII co-hosted the Field of the Cloth of Gold in Calais to show a united front between England and France. Each king tried to outdo the other in feasting, tournaments, feasting, clothes,  jewels, and more feasting during an exorbitantly expensive celebration that lasted for weeks.

8. Biggest Victory

In 1543, Henry VIII began another war with France that lasted three years. In 1544, he achieved his biggest triumph of the war, capturing the city of Boulogne. The city remained in English hands until the Treaty of Boulogne in 1550.

7. Worst Monarch in History

England has had some terrible monarchs in its time, but according to history writers, Henry VIII deserves the title of “worst monarch in history.” Henry VIII took 20% of the vote for “worst monarch” in a survey by the Historical Writers Association, who polled 60 authors.

6. Burn Them All!

For several centuries, burning heretics alive was favored by the Church of England. For part of Henry’s reign, people who challenged the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church were burnt at the stake. His daughter Mary, who was Catholic, continued the practice, burning 280 protestants at the stake. As a result, she earned the nickname “Bloody Mary.”

5. Flat as a Pancake

One of Henry VIII’s more gruesome ways of executing people was a method called “pressing,” which essentially is crushing someone to death. A large plank was held over the body of the prisoner, with weight being steadily added until they could no longer breathe. This was a long and drawn out way of killing someone, and weights were added slowly to ensure maximum suffering.

 

4. Punished Homosexuality

In 16th century England, homosexuality was regarded as both criminal and immoral. In 1533, Henry VIII passed the “Buggery Act,” which made sexual relations between men a criminal offence punishable by death. It was the first legislation against homosexuals in the country, and one of the first anti-sodomy laws introduced by a Germanic country.

3. Brutal Instrument of Torture

After Henry VIII died, an inventory of all his possessions was commissioned in London. Among his many possessions was a device called the Scavenger’s Daughter. The device consisted of an A-shaped iron brace where the victim was forced to sit in a crouched position with their head almost touching their knees, and their wrists, ankles, and neck shackled in place. An iron bar was then passed through the A-frame and tightened, ultimately crushing the victim. It is believed to have been intended as an alternative to the rack.

2. Head on a Spike

In 1532, Elizabeth Barton, a Catholic nun known as “The Nun of Kent” and “The Holy Maid of London,” began prophesying that Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn would result in his death. In 1533, she was arrested and forced to admit that she’d made everything up. She was executed for treason and hanged. Her head was placed on a spike on London Bridge; she was the only woman to ever be given that “honor.”

1. Bloodier than Bloody Mary

While it’s impossible to tell exactly how many executions Henry ordered, historians believe there could have been as many as 72,000 executions during his reign.

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