The Enormous Spending of Henry VIII

There are a few legends surrounding Henry VIII, some true and some not so true…

The first is that he was overweight, or in some way unhealthy.

Despite numerous iconic paintings depicting him as a large man, it’s generally agreed today that these impressions of him were created to eschew the belief that he was a great man – in both stature and power. At the time, being of a large build could only be seen as a sign of strength. Men who had managed to accumulate the necessary girth to be considered ‘fat’ by today’s standards would have almost been respected for retaining such weight – it was a sign that they were wealthy and therefore powerful.

From historical accounts uncovered since, historians have come to the decision that Henry was most likely a well built man, who ate well but was by no means unhealthily overweight. One well acknowledged fact about the popular King is that he was a proliferate spender. Despite inheriting the equivalent of £375 million from his predecessor, Henry’s taste for luxurious items, hand-made weapons and war inevitably led him to taking drastic measures halfway through his lengthy reign as King.

So just where did the famous spendthrift spend all of his cash and what did he have to do in order to right his wrongs?

Henry ascended the throne at the age of 17. Not much is known about his youth, other than the appointments that he was given during his infancy. His father, Henry VII, had achieved much during his own reign. In addition to wresting power for his family, the elder Henry had proved to be a frugal ruler, saving well over a million pounds for the benefit of his heirs, of which he had many.

In short, the teenaged Henry had a lot to live up to when he came to the throne in 1509; however the young ruler’s developing interests proved to have little in common with his sensible father’s. During his reign, Henry commissioned the creation and purchase of 2000 tapestries for his various castles and manors (ten times as many as his Scottish counterpart, James V) and loved nothing more than playing with his veritable arsenal of weapons. He also invested in the buildings owned by the crown, funding replacement conservatory roofs, grand stained glass windows and numerous self-portraits.

Despite his father having spent much of his rule avoiding conflicts with other countries, the young Henry struggled to avoid causing arguments with the other major powers at the time.

Spain, France and the religious power of the Vatican all fell at odds with Henry VIII at some point during his reign, whether as a result of his prolific marriage record or his rather graceless foreign relation strategies. As a result, the King spent thousands on defensive constructions, training solider and forging weapons – fearing that an invasion was inevitable.

The invasion didn’t happen in his lifetime but Henry still managed to spend more money when he decided to invade both Scotland and France on separate occasions. His costly (and unsuccessful) invasions were arguably the biggest expenditures of his reign.

Although considered by many be an enduring character of English History, the financial ruin that Henry led the country to forever see him branded as a reckless monarch, whose habit for spending was as prolific as his fickle taste for women.

Past Times of the Tudor Middle Class

Most people have a rather blinkered view of what life was back in the Tudor time, in one word: grim.

Period dramas and Hollywood movies often enjoy painting a vivid, grubby impression of what life was like back then; employing a liberal sprinkling of craggy faced extras and emphasising the filthiness of the muddy streets.

These grim pictures are usually juxtaposed with images of pristine palaces and wonderfully dressed, beautiful people. As tempting as it is to believe that such a stark divided existed at the time, the truth is likely to be less dramatic.

Historical records do suggest that many people lived in poverty during these times, but it’s important to remember that there was a middle ground between the super-rich aristocrats and the downtrodden serfs. For those lucky enough to either have a trade or be in the service of a generous benefactor, it was possible to earn a living, pay your way and still have time to enjoy a few hours of leisure time a week.

Hare the kinds of things that a middle-class Tudor could have afforded with their time and funds:


It might be hard to imagine, but even the richest of the rich would share some of their wealth on certain days throughout the year. Special occasions, such as the celebration of a military victory or a royal wedding, would often be marked by the donation of food and wine from the richest in society. On these days work would be suspended and the streets would be opened for revels.

Sports & Tourneys

It’s hard to imagine a version of England without Football, but that world existed in Tudor England, as the sport was, curiously, under a ban at the time. Still, there were plenty of casual games for the average citizen to get involved in from the curious game of shin-kicking to watching a tourney featuring the finest fighters in the lands.

High Quality Woollen Clothes

It might seem like an odd addition to this list, but at the time England was producing some of the finest wool (in both it’s raw and processed form) in the world. The pasture and arable farming industries were both booming during the time of Henry VII who capitalised on the international popularity of this product by slapping large export duties on wool leaving the country. The every man was still able to purchase quality wool for his clothes and bedding at a very reasonable price.


One of the most famous playwrights of all time rose to prominence during the reign of the Tudor, signalling a golden era for British Art and Culture that would continue for centuries to come. That playwright was, of course, Shakespeare, whose plays could be seen for as little as a single penny. Shakespeare was not the only famous writer to have come out of this era though – writers such as Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson and Sir Thomas More also made their names during this culturally enriching time.

Good Beer and a Meal

Some things change and some things never change. You’ve been able to get a good pint of beer in England for centuries now, but it was only in the Tudor times that it was actually safer to drink than the water. Due to the risk of water-bound diseases, you were much better off simply drinking beer than the untreated water from the public fountains. This was very much the golden age of the English pub with hundreds crammed onto benches and wooden crates to sup down hearty meat stews with large glasses of weak ale.


The Castles and Palaces of Henry VIII

Henry VIII was never afraid of spending money on construction.

As both a profligate spender and long-time monarch, Henry VIII made the most of his time in power – erecting castles, commissioning armour and holding tournaments.

Although he gained a significant amount of weight in his later years (recorded measurements of his waist were as big as 54 inches), he was mostly an active, healthy individual who made sure to find time for his hobbies, which included jousting and hunting. Due to his love for the great outdoors, Henry often travelled around the country, staying in different residences and enjoying himself as much as he could, whilst still holding one hand on the reigns of the country.

During his reign, Henry made alterations to existing palaces, erected new castles and even developed an entire series of artillery fortifications, known as Device Forts or Henrican castles. Henry VIII inherited the equivalent of over a million pounds in today’s money from his Father and he had no qualms in spending it.

Presented here are a few of the notable buildings that Henry VIII occupied, some of which he also constructed himself:

Nonsuch Palace

One of the more tragic palaces that Henry commissioned the building of, there is no trace today of Nonsuch Palace. Notable for being one of Henry VIII’s most ambitious projects, he never lived to see it completed , despite ploughing at least £24,000 (over £100 million in today’s money) into the building. Designed to be a celebration of the Tudor dynasty, it was built near one of the monarch’s favourite hunting grounds.

St James’s Palace

One of only two surviving palaces built by Henry VIII, St. James’s remains today a quintessential example of Tudor architecture, evincing the crenellated octagonal towers and fine detailing that that period is famous for. The palace is much smaller than Henry’s other residences, intended to provide an escape for the monarch from the hectic nature of court life.

Hampton Court Palace

This surviving palace was originally constructed for Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, a favourite of Henry’s at the time of construction. It was completed in 1525, a lavish construction that rivalled the King’s own properties – Henry stayed as an honoured guest immediately. By 1529 the Cardinal had fallen out of favour with the King (a not too common occurrence) and the monarch decided to take the Palace for himself. His first alteration to the castle was to build kitchens that could feed his 1,000 strong court.

Thornbury Castle

Recently put on sale for the grand sum of £8.5 million, Thornbury is only really a castle in name. This extravagant country house and Grade I listed building was originally constructed for Edward Stafford, the 3rd Duke of Buckingham, however he was beheaded by Henry VIII before he got to see it completed. Henry took a liking to Thornbury Castle and spent ten days there with Anne Boleyn in 1535 after their marriage.

Hurst Castle

Lastly, Hurst Castle is one of Henry’s grandest Device Forts and would be enough to give any topographical land surveyor a headache. After a break with the Roman Empire over the annulment of his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon, England was at serious risk of invasion. This led Henry to order the construction of several coastal forts in the South of the England. Hurst is the largest of these Device Forts, although it saw no action in Henry’s lifetime, the Castle was used an artillery defence right up to World War II.

The Different Faces of Elizabeth I

The last in the line of the Tudors, Elizabeth’s 44-year reign is noted to have brought stability to England.

When it comes to discovering the woman behind the monarch, it can often be a challenge to distinguish her character from her actions.

Looked at retrospectively, Elizabeth’s life is rife with impressive feats, interesting speeches and defining moments – each one of these recorded events shows us a little of the great woman’s character and combines to create an overall picture of a monarch who understood and respected the responsibility that she was given to run the country.

Religious Pacifist and Political Prisoner

When Mary and Elizabeth first rode into a ruler-less London, they were greeted with the cheers of a populace that were eager for change but also stability. After Mary was crowned, Elizabeth spent a brief period of time eschewing her Protestant religion in favour of the Catholicism that her sister practised. After a failed rebellion was crushed Elizabeth was accused of conspiracy and locked away in the Tower of London – despite denying all of the accusations.

Elizabeth as Pirate Queen

Although Queen Victoria would go on to become recognised as the monarch that truly solidified the British Empire, it was arguably Elizabeth I who laid the groundwork for a kingdom that would cover two fifths of the world. Through the rigorous hiring of merchant sailors and mercenaries, Elizabeth was always sure to keep a constant presence in the seas. At any given time she could have thousands of sailors at her command, ready to harass her Spanish enemies or run trading routes for their Queen.

The Great Economist Elizabeth

When comparing the Tudor rulers on the basis of their legacy, it’s easy to group together Henry VII and his grand-daughter Elizabeth as being cut from the same cloth. To start with they both had a reluctance to engage in military endeavours which led to long periods of stability for their people. Most importantly, they both had a steady hand on their country’s finances. Unlike Henry VIII, Elizabeth did not lust after status symbols and instead invested in the prosperity of her own country first.

The Virgin Queen

In a time when ‘right to rule’ was synonymous with having an heir apparent, Elizabeth amassed huge public support as a perpetually single female woman with no plans concerning having children. Despite the uncertain future that staying unmarried and childless doomed the country to, Elizabeth managed to win over the population with a number of well repeated public statements that helped to humanise her – often claiming that she was married to her role, and therefore the country, by referring to : ‘all my husbands, my good people‘.

Having efficiently ascended the throne with the permission of her half-sister Mary I, Elizabeth was uncharacteristically reticent in regards to the succession of her own power.

She had grown increasingly melancholic in her later years, due to a series of deaths close to her, often remaining seated in the same position for an entire day. Thanks to the machinations of one of her most trusted allies, Elizabeth’s power was safely transferred to James VI, hours after her passing, allowing the country to grieve whilst saving it from the calamitous risks that a power vacuum might have created.

Elizabeth might not have ruled without fault, but she no doubt provided a stable hand to govern the country for nearly half a century – allowing Britain to grow – culturally, diplomatically and economically.