5 Facts You Probably Didn’t Know About Henry VIII

Think you know Henry VII?

Think again! 

These little known facts of one of England’s best known monarchs shows just how easily he’s been misrepresented over the years…

He wasn’t always overweight.

Although many associate Henry VIII with the classic portrait of an overweight man who had been overstuffed on all the fine foods that society could afford him, he wasn’t always this kind of man. Before he approached this time in his life, Henry was an athletic man who stood at 6 foot 2 inches and regularly showed his athletic prowess off. Unlike some of the rather boyish, weak looking monarchs before him, Henry was the quintessential fair prince who had inherited his good looks from his grandfather, Edward IV.

He wasn’t expected to become King.

Henry VIII’s coronation was very much Plan B. His older brother, Arthur, was destined to take the throne.

Arthur was married to Catherine of Aragon (the daughter of the King of Spain) in 1502, however just a few months later, at the age of 15, he died of an illness which has yet to be explained. Henry was next in line to the throne and was crowned at the age of 17.

Henry: The Writer

Movies and books have set up the man as a pheasant scoffing, wife-killing brute whilst neatly sidestepping the fact that he was also an accomplished writer.

Although Henry is best known for breaking from the Catholic Church, his first publication was a book named Defense of the Seven Sacraments a 30,000 word bestseller that supported the Papacy.

He only placed one woman’s head on a spike

Besides his numerous marriages, Henry was also known for his ruthless execution-rate, something which has seen him being labelled as a tyrant in modern times. Although he’s estimated to be responsible for the executions of anywhere between 57,000 and 72,000 people over the years, Henry only ever ordered one woman’s head to be placed on a spike. Elizabeth Barton, known as ‘The Nun of Kent’ got into hot water by prophesying Henry’s death, she was hanged for her crimes before being decapitated and presented for all to see.

Henry was an accomplished musician

Not many interpretations of Henry have seen him plucking a lute or blowing a recorder, but nonetheless that’s what he was wont to do in his spare time. When Henry wasn’t writing, or eating he was practicing various instruments including different times of keyboards, string instruments and the aforementioned recorder. His compositions, ranging from trite Mass sermons to simpler ditties, survive to this day and whilst critics have been quick to damn some of them as simplistic, many believe there are a number of gems within his repertoire…



Earning Your Keep in the Tudor Times

Working life in the Tudor times was far from easy…

How would you like to spend your days hunting game or relaxing in your home, whilst teams of other people work off the land that you own and pay you rent?

This is the kind of existence that well-to-do men and women could look forward to on a day-to-day basis; ordering their servants about, whilst the land surrounding their safe, warm home was worked by peasants. There were, of course, plenty of administrative jobs in major cities, working for solicitors, the church or the government, but this kind of work often required a university education which cost a great deal and required a certain social standing…

Whilst the Tudor times were by no means easy for any level of it’s rigid class system, the poor arguably had the worst ride. With no welfare system to rely on and a worrying lack of civil rights, the poor had to work their hands to the bone in order to scrape together the most meagre of existences for themselves and their families.

Still – it was possible to work in these times, earn a living and pass down what little you have to your offspring, all that was required of you was a job. These Tudor occupations were undertaken by those of a lowly-class, they paid enough in food or coin to keep a family fed but always hungry:

Farmer of Land

As a peasant farmer you were perhaps in the most stable of occupations, you would have a lease on a stretch of land which you’d farm, often with the aid of your family. Work would begin at the crack of dawn and would continue until sundown, a farmer’s livelihood depended on his farming skills, if he could not grow enough crops he would not be able to pay his rent and would be forced off his land.

Gong Farmer

The Tudor times were not what you’d describe as a clean time. Personal hygiene was less about physically cleaning oneself and more about wearing clean clothes – a job that was nigh on impossible for the town’s Gong Farmer. As far as BBQ cleaning business opportunities go this was the lowest of the low, the job involved shovelling the animal (and human!) manure from the open sewers of the streets.

Water Carrier

Before the advent of plumbing and a centralised water system, the role of a water carrier was a vital one. During the Tudor times, water was both a life-giver and taker. The Tudors knew that they needed it to survive but it also often brought them illness and disease. A supply of fresh, clean water was much coveted and hard to come by. A fit, motivated water carrier could make a solid living by ferrying water day in-day out.

Cloth Weaver

Despite the rustic nature of their attire, clothing was still important to the Tudors. Just like today, there were many highly-prized designers who were sought after for their elaborate creations. These designers sometimes created the clothes themselves but often, just like today, the manual labour was performed by skilled yet underpaid workers. A job as a weaver meant that you could work indoors, but often entailed long working hours.

Tudors Truths Distorted: Common Misconceptions

Are you sure you know your facts about the Tudors?

The Tudors have been the subject of much fascination for decades – since the Victorian era historians and lay people alike have attempted to discover just what life was like back in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Although many texts and documents have survived to this day, the legitimacy of these artefacts have often been called into question. Due to the dramatic nature of these years in English history, the lives of the Tudors have also been dramatised, liberties are taken with the facts and soon the ‘truth’ as it was once known spirals into absurdities.

These are just a few of the myths surrounding the Tudors and the way that they lived:

Henry VIII did not have syphilis

Out of all the Tudor monarchs it’s Henry VIII that has attracted the most attention. The marriage to his eight wives (or six, legally speaking), as well as the creation of the Church of England, makes  for a rousing story, but it’s also led to some unjust rumours being spread about the man’s morals and health. Despite what is said about him, there is no proof that Henry VIII contracted syphilis.

Tudors took care of personal hygiene

We’ve already mentioned the rather unsavoury role of the Gong Farmer, serving the stinking streets of England, however it’s worth mentioning that some Tudors did care about personal hygiene. Records from books have suggested that who could afford it bought soap and even collected plants to create fragrant bouquet garnis for their baths – if they were lucky enough to own them.

Katherine Howard wasn’t a harlot

At times working in Henry VIII’s court must have been like living in a soap opera. Over the course of his reign the monarch was involved with many women, most of whom were decades younger than himself. Despite his initial passions, Henry would often lose interest and find a new bride amongst his courtiers to lavish his attentions upon. Catherine Howard was one such victim of this process and was more or less framed for adultery, allowing Henry to move on to his next wife.

Court Fools weren’t early Clowns

A staple of court paintings and subsequent adaptations in televised works has always been the court jester. Colourfully dressed in silk with jangling bells, these were much more than royally pointed clowns.

Jesters, or fools as they were also known, were not men acting ‘foolishly’, but were usually men of low-intellect or those with learning disabilities. These ‘natural fools‘ were deemed innocent and incapable of evil acts.

‘Bloody Mary’ had nothing on Henry VIII

Lastly, history often paints a different picture to reality, especially when it comes to women. Mary I was never a popular queen, her brief reign was often marred by social unrest due to the religious upheaval that she brought about.

A return to protestant rule under Elizabeth I and a lack of historical transparency contributed to the myth that she executed more of her own people that any other Tudor monarch. Although numbers vary greatly, it’s estimated that Henry VIII might have executed up to 72,000 during his reign compared to Mary’s 37,000.

Top Tudor Tourist Attractions

Have you got a hankering to check out a slice of Tudor History?

One of the best things about living in England is the sheer volume of surviving historical sites that remain intact and open to the public.

The Tudors were profligate builders during their time in power. It was an era of relative prosperity for the rulers of the time, so there was plenty of funds available for both the crown and the powerful noblemen to make their mark upon England’s architectural history.

Although many of these grand manor halls (like Henry VIII’s Nonsuch Palace) did not survive to this day, a surprising amount of these constructions have stood the test of time and are still open to visitors, despite the Tudor period having ended over 400 years ago.

By visiting one of these historical sites of interest you can put your knowledge of Tudor history into context and gain a better understanding of what life was like back then:

Westminster Abbey

Where better to appreciate the full weight of our English history than at the place where all of our monarchs have been crowed for nearly 1000 years?

Construction began on the Abbey in 1245 under the orders of King Henry III, but the building itself wasn’t completed until well into the 16th Century. Since 1560, the building has only been an Abbey by name, taking on the status of a Royal Peculiar which means that it exists under the direct jurisdiction of the monarch, rather than the Church of England. 16 royal weddings have taken place there since it’s building, not to mention the numerous members of royalty and nobility that have been interred there over the centuries.

Check out the Westminster Abbey site for more details on booking tickets and opening times.

Tower of London 

There are few historical landmarks in England that carry the same amount of cultural heft as the Tower of London – this historical castle dates back to the 11th century, but it was the Tudor times when the Tower saw the most use. Queen Elizabeth I herself was imprisoned there for a month following accusations made her against in the wake of Wyatt’s rebellion against Mary I. Other notable prisoners include Sir Walter Raleigh and Elizabeth Throckmorton.

Despite the Tower’s reputation of being a place of executions, only seven people were executed there before the 20th Century. Executions were more likely to take place at the top of Tower Hill where over 100 people lost their lives during the course of 400 years.

Booking ahead is advised, so ensure that you check out the site first before making any plans.

Speke Hall

Away from the fractured politics and bloody reputation of Tudor London lies Speke Hall, which sits on the banks of the River Mersey. A classically framed Tudor home which was restored during the 19th century; the architects took great risks when designing Speke Hall, making space for long corridors with rooms leading off – a real innovation for the time.

This manor house has seen significant changes over it’s 400 year history, from being the home of rich catholic family, the Noriss’, to lying empty to being used as a cow shed, of all things! The National Trust now maintains the property.

Take a look at their website here to plan your trip and explore a part of Tudor history.

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, fixing damaged conservatory roofs (something that this writer has recently got round to doing, thank to this useful business), 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 concrete scanning specialist 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.