The King, being lusty, young and courageous, greatly delighted in feats of chivalry
– Edward Hall, The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and Yorke
On thinking of Henry VIII, the first image that will spring to mind for many people is that of a large, round and foul-tempered king. Interestingly, however, in his early life this could not have been further from the truth. As a young man, Henry VIII was actually rather athletic, excelling in tennis, jousting and hunting.
On the eve of the Conversion of St. Paul, the King being mounted on a great horse to run at the lists, both fell so heavily that every one thought it a miracle he was not killed.
– Eustace Capuys
While the young king obviously had access to a great variety and amount of food, this was counteracted by his active sporting life, keeping Henry in shape despite his appetite. It was not until 1536, when King Henry fell from his horse, that he began to resemble the portly figure we imagine today. At this point, the King was 44 and still very keen on jousting. In fact, it was at a jousting tournament at Greenwich Palace that Henry had his accident.
His obesity was in fact the root cause of his excessive night sweats. It is likely that he was diabetic too. He often had an unquenchable thirst, a key symptom of insulin deficiency. Henry was limp and lame. Daily he suffered shortness of breath. The court apothecaries tried to alleviate his ulcerated legs with poultices. The smell of the bandages was often very offensive. The ulcerated wounds festered with the pus oozing out. Henry’s household accounts show the he spent vast sums on perfumes to disguise the smell of decay emanating from his beleaguered body.
– Dr Elizabeth T Hurren
Henry’s fall left him unconscious for two hours, and seems to have caused a serious leg wound which grew ulcerous rather than healing. For the rest of Henry’s life, this ulcer became inflamed fairly regularly, preventing him from taking part in the sports he loved. He never jousted again.
Things worsened in 1538, when the ulcer was blocked by a blood clot. This left the king on death’s door for almost twelve days. Even though he recovered, his health continued to decline for the rest of his life. Henry suffered from numerous conditions, many of which are thought to have been caused by his obesity. These included piles, constipation and gout.
After his fall, Henry’s weight rapidly increased. Henry was naturally large, standing at 6’2. However, whereas in 1514 his athletic physique gave him a chest of 42 inches and a waist of 35, by 1536 he had a chest of 45 inches and a waist of 37.
However, the growth of his waist didn’t end here. In the five years following the king’s fall, he expanded to an incredible degree and by 1541, the king’s chest measured 57 inches and his waist 54. He rode on horses which had to be chosen specially for their larger size, and was often carried around on a chair known as a “tramme”.
Through all of this growth, the king’s health continued to deteriorate. By the end of his life, Henry suffered from night sweats and swollen legs. It is believed that these afflictions came as a result of obesity and chronic heart failure.