Ev­ery­one knows Henry VIII was an obese in­som­niac with a foul tem­per. But a new book asks: was he re­ally a ter­ri­ble tyrant or the vic­tim of a nasty dis­ease?

Daily Mail - - Friday Books - CON­STANCE CRAIG SMITH

HENRY VIII: THE DE­CLINE AND FALL OF A TYRANT by Robert Hutchin­son (W&N £20, 448pp)

The bride was 19, pe­tite, vi­va­cious and flirty, with a mass of auburn hair tum­bling down her back. The groom, 30 years older, was enor­mously fat, flat­u­lent, pos­sessed of a vol­canic tem­per and with ul­cer­ated legs so pu­trid that their stench could be de­tected sev­eral rooms away. It was not a match made in heaven. The mar­riage of henry VIII to Kather­ine howard in July 1540 is one of many dark episodes in this grimly com­pelling ac­count of the last seven years of henry’s reign.

Once hand­some, charis­matic and ath­letic, the king had be­come a grotesque par­ody of his for­mer self, but as he wooed Kather­ine he felt re­ju­ve­nated.

‘So amorous of her that he can­not treat her well enough,’ a French diplo­mat re­ported breath­lessly.

It didn’t take long for the mar­riage to go hor­ri­bly wrong. Within a year, gos­sip reached the be­sot­ted monarch that his fifth wife, his ‘blush­ing rose with­out a thorn’, was not the in­no­cent he had sup­posed. Be­fore she caught henry’s fancy, Kather­ine had slept with her lute teacher and had also been in­ti­mate with an­other man. even more scan­dalously, one of her fe­male friends had often shared the bed with them.

The king re­acted with a mix­ture of rage and self-pity, call­ing for a sword so he could kill Kather­ine with his own hands and sob­bing as he cursed his ‘ill-luck in meet­ing with such ill-con­di­tioned wives’.

Queen Kather­ine’s fate was sealed when a let­ter was dis­cov­ered writ­ten by her to Thomas Culpeper, a gen­tle­man of the Privy Cham­ber and a great favourite of henry’s. Un­wisely, Kather­ine had signed it ‘Yours as long as life en­dures’.

LeSSthan two years af­ter her wed­ding, Kather­ine was led to the small green within the Tower of Lon­don where, six years be­fore, henry’s sec­ond wife Anne Bo­leyn — who, bizarrely, was Kather­ine’s cousin — had been be­headed. Af­ter her ex­e­cu­tion, Kather­ine’s body was laid to rest a few feet away from Anne.

Read­ing this book makes one heartily glad not to have lived dur­ing henry’s reign. Kather­ine was rel­a­tively lucky in

hav­ing been dis­patched so quickly. One of her lovers was con­victed of trea­son and his sen­tence was to be dis­mem­bered: an ob­server re­counted how peo­ple who were killed in this way ‘spoke al­ways till their hearts were pulled out of their bod­ies, which was a piteous death’.

In the lat­ter years of henry’s reign, his iron grip on eng­land, Wales and Ireland grew ever stronger and the trea­son laws were greatly ex­panded. even a joke or a drunken song pok­ing fun at him could re­sult in a death sen­tence. If you wanted to set­tle a score with a trou­ble­some neigh­bour, ac­cus­ing them of slan­der­ing the king was an ef­fec­tive way of do­ing so, es­pe­cially as henry’s hench­men were en­thu­si­as­tic users of tor­ture to ex­tract con­fes­sions, whether real or in­vented.

And if you weren’t tossed into prison, there was the ever-present risk of ill­ness wait­ing to carry you off. Bubonic plague, which could kill you within 24 hours, was a fre­quent oc­cur­rence. If you dodged that,

you might still fall vic­tim to the ‘English sweat­ing sick­ness’, most likely vi­ral pneu­mo­nia, or else measles, ty­phus, small­pox or even malaria.

Henry was a rag­ing hypochon­driac, and no won­der: at var­i­ous times he had con­tracted small­pox, sur­vived four bouts of malaria, suf­fered blows to the head while joust­ing, and was plagued by weep­ing leg ul­cers.

But Tu­dor ex­pert robert Hutchin­son dis­misses the widely held idea that Henry also had syphilis. He favours the the­ory, first put for­ward a decade ago, that Henry had Cush­ing’s syn­drome, a rare en­docrine dis­or­der.

Con­trary to pop­u­lar leg­end, Henry was quite a dainty eater and not prone to chuck­ing chicken car­casses over his shoul­der, yet in the last years of his life he bal­looned to an es­ti­mated 28st and had a gar­gan­tuan 54-inch waist.

Peo­ple with Cush­ing’s syn­drome put on a huge amount of weight around their trunk, their skin is eas­ily dam­aged and slow to heal, and they are often prone to ir­ri­tabil­ity, de­pres­sion, melan­cho­lia, anx­i­ety, in­som­nia and sud­den mood swings — all of which ac­cu­rately sums up Henry vIII’s be­hav­iour.

Hav­ing dis­patched Kather­ine Howard, Henry set his sights on the twice-wid­owed Kather­ine Parr. She was no beauty, but was ad­mired for her spir­ited per­son­al­ity, her calm in­tel­li­gence and her grace­ful danc­ing. The only snag was that Kather­ine was deeply in love with Thomas Sey­mour, brother of Henry’s third wife, Jane Sey­mour.

WHENshe heard of the king’s in­ter­est in her, Kather­ine ex­claimed in hor­ror: ‘Bet­ter to be his mis­tress than his wife!’ The dash­ing Thomas Sey­mour was sum­mar­ily posted to Brus­sels and Kather­ine, well aware of what hap­pened to those who did not bend to Henry’s will, had no op­tion but to marry him.

The mar­riage was rea­son­ably suc­cess­ful: she was a kind step­mother to his chil­dren, was good at sooth­ing Henry’s tem­per, and tended to his var­i­ous ail­ments.

Hutchin­son, author of sev­eral books on Tu­dor his­tory, moves the nar­ra­tive along at a brisk pace but has an un­for­tu­nate ten­dency to in­dulge in cod psy­chol­ogy, as when he states (with­out any ev­i­dence) that in mar­ry­ing Kather­ine Parr, who was still in love with his one­time brother- in- law, Henry’s ‘ un­con­scious crav­ing for an in­ces­tu­ous union was sat­is­fied’.

And re­fer­ring to Kather­ine Howard as a ‘ bimbo’ and call­ing Henry an ‘ogre’ rather de­tracts from the schol­ar­li­ness of this well­re­searched book.

Henry vIII died in Jan­uary 1547 at the age of 55, hav­ing been king for al­most 38 years. Wars against Scot­land and France in the fi­nal few years of his reign had all but bankrupted the coun­try and it would take two decades for his suc­ces­sors to put the econ­omy on a sound foot­ing again.

In a suit­ably macabre fi­nale to his bloody reign, the mas­sive elm cas­ket that held his body sprang a leak, and stray dogs were seen dart­ing around the church where he lay in state, lap­ping ea­gerly at the king’s earthly re­mains.

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