Posted in Tudor Medicine

Henry VIII’s near to death experience…

During a bout of jousting on 24th January 1536, Henry VIII fell from his horse, Smashing to the ground with the fully armour plated horse landing on top of him. Henry lay unconscious and ‘Without speech,’ for two hours.

The impact that the consequent injuries had on his personality, his life and his government are often debated. Henry was a powerful man who was in constant and insufferable pain. His accident, clearly made him very aware of his own mortality and led to unprecedented changes in his life.

If the King had of died on that January day he would have left his kingdom in chaos. Not only because of his lack of a male heir but because Princess Elizabeth was a baby, his first daughter, Lady Mary, had been made illegitimate and his present Queen was the most unpopular woman in the country.

Queen Anne was pregnant again and in the event of her husbands death she would have to be a stable Regent for her unborn son. This would have been a struggle when much of the English population did not want Anne to even be a queen consort?

To survive the king’s death, Anne would have had to act like a female ‘Lord Protector’ ruling the country alone until her son was old enough to take over. She would have the aid of the Privy Council and of her family. However, the Queen’s unpopularity could have led to serious discontent and even rebellion in the name of Henry’s first daughter the much loved and mistreated Lady Mary. His first wife had died in January of the same year.

The political situation could have led to a civil war similar to the ‘Wars of the Roses’. When noblemen fought each other in bloody family wars in the hope of putting a member their own clan on the throne.

It was shortly after Henry’s accident, on the 29th of January 1536, that Queen Anne, miscarried their unborn son. It was a traumatic and sad affair that made the queen seriously ill. Anne believed the miscarriage was caused by her distress when she was told that about the king’s riding accident. Katherine of Aragon’s funeral took place the very same day that Anne lost her child.

Katherine of Arogan’s tomb and a statue of her in her country of birth, Spain.

Katherine’s death meant Henry was now free to rid himself of Anne and make a new marriage that would be popular, fruitful and universally accepted. However, after the accident Henry developed severe headaches, which according to the Royal society of medicine:

 ‘would certainly have warranted a CT scan… to exclude intracranial haemorrhage… Henry’s legs were crushed in the fall and he may have sustained fractures to one or more of his long bones.’

At first his wounds seemed to heal well but then an ulcer caused by an earlier injury opened and a second one formed. Ulcers are agonisingly painful wounds and Henry suffered especially during 1536 – 1538. He recovered enough to have four more queens but he was left with his ‘Sorre legge’ and an increasing temper for the rest of his life.

 Ulcerated legs.

Henry’s ulcer potion:

‘Take one pint of rose oil, Plantain water and rose water, two ounces of myrtle seed and Plantain seed, and half an ounce of long worms which have been slit and washed in white wine for two hours. Mix the oil, the waters and the worms, mix in the seeds and warm gently on the fire.

Take them off, cover and leave for two days and nights before boiling again this time until all the water has gone. Strain them through a fine cloth, then add litharge of gold and white pearl washed twice in white wine. Then take red coral, rinse it three or four times with plantain water and add this to the mixture. Stir them well together, boil them over a fore until it becomes plaster like.

Although the recipe might seem ridiculous today and possibly leave the modern reader feeling a bit sick. Some of Henry’s ingredients do have healing properties. Plantain is anti bacterial and promotes healing.  Myrtle has antiseptic and had bactericidal properties.

The alcohol in white wine would have cleansed the wound. However, earthworms, gold and pearls have no medicinal benefits. Litharge is a peroxide of lead which when mixed with red lead it is called a litharge of gold. This substance is highly toxic for humans.

Henry was very proud of his manly calves. He highlights them in many portraits with the use of a garter fastened around his leg. Male calves were considered to be sexy during Tudor times and so the king may have lost some of his confidence with the loss of his youth and his fine calves. .

King Henry VIII
Hampton Court Palace, The Great Hall. Detail of the stained-glass in the west window showing  King Henry VIII and his shapely calves.

Henry was an outstanding sportsman and when the Privy Council banned the him from jousting he, like many retired athletes, found it difficult to keep a healthy weight. Henry participated in other less dangerous sports but his days at the lists were over.

Hot days could also be an issue because they can cause dangerous bouts of fever. Henry wrote to the Duke of Norfolk:

‘to be frank with you, which you must keep to yourself, a humour has fallen into our legs and our physicians advise us not to go far in the heat of the day’.

Henry’s doctors regularly lanced his ulcers with red-hot pokers. This treatment was unlikely to have helped the King’s temperament. In his later years courtiers were said know when the King was nearby with out seeing him because they could smell his wounds.

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The Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry

 It  was treason to mention the King’s death and rumours about the King’s health were considered to be a serious threat to the security of the throne. Today we may feel that this was a strange law that was grandiose and unnecessary but nothing could be further from the truth. Witnesses called to the 1537 treason trial of the Marquis of Exeter and Lord Montagu stated that the accused had said of the King:

 ‘he has a sore legge that no poor man would be glad of, and that he should not live long… and ‘he will die suddenly, his legge will kill him, and then we shall have jolly stirring’.

 

Both men were executed before they could raise a rebellion. The Royal society of medicine points out that:

‘Persistent chronic leg ulcers have been shown to seriously adversely affect quality of life even in the age of modern medical treatment and analgesia.’

Suggesting, that even with today’s advances in pain relief leg ulcers can still be excruciating and life changing. Henry went on to have four more wives after Anne’s execution in his quest for a legitimate male heir. Henry’s wounds explain his treatment of Anne the spouses that followed her. It was probably also the cause of  his many rages of temper in later life.

References:

The Royal society of medicine Journal: 2009 Dec 1st.

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‘to be frank with you, which you must keep to yourself, a humour has fallen into our legs and our physicians advise us not to go far in the heat of the day’.

Henry’s physicians regularly lanced his ulcers with red-hot pokers. This treatment was unlikely to have helped the King’s temperament and soon his courtiers and ambassadors knew of the King’s secret health issues regarding his legs. In his later years courtiers were said to smell the stench the King’s leg before they saw him coming.

 It  was illegal to mention or even hint about the King’s death and the punishment was a traitors death. Rumours about the King’s bad health were considered to be a serious threat to the throne. Today we may feel that this was a foolish law that was grandiose and unnecessary but nothing could be further from the truth. Witnesses called to the 1537 treason trial of the Marquis of Exeter and Lord Montagu stated that the accused had said of the King:

 ‘he has a sore legge that no poor man would be glad of, and that he should not live long… and ‘he will die suddenly, his legge will kill him, and then we shall have jolly stirring’.

 

According to Royal society of medicine:

‘Persistent chronic leg ulcers have been shown to seriously adversely affect quality of life even in the age of modern medical treatment and analgesia.’

Suggesting, that even with modern pain relief and treatment, chronic leg ulcers can be excruciating and life changing. Henry went on to have four more wives after Anne Boleyn’s death in his quest for a legitimate male heir. This shows his dedication to the house of Tudor, his kingdom and may explain his many rages of temper in later life.

References:

The Royal society of medicine Journal: 2009 Dec 1st.

30161493_1(2)

 

250px-Tudor_Rose.svg

 

 

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Author:

I love Tudor history and my bookshelves seem to groan a bit more every year !

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