There’s Something About Henry
King Henry the Eighth has been receiving bad press for centuries and Shakespeare, along with later writers and playwrights, got in on the act. Henry’s life fascinated everybody. He married six wives and distinguished himself by divorcing/annulling two wives and cruelly executing another two. His first wife died in childbirth and the last managed to outlive him. Who knows what would have happened to clever Catherine Parr if Henry had lived long enough to tire of her.
Subsequently Henry well and truly earned his place on the long list of, Famous Men Who Behaved Badly. And when the twentieth century swung by, it was an easy transition to portray him on film as a barbarian with swinish manners.
In the 1933 British film, The Private Life of Henry, he was played by actor Charles Laughton, a big-bellied chap who bellowed most of his lines (photo above). The film is a plush, sixteenth century costume comedy-drama. The Tudor aristocracy are swathed in gorgeous furs, satins and an excessive amount of rich velvets embellished with pearls and precious stones.
The actors emote in posh English voices and the genre of the film is established in the first scene as being a satirical bedroom farce. One of the running gags, is the requirement for Ladies of the Chamber to embroider the latest consort’s initials on the King’s pillows, as quickly as he changes wives.
In the opening scenes, a beautiful Lady of the Chamber suggestively strokes Henry’s sheets and bemoans the fact that she hasn’t been bedded by the King. This ensures that the viewers know that we aren’t about to be bored witless with historical fact. And because the cheeky young minx speaks in the dulcet tones of an aristocrat, the smuttiness of her actions is accentuated for comedic effect.
Henry the Eighth is portrayed as an obese glutton who delights in hurling chicken bones at his courtiers and splattering them with gobfuls of food and wine. In one scene, while dining with the nobility, Henry smashes a greasy chicken with his chubby fist, crams a huge chicken drumstick into his gob and speaks with his mouth full. Courtiers have to duck his spittle.
Innuendo and lasciviousness are laid on with a spade and Henry doesn’t sit – he sprawls, displaying his manly assets. It has been documented that Henry shamelessly helped himself to many noble ladies and accordingly his mistresses feature in Korda’s film.
Such vulgarity did not go unrewarded, and The Private Life of Henry was a massive hit, especially in the USA. It made Merle Oberon and the other leading actors famous and bought them to the attention of Hollywood.
Tudor history, the Protestant Reformation and politics were largely ignored in favour of Henry’s love life and artistic license encouraged the scriptwriters to play fast and loose with the facts. But historians have revealed that although Henry ended his days with a 52-inch waist, in his youth he was an Adonis.
Henry became a King before he was eighteen. In his youth he was considered to be the most handsome prince in the whole of Europe. He was also a writer of poems, love letters, political tracts and a composer. Tall at over six foot, lean and physically well favoured with the obsessions of a competitive jock, there was nothing to suggest he would suffer ill health or become obese.
Several serious illnesses and sporting injuries slowed him down, and Henry fattened up on the rich Tudor diet. As the old adage goes, ‘Karma has no menu, everyone gets their just desserts.’
A freak jousting accident when he was forty-five, resulted in Henry being crushed under his stallion while wearing excessively heavy armour. He was unconscious for two hours and some historians believe that the accident caused frontal lobe brain damage and made his leg ulcers increasingly painful.
Once he was no longer burning up the calories jousting, dancing, brawling, hunting and fucking, Henry’s dietary habits ensured he became more than just robust.
Apparently, three quarters of the Tudor’s diet was comprised of meat. Meals were a flagrant display of power and exotic foodstuffs were a key signifier of extreme wealth. Henry had a massive ego to sustain and his wealth provided the means to impress not just his court and subjects, but also the many foreign dignitaries who came to visit.
Up to 800 courtiers usually accompanied Henry and they all had to be fed. Plant foods were not crowd pleasers, but bread, pastries, sweet desserts, oxens, deers, calves, venison, pigs and wild boar were featured on the menu. Chickens, pigeons, sparrows, swans, larks, cocks and plovers were also immensely popular. The nobility had a thing for roast peacocks and Henry indulged himself at every given opportunity.
Exotic foodstuffs whispered of high status. The variety of food at Henry’s court was gobsmacking: citrus fruits, almonds, Mediterranean olive oil, sugar from Cyprus and spices from India all made their way into Henry’s private kitchen.
Only the King had the privilege of eating with a fork and that was mainly so that he could get stuck into his favourite sweet preserves. Although Henry was a first-rate glutton, contemporary witnesses wrote that he dined in an elegant manner and washed his hands before and during his feasts.
Henry never gave up hunting. Despite chronic ill health and his enormous girth he continued to go after the wildlife. Initially he had to be levered up onto his horse but towards the end of his life, he had the deer herded towards him so he could kill them at close range. How this activity passed for hunting, is as difficult to comprehend as the cold-blooded executions of his wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard.
Henry died in 1547 at Whitehall Palace London, at the age of fifty-five. It’s believed he died of natural causes exacerbated by exceedingly poor health.
‘I swear again, I would not be a queen
For all the world.’
(Anne Boleyn before she made the fatal mistake of becoming Henry’s second wife).
from Shakespeare’s, The Life of King Henry the Eighth.
Photograph: Henry the Eighth (Charles Laughton) gobbling up the delectable actress, Binnie Barnes. Alexander Korda’s 1933 film, ‘The Private Life of Henry’.