Dispelling Tudor Myths: King Henry VIII

King Henry VIII after Hans Holbein (Photo credit: National Portrait Gallery)

Dispelling Tudor Myths: King Henry VIII

As part of the Dispelling Tudor Myths series here on The Freelance History Writer blog, it’s time to address two items regarding the reign of Henry VIII, both of which were debunked long ago but continue to be repeated.

Myth: King Henry VIII died of a sexually transmitted disease

I remember it as if it was only yesterday. My parents took me to see the now classic movie “A Man for All Seasons”, the saga of the deteriorating relationship between Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor and King Henry VIII following his break from the Catholic Church to marry Anne Boleyn. At the very end of the movie, the narrator claims Henry VIII died of syphilis. Of course, we now know this is not the case.

First, let’s address Henry’s love life. Compared to other medieval and Renaissance princes of the sixteenth century, Henry had what could be considered very few lovers. Of course, there are the women we know were his mistresses, such as Mary Boleyn and Bessie Blount. And there may have been others we don’t know about because Henry kept his relationships very discreet. There is no historical evidence Henry’s father, King Henry VII had paramours. So maybe Henry VIII was trying to strike a balance between maintaining a loving marriage like that of his parents, with a little bit of fun on the side.

We cannot diagnose illnesses this far in the past, but we do have access to medical records. The common treatment for sexually transmitted diseases in the sixteenth century was mercury. The patient received enough small doses of the element to cause the patient to salivate excessively, which was thought to expel the disease. One of the first supporters of mercury treatment was the physician Paracelsus, born Theophrastus von Hohenheim in Switzerland. His studies were some of the leading work on syphilis at a time when the first well-recorded outbreak of the disease was ravaging Europe following the return of Christopher Columbus from his North American journey in 1492.

During the sixteenth century, mercury would be administered to sick patients in numerous ways, such as rubbing it on the skin, applying a plaster and by ingestion. There were many unpleasant side effects to the treatments and there was a fine line between curing the patient and poisoning him. Mercury continued to be used in syphilis treatment for many centuries. Based on the medical records we have for King Henry VIII; he never received any type of mercury treatments.

Myth: King Henry VIII was responsible for executing 72,000 people during his reign

Where to start with this one! There is no denying Henry was cruel and vindictive, with many people being executed during his thirty-eight-year reign. Several historians in the past have tried to debunk this myth, but it just keeps getting repeated over and over. So where did this number come from?

The population of England in 1550 was around 2,800,000. 72,000 is 2.6% of this number and is more than double the number of deaths that occurred during the bloodiest battle in medieval English history. It is estimated 28,000 men died at the Battle of Towton during the reign of Henry VIII’s grandfather, King Edward IV. 72,0000 averages out to 2,000 deaths per year, a number that would have significantly impacted society and the economy, and historians would definitely have noted this in their writings. The executioners would have been forced to work seven days a week, killing five to six people a day.

The culprit here was a writer named William Harrison who lived from 1534 to 1593 and wrote a “Description of England”, part of Holinshed’s Chronicles. The offending passage reads thus:

“Our third annoyers of the commonwealth are rogues, which do very great mischief in all places where they become. For, whereas the rich only suffer injury by the first two, these spare neither rich nor poor; but, whether it be great gain or small, all is fish that cometh to net with them. And yet, I say, both they and the rest are trussed up apace. For there is not one year commonly wherein three hundred or four hundred of them are not devoured and eaten up by the gallows in one place and other. It appeareth by Cardan (who writeth it upon the report of the bishop of Lexovia), in the geniture of King Edward the Sixth, how Henry the Eighth, executing his laws very severely against such idle persons, I mean great thieves, petty thieves, and rogues, did hang up threescore and twelve thousand of them in his time.”

A score equals twenty so he is saying sixty thousand plus twelve thousand. He also contradicts himself in saying three to four hundred thieves, petty thieves, and rogues per year were ‘eaten up by the gallows’. Harrison limits the offenders to a very narrow definition of only those who committed crimes. There’s a big difference between three to four hundred and two thousand.

Harrison is referencing the ‘Commentaries’ of Jerome Cardan. Jerome Cardan (or Cardano) of Milan, born in 1501, was a physician, mathematician, astrologer, philosopher, gambler, prolific writer and possibly mentally ill. Cardan wrote of a horoscope he cast for King Edward VI where he mentions Henry VIII. Cardano says:

Moreover, he [Henry VIII] quarrelled with the Pope, owing to the position of Venus and to influences emanating from her. He was affected also by a constellation with schismatic properties, and by certain eclipses, and hence and from other causes, arose a fact related to me by the Bishop of Lexovia, namely, that two years before his death as many as seventy thousand persons were found to have perished by the hand of the executioner in that one island during his reign.”

It has been posited that the ‘Bishop of Lexovia’ was in fact, the French Bishop of Lisieux. Jacques d’Annebault became bishop of Lisieux in 1539 and was made a Cardinal in 1544. Jacques’ brother was Claude d’Annebault. Claude held various positions such as Marshal of France, Admiral of France and Governor of Piedmont during the reign of King François I, Henry’s political rival. Claude led the French invasion of the Isle of Wight in 1545, during which Henry’s warship, the Mary Rose sank with the loss of five hundred lives.

These are not unbiased sources and there was no science of statistics during this period in history. And somewhere along the line, historians changed the victims from thieves and rogues to Catholics. In 1858, James Anthony Froude wrote “History of England from the Fall of Wolsey to the Death of Elizabeth, Volume 3” and argued vociferously that these numbers are a complete exaggeration, stating:

The words of some unknown foreign ecclesiastic discovered imbedded in the midst of this abominable nonsense, and transmitted through a brain capable of conceiving and throwing it into form, have been considered authority sufficient to cast a stigma over one of the most remarkable periods of English history…”

In reading Susan Brigden’s book, “New Worlds – Lost Worlds: The Reign of the Tudors 1485-1603”, she gives some concrete numbers based on factual, historical research. Between 1532 to 1540, 308 people were executed. Of these, 287 were in open rebellion to the Crown and committed treason according to existing laws. During these years, there was the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the Pilgrimage of Grace, and the King’s Great Matter.

Further reading: “New Worlds – Lost Worlds: The Reign of the Tudors 1485-1603” by Susan Brigden, “The Late Tudors: England 1547-1603” by Penry Williams, “History of England from the Fall of Wolsey to the Death of Elizabeth, Volume 3” by James Anthony Froude, “Description of England” in “Holinshed’s Chronicles” written by William Harrison  

7 thoughts on “Dispelling Tudor Myths: King Henry VIII

  1. I echo the above comments – love the research, the details, the history! Thank you so much for your wonderful posts on Dispelling Tudor Myths. And to think I used to experience history as boring back in high school [late 1950s].


  2. I’m a bit confused about only one sentence in this article, which I truly enjoyed and found enlightening. Are you saying syphilis was not known in Europe until Columbus returned from his historic 1492 voyage? I wasn’t aware of that. Or did I misunderstand the statement. I really enjoyed the Henry VIII truth a he is sort of a favorite of mine, who has been treated unfairly, in my opinion. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Helen, The first well-recorded European outbreak of syphillis happened in 1495 among French troops beseiging Naples, Italy. There’s a difference of opinion as to whether Columbus brought the disease to Europe or not. I’ve added a link to an article about a scientific study that indicates the 15th C. form of the disease did indeed come from South America.


  3. Susan – your posts are truly remarkable. Meticulously researched and provide details that are new to me. I appreciate that you provide recommendations for further reading. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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