An Epidemic That Still Plagues the World Killed Henry VIII

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Portrait of Henry VIII by the workshop of Hans Holbein the Younger.

Almost half a millennium after King Henry VIII’s death in 1547, the battle of the bulge survives and claims a growing number of casualties. While modern medicine has freed the world from most fatal diseases, Dr. Philip Schauer, director of bariatric (gastric bypass) surgery at the University of Pittsburgh, says, “Obesity in this country has risen to be probably the No. 1 health problem.”

Audiences cheered the screen crawl at the end of the 1966 film, A Man for All Seasons. The words that appeared on screen attributed the 16th century monarch’s death to venereal disease. His fate seemed like karmic justice for murdering his chancellor and the film’s hero, St. Thomas More, along with 70,000 other subjects, most famously two wives.

Syphilis appeared in Europe when Columbus returned from the New World in 1495. The disease may have already existed in a milder form prior to the Age of Exploration, but was misdiagnosed as leprosy. In 2008, researchers at Emory University speculated that Columbus’ crew introduced a virulent mutation of the bacterium that had been around since ancient times. The deadlier mutation killed hundreds of thousands until the advent of antibiotics in the mid-1940s.

A team of British investigators in 2010 performed an autopsy on a computer-generated corpse that conclusively identified obesity as the king’s killer.

Henry’s armor charts his expanding size . At the age of 20, the 6-feet 1-inch monarch, a giant at a time when the average male stood at 5-feet 6-inches. He boasted a 30-inch waist, tiny for a man his height, and a 39-inch chest. Thirty years later, his waist had ballooned to 54 inches and his chest measured an inch less. When he died at the age of 55, his weight neared 400 pounds.

What had turned the muscular youth into a mountain of flesh? The culprits were the same causes of today’s epidemic of obesity: a high-fat diet and lack of exercise. A jock obsessed with calorie-burners like jousting, hunting, wrestling, and tennis, Henry was no couch potato until the last decade of his life. During a tiltyard match in 1536, the 44-year-old weekend and weekday warrior had a near fatal fall from his horse. His armor ripped a gash in his leg. The wound became infected and ended his strenuous workouts but did not diminish his king-sized appetite.

Henry VIII – A Psychopath for All Seasons

The fall damaged the frontal lobes of the king’s brain, the area that regulates mood. The physical trauma may explain his transformation from a gregarious companion to a paranoid recluse who murdered the guilty and innocent alike.

Portraits of the king display his grotesque physical transformation but can’t portray his mental decay. The Venetian ambassador described the epicene youth at 18 as “the most handsomest [sic] potentate I have ever set eyes on. Above the usual height with an extremely fine calf to his leg and a round face so very beautiful it would become a pretty woman.”

The ambassador’s homoerotic verbal portrait of the absolutist as a young man contrasts with Holbein’s paintings of the monolith in winter.

Psychologists compare Henry’s overindulgence to the behavior of today’s overweight population. The king was a binge eater who self-medicated with “comfort food.”

His daily diet featured 13 dishes per meal, mostly pork with some delicacies like peacock and swan. The king had a sweet tooth as big as Hitler’s. Vegetables were rejected as indigestible peasant fare. Polluted water was a killer no one drank, so Henry consumed 10 pints of ale daily and bitter red wine sweetened with sugar. White bread accounted for his chronic constipation.

Modern nutritionists estimate that his daily intake of food contained 5,000 calories, twice the current recommended amount. Twenty grams of salt per day (three times the suggested maximum) contributed to his stratospheric blood pressure. A diet deficient in Vitamin C caused scurvy.

His father and brother both died of tuberculosis, which Henry may have contracted from them. He survived smallpox without the scars that disfigured his daughter, Elizabeth I, whom the disease turned into a half bald, pockmarked horror who removed all the mirrors in her palaces. Chronic malaria afflicted the king from the age of 33.

Dr. Lucy Worsley, chief curator of Britain’s royal residences, went shopping for a week’s worth of Henry’s documented food consumption. The groceries filled three shopping carts and cost £500 ($800). Oxford University researcher and physician Catherine Hood said the king was a candidate for Diabetes Type 2 with complications from an enlarged heart and liver disease due to alcohol and high-fat food. Diabetes may have caused the ulcerous lesions that spread from his legs to the rest of his body and created a stench that could be smelled three rooms away.

One of the few diseases that did not afflict Henry was syphilis. Doctors at the time treated the disease with toxic mercury that confined the patient to bed for six weeks or more. There’s no record of Henry’s absence from court for such a lengthy period or the permanent scarring syphilis can cause. A 16th century epigram said, “Five minutes with Venus, a lifetime with Mercury.”

The toll taken by overindulgence pursued the king after death when his bloated corpse exploded in its coffin – a humiliating epilogue to a miserable life.

Packaged Food Should Have a Skull-and-Bones Warning Label

Henry’s fate offers a cautionary note for today’s super-sized appetites. But like most warnings about the epidemic of obesity, the lessons of his life and death will probably remain unlearned in a recession-racked society that consoles itself, like the king, with food and alcohol that comfort as they kill.

Sources:

  1. Erickson, Carolly. Great Harry: The Extravagant Life of Henry VIII. New York: Summit, 1980.
  2. Ridley, Jasper Godwin. The Statesman and the Fanatic. London: Constable & Robinson, 1982.