From golden god to obese tyrant – the evolution of Henry VIII

In the run up to the UK publication of Wife After Wife in July, I’ve been thinking (again! Not obsessed – no, not at all) about how Henry VIII changed over the course of his reign, both in temperament and looks, from ‘the handsomest prince in Christendom … in every respect a most accomplished prince’ (so said the starry-eyed Venetian ambassador to Henry’s court) to that mean-mouthed obese tyrant we all love to hate.

Olivia Hayfield Wife After Wife Henry VIII blog image
Olivia Hayfield Wife After Wife Henry VIII blog image

The ambassador wrote of 24-year-old Henry that his face was ‘so very beautiful that it would become a pretty woman.’
He was athletic in build, and over six foot tall, which was very unusual for the times.

Wife After Wife by Olivia Hayfield

Henry VIII c1509 and c1520, both by unknown artists

Wife After Wife by Olivia Hayfield  Henry VIII portrait 2

In the portrait above, Henry is 18 (this is when he became king, in 1509). ‘It is the prettiest thing in the world to see the King playing tennis, his fair skin flowing through [his] shirt,’ gushed the ambassador.

In the portrait on the left, he is about 29.

Then, in his 40s, an old jousting wound became problematic and the poor man ended up with an agonising ulcer that refused to heal. He was in constant pain and often ill-tempered as a result.

In the first portrait, Henry is 18 (this is when he became king, in 1509). ‘It is the prettiest thing in the world to see the King playing tennis, his fair skin flowing through [his] shirt,’ gushed the ambassador.

In the second portrait, he is about 29.

Then, in his 40s, an old jousting wound became problematic and the poor man ended up with an agonising ulcer that refused to heal. He was in constant pain and often ill-tempered as a result.

Another jousting accident when he was 45, after which he was unconscious for two hours, may have caused brain damage, which could have been responsible for his explosive temper and swinging mood changes. His personality does seem to have changed radically at this point.

In the last decade of his life (he died aged 55), Henry was increasingly immobile and put on much weight; nobody dared say no to this terrifying bully and so his absolute power and ill health turned him into something of a monster. Later portraits like the lower one, painted when he was about 51, show the Henry we are most familiar with. Not appealing!

Another jousting accident when he was 45, after which he was unconscious for two hours, may have caused brain damage, which could have been responsible for his explosive temper and swinging mood changes. His personality does seem to have changed radically at this point.

In the last decade of his life (he died aged 55), Henry was increasingly immobile and put on much weight; nobody dared say no to this terrifying bully and so his absolute power and ill health turned him into something of a monster. Later portraits like the one below, painted when he was about 51, show the Henry we are most familiar with. Not appealing!

Wife After Wife by Olivia Hayfield. A portrait of Henry VIII around 50 years old.

Henry c1535, attributed to Joos van Cleve.
This was painted during his marriage to Anne Boleyn. He’s about 44.

Wife After Wife by Olivia Hayfield. A portrait of Henry VIII around 50 years old.

This portrait, by an unknown artist was painted in c1542, during Henry’s brief marriage to
Catherine Howard. ©National Portrait Gallery, London

Am I Being Too Kind?
 

In Wife After Wife I take Henry and put him in the 20th-21st century, where he wouldn’t have absolute power, and modern healthcare would sort out his bad leg. He’s still Henry – arrogant, entitled, vain – but also intelligent, well-read, witty, charismatic (and hot!). If you’ve read the book, do you think I’ve got him right? Or have I been too kind?