Henry VIII gets a lot of bad press notably for his seven wives and a regrettable habit of chopping off heads. But there were two Henrys: early and late. Early Henry was a humdinger.
He became king at age 17 in 1509, a big (over six feet) handsome lad. He was broadly educated and well-read in English, Latin, and French. He played the lute, organ, and harpsichord, composed music, and sang well. He loved a party, and he was a ferocious sportsman. Henry played excellent tennis, was a skilled wrestler, hunter, and jouster.
His love of jousting may have been his undoing. This was not a battle skill but a royal game: on huge horses, in heavy armor, opponents rode at each other with blunt lances to knock each other out of the saddle. But in 1536 Henry left his face-covering visor up during a joust, catching a lance on his forehead. His majesty went down under his horse. His legs were crushed and he lay unconscious for two hours, apparently a serious concussion.
Henry changed radically. The broken long bones in his legs healed poorly and developed infected ulcers, which had to be drained using red hot probes. Ouch. Walking became difficult and painful, and finally impossible. The smell from his infected legs was awful. He became angry, paranoid, and irrational. No longer active, he ate and ate, bloating from around 210 pounds (95 kg) to 400 pounds (181 kg). This was late Henry: obese, dangerous, and smelly. His altered mental state and his constant pain surely contributed to his marital difficulties and to steady employment for head-choppers.
A mental, physical wreck, Henry VIII died at age 55 in 1547. Court embalmers replaced his innards with sawdust, resin and herbs to preserve the body, but Henry was already rotting from the legs up. The royal corpse was placed in a sealed lead coffin. An enormous regal procession set off from Whitehall Castle to Windsor Castle. The funeral parade halted the first day at the old Syon Abbey. In the middle of the night, the lead coffin exploded!
Or did it? Some historians suggest that it simply broke because Henry was too fat and the roads were bad. Yet contemporary morticians insist that gasses of decomposition can blow open even a modern sealed coffin. The coffin was soldered shut and the parade hustled on to the burial at Windsor, an untidy end for a wonderful and terrible king.
Nonfiction is the new black
During much of the sixteenth century, England was wracked by violence between Catholics and Protestants. Hundreds of Protestants were executed during the reign of Queen Mary (1553–1558), earning her the nickname of “Bloody Mary.” Her Protestant successor, Queen Elizabeth (1558–1603) returned the favor by persecuting and killing Catholics. She was followed by James I, whose Catholic mother had been executed. James’s wife had recently converted to Catholicism.
English Catholics therefore hoped he would be more tolerant than Elizabeth. While the number of executions dropped off, James ordered Catholic priests to leave England and said that Protestantism was the one true faith. Despairing Catholics decided on a desperate measure. They would assassinate James and install his nine-old-daughter Elizabeth as a Catholic monarch.
The plotters secreted three dozen barrels of gunpowder in the basement beneath the House of Lords a few days before the opening of Parliament on November 5, 1605. Guy Fawkes, one of the plotters, planned to ignite a fuse when King James entered the chamber and then scurry to safety. With most members of Parliament and other high officials dead in the explosion, the resulting chaos would make it easier for the schemers to seize control of the government.
However, some of the conspirators realized that this plan would kill a lot of innocent people, including Catholics. So in late October, one of them sent an anonymous warning letter to a Catholic Member of Parliament. He passed along the message to the king’s guardians. Shortly after midnight on November 5, a search party discovered Fawkes and the concealed gunpowder. He was tortured for several days to reveal the names of the other conspirators and then executed. His body was hacked into several pieces. The grisly chunks were displayed in several parts of England as a warning to would-be traitors.
In celebration of the king’s salvation, many people lit bonfires on the night of the discovery. That began a tradition that continues to this day in what is known as Bonfire Night. Tonight in nations of the British Empire, revelers, many wearing Guy Fawkes apparel, are shooting off fireworks and building huge bonfires to burn effigies of the man regarded as England’s most notorious traitor.
Happy Guy Fawkes Day!
Jim Whiting has written more than a hundred books on many subjects. His is a very interesting person. Check out his website on Amazon.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "Let's Blow Up the King!" Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 6 Nov. 2017, http://www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/lets-blow-up-the-king.
Celebrating the History of Science and the Science behind History
King Louis XIV (1638 –1715) was a famous king of France. In the year 1685, when he was at the height of his reign, his butt started to hurt. A lot. His royal physicians tried all kinds of treatments, trying to shrink the swelling, but finally, after months of suffering on everyone’s part, they called for a surgeon. This was a big deal.
Surgeons at the time were not considered respectable. They ranked many notches below physicians, on the level of barbers (in fact, most were barbers). The Church forbade doctors to cut into a living body. But the king and his physicians were desperate.
His butt problem was diagnosed as something called an anal fistula. If you think it sounds bad, you’re right. It’s a condition where a new channel opens up leading from the bowel to the outside of the body, but that is not the anus—the channel through which waste is supposed to leave the body. We won’t speculate as to how the king developed his fistula, although we do know that the king ate enormous quantities of food, and his diet was probably not what we would consider healthy today. Also, his hygiene was not good. He often ordered windows to be opened when he entered a room, so that his courtiers would not be overcome by his smell.
The surgeon, Charles Francois Félix de Tassy, requested to wait six months before operating. He practiced on a bunch of peasants, none of whom actually had anal fistulae. Some of them even died.
The king’s fistula operation was performed on November 18th 1686. Sources reported that the king was calm. The surgeon was not. Félix had designed a “royally curved” scalpel especially for that purpose, inserting it into the fistula with the help of a retractor.
The operation was a success. The king was sitting up in bed within a month. It became fashionable for courtiers to admit they had a fistula, too, in hopes of being able to walk around Versailles with their butts swaddled like the king’s.
Why is this story important? By operating successfully on the king, Félix raised the profession of surgery to a more prestigious level. Félix was knighted and given money and land. But he was said to be so traumatized that he never again touched a scalpel.
(c) Sarah Albee 2014
MLA 8 Citation
Albee, Sarah. "The King's Butt." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 19 Sept. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/the-kings-butt.