Review: The Last Days of Henry VIII by Robert Hutchinson

When I picked this book up I was filled with a sense of excitement I have rarely felt upon opening a new book. The reason behind this is that I have already read two of Hutchinson’s books on Tudor England, both of which were utterly fantastic. This one was no different and yet again Hutchinson proves himself to be a fantastic historian who is able to write his historical biographies so they are easy to read, easy to understand and give the reader a sense of what it would have been like to be a member of Henry’s court at the time.

This book takes a slightly different route from the previous works I have read. The previous book I read, entitled Young Henry was a biography of Henry’s rise to power and in it we saw glimpses of the tyrant who would make his appearance during the later years of Henry’s reign. This one concentrated on Henry’s final years of his reign following the death of Jane Seymour. We start with the marriage of Henry to Anne of Cleves whom he divorced quickly and easily, letting a few heads roll on the way. We then see Henry’s decline from his marriage to Katherine Howard, his “rose without a thorn”. Since the death of Jane Seymour, Henry had taken to gluttony which had quickly caused his once fit and robust figure to balloon, and there were stories that his melancholy and black humour had quickly taken over from this point. But his marriage to Katherine Howard had made him feel young again; she was his young spritely wife, beautiful and less than eighteen years of age. For all intents and purposes, Henry VIII was in love again. That was until he was brutally betrayed by her, and stories of her licentious past leaked into court, stories of her affairs with Henry Mannox and Francis Dereham and finally, the last and bitter blow was the affair that she kept with Thomas Culpeper, one of Henry’s closest grooms. At this stage of his life, Henry’s moods were difficult to live with and he was grossly obese, prone to changing his moods from one moment to the other. Following this betrayal, in his mind a betrayal by yet another Howard woman (though we all know that Anne Boleyn certainly did not betray him!!), his health seemed to have taken a turn for the worse again, his melancholy gotten worse. One can only imagine how difficult it would have been to have lived in the court at the time of Henry VIII during these years.

Hutchinson describes in depth the health problems that plagued Henry during his final years, and eventually lead to his death. We of course, as historians, as readers, know that Henry was grossly overweight and suffered from ulcerated legs likely brought on by either too tight hose that he wore fashionably below the knee or from jousting accidents during his youth. But what was behind his horrific weight gain? Hutchinson presents a very interesting argument that it may well have been a rare endocrine disease known as Cushing’s syndrome which would not have only caused the weight gain, but also his psychotic episodes, his depression and his leg problems. I find this to be very interesting, having read this and looked up the syndrome myself as well as portraits done of Henry later in his reign. We see Henry as an overweight man in his later portraits with a bit of a “moon face” – the moon face being a particular symptom of Cushing’s. And having looked at some pictures online, I have to say that a lot of the pictures really did remind me of Henry. As well as this, there is a contemporary picture of Henry from the King’s Psalter in 1540 of him with a fatty lump on his back, somewhat like a hunchback style image, and this lump is another symptom of Cushing’s. Hutchinson also mentions that because of Cushing’s Henry may have suffered from “mild diabetes” – now as a sufferer of diabetes (type 1) myself I took mild offence at that statement, as no diabetes is mild be it type 1 or type 2. It does seem likely that Henry would have suffered from Type 2 diabetes brought on by his severe weight and his poor diet – the weight that Henry carried would have caused severe insulin resistance in his body which meant that he would have been unable to break down the glucose in his blood from his high carbohydrate meals. At any rate, this certainly would not have been mild as Hutchinson puts it as Henry would have suffered from uncontrolled blood sugar levels, which may have helped with the ulcers on his legs getting worse. As I myself am testament too, uncontrolled diabetes can lead to diabetic neuropathy which then, if left untreated, can lead to ulcers, gangrene and in this day and age, amputation. Coming back to Cushing’s syndrome now, having read the evidence placed down by Hutchinson not only of Henry’s weight gain but his psychotic episodes and his frequent bouts of depression I am of the belief that yes, it is likely that Henry would have suffered from this disease. Although of course we are unable to prove this without exhuming Henry’s remains and conducting research, until this day all we can do is present different arguments and try to outwit any other historian that has presented other arguments. Up to this point however, I have no read any other arguments as convincing as that by Hutchinson.

What interested me greatly whilst reading this book was Henry’s religious beliefs. What we are shown by Hutchinson is a court caught amidst the intrigue of two rival factions at court – the papists lead by the rather nasty sounding Stephen Gardiner, and the reformers headed by Thomas Cranmer. It seems that despite his reforms and becoming Supreme Head of the English Church, Henry still retained a lot of his Catholic belief. What really alarmed me however was that during his final years Henry did not bat an eyelid for executing a man for heresy and believing in reform and at the same time, on the same scaffold executing a man for believing too heavily in papist regimes! Was this Henry trying to keep both factions happy? There was a certain part of the book however that almost moved to me to tears, and one that I found had been used wonderfully in the TV show The Tudors – it is a scene whereupon Henry brings both factions together and seemingly begs them to get along.

What love and charity is amongst you when the one calls the other heretic and Anabaptist and he calls him again papist, hypocrite and Pharisee? Are these tokens of charity amongst you? Are these signs of fraternal love between you?

It sounds to me like Henry was kind of fed up of the constant bickering between each faction. Perhaps he was trying to straighten things out before his health finally deteriorated. But of course, despite this they still tried to get one off against the other – and there is a particular chapter within the book whereupon Hutchinson describes an attempted coup against Queen Katherine Parr, a woman who was heavily involved in reformist and so called heretical views. Despite the fact that she had become a close companion and nurse to the King, it seems that he still took it upon himself to believe Gardiner that she was a heretic and even went so far as to sign the warrant for her arrest. But was this again Henry’s changing mood and mind-set? Did he engineer it so that Katherine got wind of this and threw herself at the mercy of the King? Whatever happened, she did get wind of it and threw herself at the King’s mercy, convincing him that the only reason she argued with him in terms of religion was to keep his mind off his poor health. It certainly worked, and they became perfect friends again.

We then get a glimpse of Henry’s final few months, the issuing of a dry stamp so that Henry did not have to sign things personally. It seems that this dry stamp was used to sign henry’s own will, which of course is a little controversial as who is to say that the beneficiaries of the will did not use this to get more out of it for themselves?

In the end, despite Henry’s absolute power and a magnificent funeral whereupon his body was laid to rest next to his third wife Jane Seymour there was a lot that still happened after Henry’s death. One possibly apocryphal story is that of Henry’s coffin breaking apart whilst it was laid in Syon Abbey, with dogs wandering in and licking at his blood, as a previous prophecy had mentioned many years before. Even once he had been laid to rest with Jane Seymour, he was not truly laid to rest. His tomb was never completed and his vault broken open many times – it was broken open so that the remains of Charles I could rest there, and another time so that the body of a small child by Queen Anne could be laid to rest there. In the end Henry VIII was left with just a simple black slab above his body, far from the magnificent tomb he had once envisaged. This is such a sad end for the once magnificent king of England, whether he was a tyrant or not and I hate to think what he would have thought knowing that nowadays his final resting place is walked over by thousands of tourists who spare little thought for those whose earthly remains they walk over.

To conclude I firmly believe that this is one of the best books written about Henry VIII and his final days, and is one of the best that I have ever read. Hutchinson really is a fantastic writer who researches his chosen periods fully. The fact that I could barely put this book down and finished it in a matter of two and a half days only goes to prove how much it captivated me and I would recommend this to anyone interested in the reign of Henry VIII.

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