Henry VIII didn’t have syphilis – why everything you think you know about the Tudors is wrong
There’s a reason why the Tudors are one of the most popular periods of history studied at school: all those battles, magnificent outfits and bizarre habits make for an entertaining introduction to the past.
But it seems that many of the 'facts' we learnt in the classroom don’t hold up to historical scrutiny. The filming of Wolf Hall has already exposed surprising details about Tudor life – and there are plenty more fascinating Tudor titbits to disprove.
Wolf Hall first exposed the Tudor fashion for egregiously large codpieces – far bigger than those worn in the TV series. As Damian Lewis, who stars as Henry VIII says, “Men of the court were encouraged to wear prominent cod pieces. It was a symbol of your virility, your derring-do, your sense of adventure.”
Hilary Mantel later explained that the actors in Wolf Hall all have historically-accurate white teeth. Contrary to the myth that Tudors had terrible dental hygiene, their mouths were actually in very good condition, because they ate so little sugar.
So, what else have we got wrong about the Tudor period? According to Diarmaid Macculloch, Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford University, many popular facts about the Tudors are completely false.
Henry VIII didn’t have six wives…
King Henry VIII didn’t have six wives – because three of his marriages were declared “null and void”. Unlike a divorce, where a married couple chooses to end their union, these annulments essentially declared that a true marriage never took place. “If you’d walked up to Henry VIII and said, ‘You’re a man who’s had six wives’ then – before beheading you – he’d have said, ‘No, I’ve had three wives and the others were just terrible mistakes that didn’t happen at all,” says Professor Macculloch.
…And he wasn’t much of a womaniser
His six (ahem, three) wives may suggest otherwise, but Henry VIII wasn’t a philanderer compared to typical behaviour in his day. “His sexual shenanigans were not all that great by the standards of most monarchs of the time. He had six wives but having six wives is proof that you’re not really good with ladies – not the other way around,” says Professor Macculloch. “He didn’t have all that many mistresses during his younger years.”
The king didn’t have syphilis
There’s no evidence to suggest that Henry VIII had syphilis. Instead, he suffered from ulcers in his legs. “The consensus is that these were old tournament injuries - in other words, bits of lance had got into his flesh and no one got them out again. That caused him an enormous amount of pain,” says Professor Macculloch. “There’s no sign of serious mental deterioration – he did get even more moody, angry and cruel as time went on, but you tend to if you’re in a lot of pain. The symptoms don’t really look like syphilis.”
Sir Walter Raleigh didn’t bring tobacco to Britain
The blame for lung cancer doesn’t rest entirely on Sir Walter’s shoulders – it’s likely that tobacco first arrived in England before his import, and the explorer only helped popularise the habit. “It’s the difference between actually introducing it and a celebrity doing it,” says Professor Macculloch.
The Tudors didn’t burn witches
Being a witch was still a punishable offence, but the Tudor method of justice was to hang those they found guilty. Heretics, by contrast, were those who were treated to being burnt at the stake. “We’ve mixed witches up with heretics,” says Professor Macculloch. “Witches were burned in bits of mainland Europe so I think that’s why the stereotype got attached to witches over here.”
And one that might be true: Anne Boleyn did have six fingers
“It’s a fairly odd idea to make up,” says Professor Macculloch, who believes the tales of six-fingered-Annie have a basis in reality. Though Boleyn’s extra digit may not have been fully formed. “I’m sure it wasn’t full six fingers, it was probably some slight deformity of the hand,” he adds.
So despite years of learning about the Tudors in school, it seems we’re not particularly knowledgeable about them at all. Our enthusiasm for the Tudors is well-placed – the Tudor period is one of the most exciting in English history – but we seem to be thriving off the legend, rather than the facts.