Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

King Henry VIII: More ailments than wives

King Henry VIII
King Henry VIII

The younger sons of medieval kings would generally be doomed to live out their lives in relative obscurity unless raised to the crown by courtesy of the plague, smallpox, or pneumonia. Such was the case of Henry VIII, remembered among other achievements for his seven wives but also by his many bodily illnesses. He became king after his elder brother Arthur died in 1502 from unspecified causes, perhaps the plague, malaria, influenza, tuberculosis, the sweating illness, or even “a malignant vapour which proceeded from the air,” and has since been slumbering peacefully in his tomb at Worcester Cathedral.

In his youth Henry was strong, handsome, and healthy. He survived smallpox, malaria, and numerous sore throats. Mounted on his steed, clad in armor, and wielding a lance, he excelled in vigorous but dangerous sports. At age thirty-six he injured his foot playing tennis and took to wearing a loose black velvet slipper. But in 1536, age forty-five, he was thrown off a horse while jousting and remained unconscious for two hours. After that his personality changed. He became irascible, ill-tempered, cruel, paranoid, and subject to depression. Two queens and many others lost their heads. He also became extremely obese. His waist when he died in 1547 had reached fifty-two inches and his weight over three hundred pounds. It has been speculated that he suffered from Cushing’s syndrome or myxedema. He also had constipation (relieved only by rhubarb), painful hemorrhoids, migraines, insomnia, recurrent sore throats, and night sweats.

Like everyone else, Henry may have contracted syphilis. Considering his obesity, he probably developed diabetes, hypertension, and arterial insufficiency, especially as he had several strokes as well as gangrene of his toes. His legs swelled, possibly from terminal heart failure. Towards the end of his life he developed malodorous infected non-healing ulcers, venous, arterial, or diabetic, that made his life miserable and his temper vile. Recently it has been suggested that he had a rare blood type (Kell positive) leading to miscarriages in his wives, and also MacLeod syndrome, an X-carried disorder causing heart disease, neurologic disorders, and mental decline. It is quite possible that more rare diseases are waiting to be discovered.

GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief

Summer 2015



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