What Really Made Henry VIII Obese?

A look at Henry VIII's road to obesity in later life. It's often blamed on his diet of meats, roasted birds and fatty fish. But was it all about his meat intake? Or was something else a bigger factor? 


Henry VIII, (c) British Library, Public Domain. Flickr Archive


A big deal is always made of Henry VIII's middle-aged weight gain. One of his coats of armour, made in 1540 (almost certainly just worn for show) measures 52 inches around the waist, making him obese by even today's standards (1)

But as a young king, he was famed for his athleticism at jousting, riding and tennis - and, at the age of twenty-four, was considered by an ambassador "the handsomest potentate I ever set eyes on."(2) Portraits from early in his reign support this, too, showing a focused, pleasantly-smiling and slimmer Henry. 

So what happened? Prominent historians are quick to point the finger at his diet of fatty roasted meats, poultry and dairy. Phillipa Gregory, writing about Henry's psychology, blames his weight gain on his "fat-rich diet and meats"(3) and various other sources that you'll find with not much Googling attribute it to his love of fatty fish, eels and roasted birds. The image of jolly old Henry, bingeing on piles of huge, roasted chicken legs and throwing the nibbled bones over his shoulder is set in legend. 

But was it the meat? I'd argue that there was a much bigger factor - and something much more obvious that explains how Henry ballooned into the man who glares back at us from the dim light of the later portraits.

Before we look at Henry, let's look at what we know about the causes of obesity. 

What causes obesity, and what fights it? The evidence. 

While it's true that very high meat or protein intake could cause problems in some people, and isn't widely recommended for health, there's a whole side of Henry's diet that is often overlooked, and that's his intake of carbohydrates. 

Carbohydrates, because they can't all be used immediately as fuel, are converted to fat and stored for use later on, in the body's attempt of self-preservation. In other words, our brain figures out that if we run out of food later, we'll have calories to burn, from our fat reserves. Sounds like a plan. But when you have access to food all around the clock, it starts to lead to rapid weight gain, as we pile energy reserves on top of existing energy reserves.

In actual fact, reducing carbohydrates leads to very rapid weight loss

A recent study published the the Journal of Nutrition (4) declares that "carbohydrate restriction is more effective than fat restriction" in the treatment of obesity. Another study concluded that "a carbohydrate-restricted diet resulted in significant reduction in fat mass (5) and yet another found that a low-carboyhdrate diet resulted in loss of fat all over the body and even settled sleep disorders (6). So, if Henry was indeed eating a diet rich in meat and animal fats, we would expect to see him almost as slim in middle age as he was in his early twenties, according to modern research. 

Henry's meat and fat intake was never the problem. The problem was his carbohydrate intake. 

Henry VIII's diet

It's known that Henry feasted on Marchpane (we'd call it marzipan), ground almonds made sticky with sugar and rosewater, pressed into a decorative mould and then baked. After baking, it would be iced with intricate designs, using more sugar. Marchpane dates back to Medieval times, and seemed to reach its peak during the reign of Elizabeth I. 

It's also thought he enjoyed comfits, which were small Tudor sweets. An account of the Princess Elizabeth's christening in 1533 states that after the service "then the trumpets blew, and the gifts were given; after which wafers, comfits and hypocras were brought in." His belly full of sweets, wafers and sugary-spiced wine, Henry then went by boat for more drinking. (7) 

Sweetened wine and beer (ale is often called 'liquid bread' for a reason) were the drinks of the day (water was dirty and not to be trusted), adding more to the dense calories he would have consumed. It's estimated that 600,000 gallons of ale and 75,000 gallons of wine were consumed in just one year at Hampton Court Palace (8). Bread was also a staple in Tudor times, also serving as the plate for some meals, that could be eaten afterwards to mop up all the meaty juices. And he sometimes called for a midnight tipple of aleberry, which was a thick, sweetened drink made from sugar, spices, bread and ale. Such a fan of desserts, fritters, custards and tarts he was, that he gifted a house to his pudding cook, Mrs Cornwallis, in Aldgate (9). Popular legend even says that he named a certain favourite custard pastry a 'Maid of Honour' in the 1520s, after Anne Boleyn, because he loved it so much. 

Although it's generally accepted that sugar didn't infiltrate the diets of the Tudors as much as in Henry's reign as by the time of Elizabeth's, it was clearly part of the everyday diet, in some form, at court during his reign. This is borne out not only by contemporary sources but also recipe books from the time, which heavily feature sugar, ale, wines, pies and breads. 

Add to all this a mixture of late-night, sugary snacks (evening snacks were regularly served to courtiers at around nine o' clock at night) (10), starchy breads, thick sweetened ale, sweetened wine, tarts and pastries and you start to see how Henry could have ballooned into the figure we see in his later portraits. 

Other lifestyle factors
A diet heavy in carbohydrates is one factor for Henry's weight gain, but not the only one. Here are some others... 

Exercise
In 1536, Henry fell in a terrible jousting accident and lost consciousness for a few hours. When he awoke, he wasn't the same Henry. He suffered with mood swings, irritability and pain. It's thought he suffered with migraines, and had an ulcer on his leg that meant he was unable to move around. The youthful figure of a king who excelled in tennis, hunting and the joust started to ebb away and we start to see a man miserable with pain. He had a step made to help him up on his horse, and it's thought, hoists to lift him to upper levels in his palaces, so he didn't have to use the stairs. A later portrait of Henry shows him holding a walking stick. If he was taking in more calories than he was burning up with activity, then rapid weight gain would be pretty much inevitable.

Stress
Henry saw a huge number of challenges during his relatively short, 38-year reign. Two of his wives were tried for treason and beheaded. There were French invasion attempts. Once-trusted officials (like Wolsey, Cromwell, Norris and More) were found, at least in his eyes, to have been corrupt and they were summarily dismissed from favour, or even worse, beheaded. He broke from Rome. He was struggling to secure his line with a male heir and he married six wives and had two divorces. It's possible that Henry indulged in some comforting eating, but stress itself has been known to cause weight gain, through hormonal changes (11)

Courtiers and Advisors
Because of Henry's increasing irritability and short temper after 1536, courtiers and advisors were understandably worried about being truthful with him, unsure of what reaction they might provoke. As Henry lay dying, no one was brave enough to come and tell him that he was not long for this world, as foretelling the king's death was an act of treason with fatal consequences. So it was finally left to Henry's confidant and Groom of the Stool, Sir Anthony Denny, who plucked up the courage to tell him. If those close to him were worried about approaching the king about a matter so important as death, can you imagine any of them recommending he eat fewer desserts because he's getting a bit portly in the tum?


I think that we need to stop demonising Henry's diet of meats and poultry as the cause of his obesity and look more to his love of sugary treats, breads and sweetened, calorific drinks. We see plenty of anecdotal evidence today that a diet high in refined sugars and other carbohydrates can lead to an increase on the scales. And while undoubtedly his diet would have caused some weight gain on its own, Henry also had a 'perfect storm' at play of other lifestyle influences, too. Late-night meals and midnight snacks, stress and a lack of exercise caused by chronic illness and pain all contributed too. 

What do you think? Do you place Henry's weight gain on his 'high meat' diet or do you think carbs were mostly to blame? 

With thanks to nutritionists Izabella Natrins and Minna Wood, for their help with the studies. 

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Footnotes:

 (1) Windsor Castle, visit August 2019
 (2) A description from the Venetian ambassador, 1515, englishhistory.net, accessed 9 March 2020
 (3) Phillippa Gregory, The Psychology of Henry VIII, accessed 9 March 2020
 (4) The Ketogenic Diet: Evidence for Optimism But High Quality Research Needed, Journal of Nutrition, December 2019, accessed 9 March 2020. 
 (5) Pubmed, Body composition and hormonal responses to a carbohydrate-restricted diet, accessed 9 March 2020
 (6) Pubmed, The effects of a high-protein, low-fat, ketogenic diet on adolescents with morbid obesity: body composition, blood chemistries, and sleep abnormalities. Accessed March 9, 2020. 
 (7) Henry VIII, Letters and Papers, 1533. item 111. The Princess Elizabeth, accessed March 9, 2020. 
 (8) How Stuff Works, 12 Items At a Feast of Henry VIII, accessed March 9 2020. 
 (9) Borman, Tracy: The Private Lives of the Tudors, page 114. 
 (10) Tracy Borman, The Private Lives of the Tudors, page 115. 
 (11) Medical News Today - Why Does Stress Lead to Weight Gain? A Study Sheds Light. Accessed 9 March 2020. 



Comments

  1. Absolutely fascinating and I totally agree, as a nurse and historical author. Many studies now are showing that meat and natural fats are not the evil foodstuffs they have always been made out to be. His lifestyle factors have been highlighted very well here.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Louise for your kind words - totally! The first thing I do when I need to shed a few pounds is control my intake of carbs - I notice I start to pile weight very quickly if I overdo it. Thanks for reading!

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