10 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Henry VIII

Think you know everything about Henry VIII? Here are ten little-known facts about him. 

Henry VIII with a harp, The British Library, Public Domain

He used to hate writing his signature
Henry wrote to Cardinal Wolsey in 1519, explaining that he found writing 'somewhat tedious and painful' and, in his later years, had a stamp made, so he didn't have to sign anything himself. David Starkey says that Henry had a 'Dry Stamp' made in 1545. An inked, wooden stamp that copies the king's signature would have been used before - but now he had something better. The dry stamp would have an impression of the king's signature and pushed, by Henry, onto the document that needed his approval. An official would then trace the pressed-on signature in ink later. Eventually, Henry even seemed to find stamping tedious and gave up his stamp to trusted officials such as some of the Gentlemen of the Privy Chamber John Gates and, later, Anthony Denny. (1) 

He once spent £2,000 in 1537 on ONE set of tapestries
The 'Abraham Tapestries' which hang today in Hampton Court Palace's Great Hall, were once incredibly vibrant and colourful and the gold threads they were weaved with would have sparkled in the moody candlelight at masques and dinners. They span the whole of the walls of the hall, and are an incredible piece of art, even today. It's thought that Henry paid £2,000 for them in 1537 - equating to a huge £840,000 today, according to the currency converter at the National Archives. (2) Henry seemed to have a bit of an obsession with tapestries - he was thought to have 2,000 of them in his possession when he died. 

All the beheadings and executions he's famous for were probably not ALL his fault
So we look back at Henry for being a tyrant, beheading wives, courtiers and even one-time friends, left right and centre. But if we look at the courtly mind games that were played out at the time, we realise they weren't all Henry's idea. Henry was probably a lot more easily manipulated than we think. Courtiers trying to get into the king's favour would ask the trusted Groom of the Stool to have a word with Henry on their behalf. The opposite is true, too. The fall of influential people such as Anne Boleyn, Thomas Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell and more can be traced back to court factions and gossip that guided Henry in his emotions and his decisions. If we're going to blame Henry for the executions, we need to look at who had influence over him, too. Find out more about how Henry could have been manipulated here. 

He gave dogs away as gifts to the rich in Europe
Henry's Letters and Papers are packed with mention of gifts of hounds and dogs to influential men in Europe - one of them, written from Venice in 1526, notes that 'The two English ambassadors (Clerk and Ghinucci) have arrived, and presented the King with six horses and eight very handsome sporting dogs, with their coverings.' (3)  It seems Henry was very proud of his English dogs, and these were probably greyhounds, which were used for hunting. Find out more about Tudor dogs here

He owned a 'spork'
According to Tracy Borman, Henry had good table manners, and owned a new piece of cutlery called a 'suckett fork,' "with a spoon on one end and a two-pronged fork at the other." (4) So Henry owned one of the first sporks!

He 'recycled' valuables taken from the dissolution of the monasteries in his own palaces
Henry set about dismantling the rich and expensive monasteries and religious houses in the 1530s, and he was partial to taking anything that caught his eye - and used it within his own palaces. An example is the Abbey of Reading, which was closed down in 1539. Henry's men, while taking an inventory of the Abbey, noticed that there was a great deal of gold plate, silk furnishings, and a 'metely good tapestry, which do well for hanging some mean little chamber in his majesty's house.' (5)

He had two sons
So we all know about his son through Jane Seymour, Prince Edward, who came to be King Edward VI, in 1547. But did you know that Henry had another son? His first son was illegitimate, by his mistress Elizabeth Blount, and was born to them in around 1519. Desperate for sons, he recognised Henry FitzRoy legally - his surname meaning that he was the king's and everyone would know it. He was given the Dukedom of Richmond, to elevate his status. But before we wonder whether England could have ended up with a King Henry IX, it was always unlikely. Edward, even though he came later, was legitimate and would have stood before him in the line of succession. And, sadly, in any case, Henry FitzRoy died young, in 1536 - probably of tuberculosis - before Edward was born. 

He was carried around in a fancy Tudor chair
By 1546, the year before Henry died, he was grossly overweight, in pain and irritable in temper. He walked with a walking stick (one of his later portraits depicts him carrying it). Eventually, finding even walking around his palaces to different chambers and galleries difficult, Henry was carried about in a chair. David Starkey describes the chair as 'a pair of specially constructed "chairs called trams", which were covered with quilted tawny velvet and embroidered with roses in Venice gold.' He even dictated messages while being carried in these chairs, to officials, who would presumably then scurry off to carry out the King's business. (6)

He had 55 palaces - and also some houses
Henry built and developed a huge amount of palaces during his time as King. Some of the more famous ones are Nonsuch, Greenwich and Hampton Court. Some were obtained through the fall of others (Hampton Court was originally Thomas Wolsey's residence, but was given to Henry to try and keep Wolsey in favour with the King). Others, like Nonsuch, which sadly was demolished in the seventeeth century, Henry built from scratch, taking a full interest in its design and decoration. The court travelled to and from these palaces, and also gave Henry a place to run to if illness broke out at the crowded court. 

He owned five pairs of bagpipes
He did! As well as gold, silver, expensive jewels and armour, Henry owned, at the time of his death, a pair of bagpipes that was 'one of purple velvet with ivory pipes' and then four other pairs with ivory pipes, which were all kept at Westminster. (7) Other musical instruments recorded in the 1547 inventory included flutes, a harpsichord, lutes and clavichords.

Did you know all these? Were any a surprise? Let me know in the comments below!

Henry VIII also dealt with (in his own violent way) some of the families that had emerged from the Wars of the Roses before his father's reign. I explore some of the women affected by the conflict in my book Forgotten Women of the Wars of the Roses, published by Pen and Sword. They include Katherine Gordon, Elizabeth of York and Margaret Countess of Salisbury.  Order your copy here. 

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(1) * David Starkey, Henry VIII, Personalities and Politics, Vintage, 1985, page 112.
(2) BBC News, Henry VIII's Tapestries on Show, 2009, Accessed 20 March 2020. National Archives currency calculator values £2,000 in 1540 as £842,000 in 2017. 
(3) British History Online, Henry VIII Letters and State Papers, Venice, vol 3, pp616-620, f.1437
(4) * Tracy Borman, The Private Lives of the Tudors, Hodder, 2016, p113
(5) The Victoria County Histories, Reading Abbey, accessed 20 March 2020. 
(6) * David Starkey, Henry VIII, Personalities and Politics, Vintage, 1985. page 121. 
(7) Wikipedia, The Inventory of Henry VIII of England, accessed 20 March 2020.