Saturday, May 8, 2010

History Saturday - Henry VIII and Syphilis - Part 1

Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Henry VIII in "The Tudors"

Here are my thoughts on Henry VIII and how syphilis played a part in his life. Enjoy.

Henry VIII. The name evokes Holbein’s famous picture – a tall man, overweight, with a trimmed, neat beard wearing clothes made of the finest cloth. After that, one thinks of his six wives and the toll marriage to Henry took on them. Katherine of Aragon died heartbroken, discarded and divorced in middle age. Anne Boleyn was beheaded for bewitching the king. Jane Seymour died after giving birth. Anne of Cleaves was divorced. Katherine Howard was beheaded for treason after cuckolding the king, and Katherine Parr was forced to walk a tight rope so as not to offend lest she be taken to the axe. Oh, and the real Henry VIII didn’t strike that handsome figure that Jonathon Rhys-Meyers does in the Showtime Series, “The Tudors.” No, the real Henry VIII was vain, selfish, and pitifully indulgent by the end of his life. That’s who history remembers – a king consumed by his desire to have a son.

Henry’s desire to sire a son drove the Tudor dynasty to implode on itself. Buy why was he consumed by this and why couldn’t he have a slew of healthy children? This question has haunted history throughout the ages.

I intend to explore several facets of Henry’s reign. Why did he desire a son? Why did two healthy and very different women, Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, in the prime of their childbearing years, suffer miscarriage after miscarriage? Why did Jane Seymour die in childbirth? What about the children Henry sired with his mistresses? Were they healthy?

To understand Henry’s desire for a son, we’ll look at the origins of the Tudor dynasty and we’ll examine the one thread that binds Henry’s women together – syphilis. There have been many arguments for and against Henry having this complicated disease. Medicine in the 1500’s was primitive with doctors believing in “ill humors” and leeching. Being the king, doctors did keep good notes of Henry’s health and these notes reflect the outward symptoms of syphilis. We’ll examine Henry’s medical history. Unfortunately, the doctors didn’t keep as good care with Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn’s medical history, but thankfully we do know enough about their childbearing years to come to an educated conclusion about syphilis.

While history can’t confirm that Henry suffered from this sexual disease, through a bit of old fashioned detective work, history builds a strong case of circumstantial evidence in favor of Henry having a very active strain of this venereal disease.

Lastly, we’ll examine Henry’s legacy, his surviving children, and how his quest for a son drove a promising family from the throne of England. Are you ready? Let’s peel back history’s curtain and peer through time to Tudor England…


Henry VII was born Henry Tudor, the only son and child of Margaret Beaufort and Edmund Tudor. Interestingly, Edmund Tudor was the half-brother of Henry VI. They shared the same mother, Katherine of Valois. Edmund Tudor married Margaret when she was 12 years old. Edmund himself was relatively young, 24, when he married, but according to today’s moral code, such an age gap would be frowned upon. Indeed, it would be considered statutory rape. Edmund promptly bedded his young wife and then died during the Wars of the Roses, leaving her pregnant. She was 13 when she gave birth to Henry VII. Henry VII was born in 1457.

Henry VII grew into a strong, virile man. During Edward IV’s reign, Henry VII was raised under the tutelage of William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. The Wars of the Roses left the royal houses of Lancaster and York devastated. Edward IV, well respected, died in 1483. His brother, Richard III, had Edward’s children declared illegitimate and took the throne for himself. In a final, decisive battle, the Battle of Bosworth, held in August 1485, Henry VII defeated Richard III. Richard died during the battle and Henry VII claimed the throne. Thus, Henry asserted his main right to the throne was by right of conquest.

While Henry VII had a strong link to the British throne on his father’s side, it was because of his mother he was able to assert a right to the crown. Margaret Beaufort was the great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt, the first Duke of Lancaster. In order to bring peace to England, Henry VII, now 28 at the end of the war, assumed the crown and promised to marry Edward IV’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth, and unite the two warring houses. Elizabeth was 20 when she married Henry VII in January 1486.

Henry VII’s marriage to Elizabeth accomplished several things. First, it brought together the houses of Lancaster and York, and second, it brought peace to the kingdom which had seen close to 25 years of war. Henry VII’s actual claim to the throne was weak (Elizabeth’s was stronger) and he benefited from the fact the Wars of the Roses had killed those who had stronger claims, and while there were members of the House of York with stronger claims, none dared to challenge him. Simply, while Henry VII had a poor claim to the throne, he was able to assume kingship by being the best, perhaps the only viable candidate available.

Henry VII loved his wife. She was kind and beautiful, and liked dancing. Henry had a document known as the Titulus Regius, which branded Edward IV’s children illegitimate repealed, thus legitimizing his wife. He received a Papal disposition so he could marry her since they were third cousins. From their union bloomed the Tudor Rose, a combination of the red rose of Lancaster and white rose of York. The future of England looked promising as Henry and Elizabeth came to the throne after years of war that had decimated the English countryside and people.

Almost immediately Henry VII had concerns. His claim was weak and he knew it. To secure his crown he used various successful methods. First he used bonds and created laws that discouraged the nobility from raising private armies. A pretender masquerading as Edward IV’s son made a play for the throne supported by John de la Pole, Richard III’s heir designate. Henry had de la Pole killed and the pretender was sent to work in Henry’s kitchen. John’s sister, Margaret, who had a strong claim to the throne was allowed to live, assuming the family’s title and lands in Lincoln.

Henry VII wanted to bring peace to England. His polices put money in the exchequer. He promoted shipbuilding. He conducted treaties with France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire. Notably, Henry VII managed to acquire a Bull of Excommunication from Pope Innocent VIII against all pretenders to his throne.

As Henry began to consolidate his position and secure his legacy, his marriage to Elizabeth proved fruitful. Their first son, Arthur, was born in 1489. Their second son, Henry, was born in 1491. Henry and Elizabeth had eight children, but only four survived to adulthood.

This much was clear; in 1500, Henry VII had been on the throne for 15 years. Arthur was 11, and Prince Henry (VIII) was 9. Henry VII was now 43. England had known peace and the exchequer was growing due to his policies. Still, there were underlying feelings that Henry VII’s claim to the throne was not strong and Henry VII was constantly on guard for rivals and pretenders. Henry VII would impart this belief onto his son who would succeed him – be alert for those who would covet the new dynasty’s throne. Civil war could threaten England again without a strong heir. It was a belief Henry VIII kept in the back of his mind as he reigned.


I’m going to take a bit of an interlude from the history to talk about syphilis. It’s important to understand this disease and how it effects people, before we continue with Henry VIII’s story.

I first learned about syphilis in my high school sex education class. It was a venereal disease one got through sex. It could be treated with drugs. If you had unprotected sex with another you could give it to them. I think that’s all I remembered about it from my high school days. My next exposure to syphilis was when I got pregnant. In the early weeks of my pregnancy, my doctor took a blood sample from me to test for syphilis. I wasn’t worried, nor was I curious. Then I found an old medical book at work published in 1940 that discussed “Syphilis of the Innocent.” What I read stunned me and compelled me to do research on the disease itself.

The symptoms of syphilis vary from stage to stage and person to person. It is a sexually transmitted infection which occurs by having direct contact with a syphilis sore. Syphilis is caused by a bacteria called spirochetes. The most common way to get infected is through vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Once infected, the person who has been infected develops a painless and highly infectious sore (or sores) with raised edges called a “chancre.” This chancre develops at the site of the infection. It grows between three weeks to three months after the initial infection. Keep this in mind – the chancre is painless and if it is in a woman’s vagina, it is not seen. In today’s era of modern medicine, if you treat the chancre at this stage, you can be cured of syphilis. Back in the 1500’s, they simply did not have the medical knowledge to know this. Syphilis was known as a venereal disease, but it was more often referred to as “the pox.”

Once the chancre develops, it takes three to six weeks to heal. This is known as the first stage of syphilis. As it heals, the syphilis bacteria, spirochetes, spreads through a person’s bloodstream. The person who has done the infecting is highly infectious at this point; they are exhibiting an open syphilis sore or sores and open sores carry the infection.

As syphilis spreads through the bloodstream (after the chancre has healed) its now considered in the second stage of syphilis. A person might or might not develop symptoms. Symptoms of the second stage include a non-itchy rash anywhere on the body, lesions in mouth, wart-like sores in the genital area (which are infectious), hair loss, and flu-like symptoms. Again, in today’s era of medicine, if syphilis is treated at this stage, it can still be cured.

After this stage and even without treatment, these secondary symptoms will clear up, but the spirochetes bacteria remains in a person’s bloodstream and continues to multiply. This is known as the latent stage where there are no signs of symptoms of the syphilis. The latent stage can last two to thirty years after the initial infection. During the latent phase the person with syphilis will not infect their sexual partner because they are not presenting any open sores. However, during the latent phase, if they have a flair up of secondary symptoms and sores appear, they can be infectious. Syphilis’s extended latent phase “lulls” the infected person with a sense of security that they are fine.

The late stage of syphilis is known as tertiary syphilis. Symptoms include neurosyphilis, where the bacteria has gotten into the brain and spinal cord. This can cause seizures, blindness, hearing loss, dementia, and spinal cord problems. Additional symptoms can include lesions where syphilis has multiplied in bones, skin, heart, and arteries.

NEXT SATURDAY: A Look at Syphilis of the Innocent and the Ladies in Henry VIII's life.


Book: The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Alison Weir, 1991, Ballantine Books, 642 pages.


  1. wow,Steph. That's a lot of research. And a fascinating topic. Good deal.

  2. Well done Steph, fascinating reading.


  3. My Sunday walking partner and I were talking about this very thing last week. She's watching The Tudors. I'll have to send this link to her!