Thursday, June 12, 2008

An untrue history of King Henry VIII

A bloke in the pub told me that you cant libel a dead person. This should test that theory.

King Henry the Eighth built the Tower of London in the fifteenth century as a residence for his wives. Now, hundreds of years later, the Tower is more of a museum than a residence and is where one can see the quite spectacular display of the ‘Crown Jewels’.

Modern day visitors to the Tower of London may see a suit of Armor said to have belonged to Henry, complete with an impressively large codpiece (designed, of course, to protect the ‘family jewels’ rather than the crown ones). Whilst it undoubtedly suited Henry to nurture a belief amongst the peasantry that he was blessed with a fearsomely proportioned todger, the rather more prosaic truth of the matter is that closer inspection of said codpiece (Later used as a model for the Dome of St Paul’s Cathedral by Leonardo DaVinci) reveals that it actually contains three packets of king-sized cigarette papers and a rolling machine.

What would the king be doing with such unusual smoking requisites? Well, by way of an interesting historical footnote it’s worth pointing out that Henry had earned his numerical adjunct not by virtue of having succeeded seven other likely lads of that name to the Kingship of England, but rather because of his habit of never buying more than an eighth-ounce of ‘Moroccan Black’ hashish from his longtime drugs supplier “Marrakesh” Pedro.

Drugs were not the only habit Henry acquired from Pedro – who was in fact the first polygamist of his acquaintance. Having asked Pedro why he had several wives Henry, who was not the sharpest knife in the drawer, misinterpreted Pedro’s mumbled explanation regarding Moorish customs – as in “these potato crisps are moreish, you cant just have one can you?” The rest, obviously, is history (that is, after all, what we are talking about here). It’s well known that the king had six wives, but not quite as widely appreciated that the purpose of such a complicated matrimonial arrangement was so that he could have one wife for each day of the week. (While, as a deeply religious man, continuing to respect the Sabbath, of course.)

Contrary to popularly held belief (which espouses a theory based on the general disapproval of divorce by the church), it was this polygamy that was ultimately the cause of Henry’s excommunication from the Church of Rome by pope Clement (The successor to Julius, who had held the post for hundreds of years since escaping an assassination attempt whilst acting as Caesar in ancient Rome). Clement was in fact wildly jealous that Henry had so many wives, whilst he was forced by the constraints of his position to sit in the Vatican stationary cupboard with a borrowed copy of “Swiss Guards’ Naked Wives” and dream of what might have been or, if he was really lucky, to cuddle one of the nuns behind the bike-sheds in St Peter’s square when no-one was looking. Failing, quite spectacularly, to live up to his name (which means ‘merciful’) Clement simply cut Henry off.

Meanwhile, back in the Tower, as Henry’s first wife Catherine of Aragon might have been expected to be assigned to the first day of the week. However, her seniority allowed her to choose her day for warming the king’s bed and she settled on Wednesday since there was no EastEnders on the TV, and Saturday was her bingo night. This freed up Monday for Anne Boleyn, who was the second spouse, chronologically speaking. The remaining wives followed on successive days of the week as might be expected – with Jane Seymour staking Tuesday, Ann of Cleves claiming Thursday, Kathryn Howard holding Friday and Katherine Parr settling for Saturday.

There was a great deal of serendipity with this final appointment. Henry was a documented lover of sports and, as he grew older, like so many men before and since, he took up golf. Saturday was his golfing day, and he enjoyed nothing better on a Saturday than finishing a few holes on par. (Or if he was particularly lucky, under par.)

One might have expected Kathryn to have been Henry’s most favoured wife. However, this honour actually goes to Jane Seymour, since she produced an heir to the throne (later to be known as King Edward VI due to his uncanny resemblance to a potato). Unfortunately, it was customary for royal males of the time to be born in full suits of armor, and Jane was, understandably, never quite the same afterwards.

When considering Henry, we should not neglect his musical skills. He would sit for hours by an open window, idly stroking a lute (a small, but spiteful, animal related to the polecat) and is credited with having written the well-known song ‘Greensleeves’. Greensleeves earned its name because it was written during the summer, the king was a hay-fever sufferer, and the handkerchief was not a popular accessory until a hundred or so years later.

Several rather stodgy historical references suggest that it may have been a love song for Anne Boleyn, but in actual fact, it was composed under contract to a company manufacturing cheap telephone answering machines as a piece of generic hold music. Henry’s business acumen was as awful as his musical taste. The song itself is recognizably awful and the company which commissioned it went, quite deservedly, bankrupt. This was mainly due to the fact that the telephone itself was not invented for a further four hundred years and thus the market for answering machines was somewhat lacking at the time.

Henry died, from the ground upwards, in January 1547. He’d suffered a leg injury during a jousting match after which he’d become a bit of a bloater and had to be moved about by crane. The leg had turned gangrenous and ultimately carried him off at the age of 55, in the palace of Whitehall. Inexplicably, his last words are reported to have been “Monks! Monks! Monks!”

Approximately 100 years later, medical professionals were still arguing as to whether he had also suffered from Syphilis or Diabetes. This was entirely academic, there being no treatment for either at the time, and the rudimentary diagnosis being along the lines of “Starve ye the patient twixt the crowing of the cock and the setting of the sun. If he still be awake, ensure that ye shagge him notte, lest ye too suffer the pox”.


M said...

Has anyone ever commented before that - with suitable beard, dyed red hair ... and a silly hat - you'd be a good doppleganger (sp?) for the 1st Our 'Enry?

Simon Schama said...

I can help clarify the reason why Henry remained deeply troubled in his later years about his treatment of the monks during the Reformation, and resulted in his dying words.

The reality is that the dissolution of the monasteries required huge armies to defeat the well fortified monks. It was at Glastonbury monastery that Henry's men, lead by Thomas Cromwell, suffered their most embarrassing raid.

It was late June by the time they arrived in the village and heavy rain had turned the fertile land into a huge mud bath. The entire raiding party spent the weekend stuck in a field with nothing to entertain them but a few lutes and the contents of Pedro's rucksack.

The monks pelted the raiders with coconuts and containers of strangely coloured liquid, forcing them to retreat after only a weekend.

A stubborn leader, Cromwell believed they couldn't hit such bad weather again and they returned year after year on the same weekend. Finally, many years after their first raid, the weather held out and the monastery was ransacked.

Many years later Oliver Cromwell, attracted by his namesakes failure, attempted to take his New Model Army to Glastonbury but was held up in roadworks at the Hogsback.

It was nearly 400 years later that the New Model Army finally made it to Glastonbury, proving that Led Zeppelin, The Police and The Rolling Stones are merely beginners.

1. The monks had successfully cultivated coconuts to help them better portray the female leads in their Xmas panto. During the 20th century, archaeologists thought that Glastonbury was on the African swallow's migratory path.
2. Oliver Cromwell was responsible for the execution of King Charles I, who had been so named because of his long floppy brown ears and wet nose.

Meg Bear said...

Anonymous said...

That's nothing Simon! Queen Victoria's husband was named after - oh, never mind.

Anonymous said...

In reply to m, I think the author has more of a passing resemblance to latter 'German' members of the aristocracy, did he really drop 'ch' after the first letter of his surname, ach ja mein herr ...
ps - the word verification for this message was 'ysbytywanky' which if my Welsh is correct means rubbish hospital....