Weird History
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How Did Henry VIII Go From One Of The ‘Handsomest’ Monarchs To The Man We See In Pop Culture?

Updated December 19, 2019 175.9k views13 items

Henry VIII of England is remembered as an obese, cruel monarch who beheaded two wives and many more associates. But when young, Henry seemed like a different person entirely. Healthy, courtly, and active, he was the ideal king. In mid-life, however, that all changed - and researchers are still trying to understand why and how.

Born in 1491, Henry VIII was never meant to be king. But when his older brother, Arthur, Prince of Wales, passed unexpectedly in 1502, 11-year-old Henry became heir to the English throne. From his teens to his 30s, he was the toast of his court - intellectually, artistically, and physically energetic. But was he handsome? According to many contemporaries, he was extremely attractive.

But in the decade before his passing in 1547, Henry changed. A series of accidents, unhealthy habits, and perhaps even genetic bad luck may have hastened Henry's physical and mental decline. It would ultimately result in him becoming the moody, unhealthy, and paranoid king of popular memory.

  • Photo: Wolf Hall / BBC Worldwide

    As A Young Man, Henry VIII Was Universally Reported To Be A Handsome Sight To See

    As a young man, Henry was the embodiment of the Renaissance princely ideal. Intelligent and athletic, he was mentally and physically active. 

    Henry was also reportedly quite good looking. As the ambassador from Venice recorded in 1515:

    His Majesty is the handsomest potentate I ever set eyes on; above the usual height, with an extremely fine calf to his leg, his complexion very fair and bright, with auburn hair combed straight and short, in the French fashion, his throat being rather long and thick.

  • Photo: Unknown Artist / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    He Once Conducted Physical Diplomacy By Challenging The King Of France To A Wrestling Match

    One of Henry VIII's diplomatic victories as a young man was smoothing over tensions with France in 1520. In a spirit of goodwill, Henry met French King Francis I at the so-called Field of the Cloth of Gold conference in Calais, where there was politicking and merry-making in equal measure.

    Henry's competitive streak and athleticism got the better of him, and he challenged Francis to a wrestling match. The brawl was so intense that the French king broke his nose

    Francis won the match.

  • Photo: Wolf Hall / BBC Worldwide

    His Sheer Athleticism Wowed Spectators At The Court

    From hunting to jousting, Henry VIII liked to stay active in his youth. His spirit of activity was robust: Sebastian Giustiniani, an ambassador from Venice, noted the king hunted so intensely that he "never took that diversion without tiring eight or 10 horses."

    Henry's athleticism was a sight behold. Watching the 28-year-old king play tennis in 1519, Giustinian marveled, "It was the prettiest thing in the world to see him play; his fair skin glowing through a shirt of the finest texture."

  • Photo: The Tudors / Showtime

    Dancing Was One Of Henry's Favorite Ways To Exercise

    One of the most important ways that Henry stayed fit and active was by dancing. Indeed, he presided over a court in which music and dancing were revered. 

    Henry didn't just enjoy dancing - he appeared to be good at it, too. Paulo da Laude, ambassador from Milan, observed that the young king "leaps like a stag" while dancing. Dancing well was thus another way that Henry performed the role of a strong, refined royal.