Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Death of Henry VIII: Demolishing the Myths

By Nancy Bilyeau

No one would have called Sir Anthony Denny a brave man, but on the evening of January 27, 1547, the Gentleman of the Privy Chamber performed a duty the most resolute would recoil from: He informed Henry VIII that “in man’s judgment you are not like to live.”
            The 55-year-old king, lying in his vast bed in Westminster Palace, replied he believed “the mercy of Christ is able to pardon me all my sins, yes, though they were greater than they be.” When asked if he wanted to speak to any “learned man,” King Henry asked for Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer “but I will first take a little sleep. And then, as I feel myself, I will advise on the matter.”

            Cranmer was sent for but it took hours for the archbishop to make his way on frozen roads. Shortly after midnight, Henry VIII was barely conscious, unable to speak. The faithful Cranmer always insisted that when he asked for a sign that his monarch trusted in the mercy of Christ, Henry Tudor squeezed his hand.
            At about 2 a.m. on January 28th Henry VIII died, “probably from renal and liver failure, coupled with the effects of his obesity,” says Robert Hutchinson in his 2005 book The Last Days of Henry VIII: Conspiracies, Treason and Heresy at the Court of the Dying Tyrant.
            It was a subdued end to a riotous life. The sources for what happened that night are respected, though they are secondary, coming long after the event: Gilbert Burnet’s History of the Reformation of the Church of England (1679) and John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments (1874).
            Yet there are other stories told of the death and funeral of Henry VIII. He was perhaps the most famous king in English history, and so it is no surprise that in books and on the Internet, some strange or maudlin words and ghoulish acts have attached themselves to his demise.
            It is time to address them, one by one.

            Myth 1: “Monks, monks, monks”
            Henry VIII broke from Rome and made himself the head of the Church of England, dissolving the monasteries. The monks and friars and nuns faithful to the Pope lost their homes and were turned out on the road. Those who defied the king and denied the royal supremacy, such as the Carthusian martyrs, were tortured and killed.  
            Did the king regret it at the end? “He expired soon after allegedly uttering his last words: ‘Monks! Monks! Monks!’" says the Wikipedia entry for Henry VIII. It’s a story that has popped up in books too. The major source for it seems to be Agnes Strickland, a 19th century poet turned historian who penned the eight-volume Lives of the Queens of England from the Norman Conquest, and Lives of the Queens of Scotland, and English Princesses. Strickland writes: The king “was afflicted with visionary horrors at the hour of his departure; for that he glanced with rolling eyes and looks of wild import towards the darker recesses of his chamber, muttering, ‘Monks—monks!’ ”

            More on Strickland later. But when it comes to visions of cowled avengers glowering in the corner, it seems certain that this is an embellishment, an attempt at poetic justice. But not something that happened. Most likely at the final hour Henry regretted nothing.

Myth 2: “Cried out for Jane Seymour”
            Another story is that while dying Henry VIII cried out for his third wife, the long dead Jane Seymour. It supports the idea that Jane, the pale lady-in-waiting who rapidly replaced Anne Boleyn, was the love of Henry’s life. He did, after all, request to be buried next to her. And whenever a family portrait was commissioned after 1537, Jane was shown sitting beside him, rather than one of the wives he was actually married to. But Henry VIII does not quite deserve his reputation for being impossible to please when it comes to women. He actually had a low bar for marital success: birth of a baby boy. Jane produced the son who became Edward VI—doing so killed her—and thus moved to the top of the pecking order. 

Whether he actually loved Jane more than the five other spouses (not to mention those alluring mistresses) is best left to screenwriters. But one thing seems certain: Henry VIII did not cry for his third wife while expiring. There is no historical source for it.
Myth 3: “And the dogs will lick his blood”
            The most macabre story of all supposedly happened weeks after the king died but before he was lowered into the crypt next to Jane Seymour in St. George’s Chapel.  On February 14th, the king’s corpse was transported in a lead coffin from Westminster to Windsor; the procession of thousands lasted two days. There was a large funeral effigy on top of the coffin, complete with crown at one end and crimson velvet shoes at the other, that, one chronicler said fearfully, was so realistic “he seemed just as if he were alive.”

            At the halfway mark, the coffin was housed in Syon Abbey, once one of England’s most prestigious religious houses. That is fact. But the rest is suspect. Because of an accident or just the undoubted heaviness of the monarch’s coffin—Henry VIII weighed well over 300 pounds at his death—there was supposedly a leak in the night, and either blood or “putrid matter” leaked onto the floor. When men arrived in the morning, a stray dog was seen licking under the coffin, goes the tale.

            This hearkened to an unforgettable Easter Sunday sermon in 1532 before the king and his soon-to-be-second-wife, Anne Boleyn. Friar William Peto, provincial of the Observant Franciscans and a fiery supporter of first wife Katherine of Aragon, compared Henry VIII to King Ahab, husband of Jezebel. According to Scripture, after Ahab died, wild dogs licked his blood. Peto thundered that the same thing would happen to the English king.

            Gilbert Burnet is the main source for the coffin-leaking story. A Scottish theologian and bishop of Salisbury, he is today considered reliable—except when he’s not. One historian, while praising Burnet’s book as an “epoch in our historical literature,” fretted that “a great deal of fault has been found—and, no doubt, justly—with the inaccuracy and general imperfection of the transcripts on which his work was largely founded and which gave rise to endless blunders.” One of Burnet’s most well known contributions to Tudor lore was that a disappointed Henry VIII described fourth wife Anne of Cleves as a “Flanders mare.” Author Antonia Fraser, in particular, writes sternly that Burnet had “no contemporary reference to back it up” in her book The Six Wives of Henry VIII.

             What seems undeniable is that the foundation Burnet created, Agnes Strickland built on. Indeed, she raised a whole Gothic mansion in her own description of that night in Syon: “The King, being carried to Windsor to be buried, stood all night among the broken walls of Syon, and there the leaden coffin being cleft by the shaking of the carriage, the pavement of the church was wetted with Henry’s blood. In the morning came plumbers to solder the coffin, under whose feet—‘I tremble while I write it,’ says the author—‘was suddenly seen a dog creeping, and licking up the king’s blood. If you ask me how I know this, I answer, William Greville, who could scarcely drive away the dog, told me and so did the plumber also.’

             “It appears certain that the sleepy mourners and choristers had retired to rest, after the midnight dirges were sung, leaving the dead king to defend himself, as best as he might, from the assaults of his ghostly enemies, and some people might think they made their approaches in a currish form. It is scarcely, however, to be wondered that a circumstance so frightful should have excited feelings of superstitious horror, especially at such a time and place; for this desecrated convent had been the prison of his unhappy queen, Katherine Howard, whose tragic fate was fresh in the minds of men; and by a singular coincidence it happened that Henry’s corpse rested there the very day after the fifth anniversary of her execution.”

              Putting aside Strickland’s Bram Stoker-esque prose, there’s the question of whether such a ghastly thing could even occur. Sixteen-century embalmment did not call for completely draining a corpse of blood, it is true. And medical experts say it is possible that fluids circulate 17 days after death.

              But Strickland’s fervent connections to not only Friar Peto’s sermon but also Syon’s monastery past—echoing the “Monks, monks, monks” poetic justice—and the (near) anniversary of Katherine Howard’s death make it seem likely that this was a case of too good a story to resist.

               No one disturbed the coffin of the indomitable King Henry VIII—not even ghosts in “currish form.”

Nancy Bilyeau is the author of a trilogy of Tudor-era historical thriller.  THE CROWN, published in nine countries, was shortlisted for the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Award. The protagonist is a Dominican novice taking on the most important men of the era.  THE CHALICE was published in 2013 and won the RT award for Best Historical Mystery. The third and final book in the series, THE TAPESTRY, was a finalist for the Daphne du Maurier award for Best Historical Suspense. For more information, go to


  1. Wow - you never really know who to believe... Very interesting article! Thank you for sharing.

  2. Very interesting, Nancy. Good old Agnes Strickland, she could never decide if she were a historian or a novelist. Have you read her chapters on Queen Isabella? Wonderful.
    The only positive thing I can find to say about the myths that surround our history is that they intrigue and draw in the youngsters who will make up the next generation of historians.

    1. I agree Judith, however there are enough facts about history to make it juicy enough!

  3. Thank you, and yes, Judith, I agree. The stories draw them in, and then if they're interested they start sorting fact from fiction--and Showtime miniseries. :)

  4. Very interesting, especially the last one I always thought that was true. Am a little sad to find out its not I have to admit! Great article though, thank you for sharing!

  5. Very enjoyable. I must say the Gothic stuff is fun even if untrue. :)

  6. This is a great argument for carefully researched and written historical fiction. Centuries down the road, history is "changed" because of inaccurate writings. People believe what has developed through fiction or writer's imaginations. We can "lose" history.

    1. Not so sure about this. As soon as anything becomes "history", in the sense that it is actively recalled by those who come after, it becomes more or less an approximation to the truth. Some events/people/periods are more accessible in terms of primary source material than others, but all history (at least the interesting stuff) is a weaving together of fact and authorial speculation. Academic historians are at one end of the spectrum and historical fiction writers at the other but the difference is surely of degree, not kind?

  7. We're loving all this Strickland wonga. "...glanced with rolling eyes and looks of import..." Stephanie Meyers eat your heart out! (Actually, given the subject matter, no don't...)

  8. Interesting to see a few traditions defunked. Thanks for sharing!

  9. Darn you!
    I was just about to start cooking when I saw this post.
    I'm going to have to blame you, when my boys complain their food isnt ready.
    Another great post, BTW.
    Grace x

  10. Nice post! Who in fact was it who said:"Never let the facts get in the way of a good story"? Mark Twain? Who do you think best captures the "true" nature of Henry 8 in fiction? I thought that Sansom did quite well in the Shardlake books, though Mantel must be hard to beat. Good to get an expert view.

  11. Nice post! Who do you think has best captured the character of Henry in fiction? Mantel will be hard to beat, but I also liked Sansom's depiction in the Shardlake books. Good to get an expert opinion.

  12. If Henry is now in heaven, or at least in purgatory, it is because God forgave him and moved his victims (those who suffered unjustly at his commands) to also forgive him. Let us all hope that all are now in peace and eternal rest through Christ our Lord. Amen.

  13. Just goes to show any researcher to go to the evidence. Great post.

  14. I think it's possible that Henry's coffin did leak fluid. The king, as you note, was quite obese at the end of his life, and there were several days' delay before the king's death was announced and the embalmers were even called to attend to his remains. (Which was undoubtedly an unpleasant task by that point.)

    Embalming for the era involved removing the intestines, which, as we know from modern research is where decomposition begins. The cavity was stuffed with sawdust, spices, and herbs to stave off decay. The body was then rubbed with perfumed salves, and tightly wrapped in waxed cloth, then bundled in lead, which could create an anaerobic environment that would preserve the body from noticeable decay at least until the funeral was completed.

    The fact that decomposition had already set in before the embalmers were able to get to work certainly explains why Henry's funeral was unusually soon after his death.

    Once the lead-wrapped body was placed into the wood coffin, perfumes were sometimes poured inside. Sometimes, accounts of disinterment of Tudor burials mention unidentifiable fluids filling the outer coffin. Considering the state of Henry's remains at the time of his embalming, I would say it was likely the "perfume soak" was done. It could have been the perfume that colored the fluid that leaked out of Henry's coffin and made it look like blood to the people who discovered the puddle.


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