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The Tudor Society

14 May – Henry VIII’s leg problems

On this day in Tudor history, 14th May 1538, the French ambassador, Louis de Perreau, Sieur de Castillon, wrote a dispatch regarding King Henry VIII having been dangerously ill due to a problem with one of his legs.

Henry VIII was plagued with problems from his legs, leg ulcers, from at least 1528 right up until his death. But what do we know about his problems and what are the theories regarding the cause?

Find out in today's talk.

Also on this day in history, 14th May 1635, Helena Gorges (née Snakenborg), Lady Gorges, was buried in Salisbury Cathedral. But who was this lady and how did a Swedish royal maid-of-honour end up being buried in England? Find out in last year’s video:

And on this day in 1536, while her predecessor and former mistress was in the Tower of London waiting for her trial, Jane Seymour was moved to be closer to the king and was treated like a queen. Hmmm… Find out more in the 14th may 1536 video:

Also on this day in history:

  • 1511 – Death of Walter Fitzsimmons, Archbishop of Dublin and Lord Deputy of Ireland, at Finglas, Dublin. He was buried in the nave of St Patrick's Cathedral.
  • 1523 – Death of Nicholas Vaux, 1st Baron Vaux, courtier and soldier, at the Hospital of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem in Clerkenwell.
  • 1571 – Matthew Stewart, Earl of Lennox and regent to James VI, held the “Creeping Parliament”.
  • 1595 – Death of Anne Fiennes (née Sackville), Lady Dacre, at Chelsea. She was buried in the More Chapel, Chelsea, next to her husband, Gregory Fiennes, 10th Baron Dacre.
  • 1629 – Death of Jean Gordon, Countess of Bothwell and Sutherland. She is known for having been married, albeit briefly, to James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, who went on to marry Mary, Queen of Scots. In 1573 she married Alexander Gordon, 12th Earl of Sutherland, and after his death she married Alexander Ogilvy of Boyne, the man she had been in love with before she married Bothwell.

Transcript:

On this day in Tudor history, 14th May 1538, the French ambassador, Louis de Perreau, Sieur de Castillon, wrote a dispatch regarding King Henry VIII having been dangerously ill. He wrote:
“This King has had stopped one of the fistulas of his legs, and for 10 or 12 days the humours which had no outlet were like to have stifled him, so that he was sometime without speaking, black in the face, and in great danger.”

In his book “The Last Days of Henry VIII”, historian Robert Hutchinson explains that “in today’s modern medical terms, the king was suffering from a thrombosed vein in his leg and, dangerously, a clot may have detached from this vein.”

Six months later, in November 1538, Geoffrey Pole, brother of Cardinal Reginald Pole, commented on the king’s leg problem during interrogations for alleged treason. Pole stated that the king had “a sore leg that no poor man would be glad of and that he should not live long for all his authority next to God.” In that same autumn, courtier George Constantine commented to the Dean of Westbury on the king’s leg problem, saying “it grieveth me at heart to see his Grace halt so much upon his sore leg.”

In March 1541, during Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine Howard, Charles de Marillac, the French ambassador, wrote of the king suffering problems again with one of his legs, saying in one dispatch that “this King's life was really thought to be in danger, not from the fever but from the leg, which often troubles him because he is very stout and marvellously excessive in drinking and eating,” and in another dispatch: “one of his legs, formerly opened and kept open to maintain his health, suddenly closed to his great alarm, for, five or six years ago, in like case he thought to have died.”

Five or six years previously would have been around 1535/6, but perhaps Marillac was remembering wrong and referring to the 1538 health scare when the king turned black in the face and was in great danger.

In December 1546, the month prior to the king’s death, the privy council informed Nicholas Wotton that “The King lately, ‘upon some grief of his leg, was entered into a fever’; but he is now well rid of it and we trust that he will be the ‘better for it a great while.’” Of course, the king was actually dying, and he died on 28th January 1547.

The king had been plague with leg problems for nearly 20 years at the time of his death. In 1528, physician Thomas Vicary was called for “to cure the king of a sorre legge”. We don’t know the cause of the problem, whether it was a sporting accident, like the year before, when he had hurt his foot playing tennis, or whether this was the start of his long-term problem with leg ulcers. Whatever, it was, Vicary was able to help the king, something which led to his advancement as sergeant-surgeon to the Royal Household.

But in April 1537, John Hussee wrote to Lord Lisle of how the king was suffering with his leg once more, reporting that “the king goes seldom abroad, because his leg is something sore”, and in June 1537, the king confessed to the Duke of Norfolk that he had postponed his trip to York because of his health, writing “to be frank with you, which you must keep to yourself, a humour has fallen into our legs, and our physicians advise us not to go far in the heat of the day, even for this reason only.” Perhaps the king’s earlier leg problem had reared its ugly head following an injury from his January 1536 jousting accident? We just don’t know.

His sore leg clearly affected his mobility and this combined with his jousting accident of 1536, which reminded him of his mortality, led to him giving up his beloved sport. Eating the same amount but giving up his usual sports, led to him gaining weight, which must have exacerbated his leg and mobility problems.

But what caused his leg ulcers?

The theories include syphilis, which was debunked when the king’s medical expenses and accounts were studied and did not include mercury, which was the standard treatment for syphilis at the time. Other theories include osteomyelitis, an infection of the bone, perhaps caused by an untreated fracture; deep vein thrombosis as a result of his injuries and immobility, and ulceration caused by severe venous hypertension; deep vein thrombosis caused by the wearing of tight garters on his leg; venous ulceration caused by vascular disease which in turn could have been caused by Type II diabetes, high cholesterol and hypertension.

Whatever the cause, these leg ulcers would have been itchy, painful and swollen, and would also have produced a foul-smelling discharge, which must have been awful for the king, as well as for those near him. I’m sure the pain and the frustration must have affected the king’s mood. Being in constant pain, being conscious of the fact that you smell awful, and being prevented from things you love doing like sport and hunting, is bound to make you grumpy. Perhaps this pain was one factor in the king’s tyranny. What do you think?

There are 2 comments Go To Comment

  1. L /

    Hi Claire, I agree that the king’s chronic pain in his leg certainly could have contributed to his moods, but it should not be used as an excuse for his behavior and decisions.. He still bears full responsibility for these..

  2. A /

    I also think, his illness was not a cause for his tyranny. He was responsible for
    his words and deeds all the times of his reign.
    You can´t deny his own response neither for these things nor for the kind he
    treats his woman or servants.
    Perhaps it was just his weak charakter.

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14 May – Henry VIII’s leg problems