Robert Hutchinson (fellow, Society of Antiquaries, London) doesn’t much like King Henry VIII. One doesn’t need to look further than the title of his 2005 history of Henry’s last years to know it (“Tyrant”, seriously).
But what takes this book out of the rank and file of the popular Tudor-related history is its rampaging fatphobia. Hutchinson doesn’t just not like Henry; he doesn’t like fat, and he wants everyone to know that being fat is, in and of itself, reason enough not to like Henry VIII.
At his death, Hutchinson informs us, Henry VIII was “bloated” and “hideously obese,” two adjectives that aren’t saved for Henry’s decomposing corpse. Rather, The Last Days of Henry VIII offers readers a panoply of synonyms for the relatively neutral descriptor “fat,” ranging from “vaguely disquieting” to “hideously offensive.” Readers looking for new ways to insult the fat kids at school while they also learn history are well-served here.
For instance, in comparing Henry’s measurements in his early 30s with those at age 49, Hutchinson treats us to the following “fat”-synonymous or fat-describing words in the space of two short paragraphs (less than one full printed page):
Even if one is convinced (as I am) that “fat” is or ought to be a neutral descriptor of body shape, the words Hutchinson uses in this example – and these are par for the course – are anything but neutral. Here, “fatness” is not only vilified, but linked to images of decay, death, misery, and stench. Yes, at this point in his life, Henry’s health was no longer stellar. But his health problems were not caused by his weight. More to the point, Henry was hardly the putrefying beached whale Hutchinson makes him out to be.
Granted, Henry wasn’t ever what you’d call “petite.” His adult height was 6’3″, at a time when the average English man was about 5’7″ – though heights varied, as always, on average folks were about 2-3 inches shorter than today. It’s also true that Henry’s measurements changed drastically between his young manhood and his old age. The suit of armor created for him in 1514 had a 35-inch waist and a 42-inch chest, while the one created for him in 1544 measured 54 inches in the waist and 58 inches in the chest. For comparison, here is a photo from the Tower of London’s collection:
But putting twenty or so inches on his waist between 1514 and 1544 doesn’t mean Henry was any weaker. Quite the opposite. The smaller suit of armor, on the left above, weighs 94 pounds. The larger one weighs well over 100 pounds.
Henry took the field in a war against France in his fifties, with his fabled 54-inch waist and “the worst legs in the world,” not only weighing more himself but also while encased in a suit of armor that likely weighed more than even the heaviest of his six wives. In other words, the armor Henry wore while leading an army in 1544, when he was “pathetic,” “grotesque,” and “the personification of geriatric decay” according to Hutchinson, weighs as much as I do – if not more.
One could perhaps forgive Hutchinson many of his fat-related adjectives if they were confined solely to discussions of Henry’s armor, the sizes of his various personal accoutrements like his bed or coffin, or even his deteriorating health. For instance, it’s reasonable to assume Henry had Cushing’s Disease, the symptoms of which include a characteristic pattern of weight gain in the trunk and face. Some scholars have also speculated that Henry had Type II diabetes, which either caused or was caused by the significant uptick in his food intake after his third wife, Jane Seymour, died – a change that was itself likely caused by his depression at losing his beloved Jane. In these contexts, discussing Henry’s size is relevant. So is the fact that his size increased quite a bit near the end of his life. And that his health declined at the same time. And that his increasing weight and decreasing health might have been related in any number of ways.
But Hutchinson doesn’t stop there. Instead, he insists on treating the reader to regular disparaging and downright offensive adjectives for “fat” even when Henry’s size has nothing to do with what was happening in his life at that moment.
For instance, early in the book, Hutchinson discusses Henry’s household’s use of the “dry stamp” to authorize paperwork, particularly the household account. The dry stamp was a block of wood that had Henry’s signature carved into it. When something needed signing that Henry was unable – on account of being too sick – to sign himself, the dry stamp would be pushed into the parchment to make an impression of the king’s signature, which was then inked in later by hand. It’s the same basic principle as the inked stamps used today in all kinds of professional offices: a convenient way to get the basic paperwork done without bothering the person whose signature has to appear on every tedious bit of information. (Henry VIII hated paperwork, and everyone knew it.)
Because of the risk of forgery, the dry stamp stayed in Henry’s personal possession until the last few months of his life, when he was almost completely incoherent with pain. Yet Hutchinson feels the need to inform us that the dry stamp was kept, not just in the personal possession of Henry VIII, but the possession of a “gargantuan monarch.”
If there’s some Tudor-historian secret in which the size of one’s waistline is somehow indissolubly linked to one’s ability to hang onto a block of wood, please let me know what it is. Because otherwise, I can’t help but see this comment as unnecessary, fatphobic crap.
This nonsense is a single example; the book is full of them. There are several dozen page references to Henry’s “obesity” in the index, but even the index – which is exhaustively cross-referenced – doesn’t catch every instance in which Hutchinson feels the need to drop a derogatory synonym for “fat.” He’s particularly enamoured of slurs that begin with “g.” “Gargantuan” and “grotesque” appear so often you’d think Hutchinson had taken a Green Eggs and Ham-style bet to see how many times he could fit those words in before getting dinged by an editor. (Unless “gargantuan” and “grotesque” are the fault of an editor with a cheap thesaurus, in which case, my humble apologies to Hutchinson.)
Overall, Robert Hutchinson’s The Last Days of Henry VIII: Conspiracies, Treason, and Heresy at the Court of the Dying Tyrant would be a solid, but undistinguished addition to the burgeoning collection of modern popular histories of the Tudors, were it not for this book’s rampaging fatphobia – which, frankly, is just too “grotesque” to take.
Robert Hutchinson, The Last Days of Henry VIII: Conspiracies, Treason, and Heresies in the Court of the Dying Tyrant (William Morrow, 2005, 9780060837330).