Did Henry VIII have syphilis?

King Henry VIII

Inside the Body of Henry VIII is an entertaining and informative program that recently aired on the history channel. It is a treasure trove of information about Henry VIII’s medical conditions and the role they played in transforming him from gentle and charming prince to obese and cruel tyrant.

I will be doing a series of posts based on the investigations carried out by historian, Dr Lucy Worsley, Henry biographer, Robert Hutchinson and medical doctor, Catherine Hood and would like to begin by looking at the question of whether or not Henry VIII had syphilis.

Henry’s poor reproductive record has led some people to suggest that Henry may have had syphilis. Tudor doctors knew this disease well and called it ‘the great pox’. The Tudor cure for the disease was a six week treatment with mercury where the patient was usually confined to bed. Tudor medicine was based very closely on the ideas of the Roman physician Galen who said that the body was made up of four different humours and if these became unbalanced it could cause illness. Therefore, doctors used mercury because it made patients salivate and sweat and so would cleanse patients of the bad humours afflicting their bodies.

Henry may have been a carrier of the disease and passed it on to his wives during sex who in turn passed it on to their children during childbirth. Dr Hood states that if the infection is passed from mother to child it can cause premature births, stillbirths and even early infant death. This could explain why of Catherine of Aragon’s seven known pregnancies only Princess Mary survived infancy. We do though have to take into consideration that antenatal care was not great in Tudor England even for someone of the royal household so this could also have contributed to Catherine’s sad childbirth record.

If Henry VIII did have the disease then his comprehensive medical records would have mentioned either the obvious symptoms or the extensive treatment. But there is no mention of either. There is no record of Henry’s physicians ever having been supplied with mercury and certainly no record of Henry ever being out of the public eye for the six week period required for treatment.

There still exists the possibility that the disease may have lay dormant in the king’s body unbeknown to Henry, his physicians or his wives but the team’s investigation came up with no conclusive evidence to prove that Henry VIII had syphilis.

‘Five minutes with Venus a lifetime with Mercury’.


Inside the Body of Henry VIII by National Geographic

Related posts:



  1. I saw this program as well and thought it was very interesting.

  2. It has definitely sparked my interest in Tudor medicine! Another thing to research now…

  3. Ginny Rigsbee says:

    I saw the program about Henry VIII and one disease that I have always felt he may have had has not been mentioned. Given his eating habits, and the ulcer on his leg that would not heal, as well as issues with his weight, one has to wonder if Henry did not have adult onset diabetes. Has anyone ever investigated or postulated this diagnosis? It would be difficult to prove, but many of the symptoms seem to fit.

  4. I thought one of the treason charges against Anne Boylen was that “She did give his majesty the French Pox.”? Otherwise I do not know much about syphilis but the codpiece of his last suit of armour made when he was middle aged is unnaturally large. Puerile comment about its size apart it simply does not look natural so could it be a side effect?

    • Hi Jim, thanks for taking the time to comment. No, Anne was not accused of giving Henry the ‘French Pox’ at her trial. The enlarged codpiece was a fashion statement, and a symbol for a man’s virility. I believe that they were also used to carry small precious items, like money or even jewels, hence the saying “family jewels”.

  5. Talar Asdourian says:

    I love “Inside the Body of Henry VIII”!!!! Lucy Worsley is a great documentary presenter, and I love all her works!

  6. It’s a fun series! No, Henry didn’t have syphilis, for the reasons you mentioned. When I looked at the royal inventories, I was concentrating on Holbein, so I totally missed the evidence, or rather, the lack of it!
    I subscribe to the theory that he developed late onset diabetes. Type 2 diabetes. He gained a lot of weight, he had a sore on his leg that wouldn’t heal, and his temper grew much more volatile. Before 1536 or thereabouts, he was arrogant and demanding, but his courtiers could follow his moods.
    Henry is known to have had a sweet tooth, and in the days when sugar was a luxury, diabetes was an undiagnosed illness of the rich.
    There’s another theory about an inherited condition, which also fits, but the condition is really rare.

  7. Elwyn Richards says:

    Everything points to Henry VIII having contracted syphilis but, of course, nothing can be conclusively proven. However, the fact that he was known to have been a serial fornicator and was often seen having casual sex with ladies in waiting lends considerable credence to the possibility. Personally, I have little doubt that he did have syphilis which probably contributed to his eventual demise.

  8. Henry VIII was not a “serial fornicator.” He had 6 wives and two known mistresses. He was not known for immorality as his counterpart, Francis of France, was, or even the Popes of his time. There is no evidence that he had “casual sex” with ladies in waiting. By the standards of his time, Henry was a man of restraint. No letters, no records, no complaints about his “immoral” behaviour.
    Unless you know better, of course.
    Henry almost certainly didn’t have syphilis. Recent research into his personal records, his inventories and the records of his physicians shows none of the remedies for syphilis. No mercury boluses, none of the syringes that were needed to treat the disease. And there would have been, had he contracted it. Research into other royal inventories for other monarchs shows the procurement of those items, when it was necessary. The things needed for the treatment of syphilis were specific, and used only for that disease, not for anything else.
    There are two far more likely answers, and that doesn’t include the simple fact that he became more recalcitrant as he aged.

Leave a Comment