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’.

Source

Inside the Body of Henry VIII by National Geographic

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Comments

  1. Daphne says:

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

  2. Natalie says:

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

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