There is so much that could be said about Henry VIII.
His marriages, the beheadings of several of his wives and others, his break with Rome, his Dissolution of the Monasteries, all of which could fill a video of their own.
However, we must fast forward to 1547, when the 55 year old Monarch lay on his deathbed – a bloated, smelly wreck of a man, whose body was covered with pus-filled boils.
He weighed in at an ungainly 400 pounds, and his waist had expanded to an unsightly fifty four inches.
THE DEATH OF HENRY VIII
By Thursday the 27th of January it was more than apparent that Henry was not long for this world.
However, since it was an act of treason to predict the king’s death, his doctors didn’t dare tell him that the end was imminent.
In the end, it was Sir Anthony Denny, his loyal Groom of the Stool who plucked up the courage to tell Henry that, “in man’s judgment, he was not like to live’, and that he should remember his sins, ‘as becometh every good Christian man to do’.
Henry responded by saying that he believed that Christ in all His mercy would, “pardon me all my sins, yea, though they were greater than can be.”
Denny asked the King if he wished any learned man to speak with, to which Henry replied that he would speak with Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, although, realising that remembering and confessing all his sins might take a considerable amount of time, he would take a little sleep first.
When Cranmer was finally summoned in the early hours of Friday the 28th of January, the King was beyond speech, so taking hold of Henry’s hand, Cranmer implored him to give a sign that he trusted to Christ for salvation. He felt the grip on his hand tighten a little in response.
At a little after 2 a.m. Henry VIII breathed his last.
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HENRY’S DEATH KEPT SECRET
The king’s death was kept secret for two days, and his body was left undisturbed in his chamber, whilst an elaborate ruse was set in motion, including bringing his meals to him, in order to maintain the pretense that the king was still alive.
It wasn’t until the morning of Monday the 31st of January that his tearful Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas Wriothesley announced to Parliament that Henry VIII was no more.
THE BODY EMBALMED
Court embalmers then set to work to preserve the king’s cadaver.
They removed his innards and stuffed the cavity with sawdust, resin and herbs; but so much time had elapsed since his death that decomposition had already set in.
The royal corpse was then encased in lead, placed inside a coffin, and, surrounded by burning tapers, it lay in State in the presence chamber of Whitehall Palace, before being moved into the chapel, as bells across the kingdom tolled mourning knells for the monarch who, according to Charles Dickens, writing over three hundred years later, and, therefore, safe to tell it as he saw it, had been, “a most intolerable ruffian, a disgrace to human nature, and a blot of blood and grease upon the History of England.”
THE FUNERAL PROCESSION SETS OFF FOR WINDSOR
On the14th of February, the enormous cortege set off from Westminster for Windsor, where Henry was to be laid to rest alongside the wife he had loved more than all the others, Jane Seymour.
It must have a magnificent sight.
The cavalcade consisting of over a thousand mourners on horseback, plus hundreds more on foot was over four miles long.
Eight plumed black horses pulled the massive gilded chariot on which the coffin, surmounted by a life-sized wax effigy of the occupant, rested.
OVERNIGHT AT SYON HOUSE
The procession halted at Syon House, formerly Syon Abbey, and here the coffin was carried into the chapel where it was left unattended overnight.
The jostling of the carriage as it trundled across the rutted highways had, so some accounts maintain, caused the gasses of decomposition to explode, resulting in the separation of the lead plates that enclosed the body.
According to other accounts, the explosion happened in the coffin as the body rested in the chapel, whilst others dispense with the explosion altogether.
HENRY’S LEAKING COFFIN
What all accounts agree on, however, is that, in the dead of night, the coffin began to leak, and the next morning, it was found that a stray dog had got into the chapel, and was licking up the putrid matter from the floor beneath the coffin.
Now it must be said that the source for this story was Gilbert Burnet, a 17th century Scottish theologian, and later Bishop of Salisbury, who included it in his book, The History of the Reformation of the Church of England.
IT MIGHT NOT BE TRUE
Burnet has been accused of playing fast and loose with history, so the story that Henry’s corpse exploded in his coffin might not be entirely true, but, true or not, it’s a good yarn nonetheless, and it has now passed into folklore where it has become widely accepted as historical fact.
HENRY BURIED AT WINDSOR
Whatever happened, the cortege resumed its journey the next morning, and Henry VIII was laid to rest in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, in the same vault as Jane Seymour, the mother of his son and heir, the new boy king Edward the Sixth.