Bluff King Hal

“Bluff King Hal was full of beans
He married half a dozen queens
For three called Kate they cried the banns
And one called Jane, and a couple of Annes…”

The next time you are driving through Syon Park to the Garden Centre in search of ornamental fountains, Mexican chimeneas or calendars showing cute pictures of kittens consider this – you are only there because a king died.

King Henry VIII was only 55 when he died on January 28th 1547 but he was not looking his best. This formerly lithe and athletic man had turned into a mountain of rotting flesh. ‘Bluff’ King Hal had become ‘bloated’ King Hal. His obesity was a result of a jousting accident in 1536 which left him with an ulcerated leg that prevented him exercising. With a waist measurement of 54 inches (137 cms) he had to be moved around on wheels. He was also covered with painful weeping boils and probably suffered from gout as well. If that wasn’t enough it was also rumoured at the time that he was suffering from syphilis. More recent study suggests that his symptoms were characteristic of untreated Type 2 diabetes. Allegedly his last words were, “Monks! Monks! Monks!”

He died in Whitehall but it was decided to bury him at Windsor. He was dressed in his robes of state and placed in a lead coffin. The hearse was pulled by 8 black horses each carrying a child holding a king’s banner. Banners appeared to be a theme of the cortège. So many were carried by the vast retinue that trees along the funeral route were cut back to prevent them catching. Sandford gives the following account.


“With an exceeding great train of four miles in length, the body was conducted to Syon, where it was received at the church door by the Bishops of London, Bristol and Gloucester, who performed ‘dirige’ (a service for the dead) that night and next morning.”

Syon monastery, (the site of today’s Syon House) had been closed by Henry in 1539 but the buildings still stood and provided ample accommodation for the huge funeral party. It was while Henry’s body lay in the chapel overnight that a macabre prophecy was fulfilled. Four years earlier, in 1543, Friar Peto, a Francisca firmly opposed to Henry’s reformation of the Church, had denounced the King from the pulpit of Greenwich Church. Peto compared Henry with Ahab, a former King of Israel. When Ahab was killed in battle, dogs (or was it pigs?) licked up his blood. Peto predicted that the same would happen to King Henry. In the morning, when the King’s attendants opened up the chapel at Syon containing the body – now two weeks dead and in an advanced state of decay, – a horrific sight confronted them.

“… the leaden coffin being cleft by the shaking of the carriage, the pavement of the church was wetted with Henry’s blood. In the morning came plumbers to solder the coffin, under whose feet was seen a dog creeping and licking up the King’s blood.”

At about 6.00am after the leaking coffin had been resoldered – and after the 3rd sounding of the trumpets, Henry’s funeral procession set off for Windsor lead by the chief mourner, the Marquis Dorset. The route that they took out of Syon Park is the same road that we take to get to the Garden Centre. It is generally believed that this right of way only exists because of an ancient ruling that states “wherever the corpse of a king is carried that way is forever open to the public.”

Henry was buried in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, next to his third wife Jane Seymour and a large marble sarcophagus was built over the spot. Today the burial place is marked only by a small memorial plaque on the floor. Henry’s sarcophagus was moved in the 18th century when George III ordered a new enlarged vault to be made under the floor of the chapel, large enough to contain 48 coffins. It was never put back in its rightful place. In the early 1800’s it was recycled and is now the tomb of Vice-Admiral Nelson in St Paul’s Cathedral.

…The first he asked to share his reign
Was Kate of Aragon, straight from Spain
But when his love for her was spent
He got a divorce, and out she went.

Anne Boleyn was his second wife.
He swore to cherish her all his life,
But seeing a third, he wished instead
He chopped off poor Anne Boleyn’s head.

He married the next afternoon
Jane Seymour, which was rather soon,
But after one year as his bride
She crept into her bed and died.

Anne of Cleves was number four.
Her portrait thrilled him to the core,
But when he met her face to face
Another royal divorce took place.

Catherine Howard, number five,
Billed and cooed to keep alive.
But one day Henry felt depressed,
The executioner did the rest.

Sixth and last was Catherine Parr
Sixth and last and luckiest far
For this time it was Henry who
Hopped the twig, and a good job too.

— from Martyn Day