Your RDA of Irony

Royal Gossip

January 18, 1486: How the Tudors Got Their Good Looks (even if they couldn’t keep them)

We all have the image of Henry VIII as that bloated bully in the Holbein portrait. Either fat had a higher aesthetic value in the 16th century or those English courtiers assured the tempermental King that he looked wonderful. Fortunately, Henry was easily convinced of his good looks. When a middle-aged blob, he certainly was self-deluded but at least he had an excellent memory.

Henry VIII was not born looking like Charles Laughton. The young king actually was handsome, a gift from his mother Elizabeth of York. She was a beauty, the gift of her parents: Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. They were regarded as the best-looking people in England! Elizabeth Woodville had to be a beauty; to have her, Edward IV caused a civil war.

She was a widow, with children, and only from the minor nobility; worse, her late husband and her family had been supporters of the rival Lancastrian dynasty. The lusty Edward IV wanted her as a mistress; she refused his advances and insisted on marriage. At that very time, Edward had commissioned his chief supporter, the Earl of Warwick, to negotiate a marriage with the sister-in-law of the King of France. Warwick, the most powerful noble in England, had successfully negotiated that marital alliance when he learned that Edward had eloped with the Woodville widow. “The Kingmaker”, as Warwick was known, was humiliated and furious; he then switched his allegiance and considerable forces to the Lancasters. Warwick succeeded in ousting Edward and restored Henry VI to the throne in 1470. A year later, Edward returned. Warwick was killed in battle and Henry VI was imprisoned in the Tower of London. The deposed King apparently fell on several daggers while in chapel.

In any case, handsome Edward IV and beautiful Elizabeth Woodville produced seven children. (He also acquired a pack of greedy in-laws and two stepsons who could have been role models for Paris Hilton.) Edward died in 1483, thinking his young son Edward would succeed him. Unfortunately, the regent of England was Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Although the late King’s brother, he had always resented the Woodville queen and her upstart family. Uncle Richard had other plans.

And the war over Elizabeth Woodville so divided the Yorkist party that the illegitimate Welsh branch of the Lancastrian line would soon kill its way to the throne. When the illegitimate half-second cousin, once removed, Henry Tudor ascended to the throne, he required a legitimate princess for some resemblance to respectability. The eldest daughter of Edward IV sufficed quite nicely, and today is their wedding anniversary.

p.s.  And let’s not forget this birthday:

  1. Gloria says:

    “Henry VIII was not born looking like Charles Laughton”

    True, he didn’t have a beard when he was born.

    But the 1933 film starring Laughton doesn’t start with the future king as a child, nor with the king as a young man: it starts with the king’s third marriage, and I’m led to suspect he didn’t gain a lot of weight overnight just a few hours before Holbein started to work in his portrait, as the writers of “The Tudors” series claim. In fact, the king’s armours make evident that the king was a robust fellow.

    Laughton did a consistent effort to look like the adult king as portrayed by Holbein, and he succeeded in doing so. Jon Rhys-Meyers just seems to have made an effort to look, hum, to look like a Hugo Boss model.

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      Charles Laughton fans are always welcome here, Gloria.

      Henry VIII probably still was good-looking in the days of Jane Seymour. After all, he was only 45–and I now consider that to be quite young. In “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” Keith Michell did not go to pot–and start resembling one–until after the death of the third Mrs. Tudor.

      Of course, Showtime’s “The Tudors” is a complete farce, and it has inspired a few of my musings:

      I hope you stick around and join my pedantic cult.


    • Rothgar says:

      From what I’ve read Henry VIII really ballooned when he took a lance in the thigh about 3 years before his death. I’d bet he’d pretty much quit exercising after that (and the 16th century medicine that surely followed).

  2. Michele says:

    Eugene, have you read Josephine Tey’s book “Daughter of Time”? It’s a mystery and the plot involves trying to unearth the truth about Richard of Gloucester (who apparently was not the villain history has made him out to be). I found it fascinating.

    • Eugene Finerman says:


      “The Daughter of Time” is Gospel among many enthusiasts of British history. I might add that every August 24th–the anniversary of Bosworth Field–my friend Hal Gordon and I debate over Richard III. I uphold Richard’s innocence and Hal is a Tudor sycophant. (Did I express that objectively?)

      I should also mention the delightfully macabre interpretation offered in the 1939 film “Tower of London”. Basil Rathbone, playing Richard, is indeed a scheming killer but most of his victims richly deserve it!


      • Wimple says:

        I also back Richard III. Another good book on this subject is “The Sunne in Spendour” by Sharon Kay Penman.

        • Eugene Finerman says:

          My defense of Richard III, while sincere, is–if I may correctly use the word–ironic. I love the Tudors: Henry VII, Henry VIII and, of course, Elizabeth. How many dynasties can boast three brilliant monarchs? The Romanovs had one, the Hohenzollerns had one, the French Bourbons had maybe two, the Spanish Bourbons…well, the Spanish Hapsburgs…um. (Maybe brilliance and monarchy are not conducive in Spain.)


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