Friday, 11 April 2014

Henry VIII’s body odour

From Wikipedia

Imagine you have a time-machine to take you back to Tudor times. The possibilities are exciting enough, but quite naturally your first thought is to check out Henry VIII’s body odour. Were those Tudors as smelly as their rather basic lavatorial technology might suggest?

Time to find out - so into the time machine.

All goes well and you arrive at Henry's court without mishap. Disguised as a courtier, you sidle up to him during a convivial evening, taking a deep but unobtrusive sniff. Don’t want Henry to get wind of what you are up to do we?

What kind of odour would you expect? Well the wealthy Tudors were supposedly quite clean in their habits and it may be that spicy aromas would predominate around Henry such such as cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. Maybe there were hints of rose water or lavender too.

Suppose you manage to get close to Henry, close enough to see the fine stubble on his chin, the colour of his fingernails, close enough to catch the sound of his voice, its depth and timbre, his accent and way with words, his use of them to command, control and signify approval. 

Imagine that you have stumbled on that most significant occasion when he first claps eyes on Anne Boleyn. You even catch that first, fatal glint of interest in the royal eye as it roams the hall.

To my mind, intimate details such as this divide the human race into two. 

Some people are interested in Tudor cleanliness, manners and habits. They are prepared to make informed but often unverifiable guesses based on what we know.

Others are more interested in how ephemeral and generally inaccessible this kind of information can be. In an important sense we don’t know the intimate details because we weren’t there, many are unrecorded and others were too fleeting and personal ever to have been publicly accessible anyway.

As for that flicker of interest at the sight of Anne Boleyn, what was going on there? Was it mostly a stir of interest in the royal member or something more cerebral? Did the English Reformation begin with a twitch of desire behind the royal codpiece rather than Henry’s desire for a male heir?

Obviously, even with the benefit of our time machine we can’t get inside his head to find out, let alone other more intimate aspects of whatever triggered the affair. Did such a huge upheaval in English history begin with biology?

However much we sift and analyse what we know of such matters, there are always these fleeting ephemera of human nature. The biology, the intimate psychology, the ebb and flow of hormones, subtle impressions we can never capture simply because nobody ever did or ever could have captured them.

Even Henry himself may not have been aware of them on that fateful occasion. As for Anne Boleyn – who can tell?


Sackerson said...

Elizabeth I was finicky about smell: "the Queen would wear accessories such as a fan, a pomander to ward off foul smells and it was thought infection" -

Alexander the Great's body odour was said to be attractively sweet:

Demetrius said...

Given that all his wives were descended from King Edward I as well as the known mistresses, he could have been much taken by the quartering of her family arms. Especially that of the Hoo family, notables at Agincourt.

A K Haart said...

Sackers - I wonder what scents our noses would have detected.

Demetrius - I'm sure he was much taken by a number of her charms.

Sackerson said...