9 Bizarre Objects Owned by Henry VIII

Hulton Archive/Getty Images (Henry VIII), iStock (Marmoset)
Hulton Archive/Getty Images (Henry VIII), iStock (Marmoset)

Six months after Henry VIII died in 1547, a full inventory of all of the possessions of Henry’s crown was commissioned in London. Now housed in The British Library, the inventory took 18 months to complete and listed tens of thousands of individual items—from castles and ships to more than 3500 gold and silver trinkets, as well as Henry’s enormous collection of 2000 tapestries.

Also making the list, however, were a handful of more bizarre objects, including an orchestra’s worth of musical instruments [PDF], experimental weapons, and one of the largest suits of armor in British royal history. Add to that some of the incredible gifts Henry received from fellow rulers during his lifetime—as well as some of the surprising personal items he commissioned for his own use while on the throne—and arguably the most famous king in British history owned some very unusual curiosities indeed.

1. A SET OF PURPLE VELVET BAGPIPES

Although he probably didn’t write "Greensleeves," Henry was nevertheless a talented musician and composer, and was able to play the organ, the lute, the flute, and the virginal, an early form of harpsichord. Most of Henry’s personal collection of musical instruments was housed at Westminster Palace in London, where they were maintained by a Flemish-born composer named Philip van Wilder, who was given the title of “Keeper of the King’s Instruments.” Henry’s 1547 inventory lists more than 20 recorders, 19 viols, two clavichords, and four sets of bagpipes—including one made of purple velvet, with ivory pipework.

2. A BOWLING ALLEY

Shortly after the birth of his son Edward (later the short-lived King Edward VI) in 1537, Henry had a bowling alley built at Hampton Court Palace on the outskirts of London. At almost 200 feet long, it was more than three times the length of a modern 10-pin bowling alley. Bowling was a hugely popular pastime in Tudor England—at least until Henry’s daughter, Queen Mary I, outlawed the “keeping of any bowling-alleys, dicing houses, or other unlawful games” in 1555.

3. A “SCAVENGER’S DAUGHTER”

The “scavenger’s daughter” was a gruesome and brutal instrument of torture invented sometime during Henry VIII’s reign by Sir Leonard Skevington, the Lieutenant of the Tower of London. The device consisted of an A-shaped iron brace, inside of which a victim would be made to sit in a crouched position, with their head almost touching their knees, and their wrists, ankles, and neck shackled in place. An iron bar passed through the top of the A-frame would then be tightened like a vice, crushing the victim with excruciating force—apparently, until the eyes, nose, and even ears began to bleed. The “scavenger’s daughter” was intended to be an alternative to the rack, which stretched its victims rather than compacting them, but unlike the rack, it mercifully seems to have only been used occasionally.

4. A MARMOSET

By all accounts, Henry VIII loved animals. He kept ferrets, hawks, falcons, and numerous other birds (the windows at Hampton Court were surrounded by cages containing canaries and nightingales), and owned dozens of dogs during his lifetime; after his death, more than 60 dog leashes were found in his wardrobe. By far Henry’s most unusual pet, however, was a marmoset he received as a Christmas present in the late 1530s. Coincidentally, his first wife, Catherine (sometimes Katherine) of Aragon, also had a pet marmoset, and was even painted with it earlier that decade. But are these the strangest royal pets on record? Oddly enough, they aren’t—in 1252, King Henry III was given a polar bear by the Norwegian king, Haakon IV, which was housed at the Tower of London and kept on an enormous leash long enough to allow it to swim in the river Thames.

5. A CODPIECE LARGE ENOUGH TO CONCEAL A WEAPON

Henry VIII is credited with popularizing the peculiar Tudor fashion for enormous, exaggerated codpieces, which during his reign established themselves as symbols of a man’s virility and masculinity. The king, of course, had to have the biggest codpiece of all—and toward the end of his life, Henry’s codpieces had become roomy enough for him to use them as glorified pockets, in which he could keep jewels and other valuables, and even small weapons. He even had them built into his armor.

6. A MACE PISTOL

This monstrous-looking device is called a mace pistol, although in Henry’s day it was nicknamed the “holy water sprinkler,” or “the king’s walking staff.” Now housed in the Royal Armouries in Leeds, England, the weapon was comprised of a pronged mace concealing three gun barrels in its spiked head. Henry apparently had a habit of wandering the streets of London at night brandishing his “walking staff” in order to check that his constables were doing their work properly. However, one night he was arrested for carrying a weapon by one of his men who failed to recognize him, and ended up spending a night in a prison cell. When the constable recognized his error the following day, he presumed the king would have him immediately executed—but instead, Henry granted him a handsome raise, and supplied all the prisoners with whom he had spent the night a supply of coal and bread.

7. A PAIR OF FOOTBALL BOOTS

Records show that in 1526, Henry VIII commissioned a pair of leather football boots at a cost of 4 shillings (around £90, or $130 today); 14 years later, in 1540, he banned football on the grounds that it incited riots.

8. A SUIT OF ARMOR (WITH A 51-INCH WAIST)

A suit of armor made for Henry, five years into his reign in 1514, shows that the 23-year-old king was 6-foot-1, and had an athletic 32-inch waist and a 39-inch chest. Twenty-five years of a king’s diet later, a suit of armor Henry had made for a May Day tournament in 1540 when he was 49 years old shows that he now required a 51 inch waist, and a 54.5 inch chest.

9. A HORNED HELMET

This bespectacled, demon-faced “Horned Helmet” was presented to Henry VIII by the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I in 1514 (along, tragically, with the rest of a now-lost suit of armor). After Henry’s death in 1547, his court jester, Will Somers, apparently took possession of it and most likely incorporated it in his act.

Why Do We Eat Pumpkin Pie at Thanksgiving?

gjohnstonphoto/iStock via Getty Images
gjohnstonphoto/iStock via Getty Images

While it’s possible—even probable—that pumpkins were served at the 1621 harvest festival that’s now considered the predecessor to Thanksgiving, attendees definitely didn’t dine on pumpkin pie (there was no butter or wheat flour to make crust).

The earliest known recipes for pumpkin pie actually come from 17th-century Europe. Pumpkins, like potatoes and tomatoes, were first introduced to Europe in the Columbian Exchange, but Europeans were more comfortable cooking with pumpkins because they were similar to their native gourds.

By the 18th century, however, Europeans on the whole lost interest in pumpkin pie. According to HowStuffWorks, Europeans began to prefer apple, pear, and quince pies, which they perceived as more sophisticated. But at the same time pumpkin pie was losing favor in Europe, it was gaining true staple status in America.

In 1796, Amelia Simmons published American Cookery, the first cookbook written and published in the New World colonies. Simmons included two recipes for “pompkin pudding” cooked in pastry crust. Simmons’s recipes call for “stewed and strained” pumpkin, combined with a mixture of nutmeg, allspice, and ginger (yes, it seems our pumpkin spice obsession dates back to at least the 1500s).

But how did pumpkin pie become so irrevocably tied with the Thanksgiving holiday? That has everything to do with Sarah Josepha Hale, a New Hampshire-born writer and editor who is often called the “Godmother of Thanksgiving.” In her 1827 abolitionist novel Northwood, Hale described a Thanksgiving meal complete with “fried chicken floating in gravy,” broiled ham, wheat bread, cranberry sauce, and—of course—pumpkin pie. For more than 30 years, Hale advocated for Thanksgiving to become a national holiday, writing regular editorials and sending letters to five American presidents. Thanksgiving was a symbol for unity in an increasingly divided country, she argued [PDF].

Abraham Lincoln eventually declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863 (to near-immediate outcry from Southerners, who viewed the holiday as an attempt to enforce Yankee values). Southern governors reluctantly complied with the presidential proclamation, but cooks in the South developed their own unique regional traditions. In the South, sweet potato pie quickly became more popular than New England’s pumpkin pie (mostly because sweet potatoes were easier to come by than pumpkins). Now, pumpkin pie reigns supreme as the most popular holiday pie across most of the United States, although the Northeast prefers apple and the South is split between apple and pecan, another Southern staple.

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Anthony Blunt: The Art Historian/Russian Spy Who Worked at Buckingham Palace

Samuel West portrays Anthony Blunt in The Crown.
Samuel West portrays Anthony Blunt in The Crown.
Des Willie, Netflix

*Mild spoilers for season 3 of The Crown on Netflix ahead.

Viewers of the third season of The Crown on Netflix will likely have their curiosity piqued by Anthony Blunt, the art historian who is revealed to be a spy for the Russians during his 19 years of service to the Queen at Buckingham Palace. Instead of getting the boot once he was discovered, however, Blunt went on to remain under Her Majesty's employ for eight more years—until his official retirement. While treason never looks good on a resume, the royal class had good reason to keep him on.

Blunt, who was born and raised in England, visited the Soviet Union in 1933 and was indoctrinated as a spy after being convinced of the benefits of Communism in fighting fascism. He began recruiting his university classmates at Cambridge before serving during World War II and leaking information about the Germans to the KGB. Blunt was one of five Cambridge graduates under Soviet direction. Two of them, diplomats Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, relocated to the Soviet Union in 1951. Another, Kim Philby, went undetected until 1961. John Cairncross escaped notice, too, but was eventually outed.

However, it was Blunt who had a post at Buckingham Palace. After being tipped off by American intelligence, MI5 interrogated Blunt. He confessed to his treachery in 1964 and was granted immunity from prosecution. Why was he able to remain employed? One theory has it that British intelligence was so embarrassed by Blunt's ability to circulate in the upper levels of the monarchy that firing him would have raised too many questions. Another thought has Blunt having knowledge of some bizarrely congenial wartime correspondence between Adolf Hitler and the Duke of Windsor (a.k.a. King Edward VIII, whose abdication led to Elizabeth's eventual ascension to the throne).

Whatever the case, the Queen was advised by MI5 to keep Blunt around. In his role as art curator, he had no access to classified information. Blunt was at the Palace through 1972 and spent another seven years roaming London giving lectures. His actions remained a tightly guarded secret until Margaret Thatcher disclosed his treason in 1979.

As for that speech seen in The Crown, where Olivia Colman's Queen Elizabeth makes some not-so-subtle digs at Blunt at the opening of a new exhibition, there's no record of such a takedown ever happening. While the two reportedly kept their distance from each other in private, according to Miranda Carter's Anthony Blunt: His Lives:

“Blunt continued to meet the Queen at official events. She came to the opening of the Courtauld’s new galleries in 1968, and in 1972 she personally congratulated Blunt on his retirement, when the Lord Chamberlain, knowing nothing of his disgrace, offered him the honorary post of Adviser on the Queen’s pictures—inadvertently continuing his association with the Palace for another six years.”

Stripped of his knighthood as a result of the truth about his actions being made known, Blunt became a recluse and died of a heart attack in 1983. His memoirs, which were made public by the British Library in 2009, indicated his regret, calling his spy work "the biggest mistake of my life."

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