It is safe to assume that Henry VIII never asked an archbishop or a wife whether his new armour made his backside look big – and if he did almost certainly the answer would have been no, your majesty. Even though the answer is undoubtedly yes, your majesty. Now modern audiences can see for themselves how Henry developed from a strapping and strong young athlete to an obese and flabby monster by looking at his combat dress.
Curators at a new exhibition of Henry’s armour and weapons at the Tower of London yesterday stressed that armour does you no favours.
It has got to fit. The displays bring to startling life what we know already – that Henry was a big young man who became a huge older man.
The exhibition has been five years in the planning and includes field armour made for the 6ft 1in Henry when he was 23, with his 34.7in waist and his 41.7in chest. Then there is armour made for the Field of the Cloth of Gold five years later – he’s up to a 36.1in waist and 41.8in chest. Foot combat armour also made for that year shows some particularly rapid weight gain – a 37.9in waist and 44in chest. Twenty years later his armour for a tournament to celebrate May Day has him ballooned up to a 51in waist and 54.5in chest. “You get an impression of what he was like in the flesh that you just can’t from a painting. Armour has to fit quite closely,” said the Royal Armouries academic director, Graeme Rimer.
Just as remarkable is the sheer weight of the armour he was wearing. The foot combat armour made for 28-year-old Henry weighed 94lb or 42.7kg.
And then there are the codpieces, which can best be described as roomy. “I think the king’s codpiece also had to stand out a bit more than the common herd,” said the keeper of armour, Thom Richardson. In later centuries Henry’s codpieces found a new life with barren women pricking pins into the lining in the hope it would bring them babies.
The sets of armour are not in their original black and gold because of over-aggressive polishing in the 19th century when, said Richardson, “they were polished with brick-dust and rangoon oil to within an inch of their life” to fit the aesthetic of what armour should look like, all shiny and silvery. “Walter Scott is to blame,” Richardson added ruefully.
Henry’s specially-made Field of the Cloth of Gold armour is particularly impressive with its many overlapping parts using up to the minute designs – so remarkable that Nasa studied its construction when they were designing the first space suits in the 1960s.
The French changed the tournament rules late on so the armour was never completed, but you can see the impressive figure he would have cut at what was a big event. “Imagine G20 meets formula one with all the world leaders driving F1 cars and you get a sense of what it was like,” said Richardson.
The exhibition shows how modern a monarch Henry was and his desire for his soldiers to have the best, most technologically advanced kit. One of the exhibits is a long spiked mace with three gun barrels at the end of it. “How you are meant to use it is an interesting challenge,” admitted Rimer. “It would most likely have been used as a club.”
Another quirk to the exhibition is the display of what is thought to be the oldest football in the world. It was discovered in the 1980s in the roof above Mary Queen of Scots’ bedroom at Stirling castle and it is thought Mary – a keen football fan and possible player – may have put it there to ward away demons.
• Henry VIII: Dressed to Kill is at the Tower of London from Friday until 17 January next year