A Bearded Story – Henry VIII style

In a few conversations with a couple of friends, we got a little obsessed with beards. Out of some little interest, I just looked up beards and Henry and found some interesting things. So here is a synopsis of all things beardy in relation to Henry VIII.

In a letter, Giustinian describes King Henry as much handsomer than any sovereign in Christendom, and much handsomer than the King of France. He also reports that on hearing that Francis I wore a beard, Henry also grew his own, which grew magnificently in a bright gold colour.

Now take a look at this – magnificent is correct!

Then look at this.

Imitation may be the best form of flattery, but sometimes the pupil far outshines the master. Francis I may have inspired Henry VIII to grow a beard, but my personal opinion is that Henry far outshines Francis. What do you think?

Another beard incident occurred just before the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Francis expressed a desire that it take place in 1519, but that was not convenient for Wolsey and Henry. So Henry excused himself and as a proof of his commitment, offered to stop shaving until the meeting. In a letter dated 19th August 1519, in a correspondence between Sir Thomas Boleyn, who was on embassy in France, and Cardinal Wolsey, “As a proof of the King’s desire, he had resolved to wear his beard till the said meeting. To requite this token of his affection, Francis “laid his hand on his beard, and said surely he would never put it off till he had seen him”.” However, Queen Catherine clearly did not take to the beard. She  daily pleaded with Henry to shave it off for her sake, but she may not have been strictly concerned about the aesthetic factor. Since these pleads were followed by demands on whether Henry’s loyalty to the King of Spain still held, it was a very public issue.  However, Henry seems to have persuaded her that all was well, and she replied, “Th[eir love] is nat in the berdes, but in the harts.” Sooner or later Henry shaved off his beard, and this almost led to a diplomatic disaster.  Francis’ mother, Louise of Savoy took offence to this slight to her son, and it took all of Boleyn’s diplomacy to soothe the troubled waters. Ah, the high politics of royal beards!

It also seems that pulling beards was one of the best tactics in street fights. I have already come across three instances of such complaints. But don’t try it – it meant a fine of 2 s or more.

Not only were you fined for pulling another man’s beard (and quite justifiably so, in my opinion), you could also be subject to a beard tax. In 1535, King Henry introduced a beard tax, and started imposing a taxation on people for keeping beards. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find any reliable sources to support this. However if it is true, in an era where the beard was seen as an indicator of virility among men, few noblemen must have baulked at paying this particular tax.

Lincoln’s Inn, one of the prestigious societies for young barristers to make a mark in the world, also had a few restrictions on young men with beards. A man with a beard had to pay double for his daily commons and dinner in hall. This discrimination actually continued until 1562, when all these beard-related laws were repealed.

Say what you will about beards, they certainly figured largely in our King’s personal and political life!


BHO: Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 3

BHO: Old and New London: Volume 3

6 thoughts on “A Bearded Story – Henry VIII style

  1. Pingback: Cabinet of Curiosities, vol. ix

  2. Pingback: Cabinet of Curiosities, vol. ix | Holly Tucker

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