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

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, 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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
arrow
History
A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

nextArticle.image_alt|e
arrow
History
The Queen of Code: Remembering Grace Hopper
By Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Grace Hopper was a computing pioneer. She coined the term "computer bug" after finding a moth stuck inside Harvard's Mark II computer in 1947 (which in turn led to the term "debug," meaning solving problems in computer code). She did the foundational work that led to the COBOL programming language, used in mission-critical computing systems for decades (including today). She worked in World War II using very early computers to help end the war. When she retired from the U.S. Navy at age 79, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the service. Hopper, who was born on this day in 1906, is a hero of computing and a brilliant role model, but not many people know her story.

In this short documentary from FiveThirtyEight, directed by Gillian Jacobs, we learned about Grace Hopper from several biographers, archival photographs, and footage of her speaking in her later years. If you've never heard of Grace Hopper, or you're even vaguely interested in the history of computing or women in computing, this is a must-watch:

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios