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  • Writer's picturePaul


Henry VIII: Probably busy ogling the king of France’s calves (Public domain)

Henry VIII liked a lot of things—food, wives, the prospect of having a son. He also disliked a lot of things, like monasteries and Sir Thomas More. But he really liked king Francis I of France.

When Louis XII died in 1515, his young cousin Francis, then the Duke of Angoulême, rose to the French throne to succeed him. The newly installed king Francis I was a keen and handsome 20-year-old, who was determined to modernize his predecessor’s court to become the envy of all Europe. Henry VIII, by all accounts, was impressed. And, moreover, quietly determined to match, if not outdo, the French king by every means possible.

So in a meeting with the Venetian ambassador later that year, Henry had question after question about King Francis, whom the ambassador had recently visited. “Is he as tall as I am? Is he stout?” he asked. “What sort of leg has he?”—at which point the king opened the front of his doublet, and revealed his own leg to the (presumably somewhat bemused) ambassador with the words, “Look here! I also have a good calf to my leg!”

Such was Henry VIII’s friendly competitiveness with the French king that when he heard that Francis had something he definitely did not, he immediately sought to redress the balance.

In 1517, Henry began making arrangements for Francis to come and visit him at Greenwich. During a preliminary meeting with the French ambassador to discuss the visit, word reached Henry that Francis was now sporting a rather fetching beard—and immediately Henry had to do the same.

Henry told the ambassador to inform Francis that he too was going to start growing a beard so that when they finally met, they could compare their face fuzz. Francis was reportedly much pleased by this bit of news; Catharine of Aragon, less so.

She eventually convinced Henry to shave his beard off—whereupon Henry sent word that the French king that he had been forced to renege on their beard agreement, and would regrettably be clean shaven when they met. Francis, ever the gentleman, was disappointed but understanding; “the wishes of the ladies,” he messaged back to the king, “must always prevail”.

Over the years that followed, Henry grew and regrew his beard numerous times, and is famously seen with a rather fetching ginger beard in many of his most iconic portraits. Rather less well known is the fact that the king initially grew it to impress the king of France...

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