Fashion in Henry VIII’s Day

Turns out Americans are super prissy and Brits are not.

The codpieces on Wolf Hall, the BBC’s latest on Henry VIII, are not true to size–they’re smaller. Most likely it’s the only thing in the British show that is not historically accurate. But you can’t fool the Brits. As soon as the show hit the air in England two weeks ago, they hit the twittersphere to express their consternation at the faux pas.

But it wasn’t a faux pas. It was on purpose. Wolf Hall premieres in America in early April, and PBS needed the Brits to make the codpieces small so that they didn’t offend American sensibility.

But it’s not about sensibilities. It’s about reality. In the 1500’s men wore codpieces as a fashion statement, sometimes in colors complementary to their tutus and stockings.  The ones in the show are smaller.

I read an article about it in the British newspaper The Telegraph, and then did research on the history of codpieces.

Now here’s a codpiece that swings the other way–MUCH bigger than they were in reality. This is a portrait of Henry VIII, painted by Hans Holbein the Younger, the royal portrait painter. In his portrait, Holbein broadened Henry’s shoulders and gave him quite an endowment, possibly because he wanted to keep his head attached to his shoulders:


Ohhhh Mama!

There are a few reasons historians think this is an exaggeration. (1) based on the measurements of men in 1500 (2) based on the measurements of Henry’s suit of armor (small feet?) and (3) based on Anne Boleyn’s comment to the Venetian ambassador: “Henry ‘lacked vigour’ below the waist.” (Unlike Holbein she was a little too flippant about the attachment of her head to her shoulders.)

Mark Rylance, the actor who plays Lord Cromwell, said that the codpieces in the show were quite small and had to be “tucked away.”

As for spoilers, the British producers usually never say a single word before TV shows air, but they let out the codpiece-discrepancy in advance. They wanted to prepare the Brits so that the misrepresentation wouldn’t offend. (It didn’t work.)

The TV version is below. Cromwell’s the one about to shoot the arrow.  It might be hard to see his piece because he’s so goth. If  you don’t recognize him, Damian Lewis is on the left as Henry. I’d say the color of his codpiece is reminiscent of the one in the portrait of the real Henry, but was in the dryer for too long. On the other hand, maybe it’s the male equivalent of cleavage:

Early release

Here’s Cromwell’s codpiece in a better light. You can see why Rylance thought that the codpieces in the show were a little uncomfortable (it’s a little high):


Let me leave you with this real family portrait of Henry VIII. I’m guessing that Holbein continued to value his head:



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