Codpieces – Renaissance vanity or necessity – Part 2


Best known for having 6 wives in his desperate attempt to have a male heir and for executing a fair amount of people, wives, friends as well as rivals. Another claim to fame was that he possessed the largest collection of tapestries depicting historic, religious and mythical figures, all of whom he identified with; and apparently he had really good legs, all important when wooing a new prospective wife . He was also a good musician (owning 78 flutes, 78 recorders, five bagpipes and a harpsichord) and penned Helas Madame (link at end). If he ever serenaded under a lady’s window, it has now been erased from history

[On a side note: Henry VIII also composed a piece called “Pastime with Good Company” which was covered by Jethro Tull]

Begetting a son would bolster and extend the Tudor lineage which was started by his father, Henry VII, the last king of England to win the throne on the battle field and who declared himself king “by right of conquest”

Not only would Henry’s ego be stroked by the birth of a son but it would quash the rumours which were floating around court that Henry was impotent. These rumours were confirmed by Jane Boleyn, who claimed they were made to her in confidence by her sister-in-law and Henrys second wife, Anne Boleyn. The impotency rumours were further compounded by his fifth wife, Katherine Howard, having an inappropriate relationship with Henry’s favourite male courtier, Thomas Culpeper. However, Henry got his revenge by beheading both wives

So how to give yourself a confidence boost and show the world your manliness?

Make sure that your codpieces are the biggest and the brightest


A male heir and a spare was also crucial to continuing the royal line and securing the kingdom and it was deemed the queen’s fundamental responsibility. Failure would result in divorce. Or death. Case in point, divorcing Katherine of Aragon 22 years into the marriage because she was past childbearing age.  A son would also reduce the risk of civil war and the squabbling which would follow in the event he died heirless

[On a side note: Apart from his one and only legitimate son Edward from his third wife, Jane Seymour, who he claimed was the love of his life, he had two additional male offspring. Mistress Elizabeth Blount’s son – Henry FitzRoy 1st Duke of Richmond and Somerset (who he acknowledged); and Mistress Mary Boelyn’s son, Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon (who was swept under the carpet)]

Further delight abounded all over “Merrie England” when the King and all his men had their armour built with codpieces attached for groin defence. Not only was this to save their modesty and their most vulnerable parts from being bashed by some crazy naked Scotsmen, but they also used the enlarged codpieces as a visible sign of their masculinity and to instil fear into their enemy (fear not so much, derisive laughter maybe).


The armour had to be tailor-made since it was made of metal and other inflexible materials and it was essential that it fitted properly. Tailor made armour could cost a king’s ransom if produced by a master workman, such as Erasmus Kyrkenar, at the Royal Workshop so great care was taken. It was probably the duty of armourer to measure the “member “in question for the appropriate fit. Too small would cause loss of circulation and too loose would result in chaffing and possible blisters which then would look like some nasty medieval venereal disease. Codpieces were fitted onto the armour with a spring latch which were easy to remove if nature called

Armour provided essential body protection for the men-at-arms from the various weapons which were used in battle including the two-handed sword, bow and arrows, crossbow, battle axe, mace, dagger and lance. However, if clocked on the head or in the groin with a Morningstar, (a spiked club with many smaller spikes suspended by chains from the top of the head), it would be doubtful that the knight would have been in any condition to keep fighting and future progeny may be out of the question

Armour was not only used for warfare, but tournaments, hunting and parades and therefore not only had to protect the wearer but had to be practical and functional. Some armour pieces were decorated with intricate ornamental embossing. These lavish and beautifully crafted pieces were mainly used for ceremonial occasions where the victors were able to glorify war and their military prowess. If the ladies of the land deemed the piece large enough, it was used as a charm and they would stick pins into the codpiece lining in order to improve their own chance of conception. One would imagine that the wearer would no longer be wearing the armour at this time especially if it were large rusty hat pins being used


It was Katherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife who suggested the idea of the codpiece on his armour in the first place. It is claimed that she was concerned that he was taking “small care of the staff of love and packet of marriage

Later it was rumoured that some enormous codpiece sizes hid the fact that the wearer might have been indulging in too many dalliances and was suffering the consequences of syphilis, a disease brought back from the New World by Columbus and rapidly spread throughout Europe in the 16th century. This disease resulted in weeping sores on the genitals making it difficult to walk, ride and urinate. Treatment was with toxic mercuric oxide and sulphide administered in the form of an ointment, steam bath or pill. Many patients who underwent mercury treatments suffered from extensive tooth loss, ulcerations and neurological damage and many patients died from mercury poisoning. This treatment stained the genitals and the wrappings red so the codpiece became an effective cover up for the ravages of the disease as well as an effective concealment of the staining. “One night with Venus, a lifetime with Mercury”

[On a side note: Not only did Christopher Columbus bring syphilis back to the Old World but he took smallpox, measles, and the bubonic plague to the New World which decimated thousands of Native Americans, not much to be proud of]

At one stage these codpieces grew so large that it doubled as a pocket and a storage device for valuables and coins. Probably where the term “Family Jewels” derived from. That being said, not sure how the female population felt about being handed money that has just been fished from a codpiece

By the late 1500’s codpieces were already in decline. In particular, thanks to Henrys daughter Queen Elizabeth I who found such a display of manliness offensive. The codpiece eventually made way for breeches fitted with a flap or a slit closed with a button. Elizabeth was also responsible for bringing in elaborate ruffs (which undoubtedly made kissing and spying on your neighbours problematic). During her reign, bobs and bangs were all the rage for men, along with beret-like hats worn on the side of the head, trimmed with feathers or jewels, ballooning pumpkin shaped breeches and slops. The latter being another fashion faux pas especially as the pumpkin pants looked as though they were airtight around the thighs and harbouring recent flatulence


The glory days of the codpiece was finally over




HENRY VIII  – Helas Madame –

JETHRO TULL – Pastime with Good Company –


Corsets and Codpieces: A Social History of Outrageous Fashion


13 thoughts on “Codpieces – Renaissance vanity or necessity – Part 2

  1. I’m slowly making my way through your history lessons, and I am loving every post.
    You should teach. Or write a book. Or something. (But keep the blog.)


  2. I haven’t finished reading this yet, but I had to stop for a moment and catch my breath from hysterical laughter and then immediately direct to the comment section. Jethro Tull has now reached an even greater level of genius than the genius I thought the band to be. King Henry VIII has been redeemed. Okay, maybe not, but the narcissist is now a rockstar. You can’t get much higher than that, Henry.


  3. The history of caring for (and exaggerating) courtly bits and bobs. How utterly fascinating! I will be including this in my history talks from now on. And no, I’m not kidding.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. On the other hand, there could have been no greater agony than a metal codpiece severely dented in battle. Worth watching? The first series of ‘Blackadder’, a Rowan Atkinson vehicle in the 1980s or 1990s. His costumes took the codpiece to a whole new realm of meaning.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Brian. I am taking that as a compliment, hands down. But no, I have not thought about it. It sounds too much like hard work :V

      Is there some old (pre-1799) piece of history you would like to me write about next?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, I definitely meant my question as a compliment. The engaging way you tell a story would be perfect in an informal, conversational history book. If you ever decide to pursue the idea, I would be happy to share my own publishing experiences with you.

        As for any suggestions I might have for future topics, I hesitate to give them, because I wouldn’t feel right if that caused you any pressure to pursue something that may not particularly interest you. Perhaps you could share some of your favorite periods of history and I can zero in on something specific?


        1. Started making a list of topics that would be of interest but had to stop after 6 pages as I had two sleepless nights worrying about who and what I had left off the list. But on a serious note, thank you for your encouragement, it means a lot to me. Especially in light of the fact that I cannot get my own kith or kin to read the stuff

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Sorry for the delay in responding, as I somehow missed this. I fully understand the “kith or kin” angle, as most of my family and friends have absolutely no clue that I have a blog, despite my extraordinary efforts to advise them of such… 😉


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s