You only need to have a gander at the armour that Henry VIII used to wear to see how proud he was of his nether regions. Indeed, during his reign, one of the most important fashion items in a gentleman’s ensemble was a designated pouch that protruded from the crotch of men’s trousers, enclosing the genital area. This clothing device was known as the codpiece, which comes from the Middle English word ‘cod’, meaning scrotum. And according to King Henry, the bigger the codpiece, the better. Shaped and padded to emphasise the genital area, it became fashionable to design the codpiece to hold his manhood in a position insinuating it was erect constantly — a statement of political and economic power. You can almost hear the greetings at Hampton Court: “Prithee, doth that be a cod in thy piece, or art thou merely glad of my acquaintance?”
Whilst the codpiece began life intended to protect a gentleman’s modesty, it quickly became a symbol of his masculinity, fertility and strength. At first, when in the late 14th century, men’s clothing was made up of linen leggings and shorter tunics, normally worn under a mantle or cloak, there was no hiding the protruding bulge of a man’s genital region. In 1463, Edward IV’s parliament went so far as to make it compulsory for a man to cover “his privy Members and Buttokes”.
Whilst originally this modest covering was fashioned from a triangular shaped piece of cloth, by Henry VIII’s times the codpiece was a far more extravagant affair, stuffed to unnatural proportions, embellished with all manner of jewels, adorned to perfection and proudly worn for all to see. There are even stories of men using their codpieces as a kind of pocket, and proudly producing oranges from it in order to impress women.
The King was such a big fan of the codpiece in fact, that there used to be a wooden statue of him at the Tower of London with a secret mechanism in the floor. When you stepped on the right spot, the royal codpiece would swing forth. Although we know Henry to have struggled to produce healthy children, it was said that women would stick pins in his decadent red velvet codpiece to ward off barrenness. One can still find one of his regal codpieces on display at the tower, alone weighing in at more than two and half pounds.
In the BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, actors Damien Lewis and Mark Rylance (who played Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell respectively) were both seen to be sporting codpieces. For historian Victoria Miller who presented a talk at Cambridge university based on this very subject, the codpieces in the TV series were far too small to be considered credible. Actor Mark Rylance concurred, stating that, “I think that was a directive from our American producers, PBS. They wanted smaller codpieces.”
Henry VIII was not the only one to be a fan of the codpiece, men in his court waltzed around with bejewelled versions in order to attract attention, which would have been held closed by string ties, buttons, folds, or other methods. Certainly, for men in the royal court, the aim was to have the broadest shoulders and the biggest codpieces, whilst on the battle field a decent sized codpiece signalled a certain amount of military prowess. Young nobles in training were no exception either, with those as young as seven noted to have sported their very own silk codpieces.
The British fashion designer Gareth Pugh once said, “The Tudors were the first power dressers,”, but for historian Grace Vicary, rather than being a sign of fertility and power there was in fact a more sinister and functional link between the codpiece and syphilis. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the sexually transmitted disease was sweeping across Europe, also known as “The Great Pox” (the first written records of an outbreak of syphilis in Europe occurred in 1494 or 1495 in Naples, Italy). Whilst treatment for syphilis ranged from ointments to syrups and various kinds of minerals, shockingly, a mixture of mercury was believed to treat the infection, and continued to be used to treat the disease up until 1910. Vicary points out that treatment would have been administered by way of a large, boxy penis container, which would not only hold the mixture of grease and mercury in place, but also (trigger warning) contain the bandages used to soak up any undesired leaky symptoms associated with Syphilis. Vicary believes that German mercenaries were the first ones to use this contraption, being “the first sufferers of syphilis and its prime carrier through Europe,” . Fashionable aristocratic males, no strangers to the pox, adopted it by the 1530s and thus, the codpiece was born. As more men across Europe became accustomed to the notable clothing accessory, the association with syphilis was soon lost.
Whilst codpieces went from small to epic proportions over the course of the 1500s, as is the case for many fashion accessories, they soon lost their appeal. As Victoria Miller stated, “it got to epic proportions, some more phallic, some more testicular or ovoid in shape. It definitely did the job of drawing the eye to the genital regions. But it was gone by 1600. It just started to taper off and shrink in size by the last quarter of the century.”
Men’s fashion had now moved on, and took on a more feminine side, with ruffles and softer edges, and the idea of displaying your privy parts became somewhat uncouth. Fashion does however have a funny way of regurgitating old ideas and across various films and even on the runway, the codpiece has not been completely forgotten. Most recently, Gucci’s Alessandro Michele sent models down the runway wearing the accessory for his spring/summer 2019 show. American designer Thom Browne did the same in 2020. Before that, even Superman himself (played by Christopher Reeve) wore a metal codpiece at the insistence of his producers. In fact, the universe of DC comics is certainly no stranger to the accessory. In the 1990s, there was a superhero villain named ‘Codpiece,’ who had a multi-tool weapon attached to his groin.
He created a suit of armour with a crotch cannon because a girl in high school once told him he was too small. Alas, Codpiece was later defeated by a transgender superhero named Coagula who melted his crotch cannon off during a bank heist. We’re not exactly sure what lesson is to be learned here, but we’re almost certain it’s telling us something about the perils of reviving the codpiece.