Henry VIII: Tyrant or Victim?

A new paper has been published in the Journal of Clinical Neuroscience that attempts to explain the famously erratic and violent behaviour of King Henry VIII. Almost everyone must know that he had six wives, two of whom he had killed (divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived); and his violent outbursts of anger are also well documented. What isn’t so well known is that he wasn’t always that way.

In 1507 the Spanish ambassador wrote that there was, “no finer youth in the world,” than the 16 year old Henry. At age 24 the Venetian ambassador described him as, “prudent and wise and free from every vice.” In 1522, at the age of 31, Erasmus noted that Henry was “…a man of gentle friendliness, and gentle in debate; he acts more like a companion than a king.” There is an assumption, then, that something must have happened to Henry to change his behaviour.

For some time the prevailing theories were that Henry suffered from Cushing’s Syndrome, which is possible, or syphilis, which has now been largely discredited. The authors of this new paper suggest that it could have been multiple head traumas and the resultant brain damage that caused such a fundamental change in personality.

The King was very much into his sports and in those days sports tended to mean fighting, jousting, hawking; your usual Game of Thrones type of affair. In March of 1524 Henry took a jousting lance to the head that knocked him off his horse. He is reported to have been dazed by the impact and from that point on suffered recurrent headaches for the rest of his life.

The following year he attempted to vault a ditch but his pole snapped and he ended up in the drink. It is thought this left him unconscious as he was unable to get himself out, he was eventually pulled to safety legs first by a companion without whose help he would have drowned.

In January of 1536 he was again jousting when he was unseated whilst his horse was at full gallop. The horse landed on him and, again, Henry was knocked out. He is described as being, “…for two hours without speaking.” It is unclear if this means that he was out cold for two hours or whether he was conscious but unable to speak for two hours. Either way, it was a pretty serious knock.

It is this same year that accounts of Henry change. He begins to suffer from frequent migraines, he has problems with his memory, he has bouts of insomnia. For example, in the summer of the same year Henry’s son, also called Henry, died of tuberculosis. Henry issued instructions for the funeral but just a few days later could not remember having attended and accused those involved of excluding him. In 1546 whilst debating his then wife, Catherine Parr, on religious matters (surely only a brave person would take that topic on with Henry?) he became so violently angry that he had her sent to the Tower of London. When the guards came to take her away the next day he couldn’t remember having issued the order. Whilst laying siege to Boulogne he gave simultaneous orders to have the city fortified and demolished.

The authors, all from the Behavioural Neurology Unit at Yale, argue that the amnesia, the emotional instability and the personality change can all be explained by the multiple head traumas he sustained over the years.

Now, as interesting as all this is, there is no testable hypothesis here and so this is not science, it’s speculation. And you might ask: who cares? It’s not going to change anything; Henry and all his victims have been dead for nearly 500 years. I would argue, though, that history is not just what happened but also our interpretation of what happened. Right now Henry has a reputation as one of the most vile, violent, evil men in history; but is there enough evidence in this paper for us to rethink that and reframe him as a victim of his injuries? Frankly, I don’t know; I’m not making an argument in either direction I simply find it fascinating. It is certainly food for thought as we contemplate one of the most famous men in history.

Henry circa 1531 by Joos van Cleve

One thought on “Henry VIII: Tyrant or Victim?

  1. You are correct; it’s fascinating to speculate on such issues. This theory certainly sounds plausible, though, as you say, unverifiable… I would also suggest that the judgments some historians make as to the evilness of rulers tends to be both partisan, and, subjective. Evil is in the eye of the victims, or the beholder. The perpetrators seldom consider themselves to be evil, so, who is to say whose judgment is correct?

    Many of his actions were, indeed, violent and arbitrary, but, then, that can be said of any historical monarch, especially during an age when violence was as prevalent in the pursuit of political gain as it is in today’s world.

    Nice platform for discussion….


    Liked by 1 person

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