Brain Injuries Suffered While Jousting May Explain Henry VIII’s Tyrannical Behavior

Henry VIII's behavior became increasingly erratic after a jousting accident in 1536, which left him unconscious for two hours. Vladimir Wrangel/Shutterstock
Ben Taub 03 Feb 2016, 18:35

Famous for beheading two of his six wives, Henry VIII remains one of the most notorious monarchs in English history. Although popular culture often portrays him as an ill-tempered hot-head, a new study suggests that he may in fact have had a more gentle nature, which became distorted following a series of brain injuries sustained during jousting contests.

Analyzing historical accounts of Henry’s reign, Yale research assistants Muhammad Qaiser Ikram and Fazle Hakim Saijad found evidence that the famously rotund sovereign may not have always been the tyrant he later became. For instance, in 1529, Erasmus described him as “a man of gentle friendliness, and gentle in debate,” adding that “he acts more like a companion than a king.”

However, further investigation of these accounts reveals marked changes in the king’s behavior, which appear to coincide with three major jousting accidents. The most serious of these occurred in 1536, when Henry was left unconscious for two hours after he was unseated from his horse, which then fell on him.

Following this incident, Henry began to display symptoms often associated with traumatic brain injury (TBI), a term that covers a broad spectrum of cognitive impairments resulting from blows to the head. These include problems with memory and reasoning, as well as mental health issues such as depression, aggression, anxiety and emotional dysregulation. Today, such symptoms are often seen in NFL players, boxers and other athletes who suffer TBI while playing contact sports.

Henry's weight is said to have ballooned after a leg injury prevented him from exercising. Georgios Kollidas/Shutterstock

Accordingly, Henry is reported to have become prone to bouts of “mal d’esprit,” with one particularly severe episode of depression occurring in 1541, when he became despondent and locked himself in Hampton Court Palace for some time.

He also appears to have suffered from amnesia and an inability to control his temper, both of which are exemplified by an incident that occurred in 1546, when he inexplicably ordered soldiers to imprison his wife Catherine Parr in the Tower of London, only to forget that he had done so the following day. When reminded of his actions, he is said to have flown into a fit of rage.

In light of this evidence, the study authors conclude that it is “entirely plausible, though perhaps not provable, that repeated traumatic brain injury led to changes in Henry’s personality.” Reporting their findings later this week in the Journal of Clinical Neuroscience, the researchers also speculate that damage to the king's pituitary organ may have led to hypogonadism – a condition characterized by disrupted physiological functioning of the testes.

They subsequently suggest that, despite Henry’s legendary promiscuity, he may in fact have suffered from sexual dysfunction following his injuries. While this claim is somewhat difficult to confirm, it would appear to be backed up by correspondence between Anne Boleyn and her sister-in-law, in which the then queen complained of her husband’s lack of prowess in the royal bedchamber.

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