Historian and author Tracy Borman has expressed doubts about a new study that concludes Henry VIII’s erratic behavior in the later years of his life can be explained by a brain injury caused by jousting
Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
According to a team of US researchers at Yale Memory Clinic, the Tudor monarch may have suffered repeated traumatic brain injuries similar to those experienced by American Football players. This, researchers claim, would explain Henry’s explosive anger, headaches, insomnia, memory problems, inability to control impulses, and even impotence.
However, the study’s conclusions have been called into question by Tudor historian Tracy Borman. Here, writing for History Extra, she explains why she believes Henry’s erratic behaviour can instead be explained by the “constant, worsening pain” he experienced as a result of a leg injury…
Historians have long debated the reasons for Henry VIII’s transformation from affable, generous and high-spirited king to bloated, irascible and paranoid tyrant. This week, a team of neurologists from the University of Yale claimed to have found the answer. Our most famous king was suffering from “traumatic brain injury”. This had been sustained from several sporting accidents that occurred during the 1520s and 1530s, most notably the notorious joust of January 1536, in which Henry was said to have been knocked unconscious for two hours. The authors of the report compare these injuries to those suffered by players of American Football.
Fascinating though their analysis is, it doesn’t quite add up. For a start, it is far from being a new theory. Historians have long speculated that there may be a link between Henry’s personality change and the injuries that he suffered in the tournament arena. The memory loss that the Yale team ascribes to Henry could more accurately apply to the media who have been busy shouting about this exciting ‘new’ discovery ever since the report was released.
But for me, there are other problems with the claim that Henry suffered a brain injury. For a start, the contemporary accounts of his accidents vary wildly in detail and accuracy. Take the 1536 joust, for example. The idea that the king was knocked unconscious for two hours derives entirely from a report by a foreign ambassador who was in a different country when it happened. None of the eyewitnesses mention anything of the sort.
What we do know for certain is that Henry had suffered a nasty injury to his leg. This subsequently turned ulcerous and caused him considerable pain. Three months after the accident, a member of court reported: “The King goes seldom abroad because his leg is something sore.” It would prove a defining moment in the formerly athletic king’s reign. No longer able to take regular and vigorous exercise, he rapidly gained weight and became increasingly irascible.
In vain, Henry’s physicians sought to cure the ulcerated wound with a succession of ministrations, ranging from the brutal (keeping the wound constantly open) to the bizarre (administering a potion made of worms and wine). Little wonder that, far from improving, the injury would plague Henry for the rest of his life.
The fact that the king was in constant, worsening pain from that time forward is enough to account for his increasingly foul temper. It does not prove that he had sustained a brain injury. Neither is the claim that Henry suffered from frequent memory loss any more reliable. In fact, the example cited in the report is just plain wrong. It claims that Henry had drawn up a warrant for the arrest of his last wife, Katherine Parr, but had then forgotten all about it and was furious when he discovered that his councillors had carried it out. In fact, the warrant was part of a conspiracy led by the queen’s enemy, Stephen Gardiner, and Henry knew nothing about it until Katherine ran to him, pleading for her life.
Henry VIII c1520, unknown artist. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)
The other symptoms that have been ascribed to brain damage – depression, insomnia and impotence – can all be explained by the pain that Henry was in, as well as by his rapidly expanding girth. His mood would hardly have been improved by the knowledge that he was no longer the sporting ‘adonis’ that he had been for the first 20 years or more of his reign.
Between 1514 and 1536 Henry had gained only two inches around his waist, but by 1541 his measurements had expanded by a staggering 17 inches so that his waist was now 50 inches. “The King was so stout that such a man has never been seen”, observed one contemporary. “Three of the biggest men that could be found could get inside his doublet.”
By the end of his reign, Henry had to be winched up and down stairs on a special ‘engine’, and used the Tudor equivalent of a wheelchair to transport him around the palaces. It is hardly surprising that, humiliated, he so frequently lashed out against his courtiers, most of whom were both younger and fitter than he was.
Henry’s increasingly irascible behaviour can therefore be explained by the pain and frustration that he suffered after 1536. Even so, I believe it is over-stating the case to say that his personality underwent a “transformation”; that, as the Yale report claims, he turned from a “vigorous, generous and intelligent youth to a cruel and petty tyrant.”
The king’s descent into tyranny was much more gradual than that. And the seeds of that tyranny were not sown in the jousting arena. They had been evident since his childhood, when he had been raised as the dangerously indulged ‘spare heir’. Henry’s sporting injuries, with all of their debilitating side-effects, had not caused his less admirable character traits: they had simply brought them to the fore.
In defence of the findings…
Responding to Borman’s claims, Dr Arash Salardini, behavioural neurologist and co-director of the Yale Memory Clinic, told History Extra: “As a physician, the idea that the leg pain describes all [Henry’s] symptoms does not come close to being the second-most-likely diagnosis. If the traumatic brain injury theory is to be rejected then there are much better explanations including chronic depression/anxiety, Cushing’s disease [having very high levels of the hormone cortisol in the body, which causes weight gain, muscle weakness and decreased sexual appetite], or metabolic syndrome [the medical term for a combination of diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity].
“In terms of historical evidence I am not a historian and will not argue the points outlined above, but I wonder the views expressed in the critique are the present academic consensus. We find many contemporary British historians agree that Henry had multiple head injuries: Lucy Worsley comes to mind. Other head injuries are also documented in our paper. The year 1536 being the turning point of Henry’s life is also supported by Suzannah Lipscomb in her book 1536: The Year That Changed HenryVIII, among others. As for the episode with Katherine Parr, we used a secondary source, whose interpretation was different to what is presented here.
“Patients often have further deterioration of cognition after sustaining head injuries, most commonly complications: say in Henry’s case growth hormone deficiency would cause weight gain, diabetes and non-healing ulcers, and his head injury would cause deep depression and anxiety.
“Finally, our approach to Henry did not start with the brain injuries but the symptoms. This neurological model looks at symptoms, localises them to a part of the brain, forms a series of differential diagnosis, and then tests the most probable differential. From this an anatomical and pathologically consistent medical timeline emerged which I think should be the strongest evidence in support of the concussion, short of miraculously finding [Henry VIII’s] preserved brain in a jar.”
Dr Tracy Borman is joint chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces and an expert on the Tudor period. Her latest book, The Private Lives of the Tudors, will be published by Hodder & Stoughton in May 2016. You can follow Tracy on Twitter @BormanTracy or visit her website www.tracyborman.co.uk.
To read our interview with Dr Arash Salardini, behavioural neurologist and co-director of the Yale Memory Clinic, click here.