When King Henry VIII took the crown in 1509 at the age of 17, members of his court noted that he was a scholar and athlete. He was thoughtful, wise and thoughtful. But when he died in 1547, many feared him like a petty tyrant who hysterically executed his enemies, including two of his six wives.
His change in personality has long had scientists wondering – what’s this guy’s deal?
Medical historians have considered whether the king had diabetes, hypothyroidism or Macleod syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that can affect the brain. In 2016, a team of neuroscientists reexamined the theory that King Henry VIII’s behavior was the result of multiple head injuries. This is an idea that more scholars and historians support.
King Henry VIII was fond of dangerous sports, including wrestling, hawking, pole vaulting and shooting. Although medical historians suspect that he had multiple concussions during his lifetime, four specific cases are believed to have contributed to his neurological deterioration.
One of his first known head injuries came from a wrestling match with Francis I of France in June 1520. The French king knocked the English king to the ground, and court members described King Henry as stunned after the match, which scholars now know was symptom of concussion.
The second serious head injury is from a skirmishes injury. In the race, each opponent mounted a horse and then raced toward each other holding a wooden pole about 10 feet long. The goal was to use the spear to knock the other competitor off their horse. The competitors were wearing bulletproof vests as well as helmets with open visors around the eyes.
In a duel in March 1524, the opponent plunged his lance into the king’s open visor and hit just above his eye. The king complained of a headache – a symptom of concussion – then continued with the match. The injury was the start of a lifelong headache.
A year after the jousting injury, King Henry was pole vaulting over a hedge when the pole gave way under him. He fell into a water ditch below, briefly lost consciousness and was pulled from the water.
More than a decade later, in January 1536, the king suffered another injury in a skirmish. After falling heavily from his horse, King Henry was so dazed for the next two hours that he could not speak. Eventually he came around, but his demeanor was never the same.
King of the Fifth
Scholars disagree about which head injury turned the king from kind to cruel. Some say his behavior changed in the late 1520s, others see the final head injury of 1536 as the turning point. They quote how within five months for his final jousting injury, King Henry accused his second wife Anne Boleyn of adultery, imprisoned her, and executed her. He then married his third wife, Jane Seymour.
Scholars agree that King Henry experienced a major personality change characterized by anger, moodiness, and depression. The once charismatic king ordered death of 57,000 people, including two of his wives. He was responsible for executing more enemies than any other English monarch.
In addition to the changes in his personality, the king also underwent a physical transformation. He was a tall man for his time, well over six feet, and had a 32-inch waist in his 20s. By the 1950s, he had added 20 inches to his waist and was obese and immobile from leg ulcers. Some medical historians have seen these symptoms as an indicator of diabetes, but one research team says they speak to traumatic brain injury (TBI) instead.
the king of pain
Article from 2016 in Journal of Clinical Neuroscience investigates a claim first proposed in book from 1931 that the king’s terrible behavior was rooted in his head injuries. The research is the first known neurological examination of King Henry VIII.
The researchers gathered descriptions of Henry’s personality from different times in his life, as well as his medical history. In addition to his head injuries, King Henry also had several bouts of malaria in his youth. As his life progressed, they noticed his increased weight, leg ulcers, and almost constant headaches.
The team hypothesized that Henry’s personality change was due to a diffuse axonal injury (DAI) this happened when his brain hit his skull during various falls. Blunt brain injury creates DAI, a type of TBI. DAI explained how King Henry went from an eloquent and pleasant ruler to an angry and unpredictable tyrant who sometimes struggled to articulate his thoughts.
TBI also helps explain King’s physical changes. Researchers have suggested that King Henry’s weight gain may be due to damage to his pituitary gland, which caused growth hormone production to stop. This resulted in “visceral obesity, muscle weakness and reduced lean body mass.”
The study authors also identified hypogonadism as another result of King Henry’s TBI. The condition occurs when the body produces few sex hormones, and as the years progress, his wives report that he is unable to consummate their marriage.
King Henry VIII became forgetful, impulsive and erratic. He was no longer considered intelligent or strategic, but unpredictable and scattered. The authors concluded that his behavior was consistent with TBI resulting from multiple blows to the head.