Jousting was a dangerous sport, and on March 10, 1524, Henry VIII was very nearly maimed or killed during a tournament. Edward Hall’s Chronicle recounts:
“Then [Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk] set forward and charged with his spear, and the king likewise unadvisedly set off towards the duke. The people, seeing the king’s face bare, cried hold, hold; the duke neither saw nor heard, and whether the king remembered his visor was up or not few could tell. Alas, what sorrow was it to the people when they saw the splinters of duke’s spear strike the king’s headpiece. For most certainly the duke struck the king on the brow right under the guard of the headpiece on the very skull cap or basinet piece to which the barbette is hinged for strength and safety, which skull cap or basinet no armorer takes heed of, for it is always covered by the visor, barbette and volant piece, and thus that piece is so protected that it takes no weight. But when the spear landed on that place there was great danger of death since the face was bare, for the duke’s spear broke into splinters and pushed the king’s visor or barbette so far back with the counter blow that all the King’s head piece was full of splinters. The armorers were much blamed for this, and so was the lord marquise for delivering the spear blow when his face was open, but the king said that no one was to blame but himself, for he intended to have saved himself and his sight … Then the king called his armorers and put all his pieces of armor together and then took a spear and ran six courses very well, by which all men could see that he had taken no hurt, which was a great joy and comfort to all his subjects present.”
This accident, albeit less famous than his jousting mishap in 1536, is important because of what it reveals about Henry himself. The king, although given every incentive to blame other people for his mistake, took full responsibility for his error. As I point out in Blood Will Tell, this conduct is radically different from the way Henry acted twenty years later:
It would be difficult to exaggerate how much Henry’s actions in the last decade of his life were at odds with his behavior as a younger man. The youthful king was not prone to seeing plotters in every corner or blaming others for his mistakes, as demonstrated by his reaction to a jousting accident in 1524. During a tournament he was inadvertently handed his lance and set on course before his visor was lowered. This error could have easily resulted in disfigurement or death. When his opponent’s lance struck the king it splintered and rocketed the potentially lethal shards into Henry’s face. It was almost miraculous that Henry was not, at minimum, blinded. Nonetheless, the king graciously forgave those responsible and insisted that the fault was his for not checking his own visor. In comparison, the older king blamed anyone but himself. He blamed a dead Anne Boleyn for More’s death and Mary’s persecution just as he later blamed his ministers for Cromwell’s execution. The gracious, honest and forgiving Henry of the 1520s seems as though he is a completely different man. It almost seems implausible to suggest this radical change in character could have come about as a result of anything other than a significant underlying illness.
What caused this alteration of Henry’s personality? Was it the result of repeated blows to the head, or from the neural degeneration of McLeod’s syndrome?