Why Didn’t the King Kill William Peto?

The theory that Henry VIII had McLeod’s syndrome rests largely on the king’s drastic change in personality after his 40th birthday. Henry was not the same man in 1532 that he was in 1535, and it was such a drastic change it almost requires a medical reason to explain it. Prior to the 1530s, the king was a self-absorbed yet affable monarch, but by 1535 he had become the monster most people know him as. In my book, Blood Will Tell, I use his treatment of William Peto as a good example of this change.

On March 31st, 1532 Peto compared Henry to Ahab:

Ahab and Jezebel

a priest named William Peto preached an Easter sermon in which he asserted that the king, who was in the congregation listening, would meet his end just like the Old Testament tyrant Ahab. He warned the king that if he didn’t mend his ways, dogs would lick his blood from the stones just as they had licked Ahab’s after his death in battle. Peto also strongly implied that Anne was Jezebel reborn. Considering that Jezebel was considered to be a harlot who had slaughtered prophets and replaced them with idol worshipers, this was a thundering theological condemnation of Anne. Henry was enraged, but he didn’t have Peto’s head cut off. He looked for other solutions or punishments. First, he had one of the theologians who was on his side, a priest named Curwin, preach the following Sunday. Peto was away at the time, so it seemed like a choice opportunity to refute him. Things did not go according to Henry’s plans, however, since another friar named Elstow stood up from among the assembled listeners and began loudly refuting Curwin. Unsurprisingly, Peto and Elstow were called up in front of the king’s council, where Henry and his chief ministers castigated the pair soundly. The friars stood their ground. When the earl of Essex told them they should be stuffed into a sack and dropped into the Thames to drown, Elstow told Essex “Threaten these things to rich and dainty folk who are clothed in purple, fare delicately, and have their chiefest hope in this world, for we esteem them not, but are joyful that for the discharge of our duties we are driven hence. With thanks to God we know the way to Heaven to be as ready by water as by land, and therefore we care not which way we go”. Despite of thumbing their noses at the king and his courtiers these friars were not executed. Instead, Peto and Elstow were freed and sent into exile. They emigrated to Antwerp, where Peto continued to needle Henry by publishing a book defending the legitimacy of Katherina’s marriage to the king.

Peto insulted the king, personally as well as spiritually, and challenged the Henry’s authority withing his own kingdom, yet the friar got to keep his head. Three years later, Henry would start slaughtering people – clergymen, scholars, or just your everyday citizens – who had the temerity to either defend his marriage to his first wife or to challenge his break from Rome. That is not an insignificant change in mindset.

There may have been another explanation for the king’s dramatic alteration, one that was less understood in 2011 when I was writing Blood Will Tell. It is possible that Henry had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a form of brain damage that occurs due to repeated (often ‘mild’) concussions. Athletes are particularly prone to CTE from multiple impacts that jolt the brain inside the skull, and the brain damage can occur even when the initial symptoms of concussion is absent or faded. Henry, who loved to joust and hunt, would have been exposed to repeated blows to the head or body that were hard enough to cause concussions, and could have suffered mild concussions when his horse landed after a jump. I disscuss this possibility more fully in my book Henry VIII’s Health in a Nutshell.

Peto’s remarks, and the ideology behind them, had lasting effects. There was a rumor, which has passed into lore, that Henry’s coffin was breached by expanding decomposition gases and his blood leaked out — where it was licked from the floor by dogs as Peto had warned. Moreover, Anne Boleyn, who had done everything possible to escape the king’s attentions for the first two years of their “courtship”, would continue to be unfairly labeled a Jezebel and slandered as viciously as the original Israelite queen herself.

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