The Bloodbath Begins: Henry VIII Turns to the Axe

Contrary to popular belief, Henry VIII wasn’t a tyrannical monster who chopped off heads willy-nilly … until 1535. Prior to that year, Henry was reluctant to use the axe when other solutions were possible and the worst thing he had done was separate Katherina of Aragon from their daughter, Mary. Even that wasn’t just being mean – he was legitimately concerned that if they were together an invading Spanish force could more easily free them and depose him, putting Mary on the throne in his stead. It had, after all, happened to Edward II in favor of his eldest son, Edward III.

No, Henry’s decent into despotism can be pinpointed to late spring 26 years into his reign. In Blood Will Tell, I argue that this murder spree was possibly caused by the onset of McLeod syndrome around Henry’s 40th birthday. As I explain in the book,

One of the clearest signs of Henry’s increasing violence was the execution of three Carthusian priests and a Bridgettine monk on May 4, 1535. Their only ‘crime’ was their steadfast belief that the Pope was the Holy Father and head of the Church, which was now treason in England. Their deaths were by hanging, drawing and quartering, a nasty business involving being hung, then let down from the noose before they died from lack of oxygen, then being disemboweled and castrated while still conscious, before having their entrails burnt in front of their faces. Once they were dead their bodies were cut into quarters and beheaded. There is even a rumor that their castrated privates were stuffed into their mouths to stop their ceaseless prayers, but historians are not sure whether this is the truth, or merely a rumor to further strengthen Henry’s reputation for barbarism. The executions must have given Henry some form of gratification, because on June 19 he sent three more Carthusians to the same hideous death, including one named Sebastian Newdigate, a man who had once been one of Henry’s courtiers before he renounced his earthly wealth and joined the religious order. Newdigate appears to have been the first of the King’s friends or acquaintances to be executed in connection with Henry’s Great Matter. The king tried, in person, to persuade Newdigate to change his mind about the Pope’s supremacy. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913,  Newdigate “was thrown into the Marshalsea prison, where he was kept for fourteen days bound to a pillar, standing upright, with iron rings round his neck, hands, and feet. There he was visited by the King, who offered to load him with riches and honours if he would conform. He was then brought before the Council, and sent to the Tower, where Henry visited him again” (1913:630). Newdigate refused to acquiesce to Henry’s wishes or accept the validity of Henry’s arguments and died with his fellow Carthusians.

carthusian monks death henry VIII

Having now killed someone with whom he was familiar, the king subsequently found it easier to send his friends to their deaths. Henry ordered the beheading of Bishop John Fisher three days later, on June 22. To be honest, there was at least some legal reasoning behind Fisher’s execution. If the king had always been a ruthless, bloodthirsty monster he would have executed the Bishop long before. Fisher had been openly defying Henry for eight years and the king had stood by while Fisher actively preached against him and penned books defending the validity of Katherina’s marriage. If Henry had been a brutal tyrant prior to his fortieth birthday he would have had Fisher arrested and executed in 1529, after the defiant Bishop preached a sermon in support of Katherina’s marriage to the king — one in which he went so far as to compare Henry to the evil biblical monarch Herod. Since the Bible depicted king Herod as a savage madman who murdered his wife and family members, as well as ordering the slaughter of male infants in Bethlehem, to associate him with Henry was so insulting it could be considered treasonous. In 1533 Fisher had given Henry even more of an excuse to execute him when he appealed to other European rulers to invade England and depose Henry, an act of blatant and indisputable treason. Yet the king still spared Fisher’s life because the prelate had always been an important and respected member of Henry’s court. It was not until McLeod syndrome would have begun to affect Henry, causing the previously egotistical yet well-meaning king to become irrational and savage, that Fisher was finally condemned to be beheaded.

Bishop John Fisher

A few weeks before Fisher’s execution the Pope elevated him to the rank of a Cardinal, signaling the Curia’s support of Fisher’s stance. Henry was understandably incensed by the Papacy’s attempt to reward his enemy and refused to allow the Cardinal’s hat to be brought into England from Rome. The king was unfaltering in his intention to show that he, not the Pope, determined the course of the Church in his own country, so Fisher’s promotion did nothing to save him from Henry’s wrath. After the Cardinal’s death, comparisons were made between Fisher and John the Baptist, who had likewise had his head cut off for criticizing the marital practices of his king. This is perhaps an unjust comparison, inasmuch as Fisher had also appealed to other rulers to overthrow his king and any monarch of the Renaissance era would have considered this behavior treasonous and therefore deserving of execution. Regardless of whether or not Fisher’s execution was justified (within the legal system of the time period), Henry now seemed to have very few scruples about killing learned men he had once befriended and esteemed. 

McLeod syndrome isn’t the only medical answer to explain Henry’s new irrationality and murder streak. He may have also had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), wherein your brain forms multiple lesions due to repeated minor/mild concussions or blows to the head. This causes brain deterioration, and often leads to the same kind of personality changes and psychotic behaviors as a larger traumatic brain injury. Henry would have jolted his noggin plenty from jousting and from hard landings on a jumping horse, so CTE is a definite possibility to explain the king’s mental alteration. I explain more about this illness in Henry VIII’s Health in a Nutshell.


What should be noted is that Henry’s fondness for the axe begins more than six months prior to his jousting accident in January 1536, so a singular traumatic brain injury sustained then would not account for the king’s behavioral changes.

Sadly, the 25 years of genial kingship have been forgotten by most people, and most of what remains in the popular imagination is the idea of Henry VIII as a vicious brute who ruled with the systemic violence of Stalin or Pol Pot.

2 thoughts on “The Bloodbath Begins: Henry VIII Turns to the Axe

  1. I’m curious as to your characterization of Henry as reluctant to use the axe prior to 1535. IIRC, he wasn’t reluctant to use the axe on Empson and Dudley at the beginning of his reign — and that was merely a popularity grab; he didn’t have to do it. While medical explanations (brain injury, McLeod Syndrome) might show why Henry’s violence and cruelty increased dramatically, I think that these early executions show a pre-existing tendency to these traits.

    1. Prior to 1535 the only executions he was know for were Empson, Dudley, and Buckingham. Empson and Dudley were as much a coup by Wolsey as anything else, and Henry was only 17. Moreover, after their deaths he became extremely loathe to sign an execution warrant. Wolsey was driven batty trying to get the king to finally off Buckingham. Then, even with evidence of treason, Henry never executed Wolsey. So three executions in the first 26 years of his reign, and then dozens in the last 12 years of his rule.

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