Henry VIII was born 28 June 1491 at the Palace of Placentia the third child of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. As hard as is it to believe, considering the stir he would make in the historical record, the little prince was an extremely second fiddle to his elder brother, Arthur, Prince of Wales. It was only after Arthur’s death in 1502 that the little Henry, once destined for the church, became a centerpiece of the royal court.
Henry became king in 1509, just before he turned 18. For the next few decades he ruled as justly and kindly as he could. Even when he wanted to annul his marriage to Katherina, he still treated her with absolute courtesy and respect, and seemed sincerely sorry she was so hurt by his desire to marry another woman. The King’s only apparent and significant personal flaws were a huge ego and a propensity to show off, both of which should be expected in a talented young man who had been taught to believe that he was, literally, second only to God. During his era it was commonly believed that the King was anointed by God, and therefore any person who acted against Henry also acted against God. Henry was a devout Catholic who sincerely believed it was his duty to manifest God’s will for his people. I don’t know about you, but if someone told me every day of my life that I was chosen by God to rule everyone around me, I would probably be full of myself too. So perhaps a little hubris on Henry’s part is understandable.
Although people now think of him as a bully who took care of backtalk by giving anyone fool enough to open their yap the chop, when Henry was a young man he enjoyed theological discussions, and would listen to opinions which differed from his own with “remarkable courtesy and unruffled temper”, the very opposite of imprisonment and execution. Even when the contentions surrounding Henry’s annulment from Katherina were heating up in 1529, the famous humanist Erasmus wrote that the King was “gentle in debate”.
He eventually became known for being a monster who blamed everyone but himself for his mistakes, but this was also a development of his later reign. The youthful King was not prone to blaming others for his mistakes, as demonstrated by a jousting accident in 1524 when he was inadvertently handed his lance and set on course before his visor was lowered. This error could have easily killed him, so it wasn’t exactly “no big deal”. When his opponent’s lance struck the King it splintered and rocketed the potentially lethal shards into Henry’s face. It was damn near a miracle that Henry’s eyes didn’t get big shards of wood buried in them. The pain must have been horrific. Nonetheless, the King graciously forgave those responsible and insisted that it was all his fault for not checking his own visor.
Henry also has a bad rap for slaughtering anyone who displeased him, no matter how trivial the reason, but that isn’t the whole truth. Before 1535 it was like pulling teeth to get Henry to sign off on an execution, particularly if it was someone he knew well, no matter how much evidence was piled up. The 3rd Duke of Buckingham was clearly angling for Henry’s crown, and it still to a lot of persuasion from Henry’s right hand man, Cardinal Wolsey, before the King would agree to give his cousin to the headsman. When Cardinal Wolsey was in turn caught plotting to slow down and/or stop Henry’s annulment from Katherina (Wolsey knew Anne Boleyn hated his guts and he didn’t want her to be Queen), Henry hemmed and hawed and forgave Wolsey so much that the Cardinal actually died of natural causes before the King could make up his mind whether or not to put Wolsey’s noggin on a spike.
The lion’s share of Henry’s bloodshed was supposedly because of his attempted annulment from Katherina; those who didn’t support the voiding the marriage weren’t going to need their hats ever again.
For years Henry put up with the most blatant disrespect and challenges to his authority regarding his nullity suit without calling for an axe. In 1532 William Peto preached an Easter sermon where he flat out told the King, who was in the congregation, that he would wind up like the Old Testament ruler Ahab. He warned the King to his face that if he didn’t mend his ways, then after his death dogs would lick up his blood just like dogs had licked up Ahab’s blood. Peto also strongly implied that Anne Boleyn was Jezebel reborn. Considering that Jezebel’s name was (and still is in some circles) synonymous with “skank who wears too much mascara”, not to mention that Jezebel was the Queen reputed to have slaughtered prophets and replaced them with idol worshipers, this was a serious theological pimp-slap to Anne. To top it off another friar, named Elston (or Elstow in some records), stepped up to the plate and backed Peto. Henry was severely irked, but he didn’t have anybody’s head cut off.
Instead, Peto and Elstow were called up in front of the King’s council, where Henry and his chief ministers laid into them. The friars stood their ground and thumbed their noses at their King. When the Earl of Essex told them they should be stuffed into a sack and dropped into the Thames to drown, Peto told Essex that they could get to heaven from water just as well as they could by land. Water was probably especially chancy for Peto and Elstow, since their huge brass testicles would have scuppered any attempt to swim. Yet in spite of the sneering insolence that they showed for the King and his courtiers, the friars were not executed. Instead, Peto and Elstow were freed and sent into exile. They sped off to Antwerp, where Peto continued to give Henry the big fat finger by publishing a book defending the legitimacy of Katherina’s marriage to the King.
Another tact that Henry didn’t take to facilitate the annulment he wanted so badly was to simply have Katherine clandestinely murdered. Some people argue that the Queen was too popular with the English populace for Henry to risk killing her, but that wouldn’t have stopped him if he was really the beast people think of him as and if he had been really determined to get rid of her. After all, popular support did not save any of the innocent people Henry would start executing in 1535. As it was, he was accused (in whispers) of poisoning Katherina anyway, so why not have been hanged for a sheep rather than a lamb?
So what made Henry change so much, and so suddenly?
I think he probably had a condition called McLeod syndrome that radically altered his mental condition shortly after his 40th birthday.
If you’ve never heard of McLeod syndrome before, you are not alone. It isn’t well known, except to a few doctors who are specialists in this kind of blood-antigen linked illness. Usually of the symptoms of McLeod syndrome begin to show up around the fortieth birthday, and grow progressively worse over time. The physical and psychological symptoms of McLeod syndrome would explain why Henry became weaker and mentally unstable after he turned forty in 1531, finally losing his grip and becoming a monster in 1535, and why he kept going downhill faster and faster until his death in 1547. The mental symptoms of this illness include, but are not limited to, erosion of memory and executive functions, paranoia, depression, socially inappropriate conduct, irrational personality alterations, and even schizophrenia-like behaviors. In severe cases, schizophrenia-like symptoms of personality changes may be the clue that tells the doctor that the patient probably has McLeod syndrome. In short, if Henry had McLeod syndrome it would explain why a dashing young king, one who wanted to be the flower of English chivalry, became a decrepit bastard who had so many of his wives, friends and family members executed.
It wasn’t until 1535, when he was almost 44 years old, that Henry started killing people willy-nilly and seemed to lose his marbles. He became paranoid and petulant, blaming everyone around him for the dumb stuff he did. 1535 is when he executed Thomas More, and to deal with the backlash he blamed the whole thing on Anne Boleyn. He also blamed Anne for the persecution of his daughter Mary, even though Anne was already dead when Henry was hounding Mary. He was not-so-subtly threatening to kill his own child if she didn’t betray her mother and “admit” she was the illegitimate product of incest. The king killed Thomas Cromwell out of spite simply because Henry didn’t like Anna of Cleves (who was NOT ugly; Henry made that up), and then threw a fit that Cromwell wasn’t around any more to do what Henry wanted. His policy decisions were also complete crap, too.
The outright stupidity of the older Henry’s political moves are a telltale sign something, even if it wasn’t McLeod syndrome, had effected Henry’s brain. They guy had been smart. Neil deGrasse Tyson smart. Smart enough to impress the most famous minds of his day, such as Erasmus and Thomas More. Like Erasmus and More, the King was a humanist, which meant he was devoted to the study of the literature and moral philosophy of ancient Greek and Roman scholars, as well as being trained in grammar and rhetoric. . He used his academic skills to write a book defending the Catholic Church from Reformation criticisms, titled A Defense of the Seven Sacraments, after which a grateful Vatican awarded him with (ironically, considering what lay in store) the title “Defender of the Faith”. He wasn’t just being given an easy A, either — he was an actual brainbox. Henry studied mathematics, engineering, and astronomy with some of the most learned men in England. He spoke several different languages, and was as fluent in Latin and French as he was in his native tongue. To top it off, he was also an amazing musician who played multiple instruments and composed his own music.
By the time Henry was in his 50s he was no longer the kind and intelligent man he was in his youth; he was now as crazy as a bedbug but still the most powerful man in England. His paranoia kept getting more extreme and shortly before he died he had almost all of his maternal relatives executed, just in case they might try any shenanigans after Henry had passed away. No courtier, not even his oldest and dearest friends, were safe from the King’s wild mood swings. Lord Montague, Henry’s cousin who had grown up with him from childhood, said that Henry would “be out of his wits one day … for when he came into his chamber he would look angrily, and after fall to fighting”. Not long after, Henry had Montague executed.
Another possible cause of Henry’s dramatic change in personality and temperament is chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a medical condition that causes the brain to form multiple lesions (especially in the frontal lobe) and deteriorate as a result of repeated minor/mild concussions or blows to the head. CTE often causes the same kind of personality changes and psychotic behaviors as a larger traumatic brain injury. (Although a traumatic brain injury from a jousting accident in 1536 has been speculated to be the cause of Henry’s altered personality, I cannot see this as the main causal factor inasmuch as his killing spree and ill-temper began several months before his accident.) CTE is a viable option for Henry’s shift in behavior because it would have been due to the numerous and almost daily impacts from hard landings on a jumping horse and the frequent blows he received while jousting. I explain more about CTE (and Henry other potential ailments) in my book Henry VIII’s Health in a Nutshell if you’d like to know more.
If the King had McLeod syndrome or CTE then he was as much a victim as the people his condition compelled him to execute. Whatever Henry became, the young idealist who took the throne in the spring of 1509, who was so warmly praised as a “lover of justice and goodness”, deserves to be remembered just as much as the bloodthirsty nutcase he was when he died after reigning for almost forty years.