Humpty Dumpty Had a Great Fall

On 24 January 1536 Henry VIII had a jousting accident. Not only was he hit hard, his horse, wearing hundreds of pounds of armor, fell on top of him. The king was unconscious for more than two hours, and it was feared he wouldn’t live.

Henry VIII's horse armor

Was this severe concussion the reason Henry began his reign as an attractive, affable, teenager who was respected as one of the most learned men in Europe, but became a brutal, bloodthirsty, paranoid bully in his forties, a brute who “never spared a man in his anger nor a woman in his lust”? Or was an earlier head injury in 1524 that was truly to blame? Or the combination of many smaller minor concussions resulting from his active hunting and jousting? Or something else all together?

Taking the postulations in reverse order, did the accident in 1536 hurt Henry’s brain so severely that he became almost a different person? It is possible that the strong blow to the head during the accident could have caused a blood clot in his brain, which in turn would have created intracranial pressure and pushed his brain forward in his skull, squashing the frontal lobe against the inside of his forehead. The frontal lobe of the brain is considered to be the center of an individual’s personality. Although an injury like this would not necessarily impair his motor functions, it could have caused serious psychological problems. Some symptoms of a brain injury are lethargy, difficulty in concentrating, memory issues, bad judgment, depression, irrationally moody behavior, emotional outbursts, insomnia, a low sex drive, and radical personality changes.  The personality changes can be so severe that it is comparable to having schizophrenia.

Although such an injury could potentially be the cause of a personality change such as Henry’s, as well as his mood swings and depression, it was unlikely to be the only source of the king’s alteration. Henry was already exhibiting signs of mental change before his accident. He was definitely becoming irascible as early as 1532 and he started his first judicial killing spree in 1535. Before the age of 40, the king seldom executed someone he knew personally, having to be pushed to such extreme measures by his chancellors if there was a clear and present danger to his throne. An older Henry showed no such hesitation. In fact, he had begun to order the agonizing deaths of his subjects and courtiers for the flimsiest of reasons, or sometimes for no reason at all.

The first sign of Henry’s new bloodthirstiness was the execution of three Carthusian priests and a Bridgettine monk on May 4, 1535, more than a year before the king would kill Anne Boleyn. The monks’ had enraged Henry by their steadfast (and now treasonous) belief that the pope was the head of the church. Henry ordered the full traitors death for them, 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 and having their entrails burnt in front of them. Once they were dead their bodies were cut into quarters and the heads chopped off. 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 spread to strengthen Henry’s reputation for barbarism.

carthusian monks death henry VIII

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 personal friends or acquaintances to be executed in connection with Henry’s Great Matter. The king himself attempted 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”. Newdigate refused to acquiesce to Henry’s wishes or accept the validity of Henry’s arguments and died with his fellow Carthusians.

Although Henry’s injury in 1536 could have made him decidedly worse, it cannot explain why he had turned “bad” in the first place.

What about the head injury from 1524? If Henry had begun to show signs of growing instability in 1527, wouldn’t that account for his behaviors by 1535? It is decidedly plausible, considering that head injuries can leave a person with “Jekyll and Hyde” like dual personalities or outright turn them into ‘strangers’ full of anger and anxiety. Henry would shift between his normative good-natured self into monster of paranoid rage, and a traumatic brain damage could explain it. Nevertheless there are some gaps in the theory. Most significantly is the fact that from 1527 to 1532 there are no signs of extreme personality changes in the king. The only thing ‘odd’ that happened in those years was his decision to end his marriage.

His desire to put his first wife aside and remarry was not a sign of a sudden personality change. Rumors had swirled for years that he would put Katherina of Aragon aside in favor of a new, young, and hopefully son-producing bride, so his decision to end his marriage was not a sudden one. Until the summer of 1532 Henry continued to treat Katherina with the same unstinting courtesy he had shown her during the halcyon days of their marriage. It was only after 1533 that the king became outright cruel to his first wife and eldest daughter in a very short space of time, and only in his later years that he became uniformly tyrannical. Usually, brain impairment is less progressive than that; it manifests within a week or so after the injury and doesn’t slowly go downhill over time. Instead, the undamaged sections of the brain learn to compensate for and assume the ‘responsibilities’ of the injured area, helping the patient get better – not worse – as the years pass. On average it takes between 10-15 years for people with severe brain injuries to show marked signs of improvement. If anything, 10 — 15 years after his jousting accident (1534 -1539) Henry was had only begun to behave like a brute.

What about many smaller concussions all together, working to damage the king’s brain and turn him into a tyrant? Well, that is certainly a possibility. Minor injuries to the brain caused when a jousting lance impacted against Henry or when his horse came down from a jump during hunting could have reached a critical point where they would have left permanent damage in his frontal lobes. These unnoticed, undiagnosed concussions, formerly called “mild” traumatic brain injuries or mTBI and now associated with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), can cause the same kinds of psychiatric illness and personality change as one big blow to the head, due to bleeding and bruising in the frontal lobes of the brain. If this was the case, Henry’s jousting accident in 1536 would have made an already unstable king much worse, much faster.

Finally, there is one medical condition posited that would explain why Henry’s emotional changes and physical deteriation began shortly before his fortieth birthday and then rapidly accelerated until his death that does not relate to physical injury. If the supposition that Henry had a Kell positive blood type is correct, then he may have developed a disease which is exclusive to Kell positive individuals: McLeod syndrome. The illness resembles Huntington’s disease and may operate in a similar fashion by causing the degeneration of part of the brain. Patients are typically healthy during their infancy and childhood, with the disease starting to put in an appearance around a person’s fortieth birthday and then growing progressively worse over time. Although the majority of people with this illness don’t normally begin to show mental/psychological symptoms until after midlife, “there is subclinical affectation of muscle and peripheral nerve already in the third decade”, which would explain why the king’s athleticism was compromised after his mid-thirties. McLeod syndrome would explain both the specific degeneration of Henry’s leg muscles and his sudden (yet increasingly thereafter) behavior changes in the 1530s.

henryviii nuts

There are many different kinds of psychopathology exhibited by patients with McLeod syndrome including, but not limited to, deterioration of memory and executive functions, paranoia, depression, and socially inappropriate conduct. This mental deterioration can become severe. In one notable case, a previously healthy man with a high degree of intelligence was hospitalized at the age of 39 with an initial schizophrenic episode. and it was determined that the patient’s psychopathology was actually a symptom of his worsening McLeod syndrome. This demonstrates that “schizophrenia-like symptoms”, which include personality changes, anxiety, paranoia, depression and a host of other psychopathological conditions, can be the “prominent initial clinical manifestation” of McLeod syndrome. There is certainly substantial evidence to suggest that Henry underwent a significant personality change after his fortieth birthday, in a manner consistent with the mental problems that are often linked to McLeod syndrome.

Do you think Henry VIII was injured, ill, or just a mean bastard who murdered people for selfish reasons?

2 thoughts on “Humpty Dumpty Had a Great Fall

  1. What an excellent analysis! This blog is helpful not only in understanding what may have been going on with Henry VII, but also provides good research material for authors.
    Thanks a lot.

  2. According to what I read at “The Anne Boleyn Files”, the evidence that Henry was unconscious for two hours is third hand hearsay; the two writers who would have access to people with better knowledge (Chapuys and Wriothesley) both said that Henry wasn’t badly hurt at all. This (IMO) strengthens your theory by eliminating another possible explanation. It would be interesting to get your opinion on Henry’s beheading of Dudley and Empson (sp?) at the beginning of his reign; if this was a popularity grab, it would indicate he did kill for selfish reasons.

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