Henry VIII: ‘brain injury caused by jousting to blame for erratic behaviour and possible impotence'

He is one of the most controversial figures in European history, best remembered for executing two of his six wives and for breaking away from the Catholic Church in what became known as the Reformation. Now, a new study concluding that Henry VIII suffered brain damage caused by a jousting injury offers the strongest explanation of his erratic behaviour “short of miraculously finding his preserved brain in jar,” its lead author has claimed

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein, c1536/37. (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

According to a team of US researchers led by Dr Arash Salardini, behavioural neurologist and co-director of the Yale Memory Clinic, the Tudor monarch may have suffered repeated traumatic brain injuries similar to those experienced by American Football players. This, researchers claim, would explain Henry’s explosive anger, headaches, insomnia, memory problems, inability to control impulses, and even impotence.

Published by Yale Memory Clinic, a memory and cognitive clinic at Yale School of Medicine, the study claims that “Henry suffered from many symptoms which can unambiguously be attributed to traumatic brain injury”.

In an interview with History Extra, Dr Salardini said: “I thought [Henry] was a man with personality disorder, possibly narcissistic with sociopathic tendencies who had some form of mood disorder later on his life and took it out on his subjects. That is not what I ended up finding.”

Dr Salardini said the researchers went into the study with an open mind, originally writing it as a case report exploring the probability of the various diseases that Henry might have suffered. However, Salardini and his team were surprised to find that “the picture was so consistent with the sequel of chronic concussion, intellectual honesty would dictate writing about traumatic brain injury in Henry.”

Taking a neurological, rather than a historical, approach, the researchers “gathered data about the patient and localised most of the symptoms to the frontosubcortical circuitry [neural pathways that affect memory, organisation and behavioural control] and the pituitary [the gland that controls hormones]”.

From this “an anatomical and pathologically consistent medical timeline emerged which I think should be the strongest evidence in support of the concussion, short of miraculously finding [Henry VIII’s] preserved brain in a jar”, said Salardini.

King Henry VIII in a procession on his way to a tournament clad in armour and riding a horse, 1511. He is accompanied by courtiers who are holding the flaps of a tent so that the king can be seen. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In the paper, researchers dismissed a number of theories that have been previously been put forward to explain Henry’s changed behaviour from 1536, after which time it is argued that Henry “became cruel, petty and tyrannical”. These include diabetes, hypothyroidism and psychosis – none of which, researchers claim, “can account for the whole picture”.

Instead the paper argues that “traumatic brain injury could have caused diffuse axonal injury [a common brain injury in which the wires that connect the cells in the brain become damaged] which led to a change in the psychological makeup of Henry, and traumatic brain injury may have contributed to his other medical issues by causing pituitary dysfunction and endocrinopathies [hormone problems].”

The paper explains: “We know of at least three major head injuries in Henry’s life. He may have had headaches and more subtle changes to his personality after his first head injury [in March 1524, when the king was unseated after a jousting lance entered his open visor], but there is a marked stepwise change in him after 1536. It is entirely plausible, though perhaps not provable, that repeated traumatic brain injury lead to changes in Henry’s personality.”

The team examined Henry’s memory problems, headaches, insomnia and lack of impulse control. Of his memory problems, researchers said: “In July 1536, Henry’s son and possible heir Henry FitzRoy, Duke of Richmond and Somerset, died of tuberculosis. He was buried in near-secret in the presence of his father-in-law the Duke of Norfolk, and two other personages, by the king’s own instructions. Yet in a few days Henry appears to have forgotten his own role in the funeral and was accusing the Duke of Norfolk of inappropriate behaviour towards FitzRoy.

“There is another illustrative episode which occurred in 1546: the king loved religious debates and during one acrimonious argument between Catherine Parr and [bishop and statesman] Stephen Gardiner he unreasonably ordered the transportation of the queen to the Tower of London. The next day [Henry] appears to have forgotten about the incident and was consoling his distraught wife. When the soldiers arrived to take her away, he could not remember the original orders he had given and had to be prompted to remember the episode. When he remembered he flew into another fit of rage.”

Armour for field and tournament of King Henry VIII, 1540 (metal), possibly intended for the May Day tournament, 15 May 1540. Decorated by Giovanni di Maiano or Francis Quelblaunce; based on designs by Hans Holbein the Younger. (Royal Armouries, Leeds, UK / Bridgeman Images)

Turning to Henry’s behaviour, the researchers claim: “The irascibility and changeability of Henry was a source of constant anxiety for Tudor courtiers. Several ambassadors noted the unpredictability of Henry, who was often furious for reasons not immediately obvious to his ministers and advisers.” Henry was also “known to suffer from bouts of ‘mal d’esprit’ or depression with ‘self-pity and more than traces of gloom’”, the paper says.

Discussing Henry’s possible impotence, the researchers cite “rumours which apparently originated with Anne Boleyn and her brother according to Chapuys, the imperial ambassador for the Holy Roman Empire. Anne and George Boleyn were accused of ridiculing the king. Anne appears to have told her sister-in-law that Henry ‘was not adept in the matter of coupling with a woman and that he had neither vertu [skill] nor puissance [vigour]’”.

The paper also draws on “the inability of Henry to consummate his marriage to Anne of Cleves in 1540. Various excuses were made from ‘misliking of her body for the hanging of her breast and the looseness of her flesh’, to the charge that the king was duped by an unnecessarily complimentary portrait of Anne.” Impotence and weight gain, Dr Salardini told History Extra, “also fit with a growth hormone and sex hormone deficiency which is a known, but less common, manifestation of traumatic brain injury.”

In our interview with Salardini we asked how Henry VIII’s brain injury would be treated were he alive today. “The best treatment for traumatic brain injury is prevention, so wearing helmets was as important then as it is now,” he said. “It was advisable for the king, who seemed particularly accident-prone, to choose a more gentle sport.  

“Secondly, early management of mood regulation appears to be a useful intervention. If St John's wort was available in Henry's time then I would put him on a gram per day. He would also need to take up the Mediterranean diet of his enemies and have complex carbohydrates, monounsaturates and low-fat diet.

“Our knowledge has come a long way since the 16th century, but much of the therapeutics that we have today could have probably be reproduced back then.”

Tudor historian Tracy Borman believes leg pain, not brain damage, was to blame for Henry VIII's erratic behaviour. To read her counter-argument, click here.

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