Henry the VIII and Brain Injury Behavior Changes


Posted on 5th June 2008 by Gordon Johnson in Uncategorized

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From my co-author of https://waiting.com:

For those who watch the Showtime series, The Tudors, this season brought a lot of changes in the life of King Henry VIII. Although not happy with his new queen’s inability to deliver an heir, Anne’s prospects got a lot worse after the king suffered a fall from a horse in a jousting accident.

Some historians conjecture that Henry was severely affected by a leg injury he suffered at the time, but others further hypothesize that Henry, who is reported to have been unconscious for several hours, may have suffered a brain injury which led to the drastic change of behavior he exhibited towards Anne Boleyn after his fall.

When one considers the sort of activities the king engaged in prior to his fall -jousting tournaments and break neck hunting expeditions – it might be expected that the king most likely had a history of “knocks to the head”. Regardless, his perception of his wife, Anne, certainly became very distorted and in keeping with many of the symptoms of a brain injury.

Very suddenly, he became convinced that the woman he had risked a kingdom for, had seduced him with witchcraft and he became very susceptible to the reports of wrongdoings from her enemies at court. Eventually this led to several trials for infidelity and treason. Five men were accused on unconvincing evidence and sentenced to death, including her own brother, George Boleyn.

The signs are in the change of behavior in the king. When he had divorced Catherine of Aragon, although she was banished from the court, she was treated with some sort of compassion and her daughter Mary was given safe refuge. Not so, with Anne Boleyn. She was granted no mercy and the king was impatient for her execution and announced his betrothal to Jane Seymour 24 hours later, believing that he had a sign during his period of unconsciousness that she was his salvation.

It was a somewhat chilling reminder to me of the type of fill in memory that exists after a major brain injury, in which facts are easily distorted or replaced because the survivor must make sense out of the gaps which occur. I can easily imagine Thomas Cromwell’s whisperings to the king of Anne’s shortcomings suddenly becoming accepted as truth in an attempt by Henry to replace his own confusion.

Many of Henry’s behavioral changes are in keeping with the theory that he suffered a brain injury. Although his leg injury may have complicated his activities, his sudden disinterest in exercise and former activities certainly would help explain many of the medical symptoms he suffered from that point on, foremost being the obesity he suffered until the end of his life.

The reason I found this historical incident so intriguing is because it related to my own experience with a severe brain injury survivor in which confabulation played a key role. The survivor would fill in gaps with whatever information the people he had contact with gave him, true or false, he had no ability to discern reality himself. Thus, in a situation with hostile family members, this led to some very distorted views of his situation, despite proof to the contrary.

Not only did he fill in holes in his memory with random information, whatever information he was given was exaggerated with every telling. Given the facts of his accident, each time he repeated what he believed to have happened, it became more and more fantastic. This point struck me on The Tudors when Henry breaks down and cries that Anne had slept with hundreds of men when proof of her infidelity was sketchy at best.

It is no doubt, chilling, to realize that the 72,000 executions King Henry VIII ordered in his lifetime may have been perpetuated by an undiagnosed brain injury.

Regardless of the actual historical facts surrounding Henry’s injuries, the depiction that the writers for The Tudors chose to encompass was very true to the nature of brain injury. Henry had other injuries that the doctors were more concerned with and his head injury would have gone untreated. He was unable to discern that those around him had their own personal political agendas and became vulnerable to a desperation to fill in missing gaps in his own memory of the facts. He exaggerated fantastic gossip to mammoth proportions. His former grief and compassion for his enemies turned to an unemotional detachment towards those around him. And a former inclination for personal gratification escalated to a point that would make him an infamous character in history.

One can dispute the argument, but the change of person exhibited by Henry following his accident leaves many questions as to what damage actually occurred in his jousting accident.

Rebecca Martin
One very believable theory as to why Henry VIII had such a dramatic change in weight was that he lost his sense of smell, which can dramatically change a person’s eating habits. See a related blog at http://tbilaw.blogspot.com/2008/06/loss-of-smell-was-missed-sign-of-brain.html
  1. news2me says:

    I have a brain injury and have followed the Tudors series also. I noticed the same thing about the King and have been trying to tell my therapist that I also seem to fill in the gaps of my confusion with the worst possible “facts”. She doesn’t “get” what I am saying.
    All I know is I hatre having a brain injury is makes already tough relationships impossible.

    5th June 2008 at 5:04 pm

  2. Suzie says:

    Hello, I’m a sixteenth century historian, and study Henry VIII. There’s lots of fact and fiction mixed up in the account above, and I’m not sure what is meant to be what, so won’t comment too much but just one thing – the 72,000 executions in Henry VIII’s reign reported by Stow (which is the largest estimate, by the way) were that – executions in his reign, not all ordered by Henry himself. Execution was a common form of penalty for even mild crimes. Henry VIII did act in ways that stretched definitions of the law, and certainly ordered executions in cases of perceived treason, but he wasn’t a mass murderer on the scale this seems to imply.

    5th June 2008 at 3:31 pm

  3. Michael Wilson says:

    Have just seen the latest TV programme about Ann Boleyn’s execution for adultery. There were several expert historian discussing their own theories based entirely on historical evidence. Not one of them referred to Henry’s very bad jousting accident that rendered him unconscious for I think 25 minutes. The trouble with the historians is that they could not get out beyond their discipline to consider what effect such a dreadful accident would have in terms of brain injury. Is it not possible that Henry’s dramatic change in behaviour from then on could be caused by brain damage. This would mean that the court would have to cover up and from then on Cromwell and others would be running the country. Hence the extraordinary volte farce with Ann and the trumped up charges tht led to her execution. A man who had his frontal lobes severely damaged might believe almost anything he was told. I of course don’t know what happened but surely the historians (and novelist) should consult neuropsychology. MICK WILSON

    5th June 2008 at 3:35 pm

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