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