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Did Henry VIII Suffer from Head Trauma?

By Danièle Cybulskie

It’s a question that pretty much anyone looking at the arc of his life ends up asking: what happened to Henry VIII? From a hugely-admired prince, to a widely-feared king, the transformation in Henry’s behaviour and outlook would seem like the stuff of fiction, but for the fact that history bears out how real it was. Just how did the champion of the Catholic church come to be the notorious killer of queens? Researchers from the Behavioral Neurology Unit at the Yale School of Medicine think they may have the answer: traumatic head injury.

Henry VIII

Henry VIII

According to behavioural neurologist Arash Salardini and research assistants Muhammed Qaiser Ikram and Fazle Hakim Sajjad in an article in the Journal of Clinical Neuroscience (28 (2016) 16-19) from earlier this year, the idea of head injury being a factor in Henry’s personality change was first proposed by Frederick Chamberlain in The Private Character of Henry the Eighth in 1931 (although it seems likely to me that Henry’s contemporaries would likewise have wondered). A quick Google search will reveal many other theories which attempt to explain both his change in personality and his striking weight gain. Interestingly, the researchers at Yale’s examination of head injury may do both.

Henry had several documented head injuries over the course of his life, including a lance to the face in 1524, a fall from a horse in 1525, and – most significantly, according to the authors of the paper – another fall from a horse in which he was pinned under it and lost consciousness for two hours in January of 1536 (17-18). While the 1524-5 dates don’t match significantly with any major strange events, it was after these injuries that Henry made his split with the Catholic church: 1531 marked his divorce from Katherine of Aragon. Even more interestingly is the ever-increasingly erratic behaviour that followed the more serious injury in 1536. In January, Henry is badly injured and only a few months later (May, 1536) he executes Anne Boleyn and marries Jane Seymour within a scant eleven days. The next ten years of his life are a series of strange behaviours and executions leading up to his death in 1547.

Using chronicle evidence, the team at Yale connect many of Henry’s later mercurial moods and unexplained behaviour to one or all of these head injuries, including impulse control, sociopathy, memory problems, headaches, and depression (18). They also suggest that the trauma could have caused physical symptoms as well:

Damage to the pituitary organ can cause central endocrinopathies. The two most common syndromes are growth hormone deficiency and hypogonadotropic hypogonadism. (18)

What does this mean? Citing an earlier article by an endocrinologist (H. Ashrafian), Ikram, Sajjad, and Salardini explain that growth hormone deficiency “can cause visceral obesity, muscle weakness and reduced lean body mass” (18), which may explain why a king so active in his youth may have become so physically changed over time. The leg ulcers that continually plagued Henry throughout his later life, as well as type II diabetes, could also have stemmed from growth hormone deficiency (18).

Finally, the Yale team suggests that Henry could have been afflicted with hypogonadotropic hypogonadism, which they believe would explain why such a notorious womanizer became unable to consummate his marriage to Anne of Cleves and why he was described as faithful to Catherine Howard (19). Given all of Henry’s many health complaints, I’m not sure we need to add this syndrome to explain Henry’s (relatively) lacklustre sex life in his later years, but if we do, it fits the bill.

Our continual fascination with the Tudors, and especially with this compelling and fearsome king, means that there will always be more theories about why Henry VIII made such extreme and far-reaching choices, but Ikram, Sajjad, and Salardini (building on Chamberlain’s earlier hypothesis) have made as good a case as is possible, given that we only have chronicle evidence to work from. You can find their full paper, called “The Head that Wears the Crown: Henry VIII and Traumatic Brain Injury” in the Journal of Clinical Neuroscience.

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