Henry VIII is considered by many to be one of the worst tyrants the English monarchy has ever had. He ordered the execution of two of his wives and had many Catholics hanged and quartered after the Church did not allow him to divorce his first wife. But has the king always been so terrible? Apparently not. Rather, evidence shows that at a young age he maintained a cordial and generous behavior.
Despite some ailments (which were quite frequent at that time), including an episode of smallpox in 1514 and two of malaria in 1521 and 1528, his charisma has never been affected and he has always been described impeccably by the ambassadors and other relevant people he met. The Venetian ambassador defined him as “prudent, wise and free from any vice”, and Erasmus in 1529 said of him: “a cordial and kind man in debate; he behaves more like a companion than a king”.
For years, historians have tried to understand what happened to the ruler to transform himself from a generous and intelligent young man to a cruel and mean tyrant in old age. Historian Frederick Chamberlain, in his book “The Private Character of Henry the Eighth” was the first to suggest that the change could be due to some head injuries sustained in 1524 and/or 1536. The knowledge on traumatic brain injuries and their consequences have progressed since 1931, when the book was first published, and support Chamberlain’s hypothesis: a traumatic brain injury could in fact have caused neurological damage resulting in both a change in the personality of the sovereign, and pituitary dysfunction and the endocrinopathies he suffered from.
Traumatic head injuries can cause two types of brain damage: primary injuries due to mechanical damage (cuts, blows, compression) and secondary injuries due to hypoxia, inflammation and hemorrhage. Trauma to the brain primarily affects the white matter, causing amnesia, apathy and loss of initiative, executive dysfunction, as well as impulsive behavior and emotional dysregulation, depending on the area affected.
Traumatic brain injuries are also associated with headaches and sleep problems. Finally, if the damage affects the pituitary gland (a gland located in the back of the skull, at the base of the brain), central endocrinopathies can occur. The two most common syndromes are growth hormone deficiency and hypogonadotropic hypogonadism (decreased function of the gonads). In some patients these deficiencies become permanent.
The transformation of the king
Henry VIII suffered several head injuries during jousts and other sports. In March 1524 he fell from his horse after a spear made its way into his open visor and broke into many splinters. Though stunned, he continued riding for the rest of the day. However, he is said to have had recurring headaches ever since. In 1525 he had another accident when, climbing over a hedge, he fell into a ditch full of water. In the impact he may have fainted, since if he hadn’t been rescued, he would have drowned. On 24th January 1536 the king received the most important head injury, when during a joust his horse charged at great speed, unsaddling him and then falling back on him. After the accident, the king was unconscious for a full two hours. Beginning in July 1536 (two months after having Anna Bolena killed), several episodes of amnesia and uncontrolled anger are recorded, in addition to moments of total irrationality. For example, during the siege of Boulogne, he ordered the fortification of the city while simultaneously issuing an oral order to demolish it. The short temper and changeability of his behavior became a source of constant anxiety for the courtiers. His explosive rage could often end with the execution of an unsuspecting courtier or friend. In addition, bouts of depression are also documented (one in particular in 1541).
Finally, there are other indications that support the possibility that the brain damage suffered by the king also affected the pituitary gland. First, it is speculated that he suffered from growth hormone deficiency. In adults, this deficiency can lead to changes in body composition, for example causing visceral obesity, muscle weakness, and reduced lean mass. Henry VIII’s venous ulcerations and his possible type II diabetes are compatible with this hypothesis. Furthermore, Henry VIII may also have suffered from hypogonadotropic hypogonadism. Although there is evidence of the king’s promiscuity and sexual appetite, there are some clues that contradict this version. For example, Anne Boleyn and her brother George were accused of ridiculing the king when the woman allegedly said that “he was not an expert in the matter of mating with a woman and that he had neither virtue [skill] nor power [vigor]”. In addition, Henry VIII was unable to complete the marriage with Anne of Cleves (fourth wife), in 1540. Finally, during the marriage with Catherine Howard (fifth wife), despite the girl having many lovers, the sovereign always remained faithful to her, a quality unknown in his youth.
Brain trauma and sports
Currently we often hear about how the header in football can cause neurological damage in old age: just think of the veterans of the England world champion team in 1966, 4 of whom developed forms of senile dementia. At that time, soccer balls were much heavier than they are today, as George Cohen (defender of the national team) recalls. However, contact sports have existed for centuries, so it is not too far off to believe that these traumatic events were quite frequent in the past. In the case of Henry VIII, his disrespect for safety, coupled with his love for rides, seem to have subjected his head to repeated trauma. After the first one, he may have had headaches and minor personality changes, while a sharp change was only observed after 1536.