We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More

Could Brain Injuries Explain King Henry VIII’s Tyrant Behavior?

Medical historians think multiple head injuries from dangerous sports could explain the king’s tyrant behavior, resulting in the execution of 57,000 people.

By Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi
Aug 3, 2022 1:00 PMAug 2, 2022 8:54 PM
King Henry VIII
(Credit: Morphart Creation/Shutterstock)


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

When King Henry VIII took the crown in 1509 at the age of 17, members of his court noted he was a scholar and an athlete. He was thoughtful, wise and considerate. But when he died in 1547, many feared him as a petty tyrant who hysterically executed his enemies, including two of his six wives.

His change in personality has long left scholars wondering — what was that guy’s deal?

Medical historians have considered whether the king had diabetes, hypothyroidism or McLeod syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that can affect the brain. In 2016, a team of neurologists revisited a theory that King Henry VIII’s behavior was the result of multiple head injuries. It’s an idea that more scientists and historians support.

Concussion King

King Henry VIII had a liking for dangerous sports, including wrestling, hawking, pole vaulting and jousting. Although medical historians suspect he had multiple concussions in his lifetime, four specific instances are thought to have contributed to his neurological deterioration.

One of his first known head injuries came from a wrestling match with Francis I of France in June 1520. The French King slammed the English King to the ground, and court members described King Henry as stunned after the match, which scientists now know is a symptom of concussion.

The second major head injury came from a jousting injury. With jousting, each opponent mounted a horse and then raced toward each other while holding a wooden pole measuring about 10-feet. The goal was to use the lance to knock the other competitor off their horse. The competitors wore body armor as well as helmets with an open visor around the eyes.

In a March 1524 jousting match, the opponent rammed his lance into the king’s open visor and hit right above his eye. The king complained of a headache — a symptom of concussion — then continued with the match. The injury was the start of a lifelong affliction with headaches.

A year after the jousting injury, King Henry was pole vaulting over a garden hedge when his pole gave out beneath him. He fell into a watery ditch below, briefly lost consciousness and was pulled from the water.

More than a decade later in January 1536, the king had another jousting injury. After falling hard off his horse, King Henry was so dazed for the next two hours that he could not speak. He eventually came to, but his behavior was never the same.

King of Petty

Scholars disagree which head injury transformed the king from kind to cruel. Some have said his behavior changed in the late 1520s, others see the final head injury from 1536 as the turning point. They cite how within five months of his last jousting injury, King Henry accused his second wife Anne Boleyn of adultery, imprisoned and executed her. He then married his third wife, Jane Seymour.

Scholars do agree King Henry experienced a major personality change that fits of rage, moodiness and depression defined. The once charismatic king ordered the death of 57,000 people, including two of his wives. He was responsible for executing more enemies than any other English monarch.

In addition to his personality changes, the king also went through a physical transformation. He was a tall man for his time, well over six feet, and he had a 32-inch waist in his 20s. By his 50s, he had added 20 inches to his waistline and had become obese and immobile from leg ulcers. Some medical historians have seen these symptoms as an indicator of diabetes, but one research team argued it spoke to traumatic brain injury (TBI) instead.

King of Pain

A 2016 article in the Journal of Clinical Neuroscience investigated a claim first suggested in a 1931 book that the king’s terrible behavior was rooted in his head injuries. The study was the first known neurological inquiry of King Henry VIII.

The researchers collected descriptions of Henry’s personality from various points in his life, as well as his medical history. In addition to his head injuries, King Henry also had several bouts of malaria in his younger years. As his life progressed, they noted his increased weight, leg ulcers and near constant headaches.

The team hypothesized that Henry’s personality change was due to a diffuse axonal injury (DAI) that occurred when his brain slammed against his skull during various falls. Blunt injury to the brain creates DAI, a type of TBI. The DAI explained how King Henry went from an eloquent and pleasant ruler to an angry and unpredictable tyrant who sometimes struggled to articulate his thoughts.

TBI also helps explain the king’s physical changes. Researchers suggested that King Henry’s weight gain could have come from damage to his pituitary gland that caused a disruption to his growth hormone production. This led to “visceral obesity, muscle weakness and reduced lean body mass.”

The study’s authors also identified hypogonadism as another result of King Henry’s TBI. The condition occurred when the body produced little sex hormone, and as the years progressed, his wives reported he was unable to consummate their marriage.

King Henry VIII became forgetful, impulsive and erratic. He was no longer seen as intelligent or strategic, but unpredictable and scattered. The authors concluded his behavior was consistent with TBI resulting from multiple blows to the head.

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.