Henry VIII’s grisly accident that may have altered course of history
Anne Boleyn ‘did conspire to kill Henry VIII’ reveals expert
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On January 24, 1536, England’s King Henry VIII was involved in an infamous jousting accident. The 44-year-old lunged forward as he fell from his horse and was subsequently trapped beneath the animal. By some accounts, the Tudor king remained unconscious for two hours; he sustained severe injuries that tormented him for the rest of his life. In the following years, the once-charismatic monarch became increasingly sickly, irritable and a domineering ruler.
Henry’s life-altering fall took place at his favourite residence, Greenwich Palace. Situated beside the River Thames, Greenwich had been a popular royal residence for centuries, but during the Tudor era, the area became a central hub for the Royal Family. Henry himself was born there in January 1547, as were his two daughters Mary and Elizabeth.
Before the accident, the King was described as handsome and charming; he was even referred to as an ‘Adonis’. An ambassador at the Tudor court reported: “His Majesty is the most handsomest potentate I have ever set eyes on. Above the usual height with an extremely fine calf to his leg and a round face so very beautiful it would become a pretty woman.”
He spent the majority of his life and reign, slim and athletic, with his physical and sporting prowess being a critical characteristic of his carefully curated image.
In the 16th century, kings were expected to lead their troops into battle, meaning many favoured sports that could hone the skills needed for warfare. Sebastian Giustinian, a Venetian Ambassador writing in 1519, said Henry was an adept horseman, accomplished jouster and extremely fond of hunting, saying he “never took that diversion without tiring eight or ten horses”.
However, following the fall, Henry’s physical and mental condition gradually worsened. He had suffered a serious concussion, burst a varicose ulcer on his left leg and developed new ulcers on both legs, leaving the monarch in intense pain. These ulcers never fully healed and Henry suffered from relentless infections as a result.
The French Ambassador, in February 1541, recalled the plight of the King: “The King’s Life was really thought [to be] in danger, not from fever, but from the leg which often troubles him.”
He went on to note that Henry compensated for the pain by eating and drinking excessively, and the accident, which had prevented him from enjoying his favourite pastime, had stopped him from exercising completely. His final suit of armour, fitted in 1544 — three years before his death — suggested he weighed at least 21 stone.
Henry’s persistent chronic pain has been pointed out as the catalyst for his change in temperament. Historian Tracy Borman, for instance, argued: “The fact that the King was in constant, worsening pain from that time forward is enough to account for his increasingly foul temper.”
Writing in a 2016 article for History Extra, she said: “His mood would hardly have been improved by the knowledge that he was no longer the sporting ‘adonis’ that he had been for the first 20 years or more of his reign.”
However, it has also been argued that the King’s unpredictability and explosive rage could have been explained by the lingering impact of brain injuries sustained in the fall.
Scientists at Yale University concluded that, in his later years, the Tudor King displayed symptoms consistent with a history of traumatic brain injuries.
Henry had long-embraced rough sports — particularly jousting — and had been involved in several accidents. In 1524, the monarch failed to lower the visor on his helmet while competing and was hit by his opponent’s lance just above his right eye. Subsequently, the King suffered serious migraines that persisted for the remainder of his life.
In 2016, when the research was conducted, a behavioural neurologist and lead author of the study, Arash Salardini, said: “It is intriguing to think that modern European history may have changed forever because of a blow to the head.”
What is beyond doubt is that the jousting accident had a significant impact on his life. During the 2008 History Channel documentary, Inside the Body of Henry VIII Robert Hutchinson, a biographer of the King; Catherine Hood, a doctor; and the historian Lucy Worsley, offer a picture of the monarch who became overwhelmed by health problems.
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“We posit that his jousting accident of 1536 provides the explanation for his personality change from a sporty, promising, generous young prince, to a cruel, paranoid and vicious tyrant,” Dr Worsley said.
“From that date, the turnover of the wives really speeds up, and people begin to talk about him in quite a new and negative way,” she continued. “After the accident, he was unconscious for two hours; even five minutes of unconsciousness is considered to be a major trauma today.”
Henry, the programme said, “became a comfort-eating paranoid recluse — a 28-stone man-mountain”.
Dr Worsley went on to claim Henry may have suffered a brain injury, saying: “Damage to the frontal lobe of the brain can perfectly well result in personality change.”
Less than four months after his accident, Henry had his second wife, Anne Boleyn, executed on charges of adultery, incest, witchcraft and conspiring to murder him. Infamously, he went on to marry four more times, and according to the 2016 study, became increasingly “cruel, petty and tyrannical”.
Henry had split from the Pope and founded the Church of England two years before his accident. In 1536, he started closing monasteries and faced several rebellions, including the Pilgrimage of Grace, a series of revolts in the north of England, in October of that year. The monarch’s response was brutal. Several were executed and the main leader, Robert Aske, was hung in chains in York and left to gradually starve to death.
The King gained immense wealth by stripping the monasteries of their treasures; his nobles bought up the buildings and their land to convert them into grand homes.
In 1537, following the Kildare Rebellion in Ireland — then a predominantly Catholic country — Henry had his cousin ‘Silken Thomas’ FitzGerald, who had publicly withdrawn his allegiance to the King, executed. He also ordered the deaths of five of FitzGerald’s uncles and 70 leaders of the rebellion.
In 1543, Henry declared war on France and later invaded. He captured the city of Boulogne after a two-month siege. A peace treaty in 1546 gave Henry control of Boulogne for eight years. The King also ordered attacks on Scotland in a bid to bring the Auld Alliance (friendship between Scotland and France) to an end.
The once widely-loved King died in 1547 at the age of 55.
However, the effects of the Reformation in England were felt for years to come; he had sparked a shift that would have ongoing, significant implications.
Each of his three legitimate children ruled after him: Edward VI was raised Protestant and became devout as he grew older, leading to a Catholic Rebellion in 1549; Mary I saw the country revert to Catholicism and she persecuted hundreds of Protestants, earning her the nickname ‘Bloody Mary and under Elizabeth I the religion of England changed again — she pushed for a more moderate Protestantism. Following Elizabeth, and into the reigns of James I and beyond, laws were introduced that punished and weakened the rights of Catholics.
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