Explaining Henry VIII’s erratic behavior

Too many hits to the head may explain English monarch’s violent personality

Henry VIII

SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKS  Scholars have debated for decades why Henry VIII acted the way he did. Head hits might be to blame.

Royal Collection/Wikimedia Commons

Hard knocks from jousting, hawking and horseback riding may have left Henry VIII with traumatic brain injuries that muddled his thinking. That theory, described online February 5 in the Journal of Clinical Neuroscience, attempts to explain the British monarch’s puzzling personality shift from a young renaissance king to a petty, cruel and capricious tyrant, Muhammad Qaiser Ikram of Yale School of Medicine and colleagues propose.

Long before the head-cracking collisions that damage the brains of football players (SN: 6/14/14, p. 12), people were sustaining head hits in other ways, the researchers note. And Henry had some doozies, historical records show. Several hard jousting knocks and a fall into a soggy ditch (the unfortunate result of a vaulting pole malfunction) left Henry dazed and, in one case, unable to speak for several hours. His personality changes, in particular, memory problems, explosive anger and headaches, could be explained by brain injuries. Other ailments including syphilis, Cushing’s syndrome, diabetes and even a leg injury have been floated to explain Henry’s erratic behavior, but traumatic brain injury seems to make sense, the researchers write. 

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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