Infamous as the brutal tyrannical despot of the 16th century, Henry VIII certainly acted in ways that are incomprehensible to us today. Is this just due to a change in attitudes over time, or did Henry actually suffer from a personality disorder? There are lots of theories as to what caused Henry to act the way he did, but what’s certain is that something was definitely wrong with him.
The main symptoms of a personality disorder are
- “being overwhelmed by negative feelings such as distress, anxiety, worthlessness or anger”
- “difficulty managing negative feelings without self-harming…or, in rare cases, threatening other people”
- “odd behaviour”
- “difficulty maintaining stable and close relationships, especially with partners, children and professional carers”
There is evidence for each one of these in Henry’s behaviour. Like an overgrown toddler, he would throw tantrums and fits of rage when he didn’t get his own way, or even just experienced a slight delay in getting his own way. He definitely, not only threatened other people, but followed through with his threats having some of those closest to him put to death. Wolsey, Cromwell, 2 wives, all known intimately to him and once cherished had their lives signed away over little or no evidence of ‘crimes’ committed (except in the case of Katherine Howard who had actually been adulterous). This also demonstrates his difficulty maintaining a stable and close relationship. Out of all of his six wives, the longest marriage was that with Catherine of Aragon and lasted just short of 24 years. The rest of his marriages ranged from 6 months (Anne of Cleves) to 3 and a half years (Katherine Parr). Even the ‘reasons’ for the failing of these marriages are not sane, rational ones.
Another type of personality disorder that can be linked to Henry is the narcissistic personality disorder. The symptoms for this disorder accurately describe Henry’s personality, but it also describes the personality of many other kings before him.
“- Has a grandiose sense of self-importance
– Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
– Requires excessive admiration
– Has a very strong sense of entitlement
– Regularly shows arrogant, haughty behaviours or attitudes”
This is Henry down to a tee. However the problem with this diagnosis is that in the 16th century, it was not unusual for a King of England to display all these traits. It was generally thought and mostly accepted that the King received his power directly from God, and as Henry was also Head of The Church of England, acted as God’s emissary. His will must have been God’s will, and anything that God willed had to be carried out. To be a King and to act in this way was normal and expected; therefore it is hard to say whether or not he suffered from this. Since becoming the sole heir to the throne at the age of 10 he had been coddled and pandered to. When he inherited the throne he was only 17. He was 6 foot 1 and athletic with the breathtaking good looks of his maternal grandfather, Edward IV. He was described throughout Europe as ‘the handsomest prince in Christendom’. That would leave anyone with a god complex.
A Rare Disease
Some historians believe that one of two rare diseases may have caused Henry’s foul mood and childish behaviour. The first is McLeod Syndrome, a genetic disorder which may have been responsible for his personality change in his forties and his wives’ miscarriages. If Henry had this disorder, his blood would have carried something called a Kell antigen. This means that his wives may have been able to carry a first child to full term, but subsequent offspring would have been attacked by the mother’s own immune system.
Another disease which is thought to be the cause of Henry’s massive obesity and tyrannical behaviour is Cushing ’s Syndrome which leads to weight gain, particularly on the face, chest and stomach, rapid mood swings, infertility and erectile dysfunction. Although not common knowledge, Henry may have suffered from impotency. He was not the prolific lover that the TV series The Tudors made him out to be. He only had three mistresses that we know by name (Bessie Blount, Mary Boleyn and Madge Shelton) and we have the King’s and Anne Boleyn’s word for his shortcomings in the marital bed. Henry informed parliament in the midst of his divorce with Catherine: “For I am forty-one years old, at which age the lust of man is not so quick as in lusty youth.” And later when he was married to Anne Boleyn, she confided in her sister-in-law that the King had neither the “vertu [skill]” nor “puissance [virility]” to satisfy a woman. Words which would come back to haunt her.
Henry experienced two near fatal jousting accidents in his lifetime causing serious head injuries. The first, when he forgot to lower the visor on his helmet, lead to painful migraines for the rest of his life. The second, when he fell and was subsequently crushed under his horse, caused him to be “without speech” or unconscious for two hours. He would have suffered severe damage to his frontal lobe which is the area of the brain that affects personality, leading him from then on to be “Irascible, unpredictably moody…in a different opinion in the morning than after dinner”. This accident also exacerbated a varicose ulcer on his thigh that had begun to heal. The fall reopened the ulcer and it wouldn’t heal again for the rest of the King’s life. His athletic career being over, his gluttonous diet caught up with him, and his weight began to increase exponentially.
He was just generally mardy because of various ailments
Henry almost definitely suffered from Type 2 Diabetes. His incredible 52 inch waistline combined with his diet of 5000 calories a day (plus he added sugar to his wine!) are evidence enough that he would have had adult onset diabetes, and it certainly would have affected his mood. Without any control of his blood sugar, it would be shooting up and down causing irritability, fatigue and mood swings. It also is probably why the ulcer on his leg never healed and was never cleared of infection. In fact the infection may even have spread to his bone, which would have been excruciatingly painful, even more so than the ulcer on its own, and all without painkillers. Henry’s doctors believed that it was best to keep the wound open, to stop it from sealing up the ‘bad humours’ which would travel to his brain. Therefore they were constantly opening the ulcer and cauterizing the wound with hot irons. It is no wonder a courtier described him as “in ill humour” and “it was thought he had gone mad”. Despite Katherine Parr surviving her marriage with the King (by the skin of her teeth) she may have had the worst life with him than any of his other wives. He was years older than her, hideously overweight and the smell of rotting flesh from his ulcer was said to precede him from three rooms away. And even if he had still been ‘the handsomest prince in Christendom’ she would have lived in constant fear of being divorced, or even more likely, beheaded. As an example of Henry’s terrifyingly tyrannical behaviour, he wrote a warrant for Katherine’s arrest for contradicting him on a religious matter. Despite his split with Rome, he started to revert back to its ways towards the end of his life. Katherine was a devout reformist. Whether he intended to go through with the arrest or he was just trying to scare her into submission, Katherine rightfully feared for her life and managed to beg his forgiveness. When the guards came to take her to the tower they found the couple arm in arm strolling in the garden. Henry let loose a hateful tirade at the Head of the Guard and the matter was dropped. However this demonstrates his mercurial state and his quickness to turn from placidity to rage at the drop of a hat, or more likely, a badly chosen word.
It is my belief that there was certainly more going on to cause Henry’s violent temperament than just the pain of his leg and low blood sugar. I am torn between the personality disorder and the head trauma. His personality before the jousting accident was relatively jovial, good humoured and even, at times, benevolent. There is little evidence of any personality disorder prior to his forties. It may have been lying dormant, waiting for a period of stress to bring it out, but unfortunately I think the most likely cause of his behaviour was brain damage. After all, it was only 6 months after the accident in question that Anne Boleyn was executed, marking the end of rational Harry and the beginning of King Henry, the brutal tyrant.