On this day in 1540…

On this day in 1540 Henry VIII met Anne of Cleves for the first time. After shopping abroad for brides, and being rejected by the Duchess of Milan (she supposedly said “if I had two heads, one would be at the King of England’s disposal”) he turned to the fellow reformist nation of Cleves. There were two princesses there available for marriage, Anne and her sister Amalia. Henry sent Holbein to paint them, and returned with this portrait of Anne


Henry was struck by her beauty and immediately consented to the marriage, that would also be of great political advantage to him. Henry was like a love struck school boy, waiting for Anne to arrive. In fact he couldn’t wait. Once word reached him that she was at Rochester, he set off to meet her there.

Henry was a big fan of masques, where he dressed in disguise. The game was to pretend you didn’t recognise this badly disguised overweight, limping and smelly man as the king. Then when he revealed himself you were supposed to be overcome with surprise that the ‘handsome young groom’ you were talking to had been the king of England all along. This was a custom of English court, but to Anne it was unknown. She didn’t even speak English. Henry arrived at Rochester in disguise, but Anne being unaware of the rules was not impressed by this portly old man. She did not swoon over him, nor did she know to feign surprise when he revealed himself. She was simply confused and probably repulsed by the smell of him. Henry stormed out, infuriated. He ran (hobbled) and told Cromwell “I like her not!”. His tudor pride was injured. This beautiful young princess was not enamoured by him and this stung. Therefore he countered his hurt feelings by insulting her, calling her ‘fat’, ‘smelly’ and ‘not a Virgin’ (which were really all his insecurities about himself). We all know how vicious a man can get if you hurt his ego. Just look at the Instagram account ByeFelipe for pictures of conversations where men turn nasty when a women politely turns them down. This hasn’t changed in 500 years, and Henry’s insults about Anne of Cleves stuck, so that to this day people are still under the false impression that she was ugly.

Luckily for Henry, and for Anne, when Henry proposed divorce to his poor wife, she gladly accepted. Nothing could turn Henry’s mood around better than a nice submissive woman. Grateful for her amenability (so unlike two of his previous wives Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn) and not wanting to upset his new ally of Cleves, Henry amicably divorced Anne and had her declared the Kings Beloved Sister and granted her estates. She was even able to visit court and was often invited to court for Christmas. Anne made a lucky escape, and was probably the most fortunate of Henry’s wives.


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Facts and Fictions about marriage in the 16th century

There are many myths out there about what marriage was like in the 1500s. Hopefully this post will debunk some of those myths and also provide some additional facts.

Women did not get married incredibly young.

There is a general belief that in the ‘olden days’ girls were married off in their early teens. The truth is that only princesses were sent down the aisle that young. They were betrothed at an early age to form diplomatic alliances and the marriage took place as soon as the girl started her period, or was of the minimum legal age for marriage (12 for girls, 14 for boys), in order to make as many heirs as possible. For the rest of the public, the average age of marriage for women was early twenties.

download (3)Margaret Beaufort who was famously married off at the age of 12

There were ‘career women’ who chose work over marriage

One of the reasons women did not get married until their early twenties was that they were working. The daughters of nobility were sent away at about the age of 12 or 13 to another noble household to serve the Lady of the house and learn how to conduct herself. They would serve the household until marriageable age. However, some daughters of nobility would be sent to court to serve the Queen, and if the Queen favoured them, she might refuse to let them get married if she wanted them to stay in her service. Some of Elizabeth I’s ladies, Lettice Knollys and Elizabeth Throckmorton for example, were punished for marrying without her consent. It didn’t help that they married two of Elizabeth’s favourites, Robert Dudley (the love of her life) and Walter Raleigh. If they had asked permission, she would probably have refused.

LetticeKnollysThe beautiful Lettice Knollys

For the general public, daughters provided hands on work on their land or in the house. Some were again sent away but to work as servants, not ladies in waiting, and send their earnings back home. As a servant, there was not much time when you weren’t working, so being noticed and proposed to might never happen. It would have been necessary to keep working to support yourself. This led to a proportion of the female population never marrying.

The idea of a ‘white wedding dress’ did not exist

The white wedding dress was not introduced until the Victorian era. Before then women would just wear their best dress, the richer ones having new dresses especially made. To symbolize their virginity, their hair would be worn loose and brushed over their shoulders. After that, as married women, they had to wear their hair up and covered with a hood during the first half of the century, or a caul during Elizabeth’s reign.

3bdaa39ddd82889c95ac2b22b770feb7Example of an Elizabethan caul

You could be ‘married’ in a very informal service involving just you and your love

In the 1500s one could, in the eyes of god, marry one’s betrothed by simply holding their right hand in yours and saying ‘I take thee as my husband/wife’ and then consummating the pledge. The act of consummation sealed the vow and made it unbreakable. This was known as a pre-contract and would prove very troublesome for some 16th century marriages. Of course a legal wedding should have taken place in a church with the banns being cried beforehand and at least two witnesses, however if a pre-contract was found to have taken place for either party with someone else, the impending marriage could be compromised. If a pre-contract was not found prior to a wedding, but then came to light afterwards, that would be legal grounds to render the marriage null and void. Henry VIII enjoyed this legal loop hole when he used it to divorce Anne of Cleves (even though it is very doubtful any pre-contract had existed for her) and there was much debate over whether a pre-contract existed between Anne Boleyn and Henry Percy before she married King Henry.

The concept of a pre-contract also debunks the myth that pre-marital sex was always a scandal. If a couple promised themselves to each other, they could have as much pre-marital sex as they wanted before the wedding. In fact most first born children were born only about 30 weeks after their parents’ wedding, proving that it was common to sleep together before the wedding night. Elizabeth I herself was conceived before her parents were married.

Most of our current notions and traditions about weddings and marriage come from the Victorians, a very damaging time for women and marital relations. The white wedding dress and veil were introduced by the Victorians. The veil was worn to hide the shameful face of an unmarried woman, and was only lifted after the marriage vows had been said, because as a married woman she was ‘saved’ from her sin that all women were seen to have inherited from Eve. The white wedding dress became fashionable after Queen Victoria wore one on her own wedding day. It then became a symbol of purity and virginity. Their view on marital sex was much more extreme than the Elizabethans’. They believed no pleasure must be derived from this act that was necessary to create heirs. In fact if anyone, particularly women, appeared to enjoy it she might be accused of being a ‘whore’. Of course we can’t know what went on behind closed doors but publicly sex in the Victorian era was much more frowned upon than sex during the 16th century. Even though it was 300 years later, it seems as if it was harder to be a woman then, than it was in the 1500s.

Royal CoupleQueen Victoria and Prince Albert on their wedding day

So unlike most ideas about marriage in the 16th century, women were not married off at the age of 12, they did not sit around waiting for a man to marry them, and they were much more relaxed about pre-marital pregnancies. Of course in general marriage was still an oppressive arrangement for women, but it was certainly better than a lot of people think.

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The Good King/Bad King theory: Part 2

The theory continues with Part 2: The Tudors

Henry VII


After finally putting an end to the War of the Roses once and for all, Henry Tudor held the throne and kept the country safe. Although some called him a miser, he left the country’s financial state better than when he found it so his reluctance to spend money worked. Most would definitely call him a good king.

Henry VIII


We all know my views on Henry VIII’s mental state. He was a big king who made a big impact on the country. Many say if it wasn’t for him we wouldn’t have the Church of England, although I don’t think this is true. He may have started the split with Rome, but if he hadn’t I think some other monarch would have down the line. He won some victories in France but that is outweighed by all the executions of innocent people he ordered on whims, or simply because they disagreed with him. He was definitely a bad king.

Edward VI


Edward’s reign was short lived. He succeeded the throne at the age of 9 and was dead by the time he was 15. His entire reign was during his minority and the country was ruled by regents. The first, the Duke of Somerset, was Edward’s uncle and was referred to as ‘the good Duke’. This was in comparison to the next regent, the Duke of Northumberland who abused his power to put his family as close to the throne as possible. He was a bad Duke, but Edward was not a bad king. If he lived longer he might have been great. He was highly educated and a strong reformer, although some might argue a bit too strong. But for the sake of this pattern, let’s say he was a good king.

Mary I

mafry i

Bloody Mary earned her nickname from having over 280 Protestants burnt at the stake. She had bad influences such as her husband, Philip II, and advisor Simon Renard, and she genuinely believed she was doing the right thing by slaughtering hundreds of people who had different beliefs. None of these things excuse her actions. We are not in the 16th century today and we do not believe a woman is incapable of making decisions without council. She knew what she was doing and she signed those warrants. Very bad king.

Elizabeth I

elizaberth i

I may seem biased, because Elizabeth I is one of my heroes, but I’m really not. She really was fantastic. Of course, she was not always perfect. Towards the end of her reign she had started to persecute Catholics and her judgement was slipping. But generally, her reign was known as the Golden Age in England.  The people were free to be themselves without fear of arrest. It was a much better time to be a woman than it was even in the Victorian era. England’s victory against the Spanish Armada in 1588 earned her the nickname Gloriana, and above all she proved a woman does not need a man by her side in order to rule. BEST king.

Of course this is just a theory and there are a couple of anomalies in the data, let alone the fact that the history is far more nuanced than just ‘good’ or ‘bad’. But I think it is safe to say that if you are taking over the family business, what your father was like in the job will probably influence you, at least subconsciously. This is probably the most accurate in the case of Edward III who had to depose his own father, and became one of the best kings the country had ever seen. Yet then his heir was deposed. It goes to show, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

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The Good King/Bad King theory

Part one: The Plantagenets

Between 1154 and 1603 17 monarchs ruled England (not including Lady Jane Grey’s 9 day reign). Of course one cannot simply summarise any of these monarchs as just ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but for the sake of this article I am going to go by their most widely acknowledged reputations as simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

My theory is that a good king follows a bad king. It is a cycle and it’s hard to work out which comes first, the good king or the bad king, but it is my opinion that if your father was a good king, you can only disappoint. The bad king’s son then vows he will be a better king than his father. One gains land in France, the other loses it. The next one re-gains the land and then their son loses it all again, ad infinitum until England had no land left in France.

Let’s start with Henry II


Henry II ruled from 1154-1189 and is generally seen to have been a good king, bringing peace and prosperity to a country that had been torn apart by civil war.

His son Richard I’s reign was too short (1189-99) to see what kind of king he would have really turned out to be and he spent most of it crusading the middle east  leaving the country in the hands of his brother John. However his crusading ‘victories’ have earned him the reputation as a good king, therefore an anomaly in the trend. However because his reign was short and he was succeeded by his brother who was also a son of Henry II, I don’t think he counts in this trend.

King John


One of history’s villains. He lost almost all of England’s land in France, bankrupted the people and possibly murdered his nephew, although this is not proved. King John can safely be summed up as mainly a bad king.

John’s son and heir Henry III succeeded the throne in 1216 at the age of just 9 years old.


For the first 10 years of his rule, his regent William Marshall, famed knight, helped him to run the country. This involved a lot of putting out the flames from his father’s reign, such as the Baron’s War. As King himself, Henry would have wanted to distance himself from his father’s reputation and he generally succeeded. However, anyone would look like a good king after King John. Towards the end of his reign Henry became increasingly pious and developed an obsession with Edward the Confessor. He spent much of the country’s money on reliquaries such as a supposed vial of Jesus’ blood, which he paraded around London barefoot on one St Edward’s day. All in all, he wasn’t overly a good or a bad king. He just held down the fort, so to speak, for his son.

Edward I

King Edward I Longshanks

Named after his father’s favourite saint, Edward I was the first in a trilogy of Edwards. Nicknamed Longshanks because of his incredible height, Edward I was a striking king. He is perhaps most famous for his slaughter of the Welsh people over many gruesome battles in order to claim Wales and unite it as part of his Kingdom. Generally he is seen as a good king because glory in war = good. Also expanding English territory = good (if you’re English). However, if you are Welsh, Edward is seen less as a war hero and more of an oppressor.

Edward II


Edward II is infamous for being ineffectual and a definite bad king. From the start he annoyed and alienated the nobles by having his ‘favourite’ Piers Gaveston showered with titles and positions in his court that were above his station. It was harmless but the nobles were jealous and killed Gaveston, disguising it as a trial. Edward then moved on to the Despensers who were less harmless. They were running the country through Edward. He was such a bad king that his own wife set in motion the plan to depose him in favour of their son.

Edward III


Edward III is arguably one of the greatest Plantagenet kings, rivalled only by Henry V. His military victories at Crécy and Poitiers brought him glory that sustained him throughout his long reign (1327-1377). He invented the Order of the Garter, inspired by the chivalric Knights of the Round Table. Edward was infatuated by all things Arthur, seeing as at the time they did not realise he was fictional. He was perhaps the most Arthurian king England has seen. Definite good king.

Richard II


Edward III’s son, Edward the Black Prince, died before he could take his father’s place. Therefore the rules of primogeniture dictated that his son, Richard, should be the next king, instead of Edward III’s next living son, John of Gaunt. Richard was a bad king. He was 10 when he was crowned and his minority saw times of much social upheaval during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. When he reached his majority he began wielding his power, calling for the arrest and execution of 3 of his nobles: Gloucester, Warwick and Arundel. Meanwhile his cousin, John of Gaunt’s son, was planning his invasion.

Henry IV


Henry withstood his fair share of rebellions, but mainly his reign was ‘meh’. He was a ‘meh’ king. Even Shakespeare’s Henry IV was mainly about his son.  So we can discount him from this pattern.

Henry V


Everybody knows about Henry V and his Agincourt victory. I think we can safely label him as a good king.

Henry VI


See my previous post. Bad King.

Edward IV


When he wasn’t busy defending his throne from the remaining Lancaster faction, and once his reign was established, Edward was generally seen as a good king, bringing relative peace after years of civil war. And despite what his portrait might suggest, he was incredibly good looking (and 6 foot 4!)


Richard III

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Poor Edward V didn’t get a chance to see what kind of King he might have been because he and his brother disappeared from the Tower where they were being held before his coronation. The cause of this disappearance has been the subject of much debate ever since. It is generally accepted that they were murdered but the question is who ordered the murder. Richard definitely had something to gain from their deaths but so did the Tudors. However, even if he didn’t kill them, Richard took the throne from the boys he swore he would protect. Bad King.

This concludes Part One. Watch this space for Part Two: The Tudors…

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What was really wrong with Henry VI?

The 15th century was a time of civil war in England. The War of the Roses, which was known at the time as the Cousins War, tore the country apart. 28,000 men died in the Battle of Towton alone. One could legitimately argue that the cause of all this fighting lay in Henry VI’s mental state.


Henry VI inherited the throne at just 9 months old in 1422, therefore the country was ruled via regents for a significant portion of his reign. As a young man, Henry was placid and happy to be led by others. He would take the advice of his nobles well, yet he often acted on the last piece advice he heard even if it was contradictory to what he had seemingly agreed to earlier on. He did not grow out of this childlike state. He was said to have been “unsteadfast of wit” and preferred simple clothing as opposed to the grand clothes a king was supposed to wear. Unlike his war hero father, he detested war and violence. Due to his ineffectuality as King, the country was ruled by whoever could get close enough to advise the King. This did not make for a well run country.

In 1453 Henry suffered from a mental breakdown of some kind, possibly triggered by the news of the country’s loss of Bordeaux. He remained in a catatonic state for over a year, missing the birth of his sole heir, Edward. The cause of this ‘breakdown’ has been debated ever since. Henry’s maternal grandfather was Charles VI ‘The Mad’ King of France, therefore Henry was unhelpfully labelled as ‘mad’ like his grandfather. But what was really wrong with him?

It was clear before the breakdown that Henry’s behaviour was unusual for a strong King of England. This shows that although bad news may have triggered his catatonic episode, there was chronic mental illness underlying it. One theory is that the young King suffered from schizophrenia. Catatonic schizophrenia is a subtype of schizophrenia where the sufferer goes into a catatonic stupor where movement and activity ceases. This catatonic state however is not always indicative of schizophrenia.

Other conditions can cause catatonia including depression: manic depressive stupor and depressive stupor can be symptoms of catatonic depression. Catatonic depression rarely occurs on its own and is usually found in bipolar sufferers. The stupor it causes is very similar to that of catatonic schizophrenia. The symptoms include:

  • Inability to move
  • Selective mutism
  • Unusual movements

So far there is evidence for both schizophrenia and depression. But if his mental illness was inherited from his grandfather it is important to look at Charles VI of France’s mental history. Charles showed many more symptoms of schizophrenia and psychosis, including hallucinations and delusions. For example in one of his delusions, Charles was convinced he was made of glass and would break. It is heartbreaking to think this kind of suffering would not and could not have been treated, and was just lumped together as ‘madness’. Fortunately, however, Henry did not appear to suffer from delusions or hallucinations. His was a much more passive condition.

330px-Carlo_VI_di_Francia,_Maestro_di_Boucicaut,_codice_Ms._Français_165_della_Biblioteca_Universitaria_di_GinevraCharles VI of France

Some historians claim that his extreme piety was a form of religious delusion, however that is inaccurate. Religious delusion is believing that one is God himself, or hearing voices or seeing visions of a religious nature. Henry was very devout, spending his free time reading scripture almost to a point of obsession, but there is no evidence that he experienced any delusions on the subject.

It is so hard to diagnose Henry VI because almost all of the conditions that can cause the stupor like state that he suffered from for over a year also cause personality traits that Henry didn’t possess. Although most historians agree on either depressive stupor or catatonic schizophrenia being the cause of his breakdown, it still remains a mystery as to what was really wrong with Henry. The effects of the stupor never fully left him and it was during this time that the country turned to Richard of York to rule. The Queen, Margaret of Anjou, tried tirelessly to keep her husband on the throne, so that their son could one day rule, but she was ultimately unsuccessful. The country was falling apart and they needed a stable monarch on the throne.

It is incredibly unsettling to think about the lives of people in the middle ages who suffered from mental health problems. Mental illness is still stigmatized today, but at least there is help available. It’s tempting to wonder what would have happened to England if Henry could have received today’s level of help for his condition, whatever it was. Would the War of the Roses have happened? And what would history look like if it hadn’t? Ultimately England’s future was determined by the delicate mental state of King Henry VI.

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Misogyny in the Middle Ages


Misogyny has been around in its many forms almost since the beginning of civilisation. Many associate the beginning of our negative attitude towards women with the arrival of Christianity in Britain, but gender roles and oppression existed in ancient civilisations a long time before monotheism. Just read Aristotle’s On A Good Wife which lays out the woman’s roles in the house, which were strictly limited. Misogyny as a concept would not have existed in the middle ages. Women did not even count as citizens and the people believed it was god’s will that women were seen as inferior. But thanks to enlightenment we can look back on this time and shudder at what was accepted as the norm. Some examples are laughable, some are more uncomfortable to read, but it is important that we do so because however much ‘the past’ seems like a world removed from ours, they are us, then. In order to better understand the lives of women in the Middle Ages (which I have written to include the 13th to the 16th century), I have made a quick guide including the key aspects and ways in which women were restricted.

Confinement and Churching

The idea of confinement or ‘lying-in’ was brought to England along with Christianity. When a woman was nearing the end of her pregnancy she would retire to her rooms which were to have all natural light blocked out. Windows were covered with tapestries and even the keyholes were stopped up. The only source of light would have been candles. This was because the process of labour was seen to be the woman’s punishment for Eve’s fall from grace.  Evil spirits and even the devil were thought to be present and women had to endure this punishment alone, so as not to infect the men with the shame of their evil bodies. Child-birth was thought to be so base and shameful that after the baby was born, the mother could not return to society without her ‘churching’. This was a church ceremony that cleared the mother of all the impurity of child-birth. I know, right.



Similar to today, a woman’s age was often a subject of interest and ridicule. An older woman, especially if she was single or widowed, was thought to be a witch. If she took pains to conceal her age using cosmetics, she would be equally ridiculed for her attempts. Unfortunately not much has changed in this area. Women today are encouraged to cut their hair short after they reach middle age so as not to appear ‘witchy’ and god forbid a woman has surgery to make herself look younger. However if she lets herself age naturally she will be shamed for not trying to look young.

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The only women who would have the slightest autonomy were widows. Otherwise you went from being your father’s property, to your husband’s. A man was legally allowed to ‘punish’ his wife in any way he saw fit which could mean physical violence. The legal age of marriage in England was 12 for girls and 14 for boys, although the consummation could be put off till the children were older. This was not the law, however, and when Margaret Beaufort married Edmund Tudor in 1455, despite being twice her age, Tudor did not waste time in consummating the marriage and getting his bride with child (the future Henry VII). Sexually, if a woman refused her husband’s advances, that was grounds for divorce as she was not fulfilling her wifely duty. Nobility did not marry for love and if you did manage to get a love match, the risk of death in childbirth was 1 in 10.



Occasionally a woman of such courage and intelligence would come along who would attempt to use the status afforded her by her marriage to advance herself. In almost all of these occasions these women would inevitably be portrayed as ‘wicked’ and ‘scheming’. Isabella of France, offensively nicknamed the She-Wolf of France by Shakespeare, used her connections and wits to successfully depose her husband, Edward II and put her son on the throne. Edward II was arguably a terrible king, and Isabella did the country a favour by giving us Edward III. But at the time she was not thanked, only criticised. Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI, single handedly took on the Yorkists in order to defend her catatonic husband’s throne for her son. She was defeated and fled to France and her son was eventually killed in battle. She was known as ‘the Bad Queen’. In both these cases the women were only fighting for their sons’ birthrights, and not themselves, yet they were still vilified. In fact, the word Queen itself comes from the Anglo-Saxon term Cwen, meaning ‘wife of the King’. The term Queen is still used for a Queen Regnant. By the time Elizabeth I ascended the throne, her councillors were still convinced a woman needed a man in order to rule and pushed her to marry, not just to give the country an heir, but to give the country a King. Elizabeth consistently refused saying she would rather be “a beggar and single, than Queen and married” and her reign turned out to be one of the most glorious periods in English history. It wasn’t called the Golden Age for nothing.


Wondering why women of the Middle Ages didn’t advocate change is like asking people of the current day why we don’t us teleportation. That was the way things had always been and to question their lot in the world would have been heresy because they would be questioning God. In a world without science, the Bible was the most reliable source of information. Learning and knowledge was a dangerous affair, with different books constantly being banned. Science was thought to be antithesis of religion, which of course it isn’t. The two can easily co exist, but in the Middle Ages all science seemed like magic, which was again another form of heresy. It wasn’t until Elizabeth I’s reign that science and learning were truly embraced and this was further encouraged by James I, a highly educated and enlightened King. Education brought about change and thankfully the world today is a better place for women than it was then. Although I can’t help but wonder what historians 500 years from now will think about us and how we treat the members of our society. We’ve come a long way, but we still have far to go before we have total tolerance, equality and acceptance of every different kind of race, gender and orientation.

2014 MTV Video Music Awards - Show

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Did Henry VIII have a personality disorder?


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.

Personality Disorder

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.

Brain Damage

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.

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