Henry VIII’s erratic behavior was likely caused by an NFL-style injury, argue Yale researchers

King Henry VIII was a complicated and contradictorily character, according to historical accounts. In his youth, he was reportedly “lighthearted, merry and easily given to laughter,” while in later years he became cruel and tyrannical, with an explosive temper.

The cause of this personality change was an NFL-style head injury Henry suffered while jousting, according to Yale researchers who will publish their argument in the June edition of the Journal of Clinical Neuroscience.

“It is intriguing to think that modern European history may have changed forever because of a blow to the head,” Arash Salardini, instructor in behavioral neurology at Yale School of Medicine and senior author of the study, said in a statement.

Salardini worked with research assistants Muhammad Qaiser Ikram and Fazle Hakim Saijad, who trawled through historic letters, biographies, and papers to gather details on Henry’s behavior.

Reports show that Henry suffered several head injuries from 1524 and 1536, while he was in his thirties. In March 1524, he was jabbed by a jousting lance and knocked off his horse, which left him dazed. In 1525 he suffered a vaulting accident when the pole broke and he fell into a ditch of water. And his most serious injury came in 1536, when he fell off his horse while jousting and the horse then fell on top of him. Reports from the time state Henry went “for two hours without speaking,” which the researchers took to mean he was unconscious.

 His most serious injury came in 1536, when he fell off his horse while jousting and the horse then fell on top of him. Having established that Henry did suffer such accidents that could cause brain injury, the researchers identify several symptoms based on reports of his behavior. Henry suffered migraines from around 1524, which were especially well documented after 1538 and seemed to have become more frequent after 1531. There are also referenced to insomnia and signs of depression or “mal d’esprit.”

There’s also ample evidence of the King’s murderous and easily provoked anger, as well as signs of memory difficulties, which is “characteristic of subcortical amnesia sometimes seen in traumatic brain injury.”

For instance, there are reports that Henry forgot about his role in his own son’s funeral just two days after the event. And he had a major memory lapse in 1546, when he ordered his (sixth) wife, Catherine Parr, to be sent to the tower of London. He then forgot about his instructions the following day and was consoling his wife when the soldiers arrived. Once he was then reminded of the previous day’s events, he “flew into another fit of rage,” write the authors.

Finally, the authors identify one other symptom of traumatic brain injury—impotence. Though this may seem at odds with Henry’s womanizing image, the researchers found evidence that one of Henry’s wives, Anne Boleyn, was accused of telling her sister-in-law that the king, ‘‘was not adept in the matter of coupling with a woman and that he had neither vertu [skill] nor puissance [vigour].” He was also apparently unable to consummate his marriage to his fifth wife, Catherine Howard.

Based on these symptoms, the authors argue, “It is entirely plausible, though perhaps not provable, that repeated traumatic brain injury lead to changes in Henry’s personality.”

With this weekend’s Super Bowl, there’s attention on whether the NFL is taking appropriate precautions to prevent player head injuries. But this is hardly a recent problem. As the authors note, “Modern generations have neither invented contact sports nor are we the first generation to suffer from traumatic brain injury.”

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