Monday, July 1, 2013

The Madness of King Henry VIII?

by Nancy Bilyeau

I know more about Henry VIII than I do about psychopaths. Or at least I think I do. I'm under the impression that psychopaths don't feel guilty about the bad things they do. They're not capable of it. But psychopaths are supposed to be rare, and since I've worked with more than a few people in the media who didn't evidence an ounce of remorse after a frenzy of nastiness, it's possible I need to deepen my understanding of this mental disorder.

Perhaps I am setting the bar of misdeed too low. Psychopaths do very nasty things sans guilt, like...well....Hannibel Lecter.  The serial killer who chews his way through Thomas Harris's novels Manhunter, Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal is a bona fide psychopath. And I've seen Silence of the Lambs--twice--and shudder whenever I picture Anthony Hopkins' cannibalistic fava-beans riposte or hear him saying, "Ready when you are, Sergeant Pembry."

This is why when the news broke recently that Henry VIII was in reality a psychopath, it gave me pause. King Henry famously sent two of his six wives to the chopping block and laid waste to a long line of courtiers, ministers and relatives. Still, I was having a hard time with him gobbling an errant gentleman of the privy chamber.

But I repeat, my knowledge of the world of psychopaths is not extensive. So I decided it was time to, if you will, put Henry Tudor on the couch, starting with the latest theory.

Henry VIII: Psychopath?
This theory about Henry's mental wiring comes from Oxford researcher Kevin Dutton, who wrote The Wisdom of Psychopaths: Lessons in Life from Saints, Spies and Serial Killing, coming out in paperback later this year. That's correct--this is, among other things, a self-help book. "Psychopaths have a lot of good things going for them," declares the book's website. "They are fearless, confident, charismatic, ruthless and focused--qualities tailor-made for success in twenty-first century society." And for the mid-16th century too? Instead of feeling repulsed by Henry's psychopathic side, should I be proud of him? When he consigned devoted ministers Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell to the Tower, he wasn't cold, he was charismatic. Way to be the boss!

Byron: Dangerous to know, but no psychopath
Still, I wanted to know how Professor Dutton diagnosed Henry Tudor. It seems that there is a list of criteria ranging from emotional detachment to feelings of alienation, and 10 people considered "Britain's greatest" were put to the test. Only Henry VIII scored high enough: 174 on a spectrum that required a minimum score of 168 to make it to the Big P. The nine who did not make it: Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Elizabeth I, Charles Dickens, Freddie Mercury, Lord Byron, William Shakespeare, Winston Churchill and Oscar Wilde. (I love Queen, but Freddie Mercury?)

If you'd like to know more about the job requirements for being a psychopath, Professor Dutton has a quiz--or rather a "Challenge." Typical of the questions: "Cheating on your partner is OK so long as you don't get caught." Hmmmm. When I think of Henry's marital history, it seems that cheating on his partners was OK even if he was caught. Didn't the Tudor king inform his outraged second wife, "Close your eyes, as your betters have done before you"?

Perhaps Professor Dutton is on to something. But before I agree to lump Henry VIII with Ted Bundy, I thought I'd refresh my memory on what other psychologists and historians have said about Henry's psychological state. His outrageous reign has led to all sorts of speculation.

Young Henry VIII
Henry VIII:  Extreme Narcissist? A carefully argued article published in 1972 by Miles F. Shore in The Journal of Interdisciplinary History (The MIT Press) found, after examining Henry VIII's behavior with a psychoanalyst's view, that the king exhibited "distinct behavior changes, and at least one depressive episode." The author blames a childhood swinging between "extravagant adulation and brutal discipline," as "exciting ceremonials and pageantry" came and went, replaced by "boredom and loneliness." This produced an adult who seemed confident, accomplished and flamboyant but beneath the surface was insecure, dependent and anxious.

According to the journal article:
"For Henry VIII, the first seventeen years of his reign had seen the acting-out of a series of grandiose narcissistic fantasies. His crisis came when these had to be modified in the face of real events: his injuries, his military and political disappointments, and his inability to have a legitimate male heir. Biological factors and the erosive effect of real events on his grandiose fantasies were the major precipitants of his crisis....compulsive attempts to remain young with hypochondriachal concerns, sexual promiscuity and possible real character deterioration."
Such analyses have deepened since the 1970s. In her excellent new book The Creation of Anne Boleyn, author Susan Bordo probes the mind of Henry VIII to try to figure out how, after such an all-consuming and passionate love for Anne, he could callously sign her death warrant after three years of marriage. It's a question that bedeviled people in Henry's time and every century since. "In 2012, this kind of personality would probably he diagnosed as borderline or narcissistic," Bordo writes.

16th century treatment for syphilis
HENRY VIII: SYPHILITIC? Psychosis can result from untreated late-stage syphilis, which was first recorded in Europe in 1494. Ten to 30 years after infection, the sufferer experiences delusions, headaches, and impaired judgment. Because Henry VIII did exhibit these characteristics in the 1540s--and he was known to take mistresses in his 20s and 30s--syphilis was a theory tossed around for years. But recently, medical authorities have pretty much shut the door on this one. Henry did not exhibit the other physical symptoms of untreated syphilis: seizures, mania, ataxia. And he did not undergo any of the bizarre treatments used for syphilis. At least, not as far as the historical records reveal.

HENRY VIII: BRAIN DAMAGED? Henry VIII was a serious athlete when young, suffering a few falls while relishing the dangerous sport of jousting. But several years ago a theory made the rounds that his most serious fall, in January 1536, caused a two-hour loss of consciousness. Did this injury to his brain transform him from affable and charming to cruel and paranoid?

The flaw with this theory is that Henry VIII exhibited cruel behavior long before 1536. This was a young man who executed two of his father's unpopular ministers shortly after taking the throne in 1509, and pushed through the arrest and execution of his cousin, the Duke of Buckingham, on flimsy charges in 1521. He didn't need to fall off a horse to commit acts of brutality.

Henry VIII's jousting armor, at the Tower of London
In her fascinating book 1536: The Year That Changed Henry VIII, historian Suzannah Lipscomb argues that the jousting accident did have a profound effect on the king, in a number of ways. It aggravated his leg ulcers, which caused "recurrent and excruciating pain" for the rest of his life. No one in that kind of pain is in a good mood. And this fall affected him psychologically in other ways, forcing the king to face his mortality and weakening his sense of manhood at a time when, at the age of 42, he had no legitimate male heir.

HENRY VIII, UNRESTRAINED? Henry VIII might have been psychotic, or neurotic, or perpetually pain-stricken, or depressive. We have no way of knowing, five centuries after his death.

Biographer Jasper Ridley is one who vigorously refutes the idea that Henry VIII was manipulated by others, the vacillating victim of court faction. In his work, Henry VIII is willful, aggressive, selfish, ruthless. A tyrant.

It may be a "Henry Tudor" living in our time, one who is found on Twitter, who gets at something missing in all the somber, appalled analyses. And that is the undeniable glee in unfettered power, even in its dark moments.

"People are so helpful, complimentary & pleasing when they know you can have them legally killed," recently tweeted @KngHnryVIII. On June 28, the birthday of the king, he tweeted: "Today-cakes, pies, swan eating contest, heretic burning, gifts, codpiece-only dancing, strumming lute sexily w shirt off, bacon."

It was Thomas More who is thought to have said of his friend, his master and his murderer, "For if the lion knows his own strength, then no man could control him."

Henry VIII, at his coronation at the age of 17, was anointed with holy oil. The sovereign thus formed a mystical connection to God, one that Henry and all three of his children took very seriously. It was a moment and an ensuing transformation that few of us can truly grasp in the year 2013. It goes beyond modern psychiatry and biography and deep into the mind of that ever-fascinating enigma, Henry VIII.


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of the historical thrillers The Crown and The Chalice, set in the 1530s, the time of Henry VIII. For more information, go to
The Chalice, U.S.

The Chalice, U.K.


  1. I'm no fan of Henry VIII but I honestly wonder, in light of some of what I have read recently about his Yorkist grandfather Edward IV, whether is was very much worse than him.
    Edward had his own brother, George Duke of Clarence executed, as well an many other nobles, to the point that entire noble families such as the Beauforts were exterminated.
    Admittedly, this happened in the midst of a civil war, but there may be other events which cannot be so easily explained. For instance, in 1466 the De Courtenay Earl of Devon was bought before justices and executed, supposedly for treason. Yet the Pro-Lancastrian Warkworth chronicleris supposed to have suggested that one of Edward's supporters, of the Stafford family engineered Courtenay's demise to get his lands. He got them- but was lynched by a mob 6 moths later.

    There was also Sir John Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester who seems to have had a prominent place in Edward's regime. The Tudors called him the 'Butcher of England', and it seems he had a particular penchant for brutal methods of execution used on the continent such as impalement. According to one source I read, Tiptoft presided over treason trials 'by royal commision' which meant there was no jury or indictment, and according to one article is said to have had the chilldren of one nobleman tortured.

  2. It always comes out vaguely silly when modern psychiatric attitudes are imposed on people from the far distant past.

    I'm no fan of any of the Tudors, (including Elizabeth,) but "psychopath" seems too trendily glib for my liking. As far as Henry is concerned, "spoiled, selfish, secretly insecure, power-mad bully" does well enough for me.

  3. England desperately needed a male heir. The lack of one was not hard to view as God's disapproval of Henry's marriage to his brother's wife, which of course, the pope had allowed despite religious prohibition to the contrary. This all began with a request for an annulment (Henry did not believe in divorce) that would have been granted under most circumstances. Consider that Eleanor of Aquitaine's first marriage to Louis of France disappeared with a papal annulment for the very same reasons. Her daughters were thus illegitimate (but married well) and she was free to go marry the younger swain who became Henry II, while Louis married and had sons by his second wife. This was a normal activity between popes and kings--annulment in pursuit of male heirs. I do think Henry went off his rocker but wonder how much of it was guilt and torment as he kept scrambling to do what he thought would get him a son, and kept watching God disapprove.

  4. It's anachronistic, I think. Psychopathy doesn't have a proper definition but it's taken to mean a grandiose sense of self, a lack of remorse for poor behaviour, and a feeling of invulnerability to the actions of others. I should have thought being brought up as an absolute monarch would give you those very attitudes - because you ARE grand and answerable to no one!

    1. Our monarchs in England were not actually supposed to be absolute monarchs, not even Medieval ones, we didn't tend to like those who wanted to wield such arbitrary power.
      Personally (and this is only my theory) I believe that during the Wars of the Roses in the Fifteenth century Kings began to take a more brutal approach to any who opposed or threatened them (often by killing them off), and that sometimes their own relatives were not safe.

  5. People who lived 500 years ago were inured to a level of brutality that we today (some of us, anyhow) find disturbing. That said, I think I'd go with the narcissistic diagnosis. He had an extreme self-regard and a total lack of interest in his intimates once they were seen as no longer useful. For me, understanding the medieval and the following Tudor ear as a kind of gang-land war for turf--The Sopranos in ruffs and slashed doublets--makes a good deal of psychological sense.

  6. Nancy, great piece, thanks so much for the mention!! For those interested in my answers to the question "How Could He Do It?", the full analysis can be found in my book. I'd love to have readers of this page become readers of mine!!

  7. Thank you for exonerating Byron. He doesn't deserve to be on that list :-) Was he on Charles Dutton's? I'm curious.

    Dianna Rostad

  8. A fascinating post, Nancy!! Super thoughtful and observant!

  9. I really enjoyed your post! I've always believed it was the jousting injuries and the resulting brain trauma that turned Henry into the cruel tyrant we read about. Like you said, however, he was already cruel and tyrannical before his first accident, so we can't blame the jousting!


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