Much has been speculated about the health of Henry VIII. From being a strong, athletic young man with a charming disposition, at the beginning of his reign, to the massively overweight tyrant who changed the face of English religion for his own gain, and left his stamp on history with a rather large foot. But what possible reasons could there be for this chronic alteration in the space of thirty short years?
A key point in Henry’s life, and often theorised as the event which changed his demeanour was the accident in January 1536 whilst jousting which saw Henry fall from his horse, which then rolled on top of him, he was rendered unconscious for several hours. Following the trauma, Henry’s moods, often tempestuous, now took on a startling and quite sinister tone. He was 44 years of age when this accident happened, and his wife, Anne Boleyn subsequently miscarried a child, it was said the shock of almost losing her husband brought on the loss of the child. Just four months later, Henry had her beheaded.
Following his accident, which ended his jousting career, Henry suffered greatly from the re-emergence of an old leg injury, which subsequently caused him mobility problems. He had a large appetite, which became more pronounced. When coupled with the lack of exercise it caused a rapid weight gain. It is entirely possible that as a result, Henry may have developed Type 2 diabetes, which in turn led to the ulcerations on his legs which refused to heal despite treatment. All this can arguably make a person bad-tempered. But many people live in pain, without hurting those around them.
But what about the hidden injuries? Is it possible that Henry suffered some kind of brain injury that led to his increased bad temper and extreme paranoia? Stepping further back in time, we know that this was not the first time Henry suffered a significant head injury whilst jousting. In 1524, the Duke of Suffolk famously broke his lance off inside Henry’s raised visor, causing several large splinters to cast themselves about Henry’s face. On this occasion, Henry seemed to shake off the incident and continue jousting. But is it possible that it was on this occasion that Henry received a trauma to his head? Certainly it could be theorised that Henry’s behaviour began to change around this time.
Of course, there is an accountable line of mental health problems running through the line of the family, to track it back requires a little patience. Mary Stuart displayed symptoms of depression perhaps bi-polar disorder. She was prone to periods of mental instability. Several modern Physicians and psychiatrists have examined the little evidence and feel she may have suffered Porphyria. As we know, Mary was related to Henry via his sister Margaret who was Mary’s paternal Grandmother. Margaret was mother to James V of Scotland who also is documented to have shown symptoms of mental illness intermittently, as well as some of the physical symptoms of the acute condition.
Through their ancestry from Catherine of Valois, we can establish a further link to a definite mental health issue via Henry VI, who famously suffered intermittent bouts of mental instability including a long period of catatonia, another symptom of the illness. Finally through the Stuart line, George III was possibly another high-profile sufferer, certainly William Duke of Gloucester was confirmed with the variegate version of the disease. From these many instances, we can theorise that it is highly possible that rather than a brain injury, it’s entirely reasonable to suggest Henry suffered this illness or something similar, and that the increasing bouts of manic behaviour were a result of the condition.
Porphyria causes amongst other things, skin lesions, liver conditions, intestinal pain, high-blood pressure, dizziness and tachycardia. At an estimated 28 stones preceding his death, it’s possible that these symptoms manifested themselves two-fold with the increase in his weight.
Moving on to the other area of Henry’s health which has often been the subject of debate, is the possibility that Henry carried a Kell positive antigen in his blood, which works in a similar way to the Rhesus factor of blood types between mother and foetus. If a mother has a rhesus negative blood type, and is impregnated by a rhesus positive father, on the first pregnancy the mother’s antibodies will assume the opposing blood-type contained within the foetus as a foreign body, and will allow the pregnancy to continue. Any subsequent pregnancy will then be recognised as a threat and the antibodies will destroy the foetus causing miscarriage. With a Kell positive the threat is contained within the father’s blood and if the mother has an opposing Kell factor, then only the first child will be successful as in the Rhesus factor. Scientists are still working on this theory, it is feasible that one of these explanations is responsible for the two miscarriages of Anne Boleyn, following the problem free pregnancy she had with Elizabeth, however we can logically discount this theory from the causes of the unsuccessful pregnancies of Katherine of Aragon, as her one successful pregnancy was that of Mary, her fifth child, who was possibly born prematurely, due to her size at birth and her delicate health as a child.
I would offer that Katherine’s problem was a simple case of an unstable cervix and uterus, which quite possibly wasn’t able to sustain a full term pregnancy. In the 21st Century, obstetricians would solve the problem by inserting a simple stitch into the cervix in the second trimester, and remove it when birth is anticipated. This would account for the premature births of her first and last daughters, in 1510 and 1518, one of whom was stillborn and the other living for a few hours, and her second and third sons, both called Henry, in 1513 and 1514, again who only lived for a few hours.
Finally with regard to her first son also Henry, who lived for 52 days, it is entirely likely that this child suffered either what is now known as sudden infant death, or he quite possibly overheated in his sleep. possibly as a result of being kept in a red hot nursery with fires and no ventilation, heavy robes and being strapped in swaddling. I find it highly unlikely that being surrounded by nurses and other nursery staff every minute of the day, nobody noticed the young prince getting agitated prior to his death, according to contemporary accounts, he went for a nap, and didn’t wake up, being discovered dead in his crib. Obviously, this was in the days before CPR so even if anybody was attentive enough to notice the young Henry struggling, whether they were able to take any measures to prevent his demise is unlikely.
The other possibility was foul means. But I will leave that one there.