Historians, Neuroscientists Say Henry VIII Had Brain Injury

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What do NFL football players, O.J. Simpson, and 16th century king Henry VIII have in common? According to some historians and neuroscientists, they may all have suffered head injury that affected their personalities and behavior.

If Will Smith’s movie, Concussion, was designed to shed light on traumatic brain injury, appears to have done its job. Publication of the discovery of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE – a form of brain injury resulting from repeated head injury – seems to have caused a wave of examining of old cases. Some of them, very old.

Arash Salardini, behavioral neurologist, and co-director of the Yale Memory Clinic, has led a team of scientists and historians taking a look at one of England’s most well-known historical figures: King Henry VIII. Their findings were recently released in the Journal of Clinical Neuroscience on Feb. 5.

Henry VIII ruled England from 1509 until 1547. He is perhaps most famous for separating England from the Catholic Church after the Church refused to annul his first marriage. All together, Henry had 6 wives, two of whom he had executed.

But historians note that King Henry wasn’t always an erratic, rageful monarch. At first he was considered even-tempered and intelligent, making smart military and policy decisions. But that changed in 1536.

In January, 1536, a horse fell on the king during a jousting match. He was unconscious for two hours. That wasn’t his horse-related first head injury, though. In 1524, during another jousting match a lance penetrated his helmet, dazing him. A year later, he was knocked out when he fell head-first off his horse and into a river.

These repeated head injuries appear to have caused symptoms similar to those NFL players studied by Dr. Bennet Omalu, the forensic pathologist. Dr. Salardini and his research team believe CTE could explain Henry VII’s memory problems, explosive anger, inability to control impulses, headaches, insomnia, and maybe even impotence. He said:

“It is intriguing to think that modern European history may have changed forever because of a blow to the head.”

Research assistants Muhammad Qaiser Ikram and Fazle Hakim Saijad took to the books, reviewing volumes of historical documents written by and about Henry VIII, looking for clues of his medical condition. Their findings were consistent with the behavioral changes that happen after a traumatic brain injury.

For example, in 1546, documents show Henry assuring his sixth wife Catherine Parr, that she wouldn’t go to the Tower of London. When soldiers arrived to arrest her, he was furious, apparently having forgotten that he had given that order the day before.

There will never be hard scientific proof of Henry VIII’s brain injury. But the similarities between his behavioral changes and the symptoms experienced by CTE victims is striking. It demonstrates how drastically a traumatic brain injury can change a person’s life, personality, and livelihood, whether they are a king or a football player.

David Christensen is a brain injury expert at Christensen Law in Southfield, Michigan. He has been helping the victims of brain injury collect no-fault benefits after auto accidents for over 20 years. If you or someone you love has suffered a traumatic brain injury, contact Christensen Law today for a free consultation.