Henry VIII’s Health – Guest Post by Kyra Kramer

I am delighted to be part of Kyra Kramer’s book tour, in which she has been visiting various blogs and discussing Henry VIII’s health for her new book Henry VIII’s Health in a Nutshell. For your chance to win a paperback copy of her book, simply leave a comment after this post between now and 21st December 2015. The giveaway is open internationally and don’t forget to leave your name and a contact email. A winner will randomly be selected and contacted by email shortly after the competition closes.

About the author:

Kyra Cornelius Kramer is a freelance academic with BS degrees in both biology and anthropology from the University of Kentucky, as well as a MA in medical anthropology from Southern Methodist University. She is the author of Blood Will Tell: A Medical Explanation of the Tyranny of Henry VIII, The Jezebel Effect: Why the Slut Shaming of Famous Queens Still Matters, and Henry VIII’s Health in a Nutshell. Her essays on the agency of the Female Gothic heroine and women’s bodies as feminist texts in the works of Jennifer Crusie have been published in peer-reviewed journals . She has also co-authored two works; one with Dr. Laura Vivanco on the way in which the bodies of romance heroes and heroines act as the sites of reinforcement of, and resistance to, enculturated sexualities and gender ideologies, and another with Dr. Catrina Banks Whitley on Henry VIII.

Ms. Kramer lives in Bloomington, IN with her cute geeky husband, three amazing young daughters,  and assorted small yappy dogs garnered from re-homing and rescues. When not working she reads voraciously, plays video games with her family, does cross-stitch, and invents excuses to procrastinate about doing routine house cleaning.

You can read her blog at kyrackramer.com, or follow Kyra Cornelius Kramer on her Facebook page or Twitter.

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The Mental Aberrations of Henry VIII

Henry VIII spent the last half of his reign becoming increasing paranoid and irrational, and he was acting as crazy as a bedbug by time the 1540’s rolled around. Historians, however, have been traditionally been reluctant to actually call Henry mentally ill. As I point out in my book, Henry VIII’s Health in a Nutshell, both lay historians and academics have danced around the issue of the king’s deteriorating behavior:

“… he has been described as “villainously quixotic” (Erickson, 1980:267) or as “an imperious and dangerous autocrat who [was] mesmerized by his own legend” (Weir, 2001:349). The descriptors of Henry’s inconstancies have always left the impression that he was somehow in charge of his own fickleness, and that there was more method than madness in his actions. Some historians postulate that Henry began his “significant shift in personality “because he was “taking on the lineaments of mature kingship” (Erickson, 1980:253), with others maintaining that Henry’s eventual tyranny can be best explained by the fact he grew older and more aware of his power (Scarisbrick, 1970; Smith, 1982). Alternatively, scholars argue that it was a change in circumstances and threats to his rule which pushed him into becoming a more ruthless monarch, possibly exacerbated by a blow to the head (Lipscomb, 2009). Some assert that the monster had always been present, but before his attempt to end his marriage to Katherina of Aragon no one had ever really challenged his will on anything important, and thus his true malevolence had lain dormant (Lindsey, 1995).

Nonetheless, there is a general consensus that Henry’s moodiness, paranoia, and erratic behavior became more extreme, and therefore more noticeable, in his later middle age.

Certainly the king’s contemporaries noticed that all was not well with the king. Historical documentation is rife with complaints about the Henry’s volatile temper and dangerous impulses.

One of the French ambassadors to the English court warned that Henry suffered from the “plague” of “distrust and fear. This King, knowing how many changes he has made, and what tragedies and scandals he has created, would fain keep in favor with everybody, but does not trust a single man, expecting to see them all offended, and he will not cease to dip his hand in blood as long as he doubts his people. Hence every day edicts are published so sanguinary that with a thousand guards one would scarce be safe. Hence too it is that now with us, as affairs incline, he makes alliances which last as long as it makes for him to keep them” (CPS Vol.15:481-488). Everyone was aware that Henry had become as irrational and suspicious as he was dangerous. Lord Montague, a member of Henry’s court, warned his fellow courtiers that the king would “be out of his wits one day … for when he came into his chamber he would look angrily, and after fall to fighting” (Erickson, 1980:288).

As of late, some historians and scholars have actually broached the topic of Henry’s possible mental illness (or illnesses). Among these theories are that he was a psychopath, a sociopath, had narcissistic personality disorder, suffered from bipolar disorder, or was afflicted with clinical depression. Was Henry an autocratic ruler, a psychotic monster, or a man in the grip of unaccountable brain chemistry that undermined his decision making capabilities?

There are two problems in diagnosing Henry’s mental illness at a distance. One is the displacement of the king from his context.

A significant flaw in any theory about Henry’s mental condition is that psychological theories are based largely on “weird” people, i.e the subject of psychology experiments are usually Western, Educated, from Industrialized and relatively Rich societies which are usually in Democratic countries. The king was more royal “we” than royal weird. He was Western and … that is about it. He was educated as possible for his era, but his education assured him that the planets affected his ‘humors’ and that the sun revolved around the earth. England was not particularly industrialized, or comparatively rich, and beyond contestation it was not a democracy. Trying to measure Henry against a modern person may mean that psychologists are using a yardstick to try to measure cubic liters.

The second biggest issue is timing. Henry undoubtedly displayed the signs of narcissism, and therefore psychopathology and sociopathology as well, in addition to some classic tell-tales of bipolar disorder and clinical depression … but he did not manifest any of these symptoms until after 1531. That is peculiar to say the least. It is rare to the point of impossibility for some of the more acute mental illnesses, like narcissism, sociopathy, and psychopathy, to suddenly present in adults – let alone adults in their forties. These problems develop in childhood, and although diagnosis may not occur until later in life the indicia are present prior to adulthood.

For example, psychopaths and sociopaths (which include narcissists) are charming. Henry was indisputably charming, but unlike most psychopaths the king seemed to be an actual “people-person” when young and became less able to charm people as he grew older. There is no evidence before the 1530’s that Henry’s charm was ‘superficial’, rather than the genuine charisma of someone who is not a psychopath. Moreover, psychopaths/sociopaths have a lifelong ability to keep supporters (or make new ones) even at their most counterfactual and in the most egregious circumstances. The reason psychopaths/sociopaths are so good at keeping people in thrall is because they are so good at ‘gaslighting’, a form of emotional abuse in which the abuser tries to convince the abused that he or she is at fault or in the wrong by denying abusive incidents occurred or altering the account of incidents so skillfully that the abused becomes uncertain of reality and/or even convinced the abuser did nothing untoward. When Henry was an older king he lost most of his ability to inspire people to see him as kind or heroic in spite of his actions to the contrary. If he were a true psychopath/sociopath, then he could have been able to pull the wool over the eyes of most people in court.

Additionally, the king was unlikely to be bipolar because his depressive episodes were not accompanied by the “manic” phase of a bipolar disorder. He may have developed depression as an older adult, but his “blues” only started after he had lost his health and youth and most of his wives. What looks like depression may only be legitimate sorrow. That’s why depression diagnoses within a year of the loss of a close loved one are suspect; they cannot usually be differentiated from non-pathological grief.

There is one theory regarding Henry’s personality change after midlife takes the timing of his mental illness into account. If the king has McLeod syndrome, he would not have shown any sign of it until the 1530s. Patients with McLeod syndrome are typically healthy during their infancy and childhood, with the disease starting to put in an appearance around a person’s fortieth birthday and then growing progressively worse over time.

There are many different kinds of psychopathology exhibited by patients with McLeod syndrome, including deterioration of memory and executive functions, paranoia, depression, radical alteration in personality, and socially inappropriate conduct. This mental deterioration can become severe. In one notable case, a previously healthy man with a high degree of intelligence was hospitalized at the age of 39 with an initial schizophrenic episode, and it was determined that the patient’s “schizophrenia” was actually a symptom of his worsening McLeod syndrome. There is certainly substantial evidence to suggest that Henry underwent a significant personality change after his fortieth birthday, in a manner consistent with the “schizophrenia-like” and other mental problems that are often linked to McLeod syndrome.

What do you think? Was Henry a monster, a madman, or a little of both? Leave a comment and get a chance to win a free copy of Henry VIII’s Health in a Nutshell!

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14 Responses to Henry VIII’s Health – Guest Post by Kyra Kramer

  1. Lyn Askew says:

    Henry was such a complicated man. He was not raised to be king so after Arthur’s death he jumped into a world that seemed wonderful for a young talented man with no practical lessons in kingship.I think as this fairytale world fell apart over the years he became more depressed,discouraged and frantic to have the son who would set things right.

  2. catherine says:

    Very interesting. Too bad we can’t get a DNA sample.

  3. Geraldine Barton says:

    Many say that the bad fall he had in 1536 where he nearly died was to blame. If he fell on his head could this have caused the trouble? I personally think that it all went swimmingly for him whilst he got his own way but when obstacles appeared he became very cruel. Look how he behaved to his wife Catharine of Aragon at the end of his marriage when she would not give in to him over the divorce.He treated her in a very cruel way even denying her the sight of her daughter Mary. Also, the people executed who would not go along with him such as Sir Thomas More and Archbishop Fisher (he was close to Henry’s grandmother Margaret Beaufort but it meant nothing to him) He was a very selfish person who I think never completely grew up. He just always wanted his own way and because he was King he could have it.

  4. Geraldine Barton says:

    Many feel that Henry got worse after his accident in 1536 but personally I feel that he was always difficult. Until he couldn’t get his own way it was not so evident. It first really showed when he could not get his own way when his wife Catharine of Aragon refused to divorce him. He treated her very cruelly not even allowing her to see her daughter Mary and she died cut off from the court and in poverty. He had executed Sir Thomas More and Archbishop Fisher because they would not agree with him. Fisher was close to his grandmother Margaret Beaufort but it made no difference. He was a man who always wanted his own way and when he couldn’t get it he reacted badly. He was a very selfish man.

  5. It Could be something fascinated to have this wonderful book, so I hope to be a wee winner ;).
    This is Diana from Mexico city, so greetings to UK!!

  6. Liz Powell says:

    I think it might have been that after his fall in the jousting arena, Henry was in considerable pain and never recovered his health fully. The ulcers which developed on his legs led to increase in pain, and so shortness of temper. He also became depressed that even as the King, he could not find a cure for his leg problems and so could no longer do the things he loved. Think how grouchy an ill man can be!!!!!

  7. Stephanie Kenny says:

    Definitely a madman in his later years.

    • charfent says:

      Congratulations Stephanie! You’ve won a copy of Henry VIII’s Health in a Nutshell 🙂 please keep an eye on your email so we can get more details from you and send a copy

  8. K.M. Guerin says:

    I read something on the McLeod’s syndrome not so long ago, and how his predisposition for it was possibly passed down through his mother and maternal grandmother (http://www.rcpe.ac.uk/sites/default/files/stride_5.pdf, for anyone interested in reading it and learning a bit more about Henry VIII and the possibility of McLeod’s). Since then, it’s fascinated me how completely fragile humans really are, but also how completely different the body’s reactions can be! Thank you so much for an informative guest post, Ms. Kramer! 🙂

  9. I thought I had read in Death of Kings at one time that Henry may possibly have had a thyroid condition. Was that considered?

  10. Henry’s health was just as interesting as the man. I wish we could get some DNA or do an MRI. Can’t wait to read the book!
    Melanie Rivas
    melwill@prodigy.net

  11. Fascinating article! I had no idea sociopaths are considered to be able to enthrall people. Would very much like to read the book!
    allthingsrd@t-online.de

  12. Interesting, but classic malignant narcissism also gets worse with age, much worse. The more vulnerable malignant narcissists feel, the more they lash out. And that also goes for the opposite: the more invulnerable narcissists feel, the more they lash out (because it shows they can get away with being terrorists). That means that no matter how vulnerable or invulnerable they feel, they will get worse.

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