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.
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!