A new discovery has made the image of Henry VIII – a man who executed two of his wives and had many Catholics hanged, drawn, and quartered on religious grounds after he wanted to divorce his first wife, which the church would not allow – somehow even worse.
Tudor historian Tracy Borman and archivist Sean Cunningham uncovered a warrant book in the National Archives containing records of 16th-century crimes and punishments. Within the documents, most fairly dull bureaucratic accounts from the Tudor government, Cunningham spotted orders pertaining to the death of King Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn. She had been sentenced to death for treason, adultery, and incest, though pretty much all historians agree these charges were bogus and his real motivation for her execution was because she hadn’t given him a male heir.
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The newly discovered warrant book contains specific instructions from Henry for how he wanted Boleyn to be executed, which Tracy Borman says reinforces his image as a “pathological monster”.
“What it shows is Henry’s premeditated, calculating manner,” Borman told . “He knows exactly how and where he wants it to happen.”
The instructions show that Henry wanted to be rid of his “late queen of England, lately our wife, lately attainted and convicted of high treason” by execution “upon the Green within our Tower of London.” Though certainly cold and grim that he was involved in the logistics of his wife’s execution, the documents show that he was “moved by pity” to spare her from being burned, preferring that she be decapitated instead. He also specified that her death should come from a blow by a sword, which was more reliable as a form of execution than an ax, but not commonly used in England at the time, meaning a French swordsman was sent for.
You probably won’t be surprised that one of English history’s famous monsters (of which there are hundreds, the English sure do love to travel the world causing misery, historically speaking) displayed horrible behavior, but you may be a little intrigued to know that he wasn’t always like this and his behavior changed dramatically in 1536. His tyrannical behavior may have been the result of a horse.
In a jousting tournament at Greenwich Palace on January 24, 1536, Henry, aged 44, was in full armor when he was thrown from his horse. The situation immediately became worse when his horse, which was also armored, fell on top of him. He remained unconscious for a full two hours, during which those around him believed the injury to be fatal.
Yet prior to this event, his peers characterized him as ‘‘prudent and wise and free from every vice” and “a man of gentle friendliness, and gentle in debate; he acts more like a companion than a king,” according to neurologists from Yale Memory Clinic at the Yale School of Medicine. The team then looked at problems the King had after the injury – not his first sustained during jousting – including headaches, insomnia, poor impulse control, and memory loss.
“The king loved religious debates and during one acrimonious argument between Catherine Parr and Stephen Gardiner he unreasonably ordered the transportation of the queen to the Tower of London,” the researchers told History Extra. “The next day [he] appears to have forgotten about the incident and was consoling his distraught wife. When the soldiers arrived to take her away, he could not remember the original orders he had given and had to be prompted to remember the episode. When he remembered he flew into another fit of rage.”
The team also note that impotence and weight gain can also result from traumatic brain injury, especially if he had associated pituitary dysfunction and hormone problems.
“We know of at least three major head injuries in Henry’s life. He may have had headaches and more subtle changes to his personality after his first head injury, but there is a marked stepwise change in him after 1536,” the team concluded. “It is entirely plausible, though perhaps not provable, that repeated traumatic brain injury led to changes in Henry’s personality.”
Not that that would have been of much comfort to Anne Boleyn.