Was Henry VIII brain-damaged?

Accounts of the king's behavior are consistent with post-concussive syndrome from jousting and equestrian injuries.

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King Henry VIII of England is the latest addition to the list of athletes whose erratic behavior and inventory of symptoms were likely the result of repeated blows to the head. Henry, perhaps most famous for marrying six times and beheading two of his wives, showed symptoms of traumatic brain injury, says Arash Salardini, behavioral neurologist and codirector of the Yale Memory Clinic.

Historians had conjectured that Henry’s head injuries—two during jousts, one while pole-vaulting over a brook—might have led to his increasingly unpredictable behavior. Salardini decided to do a clinical analysis. The fact that Henry couldn’t provide a medical history, says Salardini, wasn’t that unusual for a dementia patient: “Sometimes patients can’t relate information about themselves. Their interpretation is colored by their symptoms.” As they couldn’t interview the patient’s friends and family, he and his research team studied letters and papers by Henry and people close to him, keeping in mind they would “have their own biases.” (The study appeared in the Journal of Clinical Neuroscience.)

Salardini’s finding: “Every piece of evidence points in one direction—post-concussive syndrome.” The third injury, which took place in 1536, was the most serious. Henry fell from his horse in a joust, and then the horse fell on him, leaving the king out cold for two hours. Within a year, Henry had his second wife, Anne Boleyn, beheaded.

The symptoms tell the story, Salardini says. Henry, once a model of Renaissance kingship, started behaving more and more bizarrely after the third accident. His executive functioning abilities and memory clearly deteriorated; he lost his characteristic enthusiasm and became apathetic; he gained a lot of weight and his behavior was increasingly “disregulated”—that is, he didn’t follow societal expectations. And he was showing sociopathic tendencies.  “He chopped off a lot of heads,” notes Salardini. “Even for his times, it was way too much.”

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