24 January 1536 – Henry VIII and his horse fall heavily


On this day in history, 24th January 1536, at a joust at Greenwich Palace, King Henry VIII and his horse “both fell so heavily that every one thought it a miracle he was not killed”.

It is not known exactly what happened or how serious the accident was, but it put an end to Henry’s jousting days, a blow for the once athletic king and enthusiastic jouster.

There are three main contemporary accounts of the king’s 1536 jousting accident. The first, which is often used to back up the idea that the accident was a serious one and may have caused a frontal lobe injury, is from an account of the accident written by Pedro Ortiz, or Dr Ortiz, to the Empress on 6th March 1536:

“Has received a letter from the ambassador in France, dated 15 Feb., stating that he hears from England that the King intends to marry the Princess to an English knight. The French king said that the king of England had fallen from his horse, and been for two hours without speaking. “La Ana” was so upset that she miscarried of a son.”

The problem with this account of the king being “without speaking” for two hours, which suggests that he was unconscious, is that it is hearsay and very much third-hand hearsay. Ortiz was in Rome and it appears that he heard the news from the French ambassador who heard it from Francis I, who himself wasn’t present at the joust and must have heard it from one of his ambassadors in England. Two accounts written by people who were in England, at the English court, at the time, make no mention of the king being unconscious. Eustace Chapuys, the imperial ambassador in England, wrote:

“On the eve of the Conversion of St. Paul, the King being mounted on a great horse to run at the lists, both fell so heavily that every one thought it a miracle he was not killed, but he sustained no injury.”

And chronicler Charles Wriothesley, in writing of Queen Anne Boleyn’s miscarriage on 29th January, recorded:

“[…] it was said she [Anne] tooke a fright, for the King ranne that tyme at the ring and had a fall from his horse, but he had no hurt; and she tooke such a fright with all that it caused her to fall in travaile, and so was delivered afore her full tyme, which was a great discompfort to all this realme.”

Whether or not it caused any type if brain injury, it was enough to stop the king from jousting again, it may have reminded the king of his mortality and the need for a son and heir, and the queen said that the shock of hearing news of the king’s accident caused her to miscarry. The accident had an impact.

Notes and Sources

Picture: Henry VIII by Joos van Cleve and a photo of jousting at Hever Castle by Peter Trimming, Geograph.org.uk.

  • Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 10, 427, Dr Ortiz to the Empress
  • Ibid., 200, Chapuys to Granvelle
  • Wriothesley, Charles (1875) A chronicle of England during the reigns of the Tudors, from A.D. 1485 to 1559, p. 33

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9 thoughts on “24 January 1536 – Henry VIII and his horse fall heavily”
  1. There is no way Henry clattering into an opponent, in full armour at over forty miles an hour or even more, on a warhorse, decked out like a tank, himself in full armour, falling to the floor after a head on collision, the horse, also in full armour, probably falling on top of him, didn’t get some form of injury. If he didn’t sustain noticeable external injuries, he suffered internal ones. Hid brain would have been rattling around inside his head for one thing, causing lobe damage. Henry did not need to be out for two hours, as we know, anything more than 30 seconds to a minute or two unconscious or with a concussion is of great concern. He may have been out for a few minutes, came too and it was deduced that he had no further injuries so he was unhurt. We also know that he opened up an old injury in his leg, something that came to light a couple of weeks later.

    Let’s face it you are not going to tell the world in official communication that Henry Viii was out for two hours and almost died. In a personal letter leaked news seems a likely way to spread this news. Didn’t Chapyus remark on Henry being a tyrant who should have died as he was upset of the death of Katherine of Aragon? If Henry showed no signs of hurt, that is being out and in danger, why were his courtiers so alarmed and Anne so distressed at the news? I think he was out for some period, enough to scare a few people and had lobe damage that made his already darkening personality even darker. His migraines increased, which he already suffered after Suffolk almost poked his eyes and brains out with his lance in 1524, his moods swung wildly, he had serious trouble with his thigh and leg and his health declined soon after this. If he didn’t have a brain injury, then we need another explanation. A rare blood disorder has been proposed. However, this was not the first bang on the head. It is well established today that continually banging your head over a long period of time can lead to serious neurological damage. American football players and baseball players are monitored regularly for head injury after a number of cases which led to them being violent or even killing, after being injured several times. It just takes one to be worse than before and the damage and personality change is not reversible. Henry also showed high and low mood swings, increasing paranoid tensions, increasing sensitivity, lack of self esteem and confidence, comfort eating and bizarre behaviour. All of these follow head trauma. Robert Hutchinson showed in a demonstration that the impact would have crushed him to death but for his armour and sturdy body. Ambiguous ambassadors reports aside, that Henry was o.k after this, that he did not have a head injury, that he was not out even for a few minutes, it is not possible.

    1. “Ambiguous ambassadors reports aside, that Henry was o.k after this, that he did not have a head injury, that he was not out even for a few minutes, it is not possible.”

      I have to completely disagree. I think if Henry hadn’t been ok, if he had suffered a serious head injury, then there would have been reports of it, as there had been in 1524. There is nothing in 1536 about any head injury, about Henry suffering any migraines, anything to suggest a serious injury.

      The reports from those at the English court at the time say that Henry and his horse fell, that’s all we can say. There is nothing about a head injury, there is nothing about the horse rolling on top of him, nothing about him being unconscious, just that it was a miracle he was ok and that he sustained no injury. The horse may have tripped and Henry could have been flung forwards or sideways, we don’t know. I think it’s reading far too much into it to say that Henry must have been seriously hurt or must have suffered a brain injury.

      I think if any of his accidents could have caused a brain injury, then it would have to be the 1524 one, as you say. Henry forgot to lower his visor in a joust against Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk and according to the records, “the duke struck the king on the brow right under the guard of the headpiece on the very skull cap or basinet piece”, splintering and sending splinters into the King’s helmet. A nasty accident but the King assured everyone he was ok. William Compton survived a nasty accident in 1510, when it was said that he was thought likely to die, and had no lasting effects that we know of.

      “Robert Hutchinson showed in a demonstration that the impact would have crushed him to death but for his armour and sturdy body” – As much as I respect Robert Hutchinson, there is no way we can recreate the accident when we don’t have the full details. How can we say that he would have been crushed when we don’t know that the horse fell on him? All we know is that they fell, that’s it, and when we have two accounts saying that the king was not hurt then I think we have to go with that. Bruising, probably; shaken up, yes; serious head injury, no.

      As for Anne, we don’t know what was said to her and how it was said. She was said to have blamed her uncle for the way he told her, the fact that he scared her, but Chapuys says: “frightened her by bringing the news of the fall the King had six days before. But it is well known that is not the cause, for it was told her in a way that she should not be alarmed or attach much importance to it.” That last bit suggests to me that it wasn’t serious.

      At the end of the day, we can speculate and hypothesise, but I do think we have to give more credence to accounts from people on the ground in England on the day, rather than a source who admits he’s repeating what he’s heard from someone else who heard.

      1. I’ll also add that any injury sustained in the 1536 accident did not prevent the king from getting on with business. We know that while Anne was convalescing at Greenwich that the king moved to Whitehall, where he spent Shrovetide, and that he was very much involved with the Reformation Parliament. There is no mention of the king being ill or recovering in the accounts of Anne’s miscarriage. He was getting on with business, writing letters etc.

        1. Hi Claire, thanks for your assistance and answer. A bump of the head, dose not need to be serious, any bang on the head can cause problems and I don’t think I would want to fall of a thundering warhorse as these animals were, forward, sideways, over the head or slip out of the saddle. The speed would rattle your brain around, even if you don’t crash. Given he had injuries before, who knows, perhaps this one went undetected and combined with other things to cause him problems. I have fallen twice of a horse at full gallop, once over his neck. The second time the daft horse decided to celebrate his birthday by rolling around in mood with me on him. Fortunately I was quickly aware that he was doing down and slipped clear of him. I was well bruised the first time, not a pretty sight. I was nine at the time. I rode for another 25 years before becoming too far from a reliable stables. I just don’t have the time now, but thundering horses would not be my idea of fun now, anyway. I had a concussion also, which did not become obvious for about an hour. More recently I got a bang on the head from the hood of the car, drove home, before realising I was going dizzy with blurred vision, just as I turned into my road. I stopped the car, got out and asked my neighbour to park it for me. An hour later I went to A and E but I was fine. I had a problem for weeks. I can easily imagine Henry hitting his head, going out for a moment, coming round and the appearing fine. His problem could have been from earlier, but he now went over the edge, with the first signs of trouble being months later. As you say, he may not have been seriously hurt, but on the other hand he could have been out for the count. I would normally go with Chayus, but his character changes vere me towards a different conclusion. It’s a pity we can’t get hold of medical reports, Henry’s skull or brains. What might we find out? As you say though, although there is doubt on this, Suffolk definitely scrambled something. 1524, the year that Henry starts to think about his marriage? Now wouldn’t that be ironic if Suffolk caused the damage and sent Henry into a tail spin?

          Cheers for your wonderful analysis and much appreciated response. I vere towards something not being right, but a very sound debate. Love all this information and your hard work as always.

  2. It was an incredibly dangerous sport and was known to cause many fatalities, it was something the English nobility loved doing, it was about prowess and also part of celebrations but I bet it caused very real anxiety to many women when their loved ones took part, Henry was rather too unwieldy for this sport now which required men to be young fit and alert but no one would have dared tell him, he must have fallen like a sack of spuds and as Bandit queen mentions, it caused more damage to his moods and his unhealthy legs, after a fall sometimes the damage doesn’t come out to later, in very old people it can trigger shock which can lead to pneumonia, which is fatal, Henry was middle aged by this time and not particularly healthy either, though his constitution was strong, in fact he had fought of a bout of malaria when he was younger and was always extremely energetic, apart from jousting he loved riding his horses for hours on end, but constant knocks to the head can affect the brain, and Henrys change of personality is more apparent after this final fall and injury, I think it brought on depression which was exacerbated by his bad legs, anyone who’s been affected by bad legs, whether caused by joint problems or ulcers can sympathise with Henry who after all had been so very energetic, the adrenalin you get with excercise enhances the mood, one of the cures for depression it has been noted by experts can be helped by excersising and so poor Henry couldn’t even get that happy rush of feeling he must have got when he jousted and rode, it was in a fact a downhill slope for him from that moment, Anne had lost a child and he was getting increasingly fed up with her, to cheer himself up he comfort ate and the wine he drank was sweetened with sugar, as he couldn’t do much he ate more and more and became more fatter and it’s a vicious circle, less excercise and more food does lead to weight gain and the older we get, it’s more difficult to lose, I’m in my fifties and it’s a battle to keep my weight down, my problem is I love chocolate too much.

    1. Hi Chris, I was net surfing this last night and found some interesting work being done by two neurosurgeons in America on this matter looking at sports injuries and Henry Viii as well. Their initial findings confirm the possibility of head trauma, but they have looked at other neurological reasons as well and the team include psychological and psychiatrists. They have also engaged a histologist to look at other medical causes. They have initially said that even if we discount that on this occasion he actually had a head injury, other neurological aspects could still arise from the fall and speed itself. Henry could well have had a latent condition that this triggered into life. This is often the case in ball players, they take knock after knock with no apparent damage, then one day boom, one more can set things off. There is nothing to explain this or why just one small or big bang does the same thing. You don’t even need an impact bang, the brain being rattled about by any impact at speed causes temple lobe damage. Another explanation that was looked at is bio polar, which, although there from the start, may not become apparent for several years. Even today it can be years before it is diagnosed. I want to read more, but it is interesting to get some medical opinions, even if they may not meet with the sources.

      1. Hi Banditqueen, what I find sad is how many people have a heart defect that causes no problems until they start sports and often after running for an hour or two the heart gives out and they collapse and die, this happened recently with a young footballer, and over the years iv read of such cases where young men die suddenly after a bout of strenuous activity, they have no knowledge of their heart condition till they are on the field and by then sadly it’s too late to do anything about it, it’s certainly interesting to consider Henry may have had an underlying problem which the knocks he was subject to set it of, human beings are weak, we suffer fractures easy and concussion, we are not as strong as the animal kingdom and are superior in only one thing – our brain, when we are young that is the best time to have falls and fractures as the bones knit easily, but as we age our bones lose strength particularly us women, the menopause being chiefly to blame here, but the brain however is something different, for years the medical profession have tried unsuccessfully to get boxing banned, look what happened to Mohammec Ali, he had what they called punch drunk condition, he looked like a vegetable in his later years, proof that head injuries are serious, getting back to Henry jousting did cause quite a few deaths, and I feel he should not have taken part in that joust which was to be his final one as he nearly died, he had one legitimate daughter as his heir and an unborn baby, he should have thought of what could happen had he died (as he very nearly did) but Henry thought himself invincible, God would protect Henry and he was an expert jouster, (this is what I think he told himself) and he was that big ha ha, kidding himself like folk do these days, a lot of medical conditions do lie undetected for years, an old work ate of mine was recently diagnosed with dyslexia, she had difficulty writing for years yet thought it wasn’t anything much to worry about, all through her schooldays and working life it went undetected till just a few years ago unbelievable, of these historical figures we are ever learning more and more, at one time it was thought Henry died from syphilis and it’s amazing how many people still think this, but it was just a theory by doctors in Edinburgh during the Victorian era to explain the many miscarriages his wives had, this has been ruled out now, he’s also been labelled physco as well as many other things but he was never a physcopath, his personality did change but not to the point where he became an axe weilding monster, brutal yes but it’d be very interesting to be able to whisk a physcologist back to the court of King Henry and let him spend an hour with him, see what he could unravel and yes let some nureo surgeons put him under the X Ray’s, Henry and his contemporaries possibly did not know of the danger to the brain which knocks can bestow on it, they maybe thought at the worst they caused migraines which he did suffer from to, but then so did his two daughters and they never jousted obviously, his blinding headaches were a symptom of his temporal lobes which must have been dreadful, and they had no paracetomals to take then either, no prescription medicines it’s a shame but Henrys health problems could have been avoided when we consider how healthy and full of life he was when young, he could have lived much longer than he did but he also had I think an addictive personality, he literally gorged himself on food and drink which brought on diabetes, (some doctors believe) and grew so huge he made himself immobile so that he had to be wheeled around towards the end of his life and hoisted onto his horse, very sad when we know he was once called the most handsomest prince in Christendom, it just gos to show that although we look on royalty as being imbued with some kind of mystique chosen by God to rule, and in those days they were considered more so, a touch of the hand from the monarch was thought to cure leprosy, as well as other ailments, they were after all just human like the rest of us, they were born, lived suffered disappointments and joy like us mortals, and eventually died just like us to.

  3. Take rugby today, 30 years ago we took know knocks and so d did get concussion, but u less he was out flat no one worried ax long as he came round and could say his name. But damage did get done. Cricket the same till the helmet came in.
    My point is Henry could have had concussion which very well could have had long effect on him

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