On this day in history, 24th January 1536, Henry VIII was unhorsed by his opponent during a joust at Greenwich Palace:-

“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.”1

The 44 year old king had been dressed in full armour and Suzannah Lipscomb, author of “1536: The Year that Changed Henry VIII” points out that “the speed of the gallop at the charge, his heavy armour, the height of Henry’s great horse (and weight, if the large, mailed animal fell on him) and the blow of his opponent’s lance combined to make this a very serious accident.”2 It is no wonder that the King was unconscious for two hours!3

But did this jousting accident have any impact on the King, his family and his reign?

Some people think so.

An article in The Independent newspaper, entitled “The jousting accident that turned Henry VIII into a tyrant”4 put forward the theory that Henry’s jousting accident caused Henry to undergo a personality change. This article was based on the findings of historian Lucy Worsley, Henry VIII biographer Robert Hutchinson and medical doctor Catherine Hood for the History Channel documentary “Inside the Body of Henry VIII”. This programme looked at issues concerning the King’s diet and lifestyle, and the medical problems which saw Henry change from the handsome, young, sporty King with a 32 inch waist and 39 inch chest in his 20s, to a man who probably weighed 28 stone by his death in 1547, at the age of 55, and whose waist measured 52 inches and his chest 53 inches. As his health deteriorated, leaving him unable to do the sporting activities he enjoyed, his personality also changed and he became “plagued with paranoia and melancholy”5.

Although Henry had a few health issues by the time of the jousting accident in 1536 – malaria which was contracted at the age of 30, and varicose ulcers which began on his left leg in around 1527 – the major decline in his health and personality seems to have started in 1536:-

“We posit that his jousting accident of 1536 provides the explanation for his personality change from sporty, promising, generous young prince, to cruel, paranoid and vicious tyrant. From that date the turnover of the wives really speeds up, and people begin to talk about him in quite a new and negative way… After the accident he was unconscious for two hours; even five minutes of unconsciousness is considered to be a major trauma today… Henry may have suffered a brain injury… Damage to the frontal lobe of the brain can perfectly well result in personality change.”6 Dr Lucy Worsley

But, it is more likely that it was a combination of factors that led to the King’s decline, both physical and mental, and it can’t be blamed on that one accident – see “Why Was Henry VIII a Tyrant” for a discussion on this subject.

Regardless of the effect that the 1536 jousting accident had on Henry, it may have had a major impact on Anne Boleyn, perhaps causing the miscarriage which she experienced five days later, on the 29th January. On the 10th February, in a letter to Charles V, Chapuys wrote of Anne’s miscarriage:-

“On the day of the interment [Catherine of Aragon’s funeral] the Concubine had an abortion which seemed to be a male child which she had not borne 3½ months, at which the King has shown great distress. The said concubine wished to lay the blame on the duke of Norfolk, whom she hates, saying he frightened her by bringing the news of the fall the King had six days before.”7

Historian Retha Warnicke is of the opinion that Anne Boleyn’s fall in 1536, which led to her being executed on the 19th May that year, was caused by her miscarriage:-

“Her fall was almost certainly triggered by the nature of the miscarriage she was to suffer in late January, for there is no evidence that she had been in any personal or political danger.”8

Although I do not believe that this is the case, Anne most certainly did miscarry her “saviour”, the son who would have made Henry so happy and proud, the son who would have solved all of Henry’s problems. See Was Anne Boleyn’s Miscarriage Responsible for Her Fall? for more information.

So, did this accident make Henry VIII into a tyrannical monster and did it lead to the downfall of Anne Boleyn? What do you think?

Trivia: Henry VIII also had a very nasty jousting accident in 1524 when he forgot to put his visor down. The Duke of Suffolk charged and hit the King on his brow, above his eye, splintering the lance and filling Henry’s helmet with splinters of wood,

Notes and Sources

  1. LP x.200, Chapuys to Granvelle
  2. 1536: The Year that Changed Henry VIII, Suzannah Lipscomb, p58
  3. LP x.427, Dr Ortiz to the Empress
  4. The jousting accident that turned Henry VIII into a tyrant, The Independent, 18th April 2009
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. LP x.282, Chapuys to Charles V, 10th February 1536
  8. The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn: Family Politics at the Court of Henry VIII, Retha Warnicke

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