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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39 thoughts on “Henry VIII’s Jousting Accident – 24th January 1536”
  1. I certainly think it had some contributing factor to her downfall… but I don’t believe that it was the only reason. There’s so many other factors we can only speculate to have caused it, but unfortunately we’ll never know.
    I always just think… how different would their lives have been if she did give Henry a son?? Would it still only been a matter of time until he tried to get rid of her? In my opinion, Henry was fickle and would have tired of Anne with time and would have made up a reason to divorce her too, to find that “romance” and excitement again. But she probably wouldn’t have been killed!

      1. When I got home from work last night I checked the channel guide. Inside the Body of Henry VIII is on at 10:00 pm tonight Eastern Standard Time, preceeded by a documentary about Elizabeth I (I don’t remember what the exact title is). Inside the Body of Henry VIII is also available On Demand for those who won’t be able to see it tonight for some reason.

        1. Oh great! Thanks Nancy for that update…it is Jan.25 and I am getting ready to
          go to sleep and was very disheartened to see that I had missed it on NG channel.
          I am calling On Demand tomorrow!!

  2. It’s hard to think this fall did NOT have an impact. Just the possible damage to the brain makes me speculate that, indeed, a personality change would be a reasonable result. Yet, I don’t think it is all the accident. I think Henry’s decision of murder Anne, his treatment of Katherine and her consequent death, his destruction of the monestaries and Wolsey and More all weighed on him at the subconscious level. Though he seemed to put everything behind him and give it no more thought, I think guilt worked on him. And when a person does something which he knows to be wrong, if there is no shame or remorse, I believe this works on the soul, too. But maybe I’m reading way too much into Henry’s character–I do know he believed in his faith even though he got God’s will mixed up with his own–I think we all do that sometimes!

  3. Hello Claire! This is the first time I have written, but have been an avid reader of your website. I work for a rehabilitation center here in the states, and we handle numerous patients with what is called traumatic brain injury. Most of the traumatic brain injuries are from blunt trauma to the head, without open head wounds. The people who have experienced this sort of damage or trauma, are completely changed people from their former selves. Particularly if the frontal lobe area is affected, which contributes to increasd impulsivity, and decreased ability to control emotions, etc. They also become less able to discern right from wrong, and experience the inability to “filter” their emotions, actions, language. I wholeheartedly believe that Henry suffered from traumatic brain injury, and even today these people are completely changed individuals who are in need of years of rehabilitation in order to lead semi-normal lives, yet they are still considered “handicapped”. I hope this helps!

    -Melissa- Connecticut, USA

    1. Hi Melissa,
      Thank you so much for your expert opinion on this matter. Would you be willing to write us an article on traumatic brain injury and what it does to people?

      1. Thank you Claire, though I am hardly and expert. I am a rehab-aide here that the center. I would certainly be able to write an article on the effects of traumatic brain injury based on my observations in the clinic, and from the therapists’ perspective as I work closely with them on a day to day basis. I am not a doctor by any means, but I can used examples based on my observations here at the clinic. There are also many websites on traumatic brain injury that discuss the ill effects of the disorder. Let me know if this is ok, and I would be happy to oblige! I love your website, as I am a huge Anne Boleyn fan and admirer and have been since I was a child. Thank you so much!

        – Melissa

        1. Yes, please, I’d love you to write about your experiences with people with traumatic brain injury. As we’ve seen from other comments on this article, there are quite a few people who know someone whose personality underwent a dramatic change after an accident. Thank you, I really appreciate your time and expertise.

      2. Claire,
        Would you like me to post in the comments section? I would be more than happy to contribute to this website any information that I have regarding this theory.

  4. I think that Henry’s jousting accident just brought home to him how – in his eyes – important it was to produce a male heir. – And how stressful would that responsibility be on Anne? I feel very sorry for her 🙁

  5. I saw this program, which is also available for viewing on You Tube (at least it was when I saw it) and it was very informative.

    One thing that some historians believe is that Henry VIII became a type 2 diabetic in later life and I can attest from personal experience how diabetes affects moods. My husband is a type 2 diabetic and when his blood sugars are high, he is irritable, paranoid and sometimes argumentative. When his sugars are low, he is confused and sometimes not aware of his surroundings.

    The best thing for him was to go on the insulin pump which has dramatically reduced these symptoms, but Henry would not have had any kinds of treatments at that time and as he got older and could not exercise, he still continued to eat whatever he desired which had to exacerbate his medical problems.

    I think his accidents and his other illnesses like malaria (which I have read can cause flareups throughout one’s life if left untreated) which can cause hallucinations, had some contributing factors to why he became so tyrannical in later life, but I also believe that untreated diabetes was one of the culprits as well.

    Mary Ann – Illinois

    1. I agree! The combination of Diabetes coupled with injuries sustained throughout his life all untreated, would have definately changed his personality for the worse.

      1. Melissa and Mary Ann, these additional insights are good food for thought – thanks
        Claire, your forum for such discussions is so valuable and much appreciated! :>)

  6. I agree with Christina, in that the miscarrage contributed to Anne’s fall and that Henry eventually would have tired of her even if she had borne him a son. But I’m not sure he would have divorced her. And if they had had more than one son, I definitly don’t think he would have done it.
    Considering their very emotional relationship, it could have continued for a long, long time. Since Henry was much ruled by feelings, if Anne would have borne him sons, I believe he would have kept her as his queen.

  7. Hi Clair,

    I had a friend who had a serious accident and her personality changed a great deal. I think it is possible that Henry did undergo a change in personality because of his jousting accident. Of course, Anne’s miscarriage probably didn’t help. Poor Anne. I think that Henry mi9ght have been having problems with his emotional life and the physical toll of his many health problems also contributed to his personality change. Henry was a king who got angry when he didn’t get what he wanted and blamed everyone around him instead of looking at himnself. I think he was a bit of a spoiled brat.

  8. Hi Claire,

    Great article, but the problem I have with this theory is that Henry exhibited signs of cruelty and tyranny long before 1536. One need only look at his treatment of Epson and Dudley within days of his accession in 1509 and his near sociopathic treatment of Wolsey in 1529/1530, then when you add the duke of Buckingham (1521), Katherine of Aragon (1531), the Carthusian order, Thomas More, his daughter Mary, his bullying of his second wife Anne throughout 1535 and I think Henry seemed like someone who was basically a horrible individual from the get-go.

    1. That’s the problem I have with the theory too and with those who blame Anne Boleyn for Henry’s tyranny. I think he always had that side of his character but it worsened with age and with his deterioration in health which was bound to affect his moods. J J Scarisbrick said “Henry was not notably more cruel afterwards [after 1536] than he had been before”. So, I don’t think the accident was responsible for his tyranny and cruelty, it was just one of a collection of factors which made things worse.

  9. Re: Henry’s accident causing Anne Boleyn’s miscarriage. In Alison Weir’s latest book, she mentioned an idea that I have had for many years–that Anne was Rh negative. In Rh negative cases, the first birth is usually fine, thus Elizabeth was full term and healthy, but then the mother’s body rejects further fetuses. There is no way at this point to know, but it is an interesting thought.

  10. I believe that Henry always had the cruelty and tyranny factors in his personal makeup. However, he wasn’t allowed to do much of anything during his father’s reign because Henry VII seemed to keep him on a very short leash. I think when he became of age and got the throne, he was like a kid in a candy store with no one to refuse him anything.

    The people looked at him like a hero because of his physical attributes (at the time) and his talents for scholarly pursuits, artistic pursuits and sporting events. He was an all around success in his pursuits. However, when crossed, he could show his ugly side which was, for the most part, kept at bay.

    I also believe that for the first years of his reign, it was not as noticeable because Wolsey did the majority of governing while Henry was content to pursuit his pastimes. Only when he started seriously worrying about the succession did he seem to start getting involved in political matters.

    I also believe that his accidents might have stripped him of his inhibitions, coupled with his Supreme Head of the Church title, he was allowed to, as Martin Luther stated, “Squire Henry means to be God and do as he pleased.”

    If only Catherine hadn’t been related to the Emperor, I believe he would have been granted his annulment and he could have married again, which may have avoided much of the country’s misery in the 1530s and the many executions of innocent people whose only crime was to disagree with the King because of their conscience.

  11. I am just suggesting a theory that the head trauma may have caused Henry to have less emotional control than before the accident and the personality problems he had before the accident only become worse after it. It may have caused him to be even more impatient and less tolerant of those who may have had a disagreement with him. I think Claire and Gareth have a good point when they state that Henry showed signs of being a tyrant long before this event. I think the accident might have made those traits worse in him.

  12. Interesting that the symptoms of brain trauma fit so well with the deterioration of Henry’s personality and moods.
    I think he had always had a ruthless streak and was capable of being extraordinarily cruel but things did seem to intensify after this accident. It’s as if all the normal restraints on his behaviour were removed.
    Although his descent into tyranny was gradual and aggravated by all manner of health problems, this must have been a major milestone.

  13. What are the details after the accident.What is the documenttion? Was Henry moved immediately? Was he stimulated in any way and who attended him?

  14. So Henry actually had 2 blunt force traumas to his head 12 years apart, 1524 and 1536. i had forgotten reading about his earlier one. The earlier one would be around the time prior to when he starts with Anne. That could have shaken him up enough to decide he needed to have a male heir somehow – so he had had to rid himself of Katherine and get a son; when he decides on Anne he really starts his cruelty to people he had been close to like Worsley, Katherine and More as they stand in his way.
    I think if Anne had had a living son that Henry would not have had her excuted but he would have done what he did with Katherine once he got bored with her sexually – just taken more mistresses.

  15. I agree with the trauma and its consequences in aggravating Henry VIII’s agrression….. but one other factor I feel – he had, at that time, finally grown into his own person and finally taking full charge of his throne, and without Wolsey, Katherine, More (as mentioned in some books) to keep him sane, plus he had a lot of hangers on who wanted something from him, hence, egging him with a good variety of inputs and thoughts for their own benefit. These did not help in giving the king the good counsel that Henry ought to have had. Just my thoughts. Imagine a horse running wild and the rider does not know how to tame him but kept him rushing ahead with quite a mirage image ahead of himself ….

  16. I would say that both of these falls the first one being that in 1524 and the second being in 1536 had all contributed to his persona. It is jsut in my eyes the second one had been worse much worse than the first in my opinion hence the unconciousness that the second fall had put him in. It was speculated by some at the time or thought that he may have not survived the fall but luckily for him he did but looking at the way things were I can understand why and he could have quite easily have died from the fall. He could have easily have sustained a brain heamorraghe and died but obviously that was not to be the case.

    See it is contradictory on one hand for one person to say that 1536 was the year that changed him as another states the opposite and says oh well he had always been a tyrant and always was. Now we all know that it cannot be both so what one do we agree upon most of all the first or the latter ?!

    I myself would say that these accidents did play a part in the way he was but had been just one of the things in a long line, well a long list of issues/problems that may have caused his erratic behaviour. I would also say that his ill and deteriorating health also played a part on his being, the way that he was as a person. I would say that these were all contributing factors to a long list. I mean all we can do is guess here,guess where there is no evidence.

    My other theory is that he may of been born with something wrong with him and what he was to suffer in life just contributed to these problems and made them worse to the point where he was no longer himself, he was just a total and complete different person.This could be another factor.

    You have all made good and valuable contributions which I have read and taken in, you all have your own views each and everyone of you just liek me which is a good thing.

    1. I don’t think that 1536 made Henry into a tyrant but I think that the accident and the events of 1536, which challenged his reign and his manhood, made him worse.

      I don’t think that he was born with something wrong with him, I think power corrupted him and he was one of those people who cannot cope with people disagreeing with him or ‘crossing’ him. That part of his personality became stronger as he faced more challenges to his authority and his masculinity, and also as he became dogged with pain and ill health and could no longer enjoy the sports he loved.

      1. Claire,Was this the injury that the King sufferd that never healed? I also agree this didnot make Henry a tyrant, when Anne of Cleves was married to the King she complained, that he had a fowl smell on his person from a wound , was this the wound from the accident? To Claire, did this wound have anything to cut the Kings life short? Regards Baroness Von Reis

  17. My nephew was riding his motorcycle when a woman turned in front of himon the street. His cycle fell down and he and it slide across the street and lot and he was stopped by being hit in the head when his head contacted a gas station on that corner. It didn’t seem to do much damage. However, he was newver the same.
    Always angry, mean, impatient, His wife had to divorce him even though they had a small child.

  18. My history teacher (who, although she doesn’t teach English history, knows some things about Henry VIII and his wives) told me that the reason Henry died was that jousting accident. Is that the truth? I know that after the accident he started putting on a lot of weight and that made him obese but is that the reason he died? I thought the jousting accident only contributed to the change of his character. Also, 55 was a good age for a Tudor King, right?

    1. No, the jousting accident was in 1536 and his death was in 1547. Obviously the fact that he was unable to participate in sports like jousting meant that he put weight on more easily, but the accident did not cause his death.

  19. I have been trying to find out who Henry was jousting with when he has his almost fatal accident but have failed to do so. I would be interested to know who he was and what eventually happened to him.

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