January 24, 1536: The Accident That Changed Henry VIII

Henry c. 1537, via Wikipedia
January 24, 1536 was a date that changed Henry VIII, and not for the better.

Katharine of Aragon had died earlier in the month and Henry was in a jubilant mood. Her death ended more than a decade of dispute over the validity of their marriage, and he had told Ambassador Chapuys that Henry's contentious relationship with Katharine's nephew, the Emperor, could be restored to friendly relations. His wife, Anne Boleyn, was pregnant again, and this child would surely be his longed-for heir.

January seems to have been one long celebration for the king, with dancing, feasts, and now a joust. Henry decided that he would compete in it himself.

I imagine his courtiers tried to talk him out of it. Henry was now over forty, and heavier than he had been in his athletic youth. But Henry was very sensitive about his physical prowess, perhaps even more now that his child with Anne Boleyn had been another girl.
Photo by by mharrsch
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He rode out onto the field in his shining armor, its massive codpiece a visual boast of his virility. His horse was armored, too. The crowd would have cheered him wildly. Anne Boleyn was not present, so it's likely Henry tipped his lance to another lady to tie on her favor. Possibly Jane Seymour.

The chronicles don't record who his opponent in this match was. Henry had once been injured before riding against Charles Brandon, so I made him the man who rode against the king in this scene in Under These Restless Skies.Whomever it was, they must have been horrified when their lance shattered against Henry's armor, driving him from his horse. Then, to the terror of the audience, the heavy armored horse collapsed on top of the king, knocking him unconscious.

They carried the unresponsive Henry to the palace and checked his injuries. A sliver of the lance had pierced his leg, but otherwise, his injuries were all internal, which his doctors could not treat. For several hours, he lay unconscious while the helpless courtiers fretted and planned for what they would do if he died. Who would they support? Elizabeth or Mary?

When the king finally woke, he was a changed man. As historian Lucy Worsely stated:

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.

The signs of Henry's sociopathic personality were always there, but after the accident, Henry's cruelty increased. His temper was wildly erratic. He suffered from headaches, and the wound in his leg that never properly healed. At times, it would seal over, but then it would open again, draining malodorous pus. He put on more weight as his exercise decreased due to the pain, which probably aggravated his condition further.

The accident forced Henry to acknowledge some hard truths he had been able to ignore until now. He was aging, and no longer the young, athletic prince who could shake off injury. He was having problems in the bedroom, as George Boleyn would tactlessly reveal during his trial. And despite two marriages and at least ten pregnancies between them, he had no male heir. Both of his daughters, Elizabeth and Mary, were seen as illegitimate by the factions that would have pulled England into civil war had he died on that field.

Only days after the accident, Anne Boleyn "miscarried of her savior" as it has been written, losing a three or four month old male fetus. Anne's own fall would be swift and brutal only a few months later. The king would no longer allow anything to stand in the way of what he wanted.

In 1540, Charles de Merrillac would write of Henry:

This prince seems tainted, among other vices, with three which in a King may be called plagues. The first is that he is so covetous that all the riches in the world would not satisfy him. Hence the ruin of the abbeys, spoil of the churches that had anything to take… Everything is good prize, and he does not reflect that to make himself rich he has impoverished his people… Thence proceeds the second plague, distrust and fear. This king, knowing how many changes he has made, and what tragedies and scandals he has created, would fain keep in favor with everybody, but does not trust a single man, expecting to see them all offended, and he will not cease to dip his hand in blood as long as he doubts his people...The third plague, lightness and inconstancy, has perverted the rights of religion, marriage, faith, and promise…

What a far cry from the young Henry, described as pleasant, generous, and noble of virtue! Susana Lipscomb in her book 1536: The Year That Changed Henry VIII, writes:

Injuries to the king’s pride became commensurate with treason, which expanded both in its legal definition and in the range of behaviours it covered in practice. Treason was no longer just a case of threats to the Crown; it also meant letting the king down or failing to conform to his will.

It was up to people like the king's musicians and Will Somers to try to distract him from his pain and soothe his temper when the king flew into a rage. Will was reportedly very good
at it. He could get Henry laughing when no one else could, and distracted the king with riddles and rhyming games. But even he felt the lash of Henry's temper on occasion. At least once, Henry was physically violent with Will, who made a joke of it when he repeated the story, but none the less, it illustrated the way the court had to walk on eggshells around the tyrant Henry had become.

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