Last night I attended the monthly meeting of Twickenham Local History Society. To a packed audience, Dr Suzannah Lipscomb of the University of East Anglia gave us a talk about how the events of 1536 turned Henry VIII from a dashing and widely admired prince of Europe into a brooding tyrant. The talk was richly illustrated with timelines, portraits and documents with Dr Lipscomb providing plenty of written primary source evidence from the likes of courtiers and foreign ambassadors.
The events in question were as follows:
Henry is seriously injured in a jousting accident, causing severe pain that accompanied him for the rest of his life, and ending his active participation in sport, one of his great loves.
Henry turns 45, and old man in medieval terms.
Anne Boleyn suffers a miscarriage of their second child, a son.
Henry’s illegitimate son, the popular and able Henry FitzRoy, for whom he was activelymaking provision for the succession, dies unexpectedly.
Henry hears of Anne Boleyn’s ill-advised public jesting about his lack of sexual prowess.
Henry is persuaded by Thomas Cromwell’s charges of infidelity against Anne, although these are almost certainly trumped up. (Dr Lipscomb pointed out this is now the overwhelming consensus among academic historians).
Anne and five of her apparent correspondents are executed.
So, quite a lot of bitter pain and disappointment to deal with in the space of under six months, but what boils down to: a crippling injury; questions (real or imagined) over his manhood; twice thwarted for a male heir. Certainly, one may understand how Henry came to feel that the world was against him, but from this time on he reigned as a paranoid and cruel tyrant, turning into the parody that history remembers him, rather than as the enlightened, scholarly and chivalric Renaissance king that he was for a full 25 years that represented most of his reign.
Right at the beginning of this cycle of woes for Henry, Dr Lipscomb took great care to emphasise his jousting accident as a key event. It should be remembered that this was not simply a matter of the king falling of his horse and hurting his leg. The written evidence is somewhat scant, but what is known is that Henry was unconscious for two hours, that is to say that this was a serious, life-threatening accident that largely immobilised him for the rest of his life. So the psychological effects will have been substantial, not to mention potential actual brain injury, which is something about which we can only speculate.
Dr Lipscomb’s book 1536: The Year that Changed Henry VIII, can be found here.