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King Henry VIII's 1536 Jousting Accident

The Tudors may not have reigned for as long as other dynasties but they are arguably the best remembered family in British royal history.

Henry VIII circa 1509, the year that he became king.

Henry VIII circa 1509, the year that he became king.

King Of The Tiltyard

The 24th January 1536 was a turning point in Henry VIII’s life. For a few hours that day, his physicians and courtiers feared that forty-four-year-old Henry might die after a jousting accident at Greenwich Palace.

Born in 1491, the adolescent Henry became renowned for his sporting skills and athletic figure. Tennis, wrestling and archery were enjoyable pastimes for him and Henry had always felt the thrill of jousting, participating in tournaments even when his father Henry VII (1457-1509) objected. The king was especially keen to ensure Henry’s safety after the 1502 death of Arthur, Prince of Wales. Henry VII died in 1509 and Henry became king. Henry VIII in his forties was still a figure to be reckoned with in the tiltyard. The 1536 accident at Greenwich was not his first but it was his last; he never jousted again.

During a spring 1524 joust, he faced his brother-in-law Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk. Brandon was married to Mary Tudor (1496-1533,) Queen of France in 1514-1515. In his enthusiasm to joust and play the chivalric hero, Henry VIII forgot to pull down his visor. As the horses charged towards one another the duke’s lance crashed into Henry’s forehead and splintered. Had the lance been any lower, the king may have lost an eye. Instead, he had a helmet full of splinters and presumably gave a long sigh of relief that none of these entered his eyes.

Other jousting tournaments had led him to suffer from concussions which he seemed to recover from but it has been suggested by 21st-century experts that these bumps, like the head injuries suffered by footballers, caused successive brain injuries or traumas.

A joust depicted by Paulus Hector Mair in the 1540's.

A joust depicted by Paulus Hector Mair in the 1540's.

Henry VIII's Accident

On 24th January 1536 Henry VIII mounted his magnificent armoured horse, he too was wearing a full suit of armour. Henry and his horse proceeded at a gallop towards his rival who came from the opposite direction. The opponent’s lance was pointed towards Henry and upon impact it managed to knock the king off his horse. The horse, its armour intact, fell on to Henry and left him “without speech” for two hours which has been repeatedly interpreted as unconscious. A minority of historians question whether the king was conscious and unable to communicate. Interestingly, Spanish envoy Eustace Chapuys (1490-1556) wrote that Henry VIII suffered no injuries.

The general consensus is that this accident caused a head injury that affected his brain and triggered the change from the bold, arrogant and fiery King Hal into the tyrannical and paranoid figure that we associate with his name today. However, in her book The Private Lives of the Tudors (Hodder & Stoughton, 2016), Dr. Tracy Borman cites his constant leg pain and open ulcers which resulted from the accident as the primary causes of his irritability and notes that we have only unsubstantiated reports of a head injury.

King Henry VIII's suit of armour.

King Henry VIII's suit of armour.

The Impact On Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn (c.1501-1536,) Henry’s second wife, lost the child she was carrying, a boy, on the 29th January 1536. The stress of Henry’s health crisis can be directly attributed to her miscarriage. She had given him a daughter, Elizabeth, in 1533 but a stillborn son followed in 1534 and now this loss raised questions in the king’s mind. Henry blamed Anne. She had bewitched him, he decided. It was a commonly held belief that if a woman was evil or of bad character then she could not carry a healthy son to full term. The mother’s inclinations damaged the unborn child. Henry needed a wife who could bear a son. Anne had lost two. He did not reflect that his accident affected her adversely. His chief minister Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540) was happy to engineer his foe Anne’s downfall.

Charges of witchcraft, adultery and incest were upheld against Anne at a sham trial that saw her uncle Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk (1473-1554) hand down a death sentence. She was beheaded at the Tower of London on 19th May 1536. On the 20th May 1536, Henry was betrothed to Jane Seymour (1508-1537,) a member of Anne’s household. They married ten days later.

A sketch of Anne Boleyn by Hans Holbein the Younger.

A sketch of Anne Boleyn by Hans Holbein the Younger.

King Hal's Annus Horribilus

Just three weeks before Henry’s accident Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536,) his first and longest-serving wife, had passed away at Kimbolton Castle in Cambridgeshire. Her Catholic faith meant that she believed she was still his true wife as she drew her last breath. It was said that Henry and Anne celebrated her death. Perhaps he wondered if divine retribution was meted out later that same month with his accident.

July 1536 brought the death of Henry’s illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy, the Duke of Richmond and Somerset. Born in June 1519 to courtier Elizabeth “Bessie” Blount, Fitzroy was considered as an heir to the throne as only princesses Mary and Elizabeth stood between him and the throne and males were preferable. His legitimacy was in Henry’s power to confirm in law. That possibility died with the duke.

1536, save for his marriage to Jane, brought little luck to Henry VIII. The jousting accident certainly signalled a character shift and subsequent events were life-changing for those around him as much as for him. Either a brain injury and/or the limits his leg injuries imposed on his sporting activities and his overindulgence in food turned the once-respected Henry VIII into a tyrant who could banish or execute at will. His family and subjects' safety was dictated by his mood swings. The moment that he fell from the horse much of the pre-1536 Henry was lost.

Henry VIII by Hans Holdein the Younger.

Henry VIII by Hans Holdein the Younger.

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Joanne Hayle

Comments

fran rooks from Toledo, Ohio on July 16, 2021:

Joanne, great article. King Henry was a pistol and had lots of physical problems including gout. I continue to love your historical articls.

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