Friday, February 23, 2018

Was Henry VIII a Psychopath? Probably ... Not

I know more about Henry VIII than I do about psychopaths. Or at least I think I do. I'm under the impression that psychopaths don't feel guilty about the bad things that they do. They're not capable of it.

Example? Hmmm...well....Hannibal Lecter?  The serial killer who chews his way through Thomas Harris's novels Manhunter, Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal is supposedly a bona fide psychopath. And I've seen Silence of the Lambs--twice--and shudder whenever I picture Anthony Hopkins' cannibalistic fava-beans riposte or hear him saying, "Ready when you are, Sergeant Pembry."

This is why when the news broke that Henry VIII was in reality a psychopath, it gave me pause. King Henry famously sent two of his six wives to the chopping block and laid waste to a long line of courtiers, ministers and relatives. Still, I was having a hard time with him gobbling an annoying gentleman of the privy chamber.

But I repeat, my knowledge of the world of psychopaths is not extensive. According to Psychology Today, there is no diagnostic test that proves someone is a psychopath--there is a list of criteria, and if a person fits enough of the list, then the chances are good. On the list: uncaring, shallow emotions, irresponsible, overconfident, selfish, inability to plan for the future, and last but not least, violent.

So I decided it was time to, if you will, put Henry Tudor on the couch.

The 16th century was far, far different than our own. However, what's important to remember is that within the context of his time, Henry VIII was considered outrageous, puzzling, menacing and unpredictable. I'm not talking about his subjects but his peers, other monarchs whose views were communicated through ambassadorial letters.





Henry VIII: Psychopath?
This theory about Henry's mental wiring comes from Oxford researcher Kevin Dutton, who wrote The Wisdom of Psychopaths: Lessons in Life from Saints, Spies and Serial Killing. Although it might seem strange, this is, among other things, a self-help book. "Psychopaths have a lot of good things going for them," declares the book's website. "They are fearless, confident, charismatic, ruthless and focused--qualities tailor-made for success in twenty-first century society." And for the mid-16th century too? Instead of feeling repulsed by Henry's psychopathic side, should I be proud of him? When he consigned devoted ministers Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell to the Tower, he wasn't cold, he was charismatic. Way to be the boss!

Byron: Dangerous to know, but no psychopath
Still, I wanted to know how Professor Dutton diagnosed Henry Tudor. It seems that he used a similar list of criteria to what I found in the article in Psychology Today, ranging from emotional detachment to feelings of alienation, and 10 people considered "Britain's greatest" were put to the test. Only Henry VIII scored high enough to fit the definition: 174 on a spectrum that required a minimum score of 168 to make it to Psychopath. The nine who did not make it: Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Elizabeth I, Charles Dickens, Freddie Mercury, Lord Byron, William Shakespeare, Winston Churchill and Oscar Wilde. (Britain's Greatest. I love Queen, but Freddie Mercury?)

If you'd like to know more about the job requirements for being a psychopath, Professor Dutton has a quiz--or rather a "Challenge." Typical of the questions: "Cheating on your partner is OK so long as you don't get caught." Hmmmm. When I think of Henry's marital history, it seems that cheating on his partners was OK even if he were caught. Didn't the Tudor king inform his outraged second wife, "Close your eyes, as your betters have done before you"?

Perhaps Professor Dutton is on to something. But before I agree to lump Henry VIII with Ted Bundy, I thought I'd refresh my memory on what other psychologists and historians have said about Henry's psychological state. His outrageous reign has led to all sorts of speculation.

Young Henry VIII
Henry VIII:  Extreme Narcissist? A carefully argued article published in 1972 by Miles F. Shore in The Journal of Interdisciplinary History (The MIT Press) found, after examining Henry VIII's behavior with a psychoanalyst's view, that the king exhibited "distinct behavior changes, and at least one depressive episode." The author blames a childhood swinging between "extravagant adulation and brutal discipline," as "exciting ceremonials and pageantry" came and went, replaced by "boredom and loneliness." This produced an adult who seemed confident, accomplished and flamboyant but beneath the surface was insecure, dependent and anxious.

According to the journal article:
"For Henry VIII, the first seventeen years of his reign had seen the acting-out of a series of grandiose narcissistic fantasies. His crisis came when these had to be modified in the face of real events: his injuries, his military and political disappointments, and his inability to have a legitimate male heir. Biological factors and the erosive effect of real events on his grandiose fantasies were the major precipitants of his crisis....compulsive attempts to remain young with hypochondriachal concerns, sexual promiscuity and possible real character deterioration."
Such analyses have deepened since the 1970s. In her excellent book The Creation of Anne Boleyn, author Susan Bordo probes the mind of Henry VIII to try to figure out how, after such an all-consuming and passionate love for Anne, he could callously sign her death warrant after three years of marriage. It's a question that bedeviled people in Henry's time and every century since. "In 2012, this kind of personality would probably he diagnosed as borderline or narcissistic," Bordo writes.

16th century treatment for syphilis
HENRY VIII: Syphilitic? Psychosis can result from untreated late-stage syphilis, which was first recorded in Europe in 1494. Ten to 30 years after infection, the sufferer experiences delusions, headaches, and impaired judgment. Because Henry VIII did exhibit these characteristics in the 1540s--and he was known to take mistresses in his 20s and 30s--syphilis was a theory tossed around for years. But recently, medical authorities have pretty much shut the door on this one. Henry did not exhibit the other physical symptoms of untreated syphilis: seizures, mania, ataxia. And he did not undergo any of the bizarre treatments used for syphilis. At least, not as far as the historical records reveal.

HENRY VIII: Brain damaged? Henry VIII was a serious athlete when young, suffering a few falls while relishing the dangerous sport of jousting. But several years ago a theory made the rounds that his most serious fall, in January 1536, caused a two-hour loss of consciousness. Did this injury to his brain transform him from affable and charming to cruel and paranoid?

The flaw with this theory is that Henry VIII exhibited cruel behavior long before 1536. This was a young man who executed two of his father's unpopular ministers shortly after taking the throne in 1509, and pushed through the arrest and execution of his cousin, the Duke of Buckingham, on flimsy charges in 1521. He didn't need to fall off a horse to commit acts of brutality.

Henry VIII's jousting armor, at the Tower of London
In her fascinating book 1536: The Year That Changed Henry VIII, historian Suzannah Lipscomb argues that the jousting accident did have a profound effect on the king, in a number of ways. It aggravated his leg ulcers, which caused "recurrent and excruciating pain" for the rest of his life. No one in that kind of pain is in a good mood. And this fall affected him psychologically in other ways, forcing the king to face his mortality and weakening his sense of manhood at a time when, at the age of 42, he had no legitimate male heir.

HENRY VIII, Unrestrained? Henry VIII might have been psychotic, or neurotic, or perpetually pain-stricken, or depressive. We have no way of knowing, five centuries after his death.

Some people feel he was manipulated by others: his father, his wives, Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell. But biographer Jasper Ridley is one who vigorously refutes the idea that Henry VIII was manipulated by others, the vacillating victim of court faction. In his work, Henry VIII is willful, aggressive, selfish, ruthless. A tyrant.



It was Thomas More who is thought to have said of his friend, his master and his murderer, "For if the lion knows his own strength, then no man could control him."

Henry VIII, at his coronation at the age of 17, was anointed with holy oil. The sovereign thus formed a mystical connection to God, one that Henry and all three of his children took very seriously. It was a moment and an ensuing transformation that few of us can truly grasp in the year 2018. It goes beyond modern psychiatry and biography and deep into the mind of that ever-fascinating enigma, Henry VIII. What to us might look psychopathic, from the viewpoint of the Tudors, was expected behavior to one who was anointed, of sacred flesh, and, let's not forget, head of the Church of England.

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Nancy Bilyeau is the author of the award-winning historical trilogy The CrownThe Chalice and The Tapestry, published by the Touchstone imprint of Simon & Schuster. The protagonist is Sister Joanna Stafford, a Dominican novice. In The Tapestry, the executions of Cromwell and Hungerford are part of the story. To learn more, go to www.nancybilyeau.com



4 comments:

  1. Lacey Baldwin Smith has a pretty good take on Henry's psychology in "Henry VIII: The Mask of Royalty".

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  2. Thank you! I should reread that book

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  3. I'd be curious what you think, then, of his daughter Mary, who was no less brutal in her executions than her father was. That apple didn't seem to fall too far from the tree.

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  4. I want to know when he got so fat and ugly, on tv he looks so slim.

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