When Henry VIII came to power he was crowned the King of a medieval society. The constitutional powers that surrounded the crown had been seen as adequate to that point. And the sovereign’s need to accommodate the goodwill of his barons and parliamentarians was regarded as a sufficient system of checks and balances to moderate the powers of the King to rule.
In the beginning Henry was an enormously charismatic and popular king. The sheer force of Henry’s royal ego and grandiose charisma, promised to raise the confidence of the nation toward a more powerful and prosperous future.
Many external forces conspired to complicate Henry’s reign. The subjugation of the Pope to Henry’s imperial nemesis, the King of Spain would, in retrospect seem to lead inevitably to England falling in with the widening political tide of reformation and independence from Rome. Henry’s first marriage of 21 years, resulting in no male heir, initiated that same story-line along with the very familiar narrative of a succession ill-fated wives.
Indeed there was no shortage of external forces to evince forceful and brutal kingly responses. But along the way something happened which, in the fullness of time, would result in a king so sociopathic, unpredictable, paranoid, vicious, monstrous, capricious, warped in his theology, diminished in his diplomatic capacities, and so politically uncontrollable, that immediately following Henry’s death the 16th century powers of barons and parliaments and checks and balances rapidly adjusted, changing forever the political lie of the land for his successors. The whole system of powers around the crown adjusted as if to say, “We must never allow such a reign as that ever again.”
The result of those changes is essentially the modern, post-medieval world of Great Britain. It was something very close our world – the modern world – that Henry’s second daughter Elizabeth had to govern. When she came to power Elizabeth found she had to work far more politically and astutely then her father ever did to cling to crown power and make it work.
The something that happened to Henry was a brain injury.
A concussion so major that the 44 year old Henry was unconscious for two hours.
Today we understand the significance of such an injury and are aware of the possibility of an unhappy prognosis into the future. Such a trauma has the potential to trigger cerebral processes that will produce symptoms in later life such as were to emerge so famously in the career of King Henry. Yale Memory Clinic, a memory and cognitive clinic at Yale School of Medicine recently completed a study of Henry VIII which concluded that traumatic brain injury to be all but proven as the source of Henry’s mental decline.
Of course it is difficult under the reign of such a king for any authority to declare the King incapable. But in the successions that immediately followed Henry, changes were made to ensure that nothing like the reign of King Henry VIII should ever befall England again.
At the time the king’s incapacity made him a byword – an object of fear and loathing at home, and a figure of scorn and fear – abroad. It also made him a pivotal leader in the political history of England.
In the era of President Trump we can reflect with empathy for our Tudor ancestors that it is not easy living in pivotal times. I simply wonder, in the light of the lessons of earlier ages, if similar reforms might follow the succession of certain leaders in our own time?