Why did Henry VIII become a tyrant?

Our stories

Tue 19 Jul 22

During the 1500s the site of the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, London, was occupied by Greenwich Palace a favourite residence of the Tudor monarchs and the birthplace of King Henry VIII and his daughters Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I.

Throughout his life Henry was a frequent visitor to his Palace at Greenwich. He really enjoyed spending time at the Palace: between 1512 and 1530 he spent 4,000 nights here, far more than at any of his other 55 castles and palaces.

Away from the hustle and bustle of London, Greenwich, became synonymous with entertainment and sport. It was also the site of Henry’s now infamous jousting accident.

Given the image we now have of Henry VIII, it is hard to imagine him in his youth – a young king, handsome and adored by his subjects, extremely athletic and who loved to joust. He embodied the notion of chivalry.

If you visit the grounds around Greenwich today, it is easy to imagine the scale of the tilt yard, an enclosed courtyard estimated to be 200 x 76 metres according to the 2020 Ground Penetrating Radar Survey, in which jousting and other sporting contests could be held, which included a five-storey viewing tower.

On 24 January 1536, during a jousting tournament, the 44-year-old Henry was thrown from his horse and lay unconscious for two hours.

There are three contemporary reports of the accident. One by Eustace Chapuys, Charles V’s ambassador in England, one from Dr Pedro Ortiz, Charles V’s ambassador in Rome, and a further one from chronicler and Windsor Herald Charles Wriothesley. They vary in their description of the severity of the accident, and none are first-hand accounts.

The accident was undoubtedly a serious one but it’s hard to know from these reports just how serious. It was said to have caused Anne Boleyn, who was pregnant at the time, to miscarry, so she must have feared that the accident was life-threatening.

We do know that he would never be the same again. The accident appears to have exacerbated his leg ulcers, with which he suffered for the rest of his life. Unable to exercise as the result of his injuries, Henry ballooned in size and became the larger-than-life figure we know today. It’s possible that a brain injury could have changed his personality, if not immediately then over a period of time. Could the repercussions of the fall explain the change in his temperament from a level-headed, if ruthless, monarch to a cantankerous and irrational tyrant? It may also have led to the downfall of Anne Boleyn who was sentenced to death just four months after the accident, arrested at Greenwich Palace and taken to the Tower of London for imprisonment and execution.