In this guest article, author Clemmie Bennett highlights times Henry VIII almost died in three freak (but avoidable) accidents before he had a male heir. Her debut novel, The Apple and the Tree, is a historical fantasy set during the early reign of Henry VIII.
To many people, Henry VIII was a tyrannical king who would stop short of nothing to have a son. Putting aside the mother of his daughter, his wife of 20 years? Breaking with the Pope, declaring himself the Head of the Church of England to be able to remarry? Beheading his second wife after he did not get the promised heir? He did all of that and more.
In a world where women were not trusted to rule in their own name, Henry needed a son. Without a prince, there could be no Tudor dynasty, of which Henry himself was only the second monarch. His father, Henry VII, had won the crown on the battlefield in Bosworth in 1483, after 30 years of a civil war – ‘The Wars of the Roses’ – that had torn the nobility apart and denied the kingdom any governmental stability. A royal baby was the promise that this would not happen again… but only if it was a boy.
Henry had to wait until 1537, and his third marriage, to finally be the father of a healthy son. You would think that, in the meantime, he would have been extremely careful about his safety. Well, think again.
10th March 1524
Henry VIII was an athletic man who loved jousting. In my debut novel, The Apple and The Tree, I offer a simple explanation of what jousting participants were doing: ‘galloping in full armour on their horses to try to stab their opponent across the palisade […] It was like watching a car drive straight into a brick wall at one hundred and ten miles per hour.’
On that day of March 1524, Henry ran against one of his best friends, Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk, and forgot to lower the visor of his helmet. Charles, whose vision was limited due to his own visor, struck Henry on the brow. Edward Hall, in his Chronicle, recounted that onlookers tried to warn Charles, who did not hear. ‘What sorrow was it to the people when they saw the splinters of the duke’s spear strike on the King’s headpiece,’ Hall wrote.
People blamed Charles Brandon for the incident, but also the Marquis of Dorset, who had given his king the spear although his visor was still up. Thankfully, Henry VIII was not yet the paranoid king that he was to become – he admitted that he was the only one to blame and went on to run six more times in that day’s joust. Charles swore that he would never run against Henry again but, less than a year later, the two men were back at it.
Henry’s father, King Henry VII, had always forbidden his son and heir to participate in jousts, much to his frustration. It is not too difficult to understand why.
The following year, Henry VIII was still very much young and athletic. The father to only one child, Princess Mary, who was not the precious boy he was desperate for, after 15 years of marriage, he still allowed himself to be perfectly reckless.
While out and about one day, the King came across a ditch. What would most people do in this situation? Personally, I would go around. Henry would have disagreed with me and tried to pole vault over it. The stave snapped, throwing the 34-year-old headfirst into the clay at the bottom of the ditch. Edmund Moody, a footman in Henry’s retinue, jumped to his help and pulled the royal’s head up, saving him from certain drowning. He was later rewarded with the grant of a pension and a coat of arms.
Without Moody’s act of bravery, Henry would have died. Instead of being remembered for his six wives and his break with Rome, he would possibly be mentioned in articles on the most preventable and irresponsible ways to die.
24th January 1536
In 1536, now 45, Henry was the father of two princesses from two different queens. There was still no prince, and yet he happily participated in another joust. He fell. The horse fell. The horse fell on him. An important detail to add is that, if joust participants were protected by full and heavy armour, horses were too.
The king was unconscious for two hours, causing utter panic among the courtiers. People dared to murmur that their monarch was going to die – it was then treason to mention the death of the king – and councillors discreetly started to organise the succession. Queen Anne Boleyn miscarried a boy, attributing the tragedy of losing her unborn child to the shock of Henry’s accident.
Henry woke up, but only partially recovered. His legs never fully did. His jousting career ended on that day, and more generally his ability to participate in most sports.
There is a theory that the concussion he suffered in that joust caused him to become the tyrant we now remember. I only partially agree with it. For a man with such a need to be better than anyone else at sport, warfare and more generally physical activities, losing the ability to do so would have been traumatic. The only comfort left for him was to eat, which did not do his injured legs any good – nor his mood. The drastic decrease of endorphin release was only comparable to the increase in his frustration and could on its own explain – but absolutely not excuse – the mood swings, irritability, paranoia, abusive behaviour and cruelty that ensued.