Jan. 24, 2022

The Accident that Changed King Henry VIII

The Accident that Changed King Henry VIII

January 24, 1536. King Henry VIII is badly injured in a jousting accident, turning the once athletic and wise king into a paranoid, overweight tyrant.

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Cold Open

It’s January 24th, 1536 in a jousting field at Greenwich Palace, on the banks of the River Thames, near London.

At one end of the jousting yard – the King of England, Henry VIII, sits astride his horse, facing his challenger. The full body armor of both man and beast glints silver under a cold grey sky.

Crowd goes wild as Henry raises his lance. Their king is nearly ready to charge.

After more than a century of fighting over the English throne, the country is united under the reign of Henry's family, the Tudors. Henry is a popular ruler – a hero of the times: he's handsome, witty, and wise. A writer and lover of music and poetry, he’s also a keen sportsman, accomplished at tennis, archery, hunting, wrestling, and his favorite sport - jousting.

Henry urges his horse forward as his opponent does the same. Their hooves send mud flying as they gather speed.

As Henry and his opponent close in, each tightens the grip on their lances and brace for impact.

But the force of the contact hitting Henry is so great that both horse and rider lose their balance.

Henry’s head thumps sickeningly against the ground, and then his horse lands on top of him. 

King Henry suffers a nasty wound to the leg and a blow to the head that leaves him unconscious for two hours. He’s had two other serious head injuries recently: one when he was struck above the eye at another jousting tournament; the other when he was knocked out after his pole snapped while vaulting a brook. Those accidents left him with headaches. But this injury - on January 24th, 1536 – will change the life of the popular English monarch forever.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is January 24th: The Accident That Changed King Henry VIII.

Act One: Irrational Behavior

At Hampton Court Palace, only a couple of hours after Henry’s accident King Henry’s wife, Anne Boleyn, knows something is wrong as the Duke of Norfolk steps into the room. Seeing the worried look on his face, Anne’s hand flies protectively to her pregnant belly, fearful for the father of her unborn child. The duke tells Anne that Henry is unconscious, and will likely die. Anne feels a sharp pain and doubles over in agony.

Anne is Henry’s second wife. Henry married her three years ago – without the blessing of the Pope in Rome, who would not grant him a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.

Henry thought his marriage to Catherine was cursed, because she had produced only a daughter, and Henry was desperate for a male heir. So with the help of his friend and advisor Thomas Cromwell, Henry broke England’s ties with the Roman Catholic church. He declared himself supreme head of the Church of England, leaving him free to divorce Catherine.

But Anne, too, gave birth to a girl – Elizabeth. Still, the royal couple were full of hope that her current pregnancy would provide a male heir. Indeed, the child in her belly is a boy. But now, learning that her husband may die, Anne is so shocked that she miscarries.

When Henry recovers from his accident, he will not comfort Anne over the loss of their child. He will do just the opposite.


In early May, four months after Henry’s accident and Anne’s miscarriage, Anne is sent to appear before the privy council at Greenwich Palace, by order of the king.

Anne tries to hide her shaking hands as the members of the council accuse her of adultery and incest, crimes that carry a penalty of death.

Anne denies all the charges. But she sees their minds are already made up. She barely notices the grip of the guards as they bundle her onto the barge that will carry her down the River Thames to where she will be locked away in the Tower of London.

Two weeks later on May 19th, 1536, Anne will be convicted of treason, and her marriage to Henry will be annulled. That same day, she will be beheaded at the Tower of London in front of a crowd of onlookers. The only kindness Henry will show is to order that Anne’s execution, the first public execution of an English Queen, be carried out by sword – a swifter and often cleaner alternative to the axe.


It’s October 1536 at Hampton Court Palace, nine months after Henry’s accident.

Jane Seymour – Henry’s third wife – falls to her knees in front of her husband to make an impassioned plea. Henry is in a good mood, laughing and joking, and she believes now is the time to champion the cause of her fellow Catholics.

Henry married Jane eleven days after Anne was executed. She’s a peaceful, gentle woman and a Catholic. But since Henry’s split with the Pope, he’s been ruthlessly dismantling Roman Catholic monasteries and churches with the help of his advisor Thomas Cromwell. 

But now a series of riots has spread across the north of England as rebels demand the king restore the Catholic church, and remove Cromwell from power. Henry is enraged. He is certain the men behind these riots are aiming to steal the throne. And it does not help that he is plagued by migraines, as well as a leg that has not healed since the horse fell on him at Greenwich. The pain is so bad that he’s had to give up the sports he enjoyed so much.

Jane knows her husband is often in pain, and now prone to mood swings. But since he’s in good spirits today, she hopes the king will hear her and restore the monasteries.

Now, kneeling in front of her husband, Jane keeps her eyes downcast, unchallenging. Quietly, respectfully, she offers that the rebellions may be a punishment from God angry at Henry for splitting from the Catholic church.

Henry’s round face turns red with anger. He shouts at her to get up. And then he reminds her what happens to women who meddle in his affairs. Defeated, Jane stands, dusts her skirt, and leaves him to his rage.

King Henry will not listen to his wife. He will order the leaders of the northern rebellion executed, along with anyone linked to the uprising, including villagers, monks and priests, and even noblemen. Many will be hanged, drawn, and quartered, their body parts displayed on stakes as a warning to all other traitors.

The following year, in October of 1537, Jane Seymour will give birth to Henry’s longed-for male heir. Though the child is born healthy, Jane will die twelve days later. Distraught, Henry will lock himself in his room for days. The tragedy will do little to soften Henry’s heart. The horror of his tyrannical reign is just beginning.

Act Two: You Can’t Trust Anyone

It’s January 1st, 1540, at Rochester Castle in Kent, four years after King Henry’s accident.

Thomas Cromwell – King Henry’s friend and advisor – bites his lip anxiously. He’s alone in his room, waiting for Henry to return from a secret visit to his new spouse.

After Jane’s death, the search for a new wife for the King began immediately. Cromwell was sure he found an ideal one in Anne of Cleves, a German princess. Their marriage would be helpful in strengthening ties with Germany, one of the only other European countries to have broken with the Catholic church.

Henry agreed to the marriage without ever meeting Anne; he’d only seen a portrait of her, painted by his royal artist. But eager to meet her in person, Henry decided to dress in disguise and pay Anne a surprise visit before their official introduction in court. Cromwell is nervous. Henry has been growing more volatile every day, swinging from boyish excitement to tyrannical rage in the blink of an eye. There’s no telling how he will react to his new wife.

Just then, Henry bursts into the room and throws off his disguise in a rage. Cromwell clears his throat and asks the king how he found his new bride. Henry towers over his friend and advisor, and shouts, ‘I like her not! I like her not!’

Cromwell’s spine tingles with fear. Henry has always been a large man, but the jousting injury to his leg has worsened, and he cannot exercise like he used to. Instead, Henry eats his troubles away, leaving him severely overweight.

Cromwell suggests that Henry give Anne a chance. But the king shakes his head in disgust. He orders Cromwell to help him get out of the marriage. Cromwell explains it’s too late: the wedding is supposed to take place in five days, and going back on the deal could cause an incident with their German allies.

Henry realizes he has no choice. So as agreed, he marries Anne on January 6th. But in the weeks that follow, he will constantly complain that his new queen is too ugly - so ugly that Henry is unable to consummate their union; a fact that he will use as the basis to annul the marriage six months later in June of 1540.


Henry's marriage to Anne and its subsequent annulment is the beginning of the end for Henry’s closest advisor Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell has risen to be a powerful man but made many enemies, including members of the Catholic Church. After the Anne of Cleves debacle, Cromwell’s Catholic rivals see a way of removing their enemy from the halls of power. They play on Henry’s moodiness and convince the King that Cromwell has been plotting against him behind his back.

In June, Cromwell is arrested. He's stripped of his office and taken to the Tower of London and executed on July 28th, 1540.

On the very same day, Henry will marry his fifth wife - the beautiful and young Catherine Howard.


It’s November 7th, 1541 in Hampton Court Palace, five years after the king’s jousting accident.

Catherine Howard – Henry’s fifth wife – gossips with her ladies-in-waiting as they pass a hand mirror between them. At first, Catherine’s youth reinvigorated her new husband, the king, but before long, it only began to remind him of his own lost vitality. Overweight, unfit, and in constant pain, Henry has been lashing out at Catherine lately. And Henry is a dangerous man when angry.

Catherine takes the mirror to admire a new way of dressing her hair when suddenly the ladies fall silent. Catherine looks up to see armed guards entering the room. Terrified, she drops the mirror and it smashes to pieces.

As Catherine backs away from the guards, her eyes go wide with fear. She tries to run, but the guards grab her and hold her still. She screams for Henry. But Henry does not come.

Catherine Howard and King Henry have been married for just over a year. During that time, his mood swings have only gotten worse. Henry’s weight has ballooned and the wound in his leg still hasn’t healed; it has to be cleaned and dressed daily, and it smells foul. Making matters worse, Henry is deeply agitated by rumors that Catherine, who Henry calls his ‘rose without a thorn’ – has been unfaithful. So Henry sent these guards to her chambers to interrogate her.

Within a month, the two men that Catherine is accused of having an affair with will be executed; their heads displayed on spikes at London Bridge. And on February 10th, 1542, Catherine herself will be taken to the Tower of London, where – three days later – she will lay her head on the executioner’s block.

In his palaces, Henry’s courtiers begin to whisper that the King has gone mad. They do not understand that his erratic behavior is most likely the result of a traumatic brain injury he sustained during his last jousting accident. And in the end, this accident will not just alter Henry’s personality… it will take his life.

Act Three: An Ego Boost

It’s late summer, 1546, in the queen’s chambers at Whitehall Palace in London, ten years after Henry’s accident.

After executing his fifth wife, Catherine Howard, Henry married another Catherine: Catherine Parr. Today, that Catherine listens in growing horror to Dr. Thomas Wendy, her good friend and the king’s physician. The doctor warns her that Henry has signed her arrest warrant. And any moment now, she’ll be taken to the Tower where she will no doubt be executed.

Catherine knew what she was getting into when she married King Henry, a man who has beheaded two of his ex-wives. But to Catherine, the risk was worth it. She is an outspoken Protestant and uses her position as Queen to promote those beliefs, and do as much good as she can. But her anti-Protestant enemies used this fact against her. Despite overthrowing the authority of the Pope, King Henry never became a true Protestant. His church of England is not much different fundamentally from the Catholic church he broke away from and he’s wary of too much Protestant influence in his court. Catherine’s enemies convince Henry that she is a dangerous heretic who wants to push her views on him.

After talking to Dr. Wendy, Catherine does not run or hide. She goes to her husband’s chambers to plead her case.

Catherine ignores the cold looks of Henry’s advisors who stand by his side whispering in his ear. She takes hold of Henry’s hand and looks him in the eye. Catherine is a clever, educated woman. But today, to compel Henry to spare her, she plays the part of an ignorant girl, inferior to her wise husband and king, who is second only to God.

This is exactly what the ailing Henry needs: a salve for his bruised ego. He pulls Catherine onto his lap and kisses her. When the Lord Chancellor comes to arrest Catherine, Henry sends him away.

Catherine will outlive Henry, who will die less than a year later, on January 28th, 1547, at the age of 55. His 9-year-old son Edward, whom he conceived with his favorite wife Jane Seymour, will become King. At the time of his death, Henry is morbidly obese; it will take 16 guardsmen to carry his coffin. He will be buried next to Jane Seymour at St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.

Henry VIII was one of England’s most significant monarchs. He ushered in a new age for England, splitting from the Catholic church, and overseeing a Renaissance in art and literature. But he also turned from a beloved leader to a terrifying tyrant, one who executed tens of thousands of people and bankrupted the country; his decline and the country's all began when he was injured in a jousting accident on January 24th, 1536.


Next on History Daily. January 25th, 1971. Cult leader Charles Manson is found guilty of a series of notorious murders.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham. 

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Mischa Stanton. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Vanessa de Haan.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.