Henry a Psychopath?

Henry+VIIIThe following article is a guest post by Kyra Kramer, author of Blood Will Tell: A Medical Explanation for the Tyranny of Henry VIII.

Henry VIII remains a titan in the public imagination, and a certain amount of sensationalism comes with his notoriety. And by “a certain amount” I mean “a whole big bunch”. The latest headline to trumpet Henry’s infamy popped up on his birthday, declaring “Henry VIII Would Be A Modern Day Psychopath: When ranked against the ‘psychopathic spectrum’, the king – who beheaded two of his wives – scored 174 against a ‘starting’ psychopath score of 168”.


Now, I have been “interviewed” by the press. I have had several friends and colleagues who have also been “interviewed” by the press. The biggest takeaway I’ve gotten from those experiences has been that there is nothing on this sweet green earth that cannot be spun, skewed, or stretched to make a story a little more catchy. This is absolutely painful to academics who would murder their careers if they ever misquoted or paraphrased this loosely with someone else’s words; we are left gaping like a landed trout when it happens because it was unfathomable that anyone would do such a thing. Furthermore, when reporters just flat out make stuff up (or get it wrong if you are feeling generous) we are even more gobsmacked because falsifying information or giving non-factual data is anathema to the academic mindset. It usually doesn’t occur to us that a non-tabloid professional would brazenly do such a thing until it is too late and we are staring bumfuzzled at words/thoughts that we did not say being attributed to us.

Therefore, I am not going to critique Professor Kevin Dutton’s findings or the his book, The Wisdom of Psychopaths, until I know more about what it actually says.  I’ll just content myself by stating that the information as it is presented in the article is mostly crap.

It is crap first and foremost because it takes Henry VIII out of historical context. Professor Dutton is a psychologist and I am fairly sure he knows his stuff since he is an honorary affiliate member of Magdalen College, which is part of Oxford University. Nevertheless, psychology is not history. Nor is it particularly adept at looking at the sociocultural context of its subjects. In fact, psychological theories are based largely on “weird” people, i.e  the subject of psychology experiments are usually Western, Educated, from Industrialized and relatively Rich societies which are usually in Democratic countries.

Without a doubt, Professor Dutton would be an expert in finding a psychopath or measure psychopathic qualities/tendencies in modern weird humans. However, Henry VIII was more royal “we” than royal weird. He was Western and Educated, but his country was not particularly industrialized, or comparatively rich, and beyond contestation not a democracy. How does a psychopath test apply to a man who was raised to believe that royalty was appointed by God Himself and the a monarch was divinely ordained on the great chain of being as an inherently better person than all other men? How do you find someone to be egocentric when they have been taught from birth that the King and England are one and the same? How do you judge a person as ruthless that has been carefully schooled in what happens to rulers who fail to be ruthless?

As for scoring Henry VIII “very highly for emotional detachment” … in what decade? Prior to 1535 that man was as emotionally detached as Bella Swan in those odes to dysfunctional co-dependance, the Twilight books. He was devoted to his first wife, Katherina  (that is how she signed her name) of Aragon, and was considered amazingly faithful to her by the standards of his time. David Starkey even called Henry almost “uxorious” in his adoration of his regal wife. When he later wanted to divorce her and try for a male heir he ripped holes in the fabric of European religion and politics to marry Anne Boleyn rather than make an “acceptable” marriage with a foreign noblewoman or princess.

Yeah, that’s really emotionally detached right there.

Even after he became mentally compromised (if the Kell/McLeod theory is correct) in the early 1530s he still focused a great deal of attention on the woman he was in love with. His love for Anne didn’t turn into indifference — it became scalding and implacable hate. He practically set up a shrine to Jane Seymour when she died shortly after the birth of their son. He could not keep a politically expedient marriage to Anna of Cleves functioning because he didn’t love her enough. He went bonkers when he found out his fifth wife, Katheryn Howard, had not been a virgin when they wed. He wanted to be married so much that he all but forced Kateryn Parr to accept his proposal.

Jeeze Louise, how emotionally attached do you have to be to not be a psychopath?

Personally, I don’t think Henry VIII is a psychopath when he is viewed in historical context. If the Kell/McLeod theory holds water, his crimes were largely the result of uncontrollable paranoia and mental deterioration. If the theory is not correct, his actions could just as easily be ascribed to a man suffering from a delusional disorder — which opens another can of worms because how do you determine if a King is feeling “grandiose”? If the King had paranoid delusions, how would that effect his psychopathic score?

I am actually interested in reading Professor Dutton’s book, because armchair evals done by experts fascinate me. But unless the book offers much more compelling evidence than the article suggests I will continue to consider Henry VIII to not be a psychopath.

Then again, some people argue that like Norman Bates Henry VIII was a little obsessed with his mother


Filed under Across/Beyond Genres with The Tudors: Guest Posts by Novelists, Historians, Cultural Observers, Poets, Memoirists, Artists, and Bloggers, Guest Blogs

4 responses to “Henry a Psychopath?

  1. Peggy West

    When I think of psychopaths, I think of the persistent choice of evils ways (lying, stealing, murdering). It’s the word “persistent” that counts. Anybody can do an evil act once, but it’s building a life around it that sets a psychopath apart. Susan Bordo has written a book about Anne Boleyn that contains a chapter on how Henry VIII could do it. When I think of Henry VIII, I think of a long trail of dragging down a country, murdering people who disagree with you, hangings, drawings and quarterings without much thought, and serial forced marriages.

  2. Angela S. Adams

    Well written, and by one of my favorite authors!

  3. I agree that Henry was not a psychopath if you take him historical context. Tyrannical and ruthless in his later years, yes. But King’s were ruthless throughout medieval history, Henry was no different really. It’s just that we have a *lot* of contemporary literature written about him to take our “facts” from.
    Okay, you could define Henry VIII as a psychopath, by modern standards. But there in lies the crunch; you *can’t* judge him by modern standards.
    In late medieval times, kings were absolute rulers, it was not a democracy, the Tudor throne was only in it’s infancy and an heir and a spare were vital. A king had to be seen as all powerful, otherwise he was seen as weak, and could be overthrown.

  4. Liz

    I think it would be interesting to study the psychology of people from history, such as Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Mary Stuart, but it would have to stop short of reaching a definite diagnosis. Even now, a psychiatrist/psychologist can’t make a reliable diagnosis of a patient without meeting them, talking with them, observing them etc. I do often wonder at the reasons why people like Henry, Anne, Mary etc, behaved as they did. For example, according to Neville Williams’ biography of Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, the Duke was badly affected by the deaths of all three of his wives in childbirth and suffered from depression as well as various other distressing ailments. This makes me wonder what effect his mental health had on his decisions, such as the decision to become involved with Mary Stuart, a woman he had previously concluded to have almost certainly been directly involved in the murder of her husband.

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