Monday, January 30, 2012

Florence Nightingale Diagnosis Henry VIII: Part 1/3

I'm so excited about hosting JoAnn Spears and her series on Henry VIII's medical issues. I have my own personal theories as to what caused Henry's demise. What are yours?

Welcome, JoAnn!

Henry VIII never had nursing care as we know it today.  In his time, care of the sick fell to family members or servants, generally female.  Henry’s last wife, Katherine Parr, certainly fulfilled this role for Henry.
Obviously, the modern medical testing which can categorically confirm or rule out disease cannot be brought to bear on Henry’s case.  Nursing diagnosis, which evaluates the human responses to alterations in health status, can be, and can elicit useful medical information about Henry VIII for those writing Tudor fiction.
A mind is a terrible thing
Nursing Diagnosis:  Risk for Injury
Nursing Diagnosis:  Thought Process, Disturbed
Nursing Diagnosis:  Violence, Risk for
Henry VIII excelled in all of the sports and athletic activities enjoyed by the Tudor nobility.  He wrestled, hunted on horseback, played tennis, jousted and danced.
Henry VIII suffered a serious fall from a horse while jousting in 1536, at the age of forty-four.  He lost consciousness for a period of time after the fall, indicating that a significant brain injury may have occurred. 
This event coincided with the beginning of Henry’s divesting himself of his second wife, Ann Boleyn.  As is well known, he eventually went on to execute Ann, another wife, and numerous friends and political advisors.
It has been suggested that this head injury ‘turned’ Henry VIII violent.  In view of his track record prior to the injury, this theory is not 100% supportable.  That track record includes the executions of Bishops More and Fisher and the ruinations of Henry’s first wife and of his erstwhile friend Cardinal Wolsey.
Porphyria, a genetic condition of the metabolism, has also been mooted as a cause of Henry’s mental proclivities.  The disease causes numerous physical and mental symptoms, including mental irritability and derangement. Arguments that porphyria caused the “madness” of George III, a distant Tudor relative, bolster the porphyria theory, but not convincingly. McLeod Syndrome, a genetic blood disorder with some similar symptoms to porphyria, seems a likewise distant possibility.
Of course, there is no physical evidence extant to support any argument for a genetic condition causing Henry VIII’s various symptoms.   A look at his family tree, though, might shed some future light on such a possibility.
Henry’s elder sister, Margaret, was, like Henry, significantly overweight.  A descendant of Margaret’s, Queen Anne the Good (1665-1714), is probably the Tudor relation whose health issues most closely resemble Henry’s.  She suffered severe obesity later in life, lower leg pain and ulceration, functional immobility, and a very sad reproductive history.  She had at least seventeen pregnancies, which produced only four live children who died in infancy and one very frail hydrocephalic boy who died in his teens.  Her possible medical diagnoses have never aroused the interest that Henry’s have, but a thorough comparative study of Anne’s and Henry’s health issues might prove informative.  Diabetes, hypothyroidism, and Cushing’s Syndrome would all likely feature as “rule in/rule out” diagnoses in such research.
JoAnn Spears is a registered nurse with Master’s Degrees in Nursing and Public Administration.  Her first novel, Six of One, JoAnn brings a nurse’s gallows sense of humor to an unlikely place: the story of the six wives of Henry VIII.   
Six of One was begun in JoAnn’s native New Jersey.  It was wrapped up in the Smoky Mountains of Northeast Tennessee, where she is pursuing a second career as a writer. She has, however, obtained a Tennessee nursing license because a) you never stop being a nurse and b) her son Bill says “don’t quit your day job”.


  1. A group I belong to discussed the issues of Henry's court last year. Among them were the medical practices of the day, thus I find this fascinating.

  2. Fascinating. I have read so much about Henry but never even considered that an illness caused his violence/anger.

  3. More theorizing to come in parts two and three!

    Carole,the medical practices of the Tudor era are fascinating to say the least. The idea of treatments like bleeding, clysters, poultices, administering macabre medicinal compounds, etc. seem bizarre to us today, but at least it's pretty straightforward to picture the treatments, or imagine how they were done. The descriptions of ailments and symptoms is a lot less straightforward. Words like 'dropsy', 'flux', 'apoplexy', 'ague', and 'grippe', to name a few, seem to have covered some pretty broad territory. This can make it tricky to try to understand exactly what was happening to a 'patient' in a historical context.

    Erin, you could say the same thing really about behavioral or psychiatric symptoms. What we think of as 'violent' behavior and what was considered violent in the Tudor era are so different.

  4. Carol, apologize for the name typo.

  5. Thanks everyone for your comments. JoAnn, I am loving this series. Great work!!

  6. Thanks Jordyn. It is fun to talk history and nursing at the same time!