Researchers Find Remnants of Jousting Field Where Henry VIII Almost Died

In January 1536, the Tudor king fell from his horse and sustained significant injuries that troubled him for the rest of his life

Portrait of Henry VIII after Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1537–1547
A 2016 study suggested that Henry sustained a traumatic brain injury that affected his temperament following the 1536 accident, but other experts attribute the shift in mood to an ulcerated leg, diabetes or hypothyroidism. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

On January 24, 1536, England’s Henry VIII was involved in an infamous jousting accident that may have unwittingly changed the course of history. As the 44-year-old lunged forward, he fell from his horse and found himself trapped beneath the animal. The Tudor king, who by some accounts remained unconscious for two hours, sustained traumatic injuries that plagued him for the rest of his life; over the following decade, the once-charming monarch transformed into an increasingly sickly, temperamental and tyrannical leader.

Researchers have long known that Henry’s life-altering fall took place at his favorite residence, Greenwich Palace—the site of both his and his daughter Elizabeth I’s birth. But the royal court was demolished during the reign of Charles II, and the precise location of the jousting yard, or tiltyard, was believed to be lost to time.

Now, reports Laura Geggel for Live Science, researchers have identified the likely location of the tiltyard. A team led by Simon Withers, an architectural expert at the University of Greenwich, used ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to conduct scans of the area, which stands on the National Maritime Museum’s grounds, just before the Covid-19 lockdown.

“When people ask me how I spent lockdown, I say, ‘Well, we found a palace,’” Withers tells the Daily Mail’s Joe Pinkstone.

Withers and his colleagues located traces of two octagonal towers—likely the remnants of tall viewing stands that functioned similarly to bleachers, enabling spectators to watch jousting tournaments from above—buried about 5.5 feet underground.

“It’s very difficult to think of this octagon not being one of the towers,” the scholar says to Live Science.

The researchers’ find places the jousting field about 330 feet east of where it was previously believed to be located. Per Live Science, the tiltyard stretched about 650 by 250 feet, with ample room for armored jousters to lunge toward one another on horseback and wield their long lances.

“The images recorded on the radargrams are tantalizingly ambiguous and it has taken some time to reconcile these with what had long been considered to be the location of the tiltyard,” Withers tells the Daily Mail.

He adds, “This is part of a much larger scanning project and is incredibly exciting.”

The team’s discovery isn’t the only recent Tudor find related to the royal residence: In 2017, researchers unearthed two subterranean rooms—including a stretch of floor covered in lead-glazed tiles—that were likely part of Greenwich Palace’s servants’ quarters.

1767 engraving of Greenwich Palace
Experts used ground-penetrating radar to identify the tiltyard's exact location. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Before Henry’s 1536 accident, Spanish and Venetian ambassadors had described the king as athletic, handsome and charming. In the years following the fall, however, his mental and physical condition steadily worsened.

The 1536 accident “does seem to be this central event that changed the [king’s] behavior,” Withers tells Live Science.

A 2016 study conducted by scientists at Yale University posited that in his later years, the Tudor monarch displayed symptoms consistent with a history of traumatic brain injuries. (Researchers compared the king’s injuries to those of professional American football players.) As a young man, Henry had embraced rough-and-tumble sports—particularly jousting—and he seemed to have a propensity for accidents. In 1524, the king failed to lower the visor on his helmet while jousting and suffered a blow to the head above his right eye. The injury caused serious migraines that persisted for the remainder of his life.

“It is intriguing to think that modern European history may have changed forever because of a blow to the head,” said Arash Salardini, a behavioral neurologist and lead author of the study, in a 2016 statement.

Henry’s explosive fits of rage, migraines, depression, insomnia, memory loss and possibly impotence may be explained by the lingering impact of brain injuries sustained in the 1536 accident. But other researchers attribute the king’s changing condition to diabetes, hypothyroidism or psychosis, among other ailments. Historian Tracy Borman, for instance, argued in a 2016 article for History Extra that the root of Henry’s erratic behavior was his ulcerated leg—another result of the jousting tumble.

Unable to adequately treat the injury, royal doctors actually exacerbated the king’s discomfort, limiting his activity levels and indirectly contributing to his “rapidly expanding girth.” As one contemporary observed, “The King was so stout that such a man has never been seen. Three of the biggest men that could be found could get inside his doublet.”

According to Borman, “The fact that the king was in constant, worsening pain from that time forward is enough to account for his increasingly foul temper.”

She added, “His mood would hardly have been improved by the knowledge that he was no longer the sporting ‘adonis’ that he had been for the first 20 years or more of his reign.”

Less than four months after his fall, Henry had his second wife, Anne Boleyn, executed on contrived charges of adultery, incest, witchcraft and conspiring to kill him. He went on to marry another four times in rapid succession, becoming increasingly “cruel, petty and tyrannical,” per the 2016 study. The once-beloved king died in 1547 at the age of 55.

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