Henry VI became king aged nine months, in 1422, taking full control when he was 16. His father Henry V had won vast amounts of land in France, but between 1445 and 1453 the French regained all the English-owned territory in France except Calais; the loss of Bordeaux in August 1453 and dissatisfaction among his people provoked a catastrophic breakdown in Henry’s mental health that persisted for a year. He was, we are told, completely unaware of his surroundings and failed even to respond to the birth of his son.
Mental health in the 15th century
According to Jonathan Andrews (The History of Bethlem, 1997), “contemporary reactions to the mentally ill included the belief that ‘madness [was] a punishment inflicted by God for wrongdoing’.” Considering that Henry VI was a nervous, peaceful, evidently religious man, this seems like a rather unfair judgement. There was no other explanation though, so objections were circumnavigated by contemporaries who suggested God was holding Henry responsible for the sins of his realm, and punishing him accordingly. Another theory was that Henry was being punished for Charles VI’s relatively sinful life.
Because schizophrenia wasn’t perceived as an illness, it wasn’t treated. We are told that, in 1455, Henry VI ‘recovered’, but we don’t know how or why.
We can’t possibly know how many people suffered from schizophrenia in 15th century England, though a comprehensive study of people locked away in places like Bethlem, treated for ‘possession’ and burned at the stake as witches might give some indication. NHS statistics indicate that roughly 5 in every 1000 people in the UK suffer from it today.
The condition is still sadly misunderstood; we might scoff at attitudes towards mental ill-health in the late Middle Ages, but a poll taken in the UK showed that far too many people still thought schizophrenia = violence. The Royal College of Psychiatrists says people with schizophrenia are more likely to hurt themselves than other people, and suicide rates among people with schizophrenia are disproportionately high. Some research in 2007 also found patients with schizophrenia who believed their illness was caused by an angry God; one patient believed his “illness [was] a punishment sent by God for [his] sins” and another believed her illness was “the work of the Devil”. Some people resist medication because it sits uncomfortably with their religious beliefs.
Henry recovered to an extent, only to provoke the Wars of the Roses – a period of fighting between the King’s supporters and supporters of Richard, Duke of York, who had been regent during Henry’s illness and wanted to maintain his power.
Henry spent the rest of his reign untreated, mentally weak and unable to defend his throne; ultimately he was deposed by Richard’s son, who became Edward IV. The official story is that Henry died of ‘melancholy’ while imprisoned in the Tower of London in May 1471, though it’s a mildly suspicious cause of death, and it’s equally likely that Edward had him murdered.
Mind, the UK mental health organisation, suggests that stressful life events and genetics can contribute to schizophrenia. According to the UK charity Rethink, “The lifetime risk for schizophrenia is approximately 1%. It has been found that having one parent affected by schizophrenia increases this to 13%. When both biological parents are affected, the lifetime risk goes up to 46%.”
Losing most of France and dealing with domestic rebellion, we can assume, would have been pretty damned stressful, and Henry’s family tended towards mental illness. His grandfather Charles VI had Glass Delusion; he thought he was made of glass and was terrified of people breaking him.
In his paper “Did schizophrenia change the course of English history? The mental illness of Henry VI”, published by the US National Center for Biotechnology Information, Nigel Bark concluded that Henry VI’s mute unresponsiveness, apathy and delusions point to a diagnosis of schizophrenia. The UK NHS includes hallucinations, delusions, lack of emotion and apathy in its examples of schizophrenia symptoms, so it seems reasonable to assume that Henry VI did indeed suffer from a form of schizophrenia.