The Madness of King Henry VI

Faced with extreme pressures, the ruler of England suffered a complete breakdown. But beware modern diagnoses of medieval mental health.

Henry VI, c.1535  (detail), English.In the summer of 1453 the 31-year-old king of England, Henry VI, bade farewell to his pregnant wife Margaret of Anjou and set out on a judicial tour of the West Country. Pausing at Clarendon hunting lodge in Wiltshire, the king ‘suddenly was taken and smitten with a frenzy and his wit and reason withdrawn’.

The symptoms of this sudden mental breakdown were horrifying. Initial frenzy passed into a paralysing physical and mental catatonia. Henry could neither talk nor walk. He was barely able to hold up his head, sitting slumped and silent like a rag doll in front of his attendants. His only child, Edward of Westminster, born three months into his illness, was brought to the king for a blessing; Henry merely glanced unseeingly upon the baby and then lowered his eyes again. There was no telling when – or if – he would recover.

To continue reading this article you will need to purchase access to the online archive.

Buy Online Access  Buy Print & Archive Subscription

If you have already purchased access, or are a print & archive subscriber, please ensure you are logged in.

If you are logged in and still cannot read the article, please email


Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week