In August 1453 the 31-year old English king Henry VI suddenly suffered an extreme episode of mental illness, causing him to descend into a state of complete withdrawal. For over a year he proved unresponsive to anything – even the news that his wife had given birth to their only son failed to stir a reaction:
“No Doctor or medicine had power to cure that illness.”
Henry’s breakdown, combined with the birth of his son, created a power vacuum in the kingdom; significant figures such as Richard, Duke of York and the Queen, Margaret of Anjou, battled for control in the king’s absence.
But what caused King Henry’s ‘madness’? As no eyewitness accounts of the exact nature of Henry’s illness survive, several theories have been proposed.
On 17 July 1453 the final nail for the English coffin in the Hundred Years War was struck when French forces won a decisive victory against an English army at Castillon in Gascony.
The French victory was highly-significant: both John Talbot, the English commander, and his son were killed and English control of Bordeaux and Aquitaine was eliminated. Only the vital port of Calais remained in Henry’s hands.
News of this decisive defeat presumably hit Henry particularly hard.
Talbot, a fierce warrior and commander known by his contemporaries as the ‘English Achilles’, was one of Henry’s closest allies and his greatest military leader. Prior to the clash at Castillon, he had even started to reverse English fortunes in the region – perhaps in hindsight a forlorn hope.
Furthermore, the irrevocable loss of Aquitaine was also highly-significant: the region had been an English possession for nearly 300 years, since Henry II married Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1154. Losing this territory was thus particularly humiliating for an English monarch – sparking further resentment to the Lancastrian dynasty at home.
Henry’s reign had witnessed the downfall of English dominance in France, undoing much of the work his forebears had achieved.
The success achieved during the reign of his father and during the early years of his regency – when English victories at Agincourt and Verneuil allowed the nation to reach the zenith of its power on the European mainland – had become a distant memory.
When news of the disaster at Castillon reached Henry in August the same year, it seems very likely it contributed heavily to the king’s sudden, sharp mental decline.
What did Henry suffer from?
Although the Castillon debacle appears the most likely trigger for Henry’s mental breakdown, what he suffered from is less certain.
Some have suggested Henry suffered from hysteria. Yet the king’s unresponsiveness to anything – even to news of his new-born son – seems to refute this. Hysteria rarely induces a passive stupor.
Others have put forwards the possibility that Henry suffered a depressive or melancholic illness; news of the defeat at Castillon perhaps proved the last straw after a long line of catastrophic calamities in his foreign policy.
Yet perhaps the most plausible condition Henry suffered was hereditary catatonic schizophrenia.
Henry’s family tree
Some of Henry’s forebears had suffered from mental instability, particularly on his mother’s side.
Henry’s great grandmother was described as mentally fragile, while his mother Catherine of Valois also appears to have suffered from an illness that caused her to become mentally unstable and ultimately die young.
Yet the most prominent relation who suffered was Henry’s grandfather King Charles VI of France, nicknamed ‘the Mad’.
During his reign Charles suffered from several prolonged periods of illness, becoming completely oblivious to matters of state, believing he was made of glass and denying that he had either a wife or children.
It has been suggested Charles suffered from a form of either schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or encephalitis.
Did Henry VI inherit catatonic schizophrenia?
The symptoms of Henry’s prolonged period of withdrawal were very different to those of his grandfather; his vibrant early life makes it unlikely that he inherited his insanity from Charles.
However, Henry may have inherited a disposition to schizophrenia. His complete unresponsiveness to events during his mental breakdown, combined with his relatively full recovery, suggests he suffered an episode of catatonic schizophrenia that was triggered by the traumatic news of Castillon.
Episodes of catatonic schizophrenia – during which people are unable to speak, respond or even move – usually do not last for as prolonged a period as Henry’s did. Yet scholars have countered this argument by suggesting the English king suffered two or more attacks close together.
Henry’s long and passive stupor therefore seems to suggest he suffered at least two catatonic schizophrenic episodes, inherited from his maternal family line and triggered by the news of the disastrous defeat at Castillon.