Embarking on a biography of Henry III was an exciting but daunting task. He is a king many might struggle to place in English history. Men like William Marshal and Simon de Montfort have made more of a mark on the history of Henry’s reign than the man himself. Sandwiched in an almost non-descript period between the disasters of John and the towering figure of Edward I, there were nevertheless immediate pointers that there might be more to this man and his period wearing the crown than is attributed to him. He remained king for 56 years, a record until George III in 1816, Queen Victoria in 1893 and more recently Elizabeth II hit that milestone. His rule saw the finest hour of one of Europe’s most famous knights, the last great Justiciar in England, a role almost forgotten today, but equivalent to a Prime Minister today and a role not to find a true parallel until Henry VIII relied so heavily on Thomas Wolsey and the Thomas Cromwell, the emergence of a body taking the name ‘parliament’, a Second Barons’ War and a man (wrongly) dubbed the father of parliamentary democracy.
As I researched this elusive man I made my notes and filed things ready to organise my thought. It wasn’t until I began to draw these disparate threads together that an intriguing but ultimately unprovable notion began to stand out from the page. Individually, the items meant little, beyond being interesting and sometimes confusing snippets, but as I began to string them together, a question began repeating itself, nagging away at the back of my mind. As much as I was unable to offer it as a proven fact or even a provable theory, I couldn’t stop it repeating away.
Was Henry III autistic?
A diagnosis of autism can be notoriously difficult today, with an individual stood in front of a specialist, so I am under no illusion that this question cannot be definitively answered. However, I am also convinced that it cannot be completely discounted. When drawn together, the snippets of evidence can make an intriguing case that this is possible.
Matthew Paris, a key recorder of this period of English history, though frequently diverted by his own monkish prejudices and agendas, met Henry during the king’s visit to St Albans Abbey at the time bones believed to belong Saint Alban himself had been found and were being reinterred. Matthew quite proudly notes that he was able to spend time in personal conversation with the king and in recalling their discussions he noted that he had been impressed by Henry’s ability to recall complete lists of things such as German electors and English saint-kings. The recall and reliance on lists of known information, called rote memory, is a well-known ability of those affected by autism. Sadly, I could not find other examples of this being recorded to corroborate it or demonstrate it being a prominent portion of his personality, but it may be telling that when placed in a social situation with a person he did not know, Henry fell back on reciting lists.
In 1258, as England began to slide towards what became the Second Barons’ War, Matthew Paris recorded an encounter between the king and his troublesome brother-in-law Simon de Montfort. The interesting portion of the story for the purposes if this discussion is that Henry was rowing down the Thames when a thunder storm erupted. The king was so terrified of the noisy storm that he ordered his barge to put in at the nearest dock. The house in which he took shelter happened to be being used by Simon at the time and Matthew placed prophetic words into the king’s mouth, having him tell his brother-in-law ‘I fear thunder and lightning greatly, but by God’s head I fear you more than all the thunder and lightning in the world.’ Nevertheless, Matthew might have struggled to write what he did if it was not the case that Henry was known to be scared by thunder and lightning. Perhaps Henry had a fear of storms unrelated to anything else. Perhaps Matthew even made up the story to allow his prophesy of trouble between the in-laws, but if sensory sensitivity is behind the episode it is another pointer to potential symptoms of autism. This might be supported by the fact that at the Battle of Evesham in 1265, although an old man, Henry was found curled into a ball shouting to be left alone, overwhelmed by the experience of being caught in the midst of the noise and chaos of the battle.
One thing that does reoccur is a trait that might point to a need to assert royal authority and keep unruly barons on their toes, but which could also contribute to increase the potential for a diagnosis of autism. When Henry’s first son, Prince Edward (later Edward I) was born in1239, gifts poured into the capital city to celebrate the momentous event. Henry made a point of asking who had sent each gift and if he didn’t think that the value reflected the wealth and position of the sender, he ordered it to be sent back and a more suitable replacement sent that met his expectations. Matthew Paris recorded that ‘the king deeply clouded his magnificence as a king’ and one joke reportedly doing the rounds in London quipped that ‘God gave us this child, but the king sells him to us’. Henry repeated this behaviour in 1254 when he returned from a rare successful venture to France. On his return to London, the city joyously gave the king a gift of £100 only to be dismayed when Henry told them flatly that it was not enough to recognise his achievements. There was much desperate scrabbling and Henry was only satisfied when a cup valued at £200 was added to the cash gift.
Henry did have a dire and deeply vested interest in establishing the authority and prestige of the crown, so these may have been displays designed to check and wrong-foot both the barons and a capital Henry always had an uneasy relationship with. However, high-functioning autism such as Asperger’s Syndrome is frequently accompanied by social awkwardness and a tendency to be honest and to say things those without autism might shy away from saying. Without understanding Henry’s true motive, it is hard to know whether this was a calculated strategy or an example of behaviour that might point further toward a degree of high-functioning autism.
Henry’s long rule is notable for a complete lack of favourites. Several monarchs, particularly weaker ones, and Henry is frequently placed amongst their number, were plagued by favourites who were promoted to the chagrin of the nobility and caused immense problems within the kingdom. Henry’s rule, if anything, was marked by a lack of these close connections. He remained on the best of terms with his brother Richard and his wife and children throughout his life, but beyond that, there are no examples of lasting close favourites. Whilst this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the failure to create lasting social connections might be another pointer suggesting autism. Henry’s relationship with his brother-in-law Simon de Montfort blew notoriously hot and cold, lurching from bosom buddies to arch enemies and back again with the changing of the wind. In September 1238, Henry was the target of an assassination attempt which is also quite revealing. Whilst staying at his palace at Woodstock, Henry was awoken in the night by a noise which turned out to be made by an armed intruder. Seemingly failing to equate the situation with any danger, Henry struck up a conversation with the would-be assassin. Their talking awoke Henry’s wife, Queen Eleanor, who raised the alarm in panic. The man was arrested and admitted that he had been hired by some of Henry’s enemies to kill him in the night. The assassin was torn limb from limb, beheaded and once his limbs had been sent to major cities around England the remnants were hung from a gibbet usually used for thieves. The fact that Henry saw no danger in the situation points to a glaring lack of appreciation of a very dangerous situation and might suggest a degree of social awkwardness and an inability to discern the motives of others that is indicative of autism. Why else might that armed stranger have been in Henry’s bedchamber when he was asleep?
The final piece of suggestive evidence that I can offer is Henry’s often unhealthy obsession with Edward the Confessor. The saint-king fascinated Henry and drove many of his choices through his life. His first son was probably given the very Anglo-Saxon (and previously unused in Norman and Angevin royal circles) name of Edward most likely in homage to Henry’s hero. When Henry rebuilt the Confessor Abbey at Westminster with his gothic masterpiece, he had the Confessor’s bones moved to a central position of high honour and had his own tomb built over the exact spot on which Saint Edward had rested for two centuries. When Henry had the Painted Chamber at Westminster Palace redecorated to use as a private bedchamber, he had a portrait of Edward the Confessor painted over his bed. It was a lifelong and deep obsession that is again a potential symptom of a high-functioning form of autism, though as with each other piece of the puzzle, far from confirmation.
Each of these pieces individually would mean nothing. Taken together, they begin to build a suggestion of a form of high-functioning autism but, with a definitive diagnosis difficult enough to confirm face to face today, trying to construct anything beyond a suggestive set of symptoms that might add to up possible autism. It is therefore impossible to state that Henry III had any degree of autism, but it is fascinating to consider what it might mean if he did. Henry ruled England for 56 years, in spite of frequent problems. He handed over a kingdom rescued from the brink of disaster and ripe for the consolidation and expansion of his son’s reign. The lack of a favourite, if due to a difficulty in forming close social connections, possibly worked in his favour. Weak kings tended to be dominated by unpopular favourites but Henry never suffered in this respect. He was at odds with Simon de Montfort as much as they were best friends. Henry tended to flip flop in his policy, one moment swearing religious oaths to support the Charters and then denying their enforceability, perhaps demonstrating that he was easily influenced and unable to discern the motives of others in social situations.
Henry was referred to by contemporary chroniclers as ‘simplex’, which has been used to suggest that he was not a clever man and perhaps suffered from mental problems. The word ‘simplex’ is also often applied to saints to demonstrate their lack of guile and unworldliness and it has been suggested that this was what chroniclers meant, but the truth perhaps lies in the subtleties in between. Henry may have frequently appeared to lack the intellectual acumen of others, though been capable of memorising lists of information. He might also have seemed to lack the guile of a politician if he was unable to make out people’s true motives when others may have seen plainly what was going on.
Henry’s reign is often overlooked within English history. I wrote this new biography because I believed there must be more to a man who lived, and retained his throne, through such a long and eventful reign. There is some tantalising, but ultimately inconclusive evidence to suggest that he achieved all of this with a high-functioning form of autism, which would shed a new light on his achievements and his failures alike. Perhaps most intriguing of all is the possibility that ‘simplex’, which is a word that has caused debate on Henry for centuries, was in fact an early diagnosis of an as yet unknown condition. What if ‘simplex’ can be directly equated to autistic?
A new biography of Henry III: Son of Magna Carta is available now from Amberley Publishing, seeking to uncover the true story of a king all too often forgotten to history.
Matt’s book Richard, Duke of York, King By Right, reveals a very different man from the one who has passed into myth amongst the stories of the Wars of the Roses
Matthew Lewis has written The Wars of the Roses (Amberley Publishing), a detailed look at the key players of the civil war that tore England apart in the fifteenth century, and Medieval Britain in 100 Facts (Amberley Publishing), which offers a tour of the middle ages by explaining facts and putting the record straight on common misconceptions.