Friday, February 13, 2009

Question from Kayleigh - Henry VIII as narcissistic personality


Hi, i was wondering if anyone would be able to help me with an assignment for my degree.

Basically.. for my Political Psychology module, i need to write a psychobiography about a narcisstic or authoritarian figure (it doesnt have to be in actual politics, but be connected).
It occured to me that perhaps, i could write about Henry VIII as a narcisstic personality? My question is, Is Henry VIII actually viewed as being narcisstic and is there enough information out there about his childhood and early life experiences to produce a psychobiography on him?

Thanks



17 Comments:

Blogger kb said...

Is there a particular reason you need early childhood experiences to decide he was a narcissist?

I've never met a narcissistic child. Spoiled brats for sure but not full blown narcissists. I have met several classically diagnosed adult narcissists.

It is certainly possible to make a case for Henry 8 as a narcissist. That somehow he was personally injured, hurt, or attacked because he had not fathered a son, before Edward's birth, could easily fall into the narcissistic category. He certainly thought the world revolved around him, unless it was revolving around his role in foreign policy. He believed he could interpret God's word to suit his human desires creating the Church of England. That's pretty narcissistic.

I could go on and on...but won't. As such there are several biographies of Henry 8 available, almost all in relation to his wives - a fact I am sure would have offended him.

February 13, 2009 5:17 PM  
Anonymous Kathy said...

Narcissistic personality disorder is a psychiatric diagnosis based on criteria established by medical authorities, notably the American Psychiatric Association. I doubt that any certified psychiatrist would apply this to a patient he/she hasn't treated as a patient, so I find it ridiculous that anybody who wasn't a certified professional and who hadn't interviewed a patient would try to do so.

There is more than enough drivel about Henry VIII (and other political figures for that matter) out there, please don't add to it with a diagnosis that is clearly not clinically based.

February 13, 2009 8:27 PM  
Anonymous Kayleigh said...

I mention early life experiences.. as apparently this is the reason why a narcissistic personality develops, due to early life traumas.

February 13, 2009 8:59 PM  
Blogger kb said...

Kayleigh - Ahhh. I did not know that.

I am sure Phd Historian, foose and others can suggest the best books on Henry VII and you can then decide if there is sufficient material to pursue your theory.

Academic investigation can lead to unusual conclusions. Have a go and see what you find. I would be interested in hearing back regarding your conclusions.

February 13, 2009 9:55 PM  
Blogger Foose said...

My understanding is that professional historians are very wary of applying modern psychological labels to pre-modern people. Even if a historical person strikes you as a perfect example of a psychological condition or complex (for example, Henri II of France, whose mother died in 1524 (when he was about 6), fell in love with a woman exactly his mother's age -- the modern mind shouts "Oedipus complex!"), there are too many cultural differences between 16th- and 21st-century mindsets in terms of religion, socialization, values and environment to sort historical people into tidy categories of mental disorders as defined by the modern medical establishment.

"Narcissist" is a fairly recent and extremely popular (especially on the Internet!) label. Psychology has its vogues and fads, and in 20 years a "narcissist" may be described by an entirely different term.

There is a fair amount of information on Henry's youth (David Starkey's recent "Virtuous Prince" examines his boyhood and adolescence exclusively). I don't think there's much to go on in terms of unique childhood traumas -- he seems to have a safe, cossetted bringing-up with plenty of attention and approval and encouragement.

February 13, 2009 10:07 PM  
Anonymous PhD Historian said...

Since KB brought up my "name," I will offer an opinion. But I'm afraid I have to agree with Foose and in principle with Kathy.

Narcissistic personality disorder is a modern psychiatric diagnosis, and as Foose very correctly notes, diagnostic criteria change with the years and decades. Why? Because mental illness is culturally relative. Hearing voices and seeing visions are today considered by most western cultures to be symptoms of schizophrenia and psychosis. But in 16th century Europe, it was often thought to indicate that the "sufferer" was holy or divinely favored ... especially women who heard the voices of angels or saints or who saw visions of the Virgin Mary or other heavenly figures. Similarly, men and women called anchorites who sealed themselves into closet-sized rooms or those called stylites who lived atop poles or columns might today be labeled with agoraphobia or scopophobia in the first instance or some fear of the ground or earth in the second.

Many mental illnesses or disorders recognized today are simply not applicable to the pre-modern period : sociopathic personality disorders, attention deficit disorders, hyeperactivity disorders, kleptomania, gender dysphoria ... and the list goes on.

And is it psycho-medically correct to diagnose someone like Henry VIII as narcissistic? Can we truly say he was a narcissist when from an early age he was at the center of attention? And from the age of 18 he was at the apex of the social and political pyramids? Did he have an underlying low self-esteem, or were his strong reactions to adversity simply an expression of an appropriate desire for control over his world? Was he pathologically narcissistic, or was he reacting appropriately to his position as the absolute center of everyone's attention?

When I started my own PhD dissertation on Jane Grey, I wanted to write a psychobiographical study similar to Derek Wilson's studies of the Dudleys and of King Charles I. I had the advantage that my dissertation supervisor had studied as an undergraduate with Erik Erickson, one of the foremost authorities on social development and personality formation. Erikson had famously written Young Man Luther, a respected psychobiography of Martin Luther, and Ghandi's Truth, a similar work on the Indian leader. However, every academic that I talked to about the idea all but laughed in my face (and some did actually laugh in my face!). Psychohistory enjoyed a brief period of popularity back in the 1960s when Erikson was writing, but that popularity quickly faded and it is now considered largely anachronistic.

February 14, 2009 12:36 AM  
Blogger kb said...

Kayleigh - Foose is quite right to point out that academic historians are very wary of psycho-analyzing historical figures. However, this seems to be your assignment. Although perhaps your module is intended to focus on contemporary politicians such as Mugabe?

Nevertheless, your approach may lead you to some interesting conclusions including ones you weren't expecting and that, after all, is the point of research.

I say make sure your teacher consents to your subject and then see what happens.

February 14, 2009 8:57 AM  
Anonymous Kayleigh said...

Thank you for all your comments..

Kathy - I respect your opinion but at the end of the day, it is an assignment i have been set, not created by me personally.

PHD - Its funny you should mention Erik Erickson as my lecturer has suggested we take a look at his psychobiographies as perfect examples of what i need to create.

February 14, 2009 11:05 AM  
Anonymous Jenna said...

Since none of us actually knew him personally for us to try our level best to evaluate King Henry and his actions we would have to take everything about the time period and customs into consideration when making an assessment of his personality or why he did what he did.

I had a great-grandfather who fought in the American Civil War. A few years ago when our family decided to have a reunion of his descendants and to place a new monument on his grave, my cousin and I butted heads over a statement that the "Son's of the Confederate Veterans" (a group of descendants of Civil War Veterans) wanted to recite in a dedication to him. It was the pledge to the Confederate flag that was actually used by soldiers during the Civil War. The statement that my cousin had the audacity to ask the group to omit was "for the cause for which we stand". Their argument was that they couldn't change the pledge since it was what it was and my argument was that we didn't live in that period and we don't really know what "the cause" was comprised of, what it meant to the soldiers who fought and died for it. Even though we might not believe in what we think it all meant, we certainly can not change what it was. Same with King Henry. I don't know why he did some of the things that he id or what was customary and acceptable in society or in government at the time. He may have developed through his lifetime the usual and customary actions/reactions/approaches to things in his life and his courtly manners may have been the way other men acted as well. Do we know for sure that he was so different from other kings/men, etc.?

February 14, 2009 11:05 AM  
Anonymous PhD Historian said...

Kayleigh, if your lecturer likes Erikson, you will want to read his works on social development and personality formation. They are easy to understand and really quite fascinating. That will give you an excellent starting point for the assignment. I recommend:

Identity and the Life Cycle (1959)

Childhood and Society (1963)

Life History and the Historical Moment (1975)

You might also look over Identity, Youth and Crisis, but as I remember it, that book is very dated and deals mostly with rebellious American teenagers of the early 1960s. It is almost silly when one considers the issues faced by teenagers today.

Good luck! If Lara can give you my direct email, I'd be happy to chat with you more about your assignment.

February 14, 2009 3:16 PM  
Blogger Lara said...

Just mailed the address to her.

Sounds like an interesting assignment!

February 14, 2009 3:31 PM  
Anonymous Jenna said...

After reading so many people's opinions on this subject I am starting to wonder what it is exactly that people find so horrible about him and why.

When he was younger he was physically fit along with being handsome and very sports minded. Being competitive and wanting to win doesn't make him narcissistic though.

The more I read about King Henry the more I am thinking that his actions and our reactions to them are just signs of the times and can change throughout history.

It seems to me that Henry was driven by one constant thought and felt pressured to achieve it. That was to leave a legitmate male heir to rule England. Whatever it took to achieve that is what he felt his responsibility was. Isn't that's a dedicated leader? Didn't Prince Charles marry to produce a future King or Queen and maybe he wasn't really "in love" with Diana but there was a reason for him marrying her and not Camilla? Maybe even though Charles has always loved Camilla, maybe she can't give England a future King or Queen.

Given the attitudes toward women in that era, accomplishing his responsibility to the throne by marrying six women I don't think made him narcissistic. Today it would have made him a dedicated and determined leader to give himself up for his country. Maybe King Henry just saw these women as a means to an end, and the end may have been to protect the Crown. It also seemed customary for the King to marry young beautiful girls off to aging men if it meant money, land, treasures and political gain for the throne. Didn't he give up his own young, beautiful sister to marry an older King who was crippled and about dead?

Taking on the Pope and the Catholic Church in order to get an annulment would have been considered bold today for a leader to do, but not narcissistic. And we also have to keep in mind that Henry's diplomats that he had around him at all times fed him many of the reasons for his actions. Maybe they were the narcissistic ones since many of them ended up beheaded.

I'm not sure that KIng Henry had an ego problem or a narcissistic personality. It only looks that way because he had so many wives and killed so many people but obviously England thought that he was an awesome leader and maybe they loved their KIng. I have never read anything to the contrary and who knows maybe because of him and his dedication and leadership that is why in the beginning the people loved Elizabeth I also.

February 15, 2009 11:19 AM  
Blogger djd said...

It has been so interesting reading all your comments. The problem with diagnosing narcicistic personality disorder is that all the personality disorders have similar criteria for diagnosis, be it narcicistic, histrionic, anitsocial, etc. I do think that our Henry suffered from some sort of personality disorder. This man framed his second wife and had her excecuted, yet was able to convince himself that he was doing the right thing. Why? Because he could not live with himself if he took a look at his true motives. He did this over and over again. He also managed to find scapegoats for blame when he couldn't justify his actions - Wolsey, Moore, etc. His actions seem more antisocial, a symptom of which is meeting ones own needs without consious of harm to others, than narcissistic. I think he was pretty screwed up, but impossible to diagnose now. It is fun to try, though. Personality disorders develop in response to early childhood experiences - when children develop maladaptive coping mechanisms in response to their environment. I imagine that Henry's early years had their share of chaos - Arthur dying, watching his fathers treatment of COA, losing his mother.....Anything is possible. One thing is for sure - he grew up with a sense of entitlement that was normal for royals then, but pathological to us today. His needs were to be met without question, and noone was to question his methods. A recipe for a whopper of a personality disorder - a mixture of many of them - but only in today's day and age.

February 16, 2009 9:51 AM  
Anonymous Mindy said...

I just feel like I have to put in my two cents worth.

Henry was the ONLY King in history that I am aware of that divorced two wives, and beheaded two wives.
Losing a wife in childbirth, sadly to say, was very common back then.
And many men went thru what would be to us, an uncommon number of wives, due to death during childbirth, disease, and accidents.

But as far as I know Henry was a one and only to go thru so many wives simply because he got rid of so many of them.

February 17, 2009 7:15 PM  
Anonymous Tudorrose said...

Also Henry was the only king to get such enourmous and marry six times.
P.s what happened to my message that I posted on this question on an earlier thread?
Someone got rid of it did they? If so Why?
Someone obviously got rid of my message but I don't know for what reason!

February 18, 2009 6:13 PM  
Blogger Lara said...

TudorRose, I haven't deleted any of your comments, so it's possible it didn't make it through? There was an unmoderated one that I found a day or so after it was submitted (I had missed it in my email, but I caught it on my Blogger dashboard), but it was on a different thread I think. Anyway, I haven't deleted or rejected ANYONES comments other than obvious spam or if it requested by the comment author.

February 18, 2009 6:18 PM  
Blogger rodenn said...

After watching "THE TUDORS" I would definetley say that King Henry VIII was a narcissist with a capital N. No other way to explain the behaviour.
Hope you were successful with your assignment Kayleigh.

January 01, 2010 7:12 PM  

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