Sanity and Succession: Pre-Modern Mental Health and Courts in Crisis 

“On the thirteenth day, Heaven and Earth clashed and the sun and the moon turned black. When this calamity happened, how could I desire to live one second longer!” – Lady Hyegyong, The Memoir of 1795

“Dispute not with her, she is a lunatic.” – the Marquess of Dorset on Queen Margaret, Richard III (I, sc. 3)

Oy, folks, I have been eyeball-deep in paperback proof reading for Children of Actium all week and I am delighted to report that, barring the unforeseen, it will be available for sale across all digital platforms and Amazon paperback next Friday (2/4/2022)! To celebrate this conclusion to my God’s Wife trilogy, I’m running a weeklong sale on digital copies of the first two books, The God’s Wife and Daughter of Eagles, starting TODAY (1/28/2022). Ebooks will be marked down to only $0.99 each, so pick up both for less than two dollars and get caught up ahead of Book 3!

While I’m out here pushing books, I want to give a quick shout-out and thank you to Jason Abdale, whose own book, Four Days in September, really helped me crystallize my background research into the political context and sequencing surrounding the Battle of Teutoburg Forest for Children of Actium. The battle only plays a tangential part of my story, but it is an important tangent, and Jason’s book really helped me suss out the facts from conjecture in what we know about what happened around the battle and its aftermath. You might not think that’s relevant for someone writing historical fiction, but I personally like to stick to the facts where I can and save the fiction for the inevitable detail holes in the record. So anyone willing to sit down and delineate what we know from the things we think we know is always welcome in my research. Especially someone who writes in a scholarly, but accessible way; giving me a welcome break from my hardcore academic sources. If my (much more dilettante—as evidenced by my misspelling of the Marcomanni’s name like six times…🙄) post about the battle piqued your interest in this period in any way, I highly recommend checking his book out—or his equally engrossing book about the Illyrian Wars, another Roman crisis that percolates in the background of CoA. Thanks again, Jason!

[Okay, enough ads and previews. On to the real content…]

Anyway, I’m the kind of person who likes to relax from a long day of close reading my manuscripts with… more reading (it’s different, I swear—as I tried to explain to my incredulous peers in law school when they’d see me reading Don Quixote before class). My non-professional reading over the past week has largely been in the complete extent letters of Margaret of Anjou (1430-1482) (edited and annotated by Helen Maurer and B.M. Cron), consort of Henry VI of England and Shakespeare’s “tyger” queen. 

[Full disclosure: I always think of Margaret as the Louve de France (“She-Wolf of France”), but in truth that’s generally the epithet given to Isabella of France (c. 1295-1358), consort of Edward II. Either way, I also refuse to see that title as anything but aspirational, especially in Margaret’s case.]

Like her predecessor Isabella, Margaret has not enjoyed good press in English history (as evidenced by the fact I was mistakenly considering her the “She-Wolf,” which is definitely not an epithet that her contemporaries would have greeted with the Riot Grrl energy I bestow on it). Until very recently, historians have generally apportioned somewhere between most and all of the blame for the Wars of the Roses (1455-1487) on her, which is especially impressive given that the poor, manipulated men of England continued to hash this thing out for five years after her death. Whether or not ending Henry VI’s reign in favor of his cousin, Richard, Duke of York, was in England’s best interest at the time is debatable, but frankly, it was not Margaret’s concern within the cultural context of her role as Henry’s queen. Her position as her husband’s spouse (in the very real social and spiritual meaning of the time), as well as the mother and often principal guardian of Henry’s sole heir, Prince Edward, made it clear that her job was to protect the interests of those two men in her life above any duty she had to England generally, or to the rightness of York’s claims to the throne or his potential greater fitness for the crown. This is ironically confirmed by Isabella, who in part earned her nom de notoriété by being willing to help overthrow her own weak husband.

But what is often somewhat lost in the shuffle is that Margaret didn’t initially set out to be this warrior queen of “valiant courage and undaunted spirit.” One thing her letters make plain is that for much of her reign, particularly the first eight years of it before her son was born, Margaret was almost wholly concerned with the traditional duties of medieval queenship and what was generally denoted “good ladyship.” That is, running the royal household and presiding over a vast network of interconnected social relationships, where people of lower standing provided her services and she championed their interests in return. This could mean something as lofty as her serving as a symbolic intermediary between Henry and her uncle, Charles VII of France, and as mundane as using her connections to help the brother of one of her house stewards get a place in another noble entourage. Much like the ancient Roman patron/client system, there was an expectation that greater social clout would be used to promote not only one’s individual or familial interests, but the interests of one’s dependents and their families.

Margaret’s activities only became overtly political when she was confronted by what was likely the real catalyst for the dynastic struggles that would consume the majority of her adult life: the sudden and total mental collapse of her husband from the summer of 1453 until Christmas 1454. Left pregnant in a power vacuum, Margaret was in a precarious situation where she could either stand with Henry and eventually her son, or abandon them to the rising influence of the Yorkist faction at court. But her predicament reminded me of another noblewoman caught between the demands of socio-royal behavior and the uncertainty of mental illness at a time when it was even less understood than it is today—Lady Hyegyong (1735-1816), a princess of the Choson (Joseon) dynasty of Korea, whose own husband, Crown Prince Sado’s, illness placed her in a similar situation. So I wanted today to talk a little bit about both Margaret and Hyegyong: two women separated by time and culture who dealt with the same problems that attend living in a system with no set rules for dealing with mental incapacity when it struck the ruling class and how they navigated surviving the complicated fallout of that. 

[CW warning incoming…]

Given this, though it may go without saying, the rest of this post will deal with severe, and in one case, violent, mental illness, as well as discussions of culturally-permissive suicide, so if those topics are triggering for you, dear reader, you may wish to dig through my archives for something a little less unsettling (maybe this entry about pets). Unfortunately for the historical parties involved, I can’t exactly recommend my books on that front either, because real or imputed mental illness is a facet of both the Ptolemaic and Julio-Claudian dynasties and is a part of those stories as well. Reader beware.

We don’t know exactly why Henry VI suffered the psychotic episode he did, in part because, as I said, mental illness was minimally understood in the early modern period. Rather than an organic physical illness, mental illness was seen at best as a humoral imbalance that could be corrected by diet alone, or as a spiritual disease caused by malevolent supernatural forces that could be fixed solely by prayer or religious intervention. Now, a holistic approach to mental health is indeed often beneficial to a patient, but if the psychiatric illness is chemical or biological in nature, these measures would have only been efficacious in minor ways. And while Western Europe had largely abandoned the demonic/exorcism model of mental illness which would have been still familiar to the late 18th century Koreans of the Choson court, the desperate state of inmates in London’s Bedlam shows that the Enlightenment did little to advance the treatment of psychiatric illness beyond what was available to Margaret’s contemporaries in the 15th century.

Because we are limited to this uncertain historical record, we can’t be certain if Henry’s breakdown was organic or situational in nature. What we do know is that in August of 1453, the king fell into a total dissociative state, completely unresponsive to everyone and everything around him, and he remained catatonic for fourteen months. The English army’s disastrous defeat against the French at the Battle of Castillon in July 1453, in hindsight seen as the decisive French victory that finally brought the Hundred Years’ War to an end, is sometimes pointed to as its cause. This would suggest an isolated severe depressive episode brought on by extreme stress—ergo, situational temporary insanity.

[The marriage of Henry and Margaret, 1445]

But as taboo as mental illness could be in the past, it was hardly unknown, and those who argue this was simply an extreme episode in a larger pattern of chronic mental illness for the king point to the fact that serious mental instability was hardly alien to Henry’s family tree. His maternal grandfather was Charles VI of France (Charles le Fou, or Charles the Mad), who is most famous for believing he was made of glass and wore reinforced clothing to protect himself from “shattering.” Charles suffered from chronic psychotic episodes that increased in frequency and intensity throughout his reign—episodes that could be as relatively benign as refusing to bathe for five months, and as terrifying as him forgetting everything about his identity and needing all of the entrances to his castle walled up to prevent him from escaping while delusional. Charles’ mother, Joanna of Bourbon, also had at least one major breakdown in her life that took her the larger part of a year to recover from.

Henry was not known for truly psychotic episodes like the ones Charles VI suffered before his dissociative breakdown, though he was considered particularly pious in an age where everyone was religious, and his legacy (admittedly largely written by the Yorkists who defeated him) portrays him as a holy fool—which is what his grandfather’s epithet translates to more correctly from the French. But even if like his “mentally fragile” great-grandmother’s breakdown—which might have been severe postpartum depression, Henry’s breakdown was a singular event, it was an extreme event that understandably frightened his court. Catatonia is a complicated neurological-psychological disorder, and even today, we don’t fully understand all of its causes. Historically, it has been associated with schizophrenia, but it is also a common symptom of a severe depressive illness; either of which might apply to the genetic history of Henry’s family. After they recover, many patients in catatonic states report being aware of what was going on around them while not being able to respond, but Henry self-reported that this was not the case for him. Throughout his illness, Margaret and his ministers continued to come to him and tell him of current events, including the birth of his first child, but he remembered nothing that was told to him during this period.

[Charles VI attacking his own soldiers while in a psychotic state.]

Regardless of his default mental state, which may have been as “little” as chronic depression and as severe as latent schizophrenia, Henry had struggled to maintain his authority over his highest-ranking vassal lords, especially Richard of York, long before this episode. Some of this was no doubt because of Henry’s gentler personality, but a lot of it was due to the fact that his reign had begun long before Henry had any concept of being King of England and what that entailed. Henry had been nine months old when he ascended the throne after the sudden death of his father, Henry V, and England had survived a lengthy regency/protectorate period before Henry could assume royal authority himself in 1437, still only fifteen. While the lords of England had obviously sworn fealty to their infant monarch, fifteen years was a long time for them to accustom themselves to their own rule beyond that of a strong king, and the shy, pious Henry wasn’t the sort of king to have really laid down the law once he was in charge.

This was the world a teenaged Margaret of Anjou had been dumped into in 1445, and she’d been queen long enough by the time of her husband’s incapacity to understand how easy it would be for them both to lose everything while Henry was sick. This became even more urgent when two months into Henry’s episode she gave birth to a son and heir. She lobbied for herself to serve as Prince Edward’s regent because she was rightfully suspicious that many (most) of the lords of the court had more interest in their own power than that of her husband or son. She lost and in the process earned the enmity of the duke of York, but what were her other options? Lay down next to Henry and let the court take their crowns from them? What future could she offer to her son as a deposed Prince of Wales? Sure, she begged for cloisters and abbeys to send her healing relics to place on her suffering husband, but she also petitioned parliament for every political advantage she could get. Unfortunately, the shadow of Henry’s long infant reign hung over her son’s prospects, as did the English mistrust of their French queens that had snatched Henry from the control of his own mother, Catherine of Valois (and left her with nothing to do but flirt with those piratical Welsh Tudors…).

[The coronation of 15 year old Henry, 1437]

Henry recovered from his catatonia as abruptly as he had slipped into it, but arguably his shaky authority never fully returned. Everyone from historians to Shakespeare portrays Henry as meekly following Margaret’s lead as the nobility plunged into civil war, but again, she may have had little choice. Professor Maurer describes how delicately Margaret and Henry’s loyal retainers had to explain the previous fourteen months to the recovering king, while understandably afraid that too much stress would trigger another attack. It might have been impossible under those circumstances to also adequately convey the seriousness of the Yorkists’ provocations before it was far too late. It is also possible that while he regained consciousness, that Henry never fully recovered mentally from this episode. Much as his grandfather’s mental illness is largely traced to a single episode in 1392, where he became convinced his escort was trying to assassinate him, this might have been the defining mental health moment of Henry’s life. Just as Henry and Margaret’s actions and motives were largely recorded for posterity by their victorious contemporary enemies, the final victory of their Lancastrian cousin, Henry Tudor, meant that later Elizabethan historians had to tiptoe around the psychological state of the king to avoid accusing the Tudors of having compromised bloodlines. How mentally unstable Henry remained after this breakdown is largely unknown and remains so. Margaret survived the death of her son at the hands of the Yorkists in the Battle of Tewkesbury and her husband’s shadowy death in captivity in the Tower, as a broken-hearted queen in exile in France. She had tried to do as a good wife, mother, and lady was supposed to do, and her reward was infamy in her lifetime and beyond.

Lady Hyegyong’s situation was arguably both safer and more precarious than Margaret’s had been three hundred years earlier. As the wife of the crown prince, as opposed to queen herself, Hyegyong was one more step removed from any political problems arising from her husband’s illness, but being in a subservient daughter-in-law position to a reigning king in a culture that highly valued (and still does) filial conduct left her more vulnerable to any changes in her husband’s status.

[Incidentally, eventually the rulers of Korea would assume the title of emperor/empress in 1897 at the establishment of the Korean Empire, but during this period, king/queen was used, so that’s what I’m using.]

Much of what we know about Hyegyong’s life and that of her husband comes from the princess’ own memoirs, which are a rare first-person artifact of this culture and time, particularly from a woman’s perspective. She claims that her nephew and younger relatives had urged her to write her memories down, but it is just as likely that the princess felt she must set the record straight on many of the incidents of her marriage and life for the sake of her son, King Jeongjo’s, rule. Hyegyong married Crown Prince Sado, the heir of King Yeongjo, in 1744, at the age of nine. Particularly in her early married life, she enjoyed a close relationship with the royal family, who thought highly of her, and she loved Sado, who was fond of her in return. After the early death of her firstborn son, she gave the dynasty another heir in her second son Yi San (the future Jeongjo), as well as two daughters. As evidence of her own high favor with the king, Hyegyong’s father, brothers, and uncles benefited from her position by receiving important official positions as well; this was especially unusual given that their family was not particularly important before Hyegyong became crown princess (her memoirs describe her mother and aunt having to construct an appropriate outfit from old ones for her to be sent to court in initially because they couldn’t afford a new dress).

But all was not what it seemed in the household of the royal family. In contrast to the highly amicable relationship Yeongjo had with Hyegyong, the king and his son had always had an awkward one. Hyegyong describes Sado as desperately seeking his father’s approval, but often inadvertently upsetting the king despite his best intentions. But outside of these mishaps of personality, it became clear to Hyegyong as early as a year into her marriage that her young husband was seriously ill. What begins as troubling, but relatively harmless behaviors such as a deep fear of thunder and an inability to speak in front of his father steadily escalated into increasingly bizarre and violent episodes that his terrified wife had to mitigate. Sado developed a clothing phobia (vestiphobia) that led the prince to burn many of his outfits and Hyegyong became preoccupied with providing him with both enough clothes to burn and wear. As she recalled, “For him to get dressed, I had to have ten, twenty, or even thirty sets of clothes laid out. He would then burn some, supposedly on behalf of some ghost or other. Even after this, if he managed to get into a suit of clothes without incident, one had to count it as great good luck. If, however, those serving him were to make the slightest error, he would not be able to put his clothes on, no matter how hard he tried.

But more troubling than even his growing fears and mental preoccupations were the crown prince’s increasingly violent outbursts and rages. While, to be clear, the vast majority of people living with mental illness are not violent, Sado appears to have fallen into the rare minority of sufferers who are as much a danger to others as they are to themselves. Hyegyong, who would have been much better served personally by downplaying her husband’s psychosis, is forced to admit to a horrifying litany of literal crimes committed by Sado as his family desperately tried to contain him. Servants were frequently injured and killed by the crown prince in his manic phases, and court ladies repeatedly sexually assaulted and raped when he was left on his own. After Hyegyong hid Sado’s secondary consort, Pingae, from him to protect her and her son from both the prince’s instability and the anger of the king (who’d disapproved of the relationship), Sado eventually found Pingae and beat her to death, leaving Hyegyong to arrange the poor girl’s funerary rites. Another time, Sado beheaded a eunuch and brought the man’s severed head to Hyegyong and her ladies and forced them to look at it. At least once, Hyegyong was forced to forgo her court duties to hide the black eye she’d received after Sado threw a go board at her face.

As Sado’s behavior escalated, the royal family became increasingly concerned for the safety of Hyegyong and her children, particularly Yi San, the crown prince’s heir. The court rules forbade King Yeongjo from harming the body of a royal (which is why Sado had largely been rampaging unchecked through the palace for years), and even if the prince was stripped of his titles so he could be punished, that would mean, under Korean law that would extended the punishment of a criminal to the criminal’s family, Hyegyong and her children could also suffer for his crimes. So, the king arrived at an ingenious and awful solution: Sado would be stripped of his title and locked in a rice chest until he starved to death; while his young family would be placed in Hyegyong’s parents’ house and then returned to the palace with their titles restored when it was all over. This is the calamity that Hyegyong is referring to in my flavor text, and indeed, despite the memoirs being ostensibly written to explain this situation, this is about as close as the princess can come to explicitly speaking of her husband’s execution. One needs to know the background information to even begin to interpret her many inscrutable references to this tragedy sprinkled throughout the memoirs.

The grief and shame of this horrific situation led Hyegyong to first attempt an honor-suicide by stabbing herself with a pair of scissors, despite the reprieve from punishment extended to her by the king, but she was stopped by her ladies in waiting. After this, Hyegyong recognized that if she killed herself, Yi San’s position at court as his grandfather’s heir would be in serious jeopardy without her support. She might have been sent away, but Hyegyong knew that her husband in his delusions tried to escape the rice chest and begged for a week to be released from his erstwhile casket until he became to weak to do so, while members of the court were already referring to her son as the “son of a prisoner” and the “son of a psycho.” So, she instead expended all of her grief and energy into securing Yi San’s future, and unlike Margaret, she was miraculously successful. She encouraged King Yeongjo to have her son adopted posthumously by another deceased prince, recognizing it was more important to give Yi San an untainted genealogy than for him to be held out as her and Sado’s son. While he still faced opposition from some of the court, Yi San did succeed his grandfather as King Jeongjo (r. 1776-1800) and his reign, along with that of his son, Sunjo, saw a great deal of growth and reform in Korea. Upon his ascension, Jeongjo declared that his mother, to whom he knew he owed his political survival (and possibly his survival-survival), would be styled as Queen Dowager rather than simply as a crown princess, finally able to publicly reclaim both her as his mother and his unfortunate father as his father.

[Prince Sado’s name in life was Jangheon—“Sado” was his posthumous name, given to him so his father could restore him to his title of crown prince after his execution to both erase his criminal death and protect his children. Sado means “thinking of with great sorrow” in Korean, demonstrating the helplessness his family felt in the face of his mental illness.]

In closing, looking at Margaret of Anjou and Lady Hyegyong, we see two wives and mothers negotiating a complex political scene while trying to both support husbands struggling with mental trauma and defending the future of their children. While Henry’s psychosis was less damaging than Sado’s, neither was able to advocate effectively for themselves and relied on their wives to take a more forceful role in their worlds than would have been perhaps typical at the time. But I think Hyegyong’s story demonstrates that, much like a modern family member of someone struggling with psychological illness, that the extent she was able to achieve even a marginally positive outcome for her children was grounded in having a strong support system. Unlike Margaret, who was largely stranded in a hostile court while her husband’s condition deteriorated, Hyegyong was able to receive both the support of her own family as well as that of her royal in-laws, who were willing to stand by her even as they distanced themselves from her ill husband. But both of these women, regardless of their fates, embodied the words 16th century historian Edward Hall spoke about Margaret: “This woman excelled all others, as well in beauty and favour, as in wit and policy, and was of stomach and courage, more like to a man, than a woman.”

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