Apologies for the gap in the posts – a slight connectivity issue that I thought I’d addressed by scheduling my posts; so two posts today to keep on track.
This particular Christmas scene has a long first act. In August 1453 Henry VI, known for his piety, exhibited signs of mental illness. The power struggle that followed between Margaret of Anjou and the Duke of Somerset in one corner and the Duke of York in the other was unsightly – not that it much mattered to Henry. He was capable of eating, drinking and sleeping but he appeared insensible to world around him. Chroniclers recorded men such as the Duke of Buckingham asking for a blessing and the king apparently ignoring them.
Even worse, Margaret of Anjou gave birth to her son Edward during this time. Medieval kings were required to acknowledge and bless their off-spring to demonstrate that they were in fact their off spring. Margaret duly presented the infant prince only to be stonewalled by her incapacitated spouse.
But then there was a change in the king’s health, news of which sped around the country, “Blessed be to God, the King is well and has been since Christmas day” (The Paston Letters). So, Christmas 1454, if you were Margaret was a time of celebration – less so if you were Richard, Duke of York.
The causes of Henry’s incapacity are much debated. It is possible that it was a hereditary condition. His grandfather, Charles VI of France (father of Katherine of Valois) believed that he was made of glass and would shatter if anyone touched him. A state of mind which did little for the stability of France and which was partially responsible for allowing King Henry V to become a hero to his people by soundly trouncing their cross-Channel neighbours.
The fact that Henry V gained an empire which his son managed to lose didn’t go down particularly well with the natives and added to the general feeling of dissatisfaction with Henry VI and his queen. Margaret of Anjou being from Anjou – i.e. french- didn’t help matters very much either.
Alternatively it has been suggested that the stresses of the loss of Normandy and then Gascony may have contributed to Henry’s breakdown as might Margaret of Anjou’s pregnancy.
Whatever the cause, Henry never fully recovered from his vacant period and his lack of control didn’t help the escalating tensions between the different factions at court nor the spiralling violence between the assorted nobility – the Nevilles and the Percys being the most obvious example of blood feuding at its worst. Open warfare was only a matter of time but then hindsight is a wonderful thing.