It was possible for medieval kings to be too nice; too pious and too scholarly. Henry VI was the last Lancastrian Plantagenet king. The chaos that spiralled out of control during his reign came about, in part, because of the king’s inability to control his nobility.
In October 1421 Catherine of Valois, wife of Henry V became a mother for the first time at Windsor. Nine months later the infant boy became King Henry VI although he was not crowned in Westminster until 1429. According to the treaty that the French signed after the Battle of Agincourt the boy, following his maternal grandfather’s death was King of England, Wales, Ireland and France.
Indeed, the boy was crowned in Paris on 16th December 1431 to popular acclaim in Paris but much disgust that the English form of coronation was used rather than the French form. Unfortunately most of the rest of France wanted the dauphin, the son of Charles VI, to rule. The future Charles VII had luck on his side in the form of Joan of Arc; the death of the Duke of Bedford’s wife (Anne of Burgundy) resulted in the Duke of Burgundy changing sides; the death of the Duke of Bedford and faction politics back in England. It probably also helped Charles that Henry VI loathed bloodshed and felt that it was his Christian duty to make peace. This duly occurred in 1445 when Henry married Margaret of Anjou and handed back huge tracts of land to the French.
The Duke of Gloucester was furious but his fall from power was just round the corner. His wife Eleanor was found guilty of witchcraft. Ultimately Gloucester would be accused of treason and then found dead in his bed a couple of days later. It wasn’t long before people were whispering that ‘Good Duke Humphrey’ had been murdered and that the queen had somehow been involved.
Henry, who had no mistresses and had an abhorrence of nudity in both men and women, was unlucky in his queen. He thought she was one of the wisest people that he knew but his people never came to love her. She was French and her marriage, without much in the way of dowry, had cost them hard won lands in France. In later years she headed south with a band of ferocious northerners at her back, something that London never forgave her for.
Money, which had flowed readily enough when the English were winning the Hundred Years War, became a problem the older Henry got. It wasn’t helped that when he achieved his majority he gave away approximately two hundred manors and insisted on spending £2,000 on endowing his colleges at Eton and Cambridge. Before long the crown was in debt to the tune of £400,000.
Inevitably the peace in France could not be sustained and before long the roads were filled with English refugees fleeing the French. It didn’t go down well with the English. Henry V, the victor of Agincourt, successful charismatic warrior king was a hard act for his son to follow. As is usual in these occurrences the people blamed the king’s ‘bad advisers’ for the king’s own failings and bad luck. In 1450 Adam Moleyns, the Bishop of Chichester, managed to get himself lynched by an angry mob in Portsmouth who blamed him for the fall of Normandy. The mob’s wrath then turned on the Duke of Suffolk who found himself on the wrong side of the law for pursuing the policies that Henry wanted him to pursue. Henry insisted that Suffolk was set free but he was forced to leave the country. It didn’t help him. Suffolk, on his way to Calais, was hijacked and beheaded.
In June 1450 Kent revolted. This was Jack Cade’s rebellion. The name Mortimer was tangled up in proceedings. People were reminded that Henry IV, our Henry’s grandfather had usurped the throne from his cousin Richard II, and that actually the Duke of York through his mother Ann Mortimer had a much better claim to the throne – it helped that he had a reputation as an effective warrior.
After the rebellion was quelled, Henry VI turned to the Duke of Somerset for guidance. The peer was very unpopular and York, who was owed huge sums of money for his work in France, felt excluded from his rightful role in government. It didn’t help that Somerset used resources in France that might have enabled York to maintain his garrisons. He returned to England from France with an army. On this occasion Henry VI had a larger and better-led army. The enmity that York felt towards Somerset and Margaret of Anjou would become progressively more bitter as did the in-fighting between the various factions which sought to gain power through the king or his wife. However, this is not a post about the Wars of the Roses.
One of Henry VI’s chaplains wrote that the king was a simple man, incapable of lying. This was not necessarily the best news for the English. Medieval kings needed guile and they needed to be strong. Henry was aware of this and perhaps it was why he chose the advisors he did. He appointed bishops, often men he knew personally and who had reputations as theologians; he administered the law diligently. He spent much of his year on progress dispensing justice.
He was also an intensely pious man. On state occasions he wore a hair shirt. Part of the role of Eton was that it should be a chantry for priests to say Masses for his soul. His end of the deal was to provide the foundation and the money to educate poor boys.
Unfortunately for Henry being a likeable man wasn’t going to help rule a country riven by faction and suffering from a dearth of ready cash due to the on-going problems in France which became much worse. At Clarendon, August 1453, Henry VI received news that his army had been defeated in Gascony. The king fell into a coma where he remained until Christmas 1454, missing his son’s birth in the process.
Leaving aside the various tooings and froings of the Wars of the Roses the Battle of Towton on 29th March 1461 was the bloodiest battle fought on English soil if the figures are correct. Henry’s men fought to the death and when the remaining men finally broke and fled they were slaughtered on the road. Those who were captured faced execution. The king and his immediate family fled to Scotland. In payment Berwick was ordered to surrender itself to the Scots. Lancastrian forces began to take over key fortifications in Northumberland but in May 1464 Henry was almost caught following Lancastrian defeat at the Battle of Hexham. By that time Margaret of Anjou and Prince Edward were in France.
Henry spent almost a year on the run hiding in the hills and moors of Westmorland and Lancashire. We know that he found a welcome at Muncaster Castle. But in June 1465 he was betrayed and taken south to London and the Tower where someone tried to assassinate him but where he was able to spend time in prayer and contemplation.
The Earl of Warwick – the Kingmaker had expected that King Edward IV would be extremely grateful for being given a crown. Edward made a bit of a fool of Warwick who was trying to arrange an advantageous foreign match by secretly marrying the widowed and impoverished Elizabeth Woodville, then proceeding to shower all kinds of goodies on her family. Warwick was not amused.
On the 6th October 1470 Henry VI discovered that he was king again on the say so of the Kingmaker who promptly married his youngest daughter off to Prince Edward having already married his oldest daughter off to Edward’s younger brother, the Duke of Buckingham (possibly known as having your cake and eating it.) After the service in St Paul’s, where he was re-crowned, Henry was rarely seen in public.
In March 1471 Edward returned and Henry was led by the hand through the streets of London by Bishop Neville in a bid to raise London’s loyal support. Edward swiftly took London, secured Henry and took him with him to Tewkesbury. After the Yorkist victory which saw the death of Henry’s son, Prince Edward, Henry was returned swiftly to the Tower where the Edward claimed he died of melancholy but in reality where the pious, scholarly, likeable and weary man was murdered by the Yorkists. He was forty-nine years old and had been on a troubled throne for thirty-nine years.