The Plantagenets: Henry IV (1399-1413)

Henry Bolingbroke, son of the nobleman John of Gaunt (third surviving son of Edward III), was a capable compromiser and a diligent administrator, however his kingship is forever stained by the regicide of his predecessor, Richard II. During Henry’s lifetime, many were able to look past Henry’s unsavory route to the crown and instead embrace his numerous political and athletic strengths (Henry was a champion jouster and a crusader in Eastern Europe), but he did gain many enemies throughout his kingship. During the reign of Richard II, Henry was an outspoken opponent of the crown as a member of the Lords Appellant. Despite his obstinance Henry was eventually appeased and ventured forth on crusade in Lithuania (1390), Prussia (1392), and he also went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem (1393).

When he returned, Henry clashed with King Richard culminating in Henry’s exile in France. Henry’s father, John of Gaunt, died in 1399. King Richard promptly seized all the late nobleman’s vast estates, further earning him the ire of Henry. Finally, Richard left England to campaign in Scotland and Henry triumphantly mustered his allies to overthrow Richard, perhaps at first to merely secure his stolen inheritances. However Henry soon realized the unpopularity of King Richard and he took hold of the moment. Richard was captured, deposed, and quietly executed while Henry was crowned King Henry IV on October 13, 1399. Thus a new branch under the royal House of Plantagenet took the throne: the House of Lancaster. Henry’s coronation ceremony was the first since the Norman conquests to be conducted in English rather than in French.

The coronation of Henry IV per Jean Froissart’s Chronicles

Henry’s first wife was Mary de Bohun, mother of Henry V who died before Henry IV took the throne. Together they had several children including the future Henry V. His second wife was a French Duchess named Joan of Navarre.

Henry’s claim to the throne was disputed most famously by a powerful Welsh family that supported his usurpation of the crown. The Percy family owned vast estates in England and Wales, and since Henry had so easily overthrown the court of Richard II while gaining the blessing of the Church (Henry was anointed with sacred oil that was said to have been gifted to Thomas Beckett by the Virgin Mary) -what was to stop the Percy family from taking the throne? In 1403, Hotspur, heir to the Percy family’s Earldom, gathered an army in Wales and invaded England. They met at ‘Battlefield’ for a brutal and bloody battle that left sixteen thousand men dead, and in the end Henry IV was victorious. Hotspur’s corpse was given a traitors burial -it was brought to nearby Shrewsbury and quartered. Rebellions continued in Wales and Henry continued to battle until his health gave way.

Henry’s enemies grew with time, and even the king held private doubts about his own claim to the throne. He aged rapidly while developing a disfiguring skin condition (perhaps leprosy). The physical disfigurement was rumored to be God’s punishment for Henry’s usurpation of Richard II.

Winston Churchill writes: “The unsuccessful revolt, the civil war which had begun for Richard after his fall, was fatal to the former king. A sanctity dwelt about his person, and all the ceremonial and constitutional procedure which enthroned his successor could not rob him of it… all this welled up against Henry Bolingbroke” (172-173).

By March 1413, the hand of death followed Henry wherever he went. “Henceforth his reign was a struggle against death as well as life” (Churchill, 173). He could no longer ride out in battle. Henry thus ventured to Westminster to pray at the tomb of Edward The Confessor where he promptly experienced a prolonged seizure. He was taken to the Jerusalem Chamber of the abbott’s lodgings where he slowly died with the crown placed beside his head on a pillow. “There can be no doubt that the dying sovereign still gripped convulsively to the reins of power. Misgovernment and decrepitude remained for a while successfully enthroned” (Churchill, 174). There is an old legend that his young son, Prince Henry (soon to be Henry V) claimed the crown shortly before his father’s death. Upon learning the news of this supposed usurpation, Henry IV sprang out of bed and demanded an explanation, to which Prince Henry responded: “As you have kept it by the sword, so I will keep it whilst I have life.” It is a nice story, but it serves to highlight the vigorousness and vitality of the future king.

Henry IV died on March 20, 1413. Of his death Winston Churchill writes: “Upon his death a new personality, built upon a grand historic scale, long hungry for power, ascended without dispute the throne not only of England but very soon of almost all Western Christendom” (174). Henry IV was unusually buried at Canterbury Cathedral, per his request, beside the tomb of Thomas Beckett.

A 16th century portrait of King Henry IV

For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, Peter Ackroyd’s FoundationThe History of England From Its Earliest Beginnings To The Tudors, Jean Froissart’s Chronicles (1327-1400), and William Shakespeare’s Henry IV parts I & II.

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