Among the most charitable observers of English history, Henry VI has been judged a gentle and pious king who was sadly unfit for the kingship of England, however even a cursory reading of history shows Henry to be nothing other than a complete failure: a feeble-minded simpleton and a weakling who was physically incapable of carrying out even the most elementary duties required of his station. He was certainly not a great military leader like his father, Henry V, and his legacy was forever stained by the loss of English imperial lands in France. Henry’s reign was also egregiously marred by widespread popular unrest and growing factionalism within his court, all of which culminated in the destructive civil war later known as “The Wars of the Roses.”
Henry was a deeply pious man; well-educated, gentle, but infirm. He was the only son of Henry V. He was tall, slender, and something of a religious scholar -he founded Eton College and King’s College in Cambridge. Reportedly, his religiosity burdened him with an obsessive prudishness. In fact, he was apparently persuaded not to pursue an intimate relationship even with his own wife, the beautiful Margaret of Anjou. After eight years of marriage, Henry and Margaret produced only one offspring (rumors abounded as to the child’s true father).
Of Henry VI’s character, Winston Churchill aptly writes “His piety knew no bounds… he was feeble alike in body and mind, unwise and unstable in his judgments, profuse beyond his means to his friends, uncalculating against his enemies, so tender-hearted that it was even said he would let common thieves and murderers live, yet forced to bear the load of innumerable executions. Flung about like a shuttlecock between rival factions; presiding as a helpless puppet over the progressive decay of English society and power; hovering bewildered on the skirts of great battles; three times taken prisoner on the field; now paraded with all kingly pomp before Parliaments, armies, and crowds, now led in mockery through the streets, now a captive, now a homeless fugitive, hiding, hungry; inflicted from time to time by phases of total or partial idiocy; he endured in the fullest measure for nearly fifty years the miseries of human existence, until the hand of murder dispatched him to a world which he was sure to be better, and could hardly have been worse than that he had known” (179).
Henry VI was the youngest monarch to ever assume the English crown -he was less than one year old. Additionally, within two months of assuming the English crown, Henry also became King of France following the death of Charles VI (per the Treaty of Troyes won by Henry’s father). While still an infant, Henry VI’s young reign was governed by a regency council of his relatives, especially Humphrey duke of Gloucester, John duke of Bedford, and Cardinal Henry Beaufort. The varying interests of the regency council continued to dominate much of Henry’s kingship. In particular, there was passionate infighting between Edmund Beaufort (a descendent of John of Gaunt like Henry VI) and Richard duke of York (great-grandson of Edmund Mortimer, heir apparent of Richard II).
Throughout the era, rumblings about the historical injustice of Henry IV’s regicide of Richard II continued to plague and tarnish the kingship. Winston Churchill writes: “These were evil days for England. The Crown was beggarly, the nobles rich. The people were unhappy and unrestful rather than unprosperous. The religious issues of an earlier century were now dominated by more practical politics. The empire so swiftly gained upon the Continent was being cast away by an incompetent and self-enriching oligarchy, and the revenues which might have sent irresistible to beat the French were engrossed by the Church” (183). In addition, several other glimpses into the zeitgeist of early 15th century England have emerged: a series of letters from a Norfolk family known as the “Paston Letters,” offers remarkable insight into the widespread lawlessness that took hold among the English people. We see common roads becoming dangerous, the old order declining, judicial rulings being openly flaunted, and a king that was widely known to be a weak fool.
Henry VI was officially crowned at age nine at Westminster Abbey in 1429. His coronation was followed by a series of crushing losses in France (the end of the Hundred Years War). After the extraordinary victories of his father, Henry V, England would never again reclaim its lost lands on the continent. Meanwhile, the morale of France was uplifted: an unexpected hero arose from among the commoner’s ranks. The French soldiers rallied behind Joan of Arc, “The Maid of Orléans” -a peasant girl from the rural town of Domrémy who claimed divine inspiration for a unified French nation devoid of English meddling. After winning tremendous victories, such as at the Siege of Orléans in 1428-1429, Joan of Arc was captured by Burgundians (allies of England). She was handed over to the English forces and burned at the stake at the age of 19. Three years later the situation in France had stabilized to a reasonable extent and Henry was officially crowned King of France.
For much of his early life, Henry was raised by his mother, Queen Catherine, but she began courting several English noblemen, most notably a Welsh squire of her household named Owen ap Maredudd ap Tudor, or simply “Owen Tudor.” There is no record of them ever having married, however Catherine bore him several children, including Edmund -father of the future Henry VII, founder of the Tudor dynasty. When Catherine became too ensconced in her romantic affairs, Henry was left to be raised by Richard Beauchamp, earl of Warwick -one of Henry V’s closest companions. While the noblemen continued their bickering at home, and as Henry grew, he paid little mind to the collapsing situation in France. He attempted to make peace by marrying Margaret of Anjou in 1445, a stunningly beautiful and politically astute woman, but the marriage only yielded a temporary peace as France continued to gain ground. By 1450 Henry had lost all of Normandy and Anjou. According to David Starkey “Thanks to Henry, a hundred years of war with France had yielded nothing and the prestige of the English crown was destroyed at home and abroad” (251).
The worst outcome of the war was the infighting between noblemen, particularly between Richard duke of York and Edmund duke of Somerset. York was an energetic soldier who fought in France and Ireland. He was the opposite of the timid and gentle Henry VI who detested war (Henry was the first king since the Norman conquest not to have commanded an army). Of York, Winston Churchill writes: “He was a virtuous, law-respecting, slow-moving, and highly competent prince. Every office entrusted to him by the Lancastrian regime had been ably and faithfully discharged” (187). York’s rivalry with Somerset eventually exploded into violent conflict. Meanwhile, Henry lost the support of Parliament when Normandy fell to France.
While fighting descended upon his noblemen, in 1453 Henry VI suffered a complete mental collapse (possibly the result of catatonic schizophrenia or perhaps an unlucky inheritance from the mad King Charles VI of France). Henry was rendered wholly speechless and unaware of things happening around him -including the birth of his own son, Edward. Henry had to be spoon-fed for months. In his stead, Richard duke of York was put in place as regent “Lord Protector,” an office which he held faithfully and dutifully. Many nobles were pleased with York’s capable and sound leadership (in contrast to their current king). And just as things appeared dire for Henry, he suddenly and unexpectedly recovered his faculties by Christmas 1454. When he regained consciousness, Richard was pushed out of favor again (he was never particularly well-liked by Queen Margaret), and the duke of Somerset returned to his station at the court of Henry. This was an act of treachery in the eyes of York. It was the beginning of the Wars of the Roses -a latter-named moniker devised by Sir Walter Scott in the 19th century as a result of the dueling household emblems. Henry’s house was the red rose of Lancaster, and Richard’s house was the white rose of York.
“Henry was his mother’s stupid offspring, not his father’s, a son greatly degenerated from his father, who did not cultivate the art of war… a mild-spoken, pious, but half-witted in affairs of state” -John Whethamstead, the Abbot of St. Albans commenting on Henry VI’s mental breakdown in 1453.
Following the financial troubles and losses of the Hundred Years War, the noblemen became evenly split between an incompetent but legitimate king and a capable but illegitimate leader in York. When things came to an armed conflict, the duke of Somerset was killed at the First Battle of St. Albans in May 1455 (the first battle of the Wars of the Roses) and York was brought back into the fore as a triumphant victor on the battlefield, but this was unwelcome news to his enemies, especially Queen Margaret. York had also captured King Henry during the battle and negotiated for himself a Yorkist future -the succession of the kingship after Henry’s death. In fact, York arguably had a better claim to the throne than Henry. Richard was the descendent of Lionel, duke of Clarence, the second son of Edward III, while Henry was only king as a consequence of Henry IV’s usurpation of Richard II. At any rate, Henry was now at the mercy of his rebellious noblemen, and he was bolstered only by Queen Margaret’s efforts.
The victories continued for York. He and his allies were far more popular than the frivolous King Henry and his power-hungry Queen (Margaret’s sole goal was to ensure the successorship of her son, Edward). In July 1460, Warwick invaded England from his stronghold in Calais, France and he captured King Henry (again) during the Battle of Northampton. Warwick’s forces slaughtered Henry’s entire royal guard as they closed in on his tent. The king was found sitting alone, captured by a lowly archer, and Warwick’s men quickly whisked the harmless king away into captivity. It was a sensational win for the Yorkists.
However, Richard duke of York’s victory was short-lived. He was killed shortly thereafter at the Battle of Wakefield in December 1460. Rumors abound as to his death, but he was likely decapitated with his head placed on the walls of York adorned with a mocking paper crown. After his death, the Lancastrian partisans recovered King Henry from his Yorkist captivity at the Second Battle of St. Albans two months later. However, Henry was hardly a victorious king. The pope remarked that Henry was ‘more timorous than a woman, utterly devoid of wit and spirit.’ He was apparently found sitting beneath a tree, singing to himself alongside the battlefield. At any rate, Margaret’s Lancastrian army had defeated the Yorkists, however she grew extraordinary unpopular, especially in the south of England. Even London had shut its gates to the Queen. The Lancastrian line was collapsing in popularity and young Edward, son of York, seized the moment.
Edward was a tall man with a volatile temper and a penchant for the indulgences of food, wine, and women. He is best remembered today as an able military commander, however he was also a remarkable book collector in his later years. He was hastily crowned King Edward IV in Southwark amidst the collapse of the Lancastrian regime. When Edward initially claimed the throne he enacted a remarkable degree of clemency, offering pardons to certain Lancastrian nobles rather than simply killing them -an uncommonly gracious act during the bloody Wars of the Roses. Nevertheless, Edward’s forces continued to grow amidst an exasperated population and a month later, Edward defeated the last of the Lancastrian army at the Battle of Towton in Yorkshire in March 1461 (the Battle of Towton was the biggest battle during the Wars of the Roses). It was a brutal fight against the backdrop of a blizzard and a dramatic lust for revenge. When the fog of war lifted, perhaps as many as 28,000 corpses lined the countryside and Edward stood the victor, firmly secure in his nascent kingship. For many, there were high hopes that the Battle of Towton might mark the end to the Wars of the Roses -but this was not to be. Edward continued eliminating the Lancastrian threat in the north, while Henry, Margaret, and their son, Edward, fled into Scottish exile allowing Edward to refocus his attention domestically.
Up until this point, Edward’s short-lived reign had relied heavily upon the support of one nobleman: Richard Neville, a powerful English magnate and earl of Warwick who earned himself the nickname “the Kingmaker” due to the influence he wielded over the king’s court. Shortly after Edward crowned himself king, he soon fell out of favor with Warwick who reversed his allegiance from Edward, the capable Yorkist military leader, to Henry, the malleable Lancastrian puppet. This was characteristic of the Wars of the Roses: near constant turmoil fueled by tragic reversals of fortune. The reason for Warwick’s abandonment of Edward IV was linked to the new queen. Warwick was dismayed by Edward’s seemingly hasty decision to marry an English commoner, a widower named Elizabeth Woodville (or “Wydvil” -the widow of a Lancastrian knight), rather than a royal union that could have solved squabbles with the French. In response, Warwick mustered an alliance with the French, as well as Edward IV’s brother, George, who all bowed to the red rose. The Lancastrian forces were now led by Warwick who caught Edward IV off-guard when they invaded London. Edward was forced to retreat and Henry VI was briefly reinstated as King of England in October 1470, but during this time Henry was nothing more than a mere pawn of Warwick. Henry’s second reign was quickly challenged by Edward IV several months later. Now, it was Edward’s turn to catch Warwick off-guard with a surprise alliance with the Burgundians. The two sides (earl of Warwick and Edward IV) met on the battlefield during the foggy Battle of Barnet on April 14, 1471. On this same fateful day in 1471, Margaret also made her triumphant return to England just as Warwick and his men were utterly decimated at Barnet. Warwick’s death struck a blow to Margaret’s hopes of regaining the crown, but despite this loss, Margaret decided to face Edward IV at the Battle of Tewkesbury -a battle that ended in a resounding defeat for the Lancastrians. By the end of the fighting, many nobles who had supported the red rose of Lancaster were executed, Prince Edward (the only child of Henry and Margaret) was killed, Margaret was taken captive by the Yorkists, and Henry VI was captured yet again. This time, Henry was locked in the Tower of London where he was presumably murdered at the behest of Edward IV. A ransom was later paid by Louis XI King of France for Margaret’s safe return home. She was never again to grace or curse the English isle with her presence. She died an impoverished guest of the French court in 1482. Edward’s brother, the rebellious George Plantagenet duke of Clarence, later made reconciliations with the Yorkists, though he remained a thorn in the side of the crown. He was convicted of treason in 1478 by Edward and, as the story goes, he was condemned to death by drowning in a butt of malmsey wine.
The Wars of the Roses had now mostly ended, and the monarchy returned to relative stability (though fighting would continue after the death of Edward IV). When it was time for Edward, a soldier through and through, to finally sheath his sword and embrace the governance of peace-time, he turned his attention to his vices: women, wine, hunting, and other forms of entertainment. While nearing his fortieth year of life, and having lived a life of excess and indulgence, Edward IV began to look to the future. Since a protectorate was inevitable, he made a compact entrusting the crown’s successorship to his son, Edward. To oversee the succession, Edward appointed his brother the duke of Gloucester, a most sinister figure in the history of England (later known to us as the conniving King Richard III). At any rate, perhaps as a result of years of drinking and a weakened immune system, Edward IV contracted pneumonia and died suddenly in 1483.
The latter years of Edward IV’s reign had been marked by relative peace while he snuffed out any remaining Lancastrian resistance. The last major holdout for the Lancastrians was the castle of Harlech on the western sea. It withstood a seven-year siege until it finally surrendered in 1468 with about 50 men inside, including a young boy aged 12, the nephew of Jasper, the grandson of Owen Tudor. His name was Henry earl of Richmond, but he would later be known as King Henry VII, founder of the Tudor dynasty.
For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, Peter Ackroyd’s Foundation: The History of England From Its Earliest Beginnings To The Tudors, The Croyland Chronicler, The Paston Letters, Shakespeare’s Henry VI parts I, II, & III, and Sir Thomas More’s History of Richard III.