By Rebecca Davis
Ascending to the throne as an infant, Henry VI knew no reality other than the weight of the crown. The death in 1422 of his father Henry V, when Henry VI was less than a year old, led to him becoming the youngest-ever King of England.
‘truthful almost to a fault’, and having ‘pure simplicity of mind’
Henry’s minority paved the way for later problems, as by necessity he grew up relying on relatives and trusted councilors. This led to the development of rival factions. Key figures included Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, who was the King’s uncle and official Protector of England during the minority.
Throughout that time, Gloucester feuded with Cardinal Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester, for power. The Cardinal’s nephew, Edmund Beaufort, later became a royal favourite, being created Duke of Somerset in 1448.
Henry grows up
Even after Henry attained the age of majority, those around him continued to exert significant influence over policy. Political players now included the Frenchwoman Margaret of Anjou, married to Henry in April 1445; another was Duke of Suffolk William de la Pole, who had helped arrange the match.
Though he was now an adult, Henry’s passive personality still made him easy to manipulate by those he trusted.
Henry struggled with many aspects of medieval kingship, such as the maintenance of justice, law, and order, and management of relationships within the nobility. A pious, rather unworldly man, he had no aptitude for politics.
His idealistic disinterest in war with France alienated some of his subjects, who had fought to control what was perceived to be an English possession.
By 1450, popular dissatisfaction boiled over in an uprising known as Cade’s Rebellion. Though not much came directly of it, the revolt made it clear that this reign was struggling with some fundamental problems. Much could be attributed to weak leadership. Henry’s innocence made him difficult to dislike, but he was proving to be an ineffective monarch.
Eccentric and mentally ill
A contemporary, John Blakman, described Henry as ‘truthful almost to a fault’, and having ‘pure simplicity of mind’. He considered sports frivolous and immodest female attire shameful, his personal modesty such that he couldn’t even bear the sight of fellow men unclothed at a public bath.
For his own garb, he often preferred plain clothing over flashy regal robes. As for strong language, Henry didn’t approve. When rebuking others, his exclamations were limited to ‘Fie!’ and ‘Forsooth!’.
Sometime during the summer of 1453, Henry’s eccentricity turned into a serious mental illness. Contemporary reports blamed a sudden shock or fright, which caused him to fall into a state of stupor. Suddenly the King could not speak, react to those around him, or even move about properly.
We can look back on Henry’s maternal grandfather, Charles VI of France, and trace a possible genetic predisposition to mental illness. (Charles had believed that his body was made of glass.) Henry’s physicians, however, did not have modern science or psychological techniques. Their attempted remedies included laxatives, gargles, poultices, bleeding, and other therapies of questionable value.
Around Christmas 1453, Queen Margaret bore Henry a son, Prince Edward. When the child was presented to him, Henry didn’t respond. For a while the unwelcome possibility of Margaret as regent, should her husband fail to recover, loomed over the kingdom. Her rival for power was magnate Richard of York. He acted as ‘Protector of the realm’ during Henry’s incapacity, promoting his own authority while acting in the name of the catatonic monarch.
Henry began showing signs of recovery during the summer of 1454. By December, he was interacting with others again, and shortly after Christmas was presented again with his baby son. The King asked and was told the child’s name.
According to one report, Henry remarked that the boy must have been conceived by the Holy Ghost, implying that he himself could not have been the father. This, however, appears to be based largely on gossipy rumour.
Another report simply tells us that the King warmly welcomed his son, asking his name. He then ‘held up his hands and thanked God thereof. And he said that he never knew until that time, nor what was said to him, nor knew what where he had been, while he had been sick until now.’ Henry had no memory of the time during his illness, almost a year and a half.
Ironically, the recovery of the King did not bring peace or prosperity to the realm. Instead, open war broke out, as Richard of York wanted to retain, and possibly expand on, the power he had exercised during the recent Protectorate. This series of battles and political struggles would later be known as the Wars of the Roses, or sometimes the Cousins’ War, as most of the primary instigators were related by blood in one way or another.
Henry didn’t put up much of a fight, and his inert personality provided little motivation for men in battle. Margaret, however, was active on his part, earning herself a popular historical image as a warrior queen and leader. In July 1460, Henry was taken prisoner and forced to acknowledge York as heir to the throne. This meant his and Margaret’s own son, the prince, would be bypassed; it was a particularly humiliating concession.
York was soon killed in the continuing battles, and Henry escaped into Scotland with Margaret and Prince Edward. York’s son – also named Edward – then declared himself King. Backed by superior military strength, he was crowned in June 1461. He is now known to history as Edward IV.
The final events
In 1465 Henry was captured again and imprisoned in the Tower of London. In late 1470 he wore the crown again for a short time, after a ‘readeption’, but this was a puppet show. The mentally weak Henry’s strings were being pulled by the powerful Earl of Warwick Richard Neville, a magnate whose backing had until recently enabled Edward IV.
Now they had turned against each other. Warwick didn’t last long, falling in battle on Easter Sunday 1471. His figurehead Henry was soon imprisoned again.
On 23 May 1471, Henry VI was found dead in the Tower. The official story, if you supported Edward IV, was that Henry died of grief upon hearing that his son had been killed. It’s generally agreed, however, that Henry was probably murdered, probably on Edward IV’s orders. Some dramatic accounts blame Edward IV’s younger brother – who later became infamous as Richard III – but there is no way to prove who really did the deed.
After Henry’s death, his followers focused on his piety rather than his impotence as king. By the end of the fifteenth century, he was being venerated as a saint, albeit one never formally canonized. His tomb became a popular cult attraction and miracles were said to result from prayers to him. Inept as a monarch, he was more successful as a martyr. He continues to be enshrined in popular memory through the plays of Shakespeare, and was one of England’s most intriguing, if unsuccessful, kings.