King Henry VI
Born: December 6, 1421
Windsor, Berkshire, England
Reigns: August 31, 1422 - March 4, 1461; October 30, 1470 - April 11, 1471 (39 years)
Died: May 21, 1471
Tower Hamlets, London, England (Age 49)
Henry of Windsor was born December 6, 1421 as the only child of King Henry V and his wife, Katherine of Valois. The king was campaigning in France at the time but was undoubtedly thrilled to hear that he now had an heir. Henry V, who had been sick for several months, died on August 31, 1422, leaving the throne of England to his nine-month-old son, Henry VI. Less than two months later, the new king’s maternal grandfather, Charles VI of France, also passed away. According to the Treaty of Troyes, Charles was to be succeeded by Henry V and his heirs. Since Henry V was already dead, the French throne passed to Henry VI. At less than a year old, Henry was now king both England and France. In his will, which most historians will say he should have done a better job of wording, Henry V left the general guardianship of his son to his youngest brother Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, and the upbringing of the child to his uncle, Thomas Beaufort, Duke of Exeter. Henry V’s other brother, John, Duke of Bedford, would ultimately take on the task of serving as regent of France (though this was not recorded in the will). Gloucester assumed that Henry V had given him the position of regent of England, which would have given him near sovereign power. Both Gloucester’s brother Bedford and their uncle, Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester, made sure that this would not happen and Gloucester was forced to accept the purely ceremonial title of “Protector and Defender” of England, while the day to day business of government was achieved through the royal council. The situation began a bitter rivalry between Gloucester and Bishop Beaufort that would last, intermittently, for the remainder of their lives.
Since no official regency was set up, the king was made to wield sovereign power even before his second birthday and the royal seal, used by the king’s hand personally, was required on all official documents. The main domestic issue during the opening years of the reign, however, continued to be the increasingly heated rivalry between Gloucester and Bishop Beaufort, both of whom were fighting over who would wield the most influence over the young king. As power swayed back and forth between the two men, tensions became so high that armed conflict was just barely avoided. To prevent the conflict from reaching its boiling point, Bedford was recalled from Franc and was able to moderate the situation between his brother and uncle, bringing peace, at least temporarily, between the two men. Thanks to Bedford’s intervention, the governing of England was able to continue to move smoothly under the royal council. As he moved closer to coming of age, Henry was put into the custody of Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, who would act as his tutor. In late 1429, still only eight years old, Henry was crowned King of England at Westminster.
Meanwhile, the conquest of France which Henry V had begun continued to go well with Bedford now in command. The duke won a major victory over the French at the Battle of Verneuil (1424) and was able to take Le Mans, the capital of the county of Maine, the following year. In 1427, the Duke of Brittany also switched over his allegiance to the English. By 1428, most of northern France, including Brittany, Normandy, most of the Ile-de-France (including Paris), parts of Maine and the regions of Champagne and Picardy (the latter two were under the control of England’s ally, the Duke of Burgundy), in addition to Calais (just across the channel from Dover) and the Duchy of Gascony in southwestern France. All of southern France, excluding Gascony, remained loyal to the dauphin (the son of the late king Charles VI), who was acknowledged as King Charles VII. Unfortunately, English success within France was not meant to last forever and their fortunes began a slow decline when the decision was made to besiege the city of Orleans in 1428. The siege began horribly when, just days into it, the English commander, the Earl of Salisbury, was fatally wounded by a cannon shot. In addition, the English had alienated their greatest ally, the Duke of Burgundy, who was supposed to be responsible for the city during the captivity of its duke (in English custody since Agincourt in 1415). The siege of Orleans went on for months and was finally lifted in the spring of 1429 when Joan of Arc (a young girl who claimed to be guided by God to drive the English out of France) appeared on the scene. Not only did she chase the English away from Orleans, but she proceeded to win a string of battles against her enemy as part of the Loire valley campaign, taking back a significant amount of territory within the Ile-de-France. The campaign culminated with the French victory at the Battle of Patay (in which the English commander, John Talbot, was taken captive) and the coronation of Charles VII at Rheims (the traditional city where Kings of France were crowned) in June 1429.
In the wake of these recent, and quite devastating, setbacks, Bedford felt that it would be a wise idea to have his nephew the king brought over to France to be crowned at Paris in an attempt to created a sense of unity between the English king and his French subjects. As the king was brought over to France and spent time in other parts of the kingdom, the English experienced a stroke of good luck when Joan of Arc was captured by John of Luxemburg, an English ally, and was burnt at the stake as a witch the following year. Meanwhile, Henry VI slowly made his way to Paris where he was anointed and crowned King of France in December 1431. Unfortunately, it cannot be said that Henry’s French coronation accomplished much more than running up a large bill for the royal exchequer. The situation in France continued to gradually decline and civil disputes continue to pile up at home in England.
The years that followed Henry’s French coronation were dominated by worries of the increasingly tenuous hold the English had over their continental territories and the idea of peace with Charles VII was heavily contemplated. Continuing the conquest of France was most certainly out of the question, due to the tight budget of the royal exchequer caused by the immense cost of defense for the French lands, and Bedford needed to concentrate on protecting the lands that had already been conquered. To make matters even worse, Gloucester and his uncle Beaufort, now a cardinal, were once again butting heads and were only prevented from further damaging the already fragile political situation by the moderating influence of Bedford. The idea of peace with Franc was a complex one because Charles VII would not even think of signing his name on a treaty that did not stipulate that Henry was to drop his claim to the French throne. Bedford returned to Normandy to defend the English-held duchy, but died there in September 1435, depriving Henry of his most loyal and competent supporter. In a much more impactful turn of events, the Duke of Burgundy, England’s most powerful ally against the French, signed the Treaty of Arras with Charles VII, officially ending the English/Burgundian alliance and making the English position in Franc even more tenuous than it already was. With the loss of Burgundy’s assistance and the leadership of Bedford, the Ile-de-France, including Paris, quickly fell back into French hands, making the English claim to the French throne seem completely meaningless.
The major issue of the years following these events continued to be the situation in France. Henry had taken personal control of his government in late 1437 (despite still being only sixteen years of age) and began to make more decisions on his own. With Charles VII gradually gaining back English-held lands in France and the status of Normandy, Gascony and other English territories in jeopardy, it became clear that the English were now on the defensive and the French on the offensive. Therefore, the subject of peace was, once again, brought up. As a gesture of good faith, Henry released the Duke of Orleans from prison (after confinement of twenty-five years) so that he may bring the two sides to a reasonable agreement. But Charles was still in no mood to discuss any kind of truce without Henry completely dropping his claim to the French throne, which the English king still did not wish to do. Meanwhile, the situation in Normandy and Gascony was growing increasingly hostile. Normandy was under the leadership of competent men such as the Duke of York (who had taken Bedford’s place as lieutenant of France) and Sir John Talbot (arguably the greatest English soldier of the fifteenth century), but the French continued to gain ground and to re-conquer a number of castles and towns. In order to form a much needed continental alliance against the French, a marriage was proposed between Henry and a daughter of the Count of Armagnac, a mortal enemy of Charles VII. When Charles found out about the proposed match, he responded with an invasion of Gascony and imprisoned the count. Luckily for the English, the harsh winter prevented Charles from doing any widespread damage. Normandy and Gascony, however, continued to be under threat from the French and Henry responded by making the decision to launch a full-scale campaign to the continent.
Since he himself was no general, Henry nominated John Beaufort, Duke of Somerset (a nephew of Cardinal Beaufort’s), to lead the army. For whatever reason, Somerset’s plan seems to have been to pick up with the conquest of France (which most contemporaries knew was a lost cause by this point) rather than to relieve the English forces in the already conquered territories, which were under duress, as he should have been doing. The campaign was a complete (and expensive) disaster. Somerset achieved practically nothing and returned home in disgrace, only to die the following year. The expedition had far greater consequences than Somerset’s disgrace, however. While on the continent, Somerset had alienated the Duke of Brittany, one of England’s only remaining allies, ultimately causing him to switch his allegiance to Charles VII. In addition, Somerset had gained the enmity of the Duke of York, who was none too happy that his authority as lieutenant in France was being stepped on and his wages were not being paid, all due to a pointless and futile military operation which had no real chance of success. The situation began a feud between the houses of York and Beaufort that, within ten years, would boil over and plunge England into civil war.
After Somerset’s failed campaign, Henry now had no choice but to agree to a truce with the French. William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, one of Henry’s top advisers, was sent to the French court to negotiate a truce that would involve the king’s marriage to Margaret, daughter of Rene of Anjou (brother-in-law to Charles VII). Charles VII expected to receive large concessions of land from the English, but this did not happen at this particular time. However, it was agreed that Margaret would be sent to England without a dowry and at Henry’s expense. Henry and Margaret were betrothed, by proxy, with Suffolk standing in for the king, and a truce of just under two years was agreed to between the two sides through the Treaty of Tours. Margaret was then taken over to England where she and Henry were officially married.
The Treaty of Tours and the marriage between Henry and Margaret were extremely unpopular in England and the most avid opponent of peace with Franc e was Henry’s uncle Gloucester. Gloucester had already lost much of his political sway when his wife was disgrace and exiled back in 1441 for supposedly consulting sorcerers about the king’s death. Both Cardinal Beaufort and Suffolk (soon to be a duke) agreed with the king’s policy of peace with Franc and had Gloucester arrested on trumped up charges of treason. The duke then died as a result of the shock he received upon his arrest. Cardinal Beaufort followed his nemesis to the grave just weeks later. Meanwhile, Charles VII had upped his ante for peace by claiming that the county of Maine and all claims to the county of Anjou must be surrendered, as Henry had supposedly promised (though the details on the supposed agreement to surrender the two counties have always been obscure at best). Despite widespread objections from the people of England, and after months and months of negotiations, Maine and all claims to Anjou were surrendered in 1448.
With Maine now back in French hands, Charles now searched about for a reason to renew hostilities and expel the English out of Normandy. The opportunity for this came when disputes arose over land in the marches between Normandy and Brittany (the latter of which still had yet to officially declare its allegiance to either Charles or Henry). In order to consolidate their position in Normandy, the English attacked and captured a number of castles in the marches between the two regions, angering and alienating the Breton people in the process. When the Breton duke, France, decide to throw in his lot with the French, Charles renewed the war based on the fact that he was now defending his vassal from English hostility. Therefore, the French invaded Normandy and swiftly took back town after town. As the continental empire that Henry V had worked so hard to win was being whittled away, a scapegoat needed to be found back in England. As chancellor and chief adviser to the king, the Duke of Suffolk seemed like the perfect candidate to take the blame, despite the fact that he was only following the king’s direct orders. In parliament, the commons voted to impeach Suffolk and levied an astoundingly large number of charges against him. The was blamed for the losses of Maine, Anjou and Normandy, the severing of the Breton alliance and was even accused of conspiring with the French for an invasion of England and plotting to murder the king and place his own son on the throne. Under extreme pressure from the commons, Henry reluctantly agreed to exile his loyal minister from the country for a period of five years. However, Suffolk’s ship (that was taking him over to Burgundy) was hijacked by pirates, who murdered the duke. Meanwhile, the English lieutenant in France, the Duke of Somerset (younger brother of the duke who had failed in his expedition of 1443) was unable to do anything to stop the French, who handed the English a decisive defeat at the Battle of Formigny and proceeded to take back all of Normandy.
The political climate of 1450 was an extremely hostile one and, although Suffolk, as the king’s right-hand man, paid the dearest price, tensions went far beyond the doings of the powerful duke. After years of heavy taxation, the people of England were understandably unhappy with the fact that the English economy was in ruins , the war in France was all but lost and the most of the riches in the kingdom went to a select few of the king’s favorites. It was with these issues in mind that the rebellion of Jack Cade broke out in the late spring of 1450. Cade, who it was later discovered was nothing more than an Irish outlaw, claimed to be John Mortimer, a member of the powerful Mortimer family that arguably had a better claim to the throne than the Lancastrians. As in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, the rebels wanted to see the king’s evil counselors removed from his presence and replaced with more noble men. Once of those who Cade wanted to see in power was Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York (at the time serving in Ireland), Henry’s former lieutenant in France and a man whose mother was a Mortimer, giving him a valid claim to the throne over Henry. The rebellion did not last very long, though a number of important figure were killed. In the end, the rebels were convinced to desert Cade in exchange for a royal pardon. Cade himself was then captured and killed.
Henry spent the months following Cade’s rebellion administering reforms to the justice system and quelling other minor rebellions in other parts of the country. Meanwhile, the situation in France had gone from horrible to catastrophic. Fresh off his conquest of Normandy, Charles VII now intended to move in for the kill and invaded the English-held Duchy of Gascony, which had come to the English crown through Eleanor of Aquitaine (wife of Henry II) back in 1154 and had remained English ever since. Upon hearing the news, Henry scrambled to assemble a force to relieve the duchy but its departure was continuously delayed. With no aid in sight, Gascony did not stand a chance of holding out against the French and, by August 1451, Charles had conquered the entire duchy. With the fall of Gascony, English possessions within France were now limited to the port city of Calais and the Channel Islands and Henry had now lost everything his father had won, and more.
If the loss of Gascony was not enough, Henry was now forced to deal with yet another domestic problem in the form of a conflict between two of his leading subjects: the Dukes of York and Somerset. Ever since his return, against orders, from his post in Ireland shortly after the quelling of Cade’s rebellion, York had been championed as an advocate for justice and good government and an outspoken critic of the Lancastrian regime. Henry had every reason to fear York. Not only was he popular amongst the commons and a seasoned general and administrator, but he arguably possessed a more valid claim to the throne , albeit through a female line, than Henry himself. Henry was descended through John of Gaunt, third surviving son of Edward III and was the most senior descendant in the male line from the late warrior king. York, like Henry, was also a Plantagenet in the male line, being a grandson of Edmund of Langley, fourth surviving son of Edward III. This, however, is not where York got his superior claim. Through his mother, Anne Mortimer, York was descended from Lionel of Antwerp, Edward III’s second son, therefore giving him precedent over Henry based on the laws of cognatic primogeniture. Since there was no official Salic law to prevent this (as there was in France), York was a huge threat to Henry and it is for this reason, most likely, that Henry had sent him off to Ireland in the first place. On the other hand, Somerset, who was also a descendent of John of Gaunt (through his long-time mistress and eventual third wife, Katherine Swynford) was extremely unpopular with the people. It was he who was most responsible, as lieutenant of France, for the loss of Normandy and yet was still shown great favor by the king. York wanted nothing more than to remove Somerset from office so that he may assert his own influence over the king. Therefore, York gathered an armed force, which was countered by the royal army, personally led by the king. The duke had no choice but to submit himself to Henry and made it clear that he only wished to see Somerset removed from office, not to do any harm to the king himself.
Henry then planned on leading an expedition to France to defend Calais, but this never happened because of further rebellions by loyalists to York, prompting the king to go on another extensive tour of the kingdom to flex his judicial muscles. The tour greatly helped establish Henry’s authority and allowed him to concentrate more on the war with France. With the citizens of Bordeaux requesting English help (they had been greatly enriched for many years through their English connections because of the wine trade), Henry agreed to send an army under the command of John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, a seasoned general well into his sixties by this point who had served in France under York and had begun his long military career during Owen Glendower’s revolt during the reign of Henry IV. Upon his arrival, Talbot was welcomed into Bordeaux and proceeded to re-conquer a large portion of the Duchy of Gascony. Charles VII though, was not about to sit back and allow the land he had just won to be taken away so easily and sent an army of his own. The two sides met at the Battle of Castilllon where the French, with the help of the cannon (which had greatly aided them at Formigny three years earlier) handed the English a crushing defeat. Talbot was killed and the Hundred Years’ War was officially at an end, with the French as the decisive victors. Shortly after Talbot’s defeat, Henry slipped into a sort of depressed, psychotic stupor which was to strip him of his wits for the next year and a half. The mental disorder was undoubtedly genetically inherited through Henry’s maternal grandfather, Charles VI of France, who suffered from bouts of madness for much of his adult life.
It was not believed that the king’s malady was that serious or would last so long but, when Henry did not even realize that his wife had given birth to a son and heir, Prince Edward, the royal council knew that it had an immense problem on its hands. Still, the full extremity of Henry’s condition was not revealed until some months after it took hold of him. During this time, the royal council was in charge of making all the major decision within the kingdom and, York, seeing his opportunity to become more actively involved in politics in the king’s absence, was at its head. With York in control, it comes as no surprise that his enemy, Somerset, was promptly imprisoned for all the past misdeeds that Henry refused to punish him for. When the seriousness of Henry’s condition was finally revealed, York was given, by parliament, the position of “Protector and Defender” of the realm (the same title that Gloucester had held in the opening years of the reign), much to the chagrin of Queen Margaret, who was certainly no admirer of the duke.
York set about reforming and reducing the royal household and put a number of men loyal to him in important governmental positions. One of the most important acts of York’s protectorate was the duke’s decision in favor of the Neville family in their dispute with the Percy clan, their hated rivals in England’s north. The two families had been in contention as to who the dominating force was in the Scottish marches and the conflict had erupted in near-armed conflict when the Percys attacked a group of Nevilles on their return home from a wedding. York decided to punish all those involved on the Percy side, gaining him the favor of the two leading Nevilles, Richard, Earl of Salisbury, and his son (another Richard), the Earl of Warwick. Considering that the Nevilles would throw their support behind York in the upcoming civil war, the duke’s decision to support them against their enemies seems to have been a wise strategy. By the beginning of 1455, Henry was once again in control of his senses and was able to resume control of the kingdom. York’s protectorate was dissolved and all of his appointments and reforms were reversed. Most significantly, Somerset was released from prison and returned to royal favor.
With Somerset back in power, York and his Neville allies (who were also no friends to Somerset) left court. Henry then summoned them back to take part in the council but, York, thinking this to be a trap, gathered an army for protection. As Henry’s own retinue set out, he received word that York was ready for battle if the king refused to remove his evil counselors from his presence (i.e. Somerset). The king’s outright refusal to York’s bullying resulted in the Battle of St. Albans between the royal forces and those of York and the Nevilles. Though the battle itself was only a fairly small skirmish, with casualties in the double digits, it had major implications. For one thing, the deaths in the royal forces were significant as they included the Earl of Northumberland (head of the Percy family), Lord Clifford (another of the Neville rivals in the north) and, most importantly, the Duke of Somerset. As a result of his victory, York was not only rid of his worst enemy, but also gained possession of the king himself and was in an excellent position to regain some of the influence he had lost after Henry’s return to health. Most significantly of all though, the Battle of St. Albans was considered to be the first official conflict in the Wars of the Roses between the houses of Lancaster and York that would ultimately spell the doom the Plantagenet dynasty in England.
In the aftermath of St. Albans, York and his allies were once again in a position of prominence at court and, when Henry lost his mind again shortly after the battle (likely as a result of the trauma he suffered there), York was again made protector of the realm. Though Henry was able to recover his senses enough to dissolve York’s second protectorate by early 1456, it was clear that his mind would never be completely the same and he became increasingly introverted and disinterested with the government of his own kingdom, spending an abnormally large amount of time in religious houses. Therefore, during the years after St. Albans, very little was accomplished in the way of affairs of state and Queen Margaret seemed to be taking the reins of government into her own hands in place of her only sometimes lucid husband. The rise of the queen’s influence could only be detrimental to York and his followers and, despite the fact that the two factions were ceremoniously reconciled at the love day festivities in the spring of 1458, tensions remained extremely high.
With the king only nominally in control and the queen exerting a majority of the influence in politics (purposely, and with malice, neglecting York and his associates), war between the Lancastrian and Yorkist factions was inevitable and both sides mustered armies. It appears that the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back was laid in place when the Yorkists failed to obey a summons to a royal council meeting. This was understandable considering that Margaret was undoubtedly leading them into some sort of trap. As a result, both armies ventured out and met at the Battle of Blore Heath, where the Yorkists, under Salisbury’s command, defeated the Lancastrians. The Lancastrians, however, countered with a victory of their own at the Battle of Ludford Bridge, where Henry showed unusual qualities of firm leadership by delivering an inspiring speech before the battle and remaining present during the action. After their defeat at Ludford, the Yorkists were forced to flee England regroup. York fled to Ireland, where he had a formidable power base, while Warwick, Salisbury and York’s eldest son and heir, Edward, Earl of March, went to Calais, where Warwick served as captain. In their absence, York, Warwick, Salisbury, March and York’s second son, Edmund, Earl of Rutland, and all their families and associates were attainted in parliament , most likely through recommendation from the queen.
The queen’s actions prompted Warwick, Salisbury and March to invade England from Calais, with intentions of gaining possession of the king. This they were able to do after they defeated the Lancastrian army at the Battle of Northampton, after they had already taken London. Henry now acted as a puppet to the lords until York’s return from Ireland. When York did return, he did so to claim the throne. Most of those present at the parliament were surprised at the duke’s sudden outburst and were reluctant to agree to his demands. It was ultimately concluded that Henry would reign for the remainder of his life, with York acting as protector, and upon Henry’s death, York and his heir would succeed him, with Prince Edward being completely disinherited. The agreement was nearly identical to that of the Treaty of Troyes in 1420 between Henry V and Charles VI. Henry was in no position to compromise on the issue and was forced to agree to it. Queen Margaret, however, would not sit back passively while her son was disinherited and began making preparations to do battle against the Yorkists. The queen mustered an army of loyal Lancastrians and Scots (the latter of whom were gained through an agreement with James III of Scotland, which ceded the town of Berwick to the Scots) and was able to score a devastating victory against the Yorkists at the Battle of Wakefield. York and his son Rutland were killed in the battle and Salisbury was captured and murdered by the townspeople.
The Yorkist cause was now taken up by York’s eldest son, March, who countered the Lancastrian victory at Wakefield with a victory of his own at the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross. March now planned to use the Lancastrians’ breaking of the agreement at parliament to usurp the throne himself. The Yorkists suffered a setback when Warwick was defeated by Margaret’s army at the Second Battle of St. Albans and lost possession of King Henry but the Lancastrians were unable to gain access to London, still under Yorkist control, and were forced to retreat to the north. This now gave March the opportunity to parade into London and have himself crowned as King Edward IV. The new king then proceeded to march north to destroy the remaining Lancastrian army. Edward won a major victory against his enemies, during a blistering snow storm, at the gruesomely bloody Battle of Towton. Thousands upon thousands of men were killed in the battle, including a number of important Lancastrian noblemen. Upon receiving word of the Yorkist victory, Henry, Margaret and Prince Edward fled into Scotland, leaving Edward IV to begin his reign as King of England.
Henry and his wife and son spent the next several years in various places within Scotland and Margaret attempted to gain the aid of the French, to no avail. By 1463, Margaret had made the decision to take her son and a number of Lancastrian exiles to stay on her father’s lands in Anjou, leaving Henry behind in the care of James Kennedy, Bishop of St. Andrews. Meanwhile, Edward IV had been consolidating his power in England and forming alliances with France, Burgundy and Scotland, all in an attempt to flush out the Lancastrians and their remaining supporters. This strategy seems to have worked considering a Lancastrian army under the Duke of Somerset (son of the Somerset killed at St. Albans) marched against the Yorkists in England’s north and were able to take a number of castles in Northumberland. However, the rebellion did not last long as Warwick’s brother, John Neville, handed the Lancastrians two defeats at the Battles of Hedgley Moor and Hexham. After the latter, Somerset and a number of other Lancastrian leaders were executed and the castles they had taken were retaken by the Yorkists.The following year (1465), Henry was captured by the Yorkists while wandering aimlessly through northern England and was imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he would remain for the next five years.
By 1469 though, there was a great deal of tension between Edward IV and his most powerful supporter, Warwick. Warwick managed to convince Edward’s brother George, Duke of Clarence, to join his cause (most likely by dangling the prospect of becoming king in front of him) and the two captured the king and executed a number of his favorites. Edward, however, was not Henry VI and, once he was released from captivity, Warwick and Clarence knew they needed to flee the country. Knowing that their situation was desperate, the two men journeyed to France and formed an alliance with Margaret and Prince Edward, sealed with the betrothal of Edward to Warwick’s daughter Anne. The plan was for King Louis XI of France to provide an army to the Lancastrians , who were then to invade England, chase away Edward IV and put Henry VI back on the throne. This is exactly what happened in September 1470 when Warwick and Clarence completely took Edward IV, who was dealing with a small rebellion in the north, by surprise. When Warwick’s brother John, Marquis of Montague, also threw in his lot with the Lancastrians, Edward had no choice but to run with his tail in between his legs. Warwick then proceeded to release Henry from the tower and placed him back on the throne, reinforcing his nickname of “kingmaker.” Henry VI’s “readeption,” as it came to be called was to last for the next six months. The king himself played very little part in government (and most likely was barely in control of his senses)and was merely a pawn of Warwick and Clarence, both of whom shared the responsibility of running the kingdom.
As was inevitable, Edward IV and his supporters, with aid from his brother-in-law, the Duke of Burgundy, invaded England to win back the throne. Clarence deserted the Lancastrian cause and rejoined his brother, who then marched into London and gained possession of the king, who seemed to be almost glad to see him. Henry was actually in Edward’s army at the subsequent Battle of Barnet, where both Warwick and his brother Montague were killed. At this point, Queen Margaret and Prince Edward finally decided to return to England, only to discover that Warwick was already dead. The queen swiftly mustered an army and met Edward IV at the Battle of Tewksbury, where the Yorkists won a decisive victory. All of the major Lancastrian commanders were either killed or taken prisoner. The biggest casualty though, was, by far, Prince Edward. With the prince dead, the house of Lancaster had no chance of continuing and the need to keep Henry VI alive was no more. Therefore, on either May 21 or 22, Henry VI met his end in the tower, undoubtedly murdered on orders from Edward IV (though exact details are unclear), at the age of forty-nine. With Henry’s death, and the deaths of the remaining Beauforts at Tewksbury, the house of Lancaster was officially wiped out in the legitimate male line.
Assessment and Analysis
If Henry V was a born leader then Henry VI was, quite literally, born to be led. He was led by his uncles, by his magnates, by his wife and was finally led to his own death by his Yorkists relations. The reigns between father and son are indeed the epitome of polar opposites and one is left wondering how Henry V accomplished so much in a mere nine years and Henry VI accomplished nothing except defeat, at home and abroad, in the nearly forty years of his reign. Henry VI’s failures are quite simply explained and can be attributed to three primary factors.
Firstly, Henry was at a major disadvantage by the fact that he took the throne at such a young age. History had already shown the people of England that minority reigns could lead to chaotic political climates. In the case of Henry III, who took the throne at the age of nine, England was lucky enough to have a regent, William Marshal, a man who was respected by all, in control for the first three years of the reign. Once the Marshal died though, political power was fought over by several different men. The end result was that Henry III grew up to be a man who could never make decisions for himself, quite unlike his son and successor, Edward I, who ascended to the throne as a man in his mid-thirties, already a seasoned general and fully trained in the art of kingship. If it weren’t for the leadership of his son, it is highly likely that Henry III would have been deposed and murdered during the Barons’ War of the 1260s. There is then the example of Richard II, who succeeded his grandfather, Edward III, at the age of ten. Though Richard had competent men in his government (i.e. his uncle, John of Gaunt), his lack of preparedness to take on the responsibilities of kingship caused him to come under the sway of a few greedy courtiers, leading to the forming of the Lords Appellant, the bloody scenes of the Merciless Parliament (1388) and the Revenge Parliament (1397) and finally to the usurpation by Henry IV and Richard’s murder.
Henry VI came to the throne at an even younger age and, for the first few years of his reign, he was not even able to voice his own opinions. It is true that Henry had competent and loyal supporters in his uncles, Bedford and Gloucester, and his great-uncle, Cardinal Beaufort, but their inability to agree on anything did not help the situation. Even when Henry came of age, he proved to be no leader and continuously let himself be influenced by others, whether it be Suffolk, Somerset, York or his own wife. When Henry V came to the throne, he had already had at least ten years of military and administrative training. Coming to the throne while not even a year old, Henry VI did not have these same advantages.
Secondly, Henry VI’s reign was destined to fail because of the highly tenuous situation he inherited in France. Henry V had made incredible progress where many of his predecessors had failed miserably. He was able to conquer a majority of northern France and have himself proclaimed as heir to the French throne. While it cannot be denied that Henry V was an outstanding military commander and a man who was able to unite his people against a common foe, it must be remembered that a great deal of his success was based on the fact that the French had no real leadership at the time. With a deranged king and rival factions that were continuously engaging in violent quarrels over who controlled said king, the French did not stand a chance against a united England. However, even Henry V knew that the situation in France required his constant attention and a firm hand was needed to keep his French subjects in check.
When Henry VI came to the throne, as an infant who was obviously not able to inspire his men in the battlefield, the French were already beginning to unite behind their new king, Charles VII. While Henry’s uncle Bedford was a highly competent man and did achieve continued success against the French during the first few years of his nephew’s reign, even he became overwhelmed. Once the English lost the friendship of the Duke of Burgundy, they stood little chance of achieving any more success on the continent, and everything was lost. In addition, England was dealing with the very same situation that France was dealing with when they allowed themselves to become vulnerable to English attacks: factionalism.
It is this concept, factionalism, that brings us to the final reason for Henry’s failure as a king. With the lack of a strong leader, and, in later years, one who was barely in control of his own senses, factions were bound to occur. Henry V was able to distract his powerful magnates by waging a successful war against the common enemy: France. On the other hand, Henry VI proved to be no general, even when he came of age, and therefore opened himself up to criticism by men such as the Duke of York and his powerful allies, the Neville family, when there were no glorious victories abroad to credit to his accomplishments. It was Henry’s weak personality that ultimately led to the complete loss of territory in France and the beginning of the Wars of the Roses, which resulted in Henry’s own death and the complete obliteration of the house of Lancaster. In Henry’s defense though, he was forced to deal with a group of highly competent and overly ambitious magnates, with York and his sons and Warwick topping the list, and it seems that the usurpation of the throne by Henry IV had finally caught up with the house of Lancaster, causing its inevitable demise. It is true that Henry VI inherited an almost impossible situation at a very young age, but, considering his weak character, it would be hard to make the case that, even if he did take the throne at a reasonable age, that the results would have been any better.
Christie, M. E. Henry VI
Griffiths, R. A. The Reign of King Henry VI
Storey, R. L. The End of the House of Lancaster
Watts, John. Henry VI and the Politics of Kingship
Weir, Alison. Lancaster and York
Wolffe, Bertram. Henry VI