KING HENRY VIHenry VI was the youngest ever king of England, succeeding his warrior father Henry V at the age of just nine months. When the little boy attended his first opening of Parliament, aged only three, it was hardly surprising that he ‘shrieked and cried and sprang’, as one report described.
The problem was that in the course of his fifty troubled years, this king never really grew up. Henry VI went from first to second childhood, according to one modern historian, ‘without the usual interval’.
This is unfair. Henry was a kindly and pious man who financed the building of two gems of English architecture — the soaring Perpendicular chapel of Eton College across the Thames from Windsor, and the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge. He also ran a court of some magnificence, to which his naivety brought a charming touch. The ‘Royal Book’ of court etiquette describes Henry and his French wife Margaret of Anjou waking up early one New Year’s morning to receive their presents — then staying in bed to enjoy them.
But Henry showed a disastrous lack of interest in the kingly pursuits of chivalry and war. Faced with the need to command the English army in Normandy at the age of eighteen, three years after he had taken over personal control of government from his father’s old councillors, his response was to send a cousin in his place. Henry felt he had quite enough to do supervising the foundation of Eton College. It was not surprising he developed a reputation for nambypambiness. Riding one day through the Cripplegate in London’s city walls, he was shocked to see a decaying section of a human body impaled on a stake above the archway — and was horrified when informed it was the severed quarter of a man who had been ‘false to the King’s majesty’. ‘Take it away!’ he cried. ‘I will not have any Christian man so cruelly handled for my sake!’
Unfortunately for Henry, respect for human rights simply did not feature in the job description of a medieval king. Toughness was required. In the absence of a police force or army, a ruler depended on his network of nobles to ensure law and order, and if people lost confidence in the power of the Crown, it was to their local lord that they looked. They wore their lord’s livery and badge — and it was these rival badges that would later give the conflicts of this period its famous name.
A memorable scene in Shakespeare’s play Henry VI, Part 1 depicts the nobility of England in a garden selecting roses, red or white, to signify their loyalty to the House of York or the House of Lancaster. It did not happen — Shakespeare invented the episode. ’The Wars of the Roses’, the romantic title we use today for the succession of battles and dynastic changes that took place in England between 1453 and 1487, was also a later invention, coined by the nineteenth-century romantic novelist Sir Walter Scott. The Yorkists may have sported a rose on occasion, but there is no evidence that the Lancastrians ever did — at the Battle of Barnet in 1471, they started fighting each other because they did not recognise their own liveries. To judge from the profusion of badges and banners that were actually borne into battle during these years, men were fighting the wars of the swans, dogs, boars, bears, lions, stars, suns and daisies.
The struggle for power, money and land, however, certainly revolved around York and Lancaster, the two rival houses that developed from the numerous descendants of King Edward III. The Lancastrians traced their loyalties back to John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, while the Yorkists rallied round the descendants of Gaunt’s younger brother Edmund, Duke of York. Shakespeare dated the trouble from the moment that Gaunt’s son Henry Bolingbroke deposed his cousin Richard II. But York and Lancaster would have stuck together under a firm and decisive king — and if Henry V had lived longer he would certainly have passed on a stronger throne. Even the bumbling Henry VI might have avoided trouble if, after years of diminishing mental competence, he had not finally gone mad.
According to one account, in August 1453 the King had ‘a sudden fright’ that sent him into a sort of coma, a sad echo of his grandfather, Charles VI — the French king who had howled like a wolf and imagined he was made of glass. After sixteen months Henry staged a recovery, but his breakdown had been the trigger for civil disorder, and in the confused sequence of intrigue and conflict that followed he was a helpless cipher. In February 1461 he was reported to have spent the second Battle of St Albans laughing and singing manically to himself, with no apparent awareness of the mayhem in full swing around him. It was hardly a surprise when, later that year, he was deposed, to be replaced by the handsome, strapping young Yorkist candidate, Edward IV.
In this change of regime the key figure was the mightiest of England’s over-mighty subjects — Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, who fought under the badge of the Bear and Ragged Staff. With no claim to the throne, but controlling vast estates with the ability to raise armies, the earl has gone down in history as ’Warwick the Kingmaker’. ‘They have two rulers,’ remarked a French observer of the English in these years, ’Warwick, and another whose name I have forgotten.’
When Warwick and Edward IV fell out in the late 1460s, the Kingmaker turned against his protege, chasing him from the country. To replace him, Warwick brought back the deposed Henry VI who had spent the last six years in the Tower: the restored monarch was paraded around London in the spring of 1471. But the confused and shambling king had to be shepherded down Cheapside, his feet tied on to his horse. Never much of a parade-ground figure, he now made a sorry sight, dressed in a decidedly old and drab blue velvet gown that could not fail to prompt scorn —‘as though he had no more to change with’. This moth-eaten display, reported the chronicler John Warkworth, was ‘more like a play than a showing of a prince to win men’s hearts’.
It was the Kingmaker’s last throw — and a losing one. Warwick was unable to beat off the challenge of Edward IV, now returned, who soon defeated and killed the earl in battle, regaining the crown for himself.
As for poor Henry, his fate was sealed. Two weeks later he was found dead in the Tower, and history has pointed the finger at his second-time supplanter, Edward. Henry probably was murdered — but there is a sad plausibility to the official explanation that the twice-reigning King, who inherited two kingdoms and lost them both, passed away out of ‘pure displeasure and melancholy’.