Weak and mentally unstable, Henry VI was the main cause of England’s chaos in the 15th century.
THE Wars of the Roses are significant for three good reasons: they destroyed the Plantagenet dynasty, they ushered in the Tudors, and they inspired Game of Thrones. You might think that the 15th century featured rather fewer bare breasts than the colourful HBO series, but not necessarily. At one Christmas party, a certain fun-loving nobleman tried to entertain Henry VI with “a dance or show of young ladies with bared bosoms… The king very angrily averted his eyes, turned his back on them and went out of his chamber, crying ‘Fie fie for shame, forsooth ye be to blame!’ ”
Henry VI was a born saint — and that was just the problem, as Dan Jones shows in this racy and vigorous new narrative history. Picking up where he left off at the end of his highly acclaimed The Plantagenets, with Henry VI’s father, the incomparable warrior-king Henry V, Jones shows that a successful medieval king needed to rule strongly (but not tyrannically), father plenty of healthy sons and keep defeating the French. Henry VI failed on all counts and, according to Jones, his personal failure — or temperamental unsuitability — was the principal cause of the instability, rebellion and slaughter that dogged his reign, as well as those of his successors, Edward IV and Richard III, and only came to an end with the arrival of Henry VII: the first Tudor.
Henry V had been every inch a king, but he died at the age of just 35, leaving a dangerously young son and heir. Indeed, on Henry VI’s first visit to his parliament at Westminster, he threw a tantrum at Staines, and “would not be carried further”. But he was less than two at the time. He went on the next day, sat in his mother’s lap and listened, “presumably with no interest whatsoever”, says Jones, while the lords and commons assembled expressed their joy at seeing “your high and royal person sit and occupy your own rightful see and place in your parliament”.
A child-king didn’t have to be a disaster. England was already a sophisticated country, and its machinery of government was highly capable, with a court of chancery in charge of justice, its exchequer in charge of the finances. If Henry VI had grown up swiftly to become a strong leader with natural authority, all might have been well.
But he proved just as incapable in manhood as he was in infancy. A pious, dreamy, vacillating soul, he had no desire to lead his armies in battle and, despite having some impressive commanders, the English in France suffered defeat after defeat — not least at Orléans, due to a certain Jeanne d’Arc. On top of that, it took Henry and Queen Margaret eight years to produce their first and (suspiciously) only child, Edward, Prince of Wales, who would be killed at the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471.
The sense of King Henry failing to rule but being manipulated by ambitious noblemen such as the Earl of Suffolk, then the losses in France, caused huge popular unrest. The Tower of London itself was broken into, weapons stolen, and things finally erupted with Jack Cade’s rebellion, brutally and messily suppressed in pitched battle on London Bridge.
One last catastrophic defeat for the English in France in 1450, and Henry VI fell into a strange, wordless trance that lasted for 15 months. The king wasn’t dead, but he might as well have been — and the powerful nobles of England began to fight among themselves for supremacy.
Today psychiatrists might term Henry’s condition “catatonic schizophrenia”, but contemporary descriptions of him “as mute as a calf” seem more vivid. He couldn’t speak or move his limbs, and he ate food off the floor like a dog. When he recovered he remembered nothing, but he was never the same again. There is a haunting description of him at the Second Battle of St Albans in 1461. As Queen Margaret fought desperately for the Lancastrian cause against the Yorkist army led by the ruthless Earl of Warwick, the king himself sat under a nearby tree, “laughing and singing”. At 34 he was already planning his own tomb in Westminster Abbey, “as though he were ready to crawl into it”.
The Battle of Towton followed that same year, the bloodiest in English history, which saw Henry deposed, and Edward IV become king. Tall, powerful, affable and an insatiable womaniser, Edward’s reign brought a measure of stability to the kingdom. His death in 1483 provoked the seizure of the crown by Richard III and a last outbreak of violence, with lasting peace coming under Henry Tudor — Henry VII — whose claim was tenuous indeed. “The family spawned by the unlikely secret coupling of a widowed French princess and her Welsh servant during the late 1420s ought never to have found themselves anywhere near a crown.”
But this enigmatic, shrewd, parsimonious Henry was the right character for the job — just as poor, pious, tragic Henry VI had always been the wrong one.
Faber £20/ebook £14.99 pp480
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