Henry VI of England (1421-1461) displayed qualities that would have done credit to a monk, but not to a Medieval King. He was gentle, naïve, chaste, prudish and pious, and constantly engaged in mediation and prayer. After loosing his French possessions, Henry suffered a mental breakdown, relapsing into a state of passive withdrawal, wholly indifferent to what went on around him. Meanwhile, his relatives fought for power, resulting in a civil war known as “the war of the roses”.
Henry was born on December 6, 1421. His father was the Great Henry V (1387-1422), victor of Agincourt and conqueror of France, who died within a year of his son’s birth.
His mother was Catherine (1401-1437), a daughter of Charles VI “The Mad” (1368-1422), King of France. She became a widow at the age of 20, and soon formed a liaison with a Welsh squire, Owen Tudor (±1400-1461),
busying herselve raising a new family1.
As a baby, Henry succeeded his father as King Henry VI of England on September 1, and his grandfather as King Henry II of France on October 11, 1422. He was frequently paraded at public ceremonies and crowned in England in 1429 and in France in 1431. During his minority, Henry’s uncle, Humphrey (1390-1447), Duke of Gloucester2, was protector of England. He was a fine scholar, but he was quarrelsome and a poor statesman; he was usually add odds with the Council.
In 1426, Henry was placed in the care of Richard Beauchamp (1382-1439), Earl of Warwick. He was to teach Henry manners, literature and languages. He obtained a document authorizing him to reasonably chastise Henry, when required, without being held accountable for it at any future time. Henry, ever terrified of doing the wrong thing, withdrew into himself, and took refuse
On January 3, 1437, Henry’s absent mother died. By the end of the year, at the age of 16, his minority ended, and Henry VI assumed personal rule. He wasn’t really interested in politics, and he was easily influenced. As a result, the executive power fell into the hands of a narrow clique of men, who had access to Henry.
Among them were the Beauforts3, William Ayscough, bishop of Salisbury, and William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk.
Henry VI (to the right) was kind and gentle, and quite exceptionally naïve. He would never say an untrue word to any. He was chaste, pious and generous, and constantly engaged in mediation and prayer. He attended divine worship often two or three times a day. He used to complain that he was too often interrupted by affairs of state, and could never read any holy teachings without disturbance
Henry always wore a long and sombre gown with a rolled hood, a black coat reaching below his knees and black shoes or boots. On occasion, when custom demanded that he wore the crown, Henry atoned with a hair shirt under his clothes. Amid a licentious Court, Henry had prudish views on sex and nudity, and he used to avoid the company of women. Once, when young ladies with bare bosoms were brought before him to dance, Henry quickly averted his eyes, turned his back upon them, and went out to his chamber, talking of shame
At the table, Henry was frugal, to save as much food as possible for the poor. His generosity made ever greater demands on the exchequer, as did his continual remission of fines and penalties. At a time when the disembowelling of criminals was a welcome public spectacle, Henry abhorred all forms of bloodshed, and frequently intervened to spare the lives of criminals and traitors. He also pardoned nobles who had conspired against his own life.
Inspired by Joan of Arc (±1412-1431), France was slowly retrieving its territories. In 1435, Philip, Duke of Burgundy, made a separate peace with Charles VII of France (1403-1461), a younger brother of Queen-mother Catherine. When Henry VI was told of Philip’s desertion, he burst into tears. The collapse of English rule over France speedily followed. Brittany was lost in 1449. The next year, Normandy was lost. When riots broke out in 1450, Henry put on armour and rode through the streets demonstrating great physical courage, but he refused to fight. Suffolk was accused of mismanagement
In April 1445, Henry had married 16-year-old Margaret of Anjou (1429-1482, to the right), a niece-by-marriage of King Charles VII. Margaret was not only good-looking, but also courageous, fiery and tempestuous. She was unsuited to Henry’s meek and forgiving temperament, but seems to have conceived a protective affection for him. Henry simply adored her, and was easily dominated by his wife. The couple spent much of their time together.
Gossip accused the elder Edmund Beaufort (±1406-1455), Duke of Somerset, of being the Queen’s lover. Margaret, however, was too ambitious to care about the courtship of gallants; her favourites were mature councillors.
While Henry’s marriage remained childless, a distant relative, Richard of York (±1411-1460), was the heir-apparent. He descended from two sons of King Edward III and his claim to the throne was even better as Henry’s. From 1450 onwards, a quarrel ensued between Richard of York and Edmund the Elder4. The quarrel would eventually result in a bloody feud between the two branches of the Royal family. It later became known as the “War of the Roses”, because Henry’s family members had a red rose in their heraldic shield, while the Yorkists had a white rose in theirs.
Throughout his life, Henry VI had attacks of melancholy and depressive psychosis. For some years, it had been rumoured that Henry was “insane” and behaved “childish”. His daze was described as “a sign of sanctity”. Due to the mismanagement of the nation’s affairs with the English being driven out of France and the great nobles divided, Henry was under a lot of pressures. As a result, Henry’s nervous state grew daily worse. He suffered his first mental breakdown in the summer of 1453. It started with a rash and sudden terror. Afterwards, Henry relapsed into a state of passive withdrawal, unable to speak, lift up his head, or even to move a muscle of his body. Henry had “no natural sense or reasoning power”, and was wholly indifferent to what went around him. He was carefully tended and fed.
During this period of insanity, after 8 barren years of marriage, Margaret gave birth to a son, Edward, by the end of 1453. When the baby was shown to Henry, he remained immobile like a statue, looking upon the Prince only once, immediately casting down his eyes again; he took no notice and said no word. He didn’t even recognise his wife. The Royal physicians tried a series of drugs, purgatives, baths and bleedings, but their patient remained impassive. He wouldn’t wash or dress of his own account. Potions, syrups, laxatives, clysters and bloodletting followed. Henry’s head was shaved and purged “to rid the brain of its black bile and so restore the balance of the humours”. Still, Henry remained passive, and found difficulty in moving about without assistance. It did not escape those around him that his symptoms were all too similar to those displayed by his maternal grandfather, Charles VI “The Mad”.
With Henry unfit to rule, Richard of York was appointed as Protector in March 1454. Richard fulfilled the office with integrity and hard work, but he arrested his rival, Edmund Beaufort, in the Queen’s apartments, and had him committed to the Tower. In August, Henry showed some signs of returning normality, but it wasn’t until Christmas that Henry uttered a few words. In January 1455, he was finally recovering his health. Amnesia had blocked out all that had happened during his illness. He expressed bewilderment at the birth of his son, who, Henry said, “must have been conceived by the Holy Ghost”.
In February, 1455, Richard of York was dismissed and Edmund Beaufort was restored to power. On May 22, York took to arms and Beaufort died in battle. Henry VI, totally deserted by his men, and wounded in the neck, was found by the Yorkists. They had now gained control, but Henry still retained the loyalty of most of the nobles. In the autumn, however, a second attack of insanity occurred. Again, Henry sat without moving, paying little attention to what was happening around him. Henry recovered in February 1456, when York’s second Protectorate ended.
Henry VI wanted peace, but Queen Margaret (to the right) vindictively continued the feud with York. Over the years many reversals of fortune occurred. Henry continued to suffer from attacks of mental confusion, while his wife remained adamant in refusing to agree to any concessions. Heads were chopped off and bodies were mutilated after every battle, adding to the bloodshed. In July 1460, Henry VI was captured, but he managed to escape in February 1461, rejoining his wife. Margaret devoted all her energies to keeping Henry on the throne and thus protecting her son’s inheritance
In December 1460, York had been slain in battle, but his son Edward (1442-1483) continued the feud. He captured and beheaded Henry’s stepfather, Owen Tudor, in February 1461. On March 4, Edward was installed as King Edward IV, while Henry and Margaret were forced to flee to Scotland. Various strongholds, especially in Wales, held out for Henry, but they had not enough money or manpower to pose a serious threat to Edward. Hopes of an uprising failed to materialise, and, in 1464, Henry became a wandering fugitive
In July 1465, Henry was caught. He was taken to London, bound to his saddle, and imprisoned in the Tower. He patiently endured hunger, thirst, mocking, derisions, abuse, and many other hardships. On October 3, 1470, to his astonishment, Henry was suddenly transferred to luxuriously furnished apartments, and addressed once again as King. He was dressed up in Royal robes and made to ride in procession through the city. Richard Neville (1428-1471), Earl of Warwick5, had reconciled with Queen Margaret after a quarrel with Edward IV6. To cement the alliance, Henry’s only son, Prince Edward, married Warwick’s teenage daughter, Anne Neville (1456-1485)7. Young Edward had grown up in army-camps, and, disturbingly, talked “of nothing but of cutting off heads, or making war”.
In April, Edward IV re-entered London, while Queen Margaret landed with an army at Weymouth. At Tewkesbury, on May 4, 1471, she was defeated, and her only son, 17-year-old Edward, was put to death. Margaret was carried off to London and imprisoned. Henry had now lost his wits, his two Kingdoms and his only son. In May8, Henry VI was put to death in the Tower of London to prevent further rebellion in his name. His burial place soon became a shrine, attracting large numbers of pilgrims.
Copyright © 2009 by J.N.W. Bos. All rights reserved.
1 Catherine’s Tudor grandson was later to ascend the English throne as King Henry VII. Henry VII’s mother was Margaret Beaufort (1443-1509), a daughter of John Beaufort and niece of Edmund the Elder.
2 In The Netherlands Humphrey is mainly known as one of the four husbands of the ill-fated Jacqueline of Bavaria (1401-1436), Countess of Holland and Hainaut.
3 The Beauforts belonged to the royal family, although they were excluded from the succession. Family members were John (1403-1444), Edmund the Elder (±1406-1455), Edmund the Younger (±1438-1471) and Joan (†1445), who had married firstly King James I of Scotland and secondly James Stuart “The Black Knight” of Lorne.
4 Henry VI and the Beauforts descended from different marriages of John of Gaunt, one of the many sons of King Edward III. Henry’s grandfather, Henry IV, had taken the throne by deposing King Richard II, who descended from Edward III’s eldest son. Richard of York descended in the female line from an elder brother and in the male line from a younger brother of John of Gaunt.
5 Richard Neville became known as “The Kingmaker”. He was a son-in-law of Henry’s old tutor, Richard Beauchamps.
6 Edward IV had antagonised Warwick by marrying his mistress and favouring her relatives over Warwick’s.
7 As a widow Anne Neville was to marry Richard III, the younger brother of Edward IV.
8 The date of Henry’s murder varies in different sources from May 21 to 27.