Henry VI of England

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Henry VI
By the Grace of God, King of England
and France and Lord of Ireland
Reign August 31, 1422-March 4, 1461
and October 31, 1470-April 11, 1471
Coronation November 6, 1429
Born December 6 1421(1421-12-06)
Windsor Castle
Died 21 May 1471 (aged 49)
Tower of London
Buried Windsor Castle
Predecessor Henry V
Successor Edward IV
Consort Margaret of Anjou (1429–1482)
Issue Edward, Prince of Wales
Royal House Lancaster
Father Henry V (1387–1422)
Mother Catherine of Valois (1401–1437)

Henry VI (December 6, 1421 – May 21, 1471) was King of England from 1422 to 1461 (though with a Regent until 1437) and then from 1470 to 1471, and controversial King of France from 1422 to 1453. Henry was not greatly interested in ruling, but he was pious and a patron of education, founding Eton College (1440) and King's College, Cambridge (1441). Government fell to the most powerful of his ministers, including Henry, Cardinal Beaufort and Humphrey, the Duke of Gloucester and his cousin, the Duke of York. His disinterest in governance led to the Wars of the Roses between the House of York and the House of Lancaster. After a turbulent reign with periods on and off the throne, he was murdered in 1471, following Edward IV's coup.

One consequence of the fluidity of the political situation, with Henry's rule being interrupted from 1461 until 1470, by Edward IV, was that Parliament's approval was required to validate kingly rule. Ultimately, Parliament accumulated more power, since kings came and went but Parliament could always be convened. Henry VI was the youngest man to become King of England.

The child king

Henry was the only child of King Henry V of England and was his heir, and therefore great things were expected of him from birth. He was born on December 6, 1421, at Windsor, and he succeeded to the throne at the age of nine months on August 31, 1422, when his father died. His mother, Catherine of Valois, was then only twenty years old and as the daughter of King Charles VI of France was viewed with considerable suspicion and prevented from having a full role in her son's upbringing. Though not prevalent at the time of his birth, there were later rumors doubting his paternity that cannot entirely be attributed to Yorkist propaganda.

On September 28, 1423, the nobles swore loyalty to Henry VI. They summoned Parliament in the King's name and established a regency council. Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, Henry IV's youngest son and Henry VI's uncle, was appointed Protector and Defender of the Realm and the Church until the King came of age, but his appointment was revocable by the Council at any time. His duties were limited to keeping the peace and summoning and dissolving Parliament. Bishop Henry Beaufort (Cardinal from 1426), who was Henry V's half-uncle, had an important place on the Council. Henry IV's elder surviving son, John, Duke of Bedford, was the senior regent, having been appointed Regent of France (in charge of running the ongoing war) as well as replacing Gloucester as Regent of England whenever Bedford was personally in the country.

From 1428, Henry's tutor was the Earl of Warwick, whose father had been instrumental in the opposition to Richard II's reign. Henry was also influenced by Henry Beaufort, and later William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk. The young king came to favor a policy of peace in France.

Henry's half-brothers, Edmund and Jasper, the sons of his widowed mother's relationship with Owen Tudor, were later given earldoms. Edmund Tudor was the father of Henry Tudor, later to gain the throne as Henry VII of England.

Henry was eventually crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey, on November 6, 1429, a month before his eighth birthday, and King of France at Notre Dame in Paris on December 16, 1431. However, he did not assume the reins of government until he was declared of age in 1437—the year in which his mother died.

As to his uncles, John, Duke of Bedford and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, who in the early part of the child king's reign were the most powerful of the regents, the former died in 1435; the latter was disgraced, and died in custody in 1447, probably of a heart attack, before he could be accused of treason.

Henry's marriage to Margaret of Anjou

As a result of his successes in the Hundred Years' War, Henry V had left England in possession of considerable territories in France, but the momentum was lost on his death. Since Henry VI was still a child, and England was ruled by a regency government, much of the ground his father gained was lost. A revival of French fortunes, beginning with the military victories of Joan of Arc, led to the repudiation of Henry's title to rule France, and the crowning of the French Dauphin at Reims. Diplomatic errors as well as military failures resulted in the loss of most of the English territories in France.

On gaining his majority, Henry VI proved to be a deeply spiritual man, lacking the worldly wisdom necessary to allow him to rule effectively. Right from the time he assumed control as king in 1437, he allowed his court to be dominated by a few noble favorites; the faction in favor of ending the war in France quickly came to dominate, while the voices of Richard, Duke of York, and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, the leaders of the pro-war faction, were ignored.

Cardinal Beaufort and Suffolk, meanwhile, persuaded the king that the best way of pursuing peace with France was through a marriage with Charles VII’s niece, Margaret of Anjou. Henry agreed, especially when he heard reports of Margaret’s stunning beauty, and sent Suffolk to negotiate with King Charles. Charles agreed to the marriage on condition that he would not have to provide the customary dowry and instead would receive the lands of Maine and Anjou from the English. These conditions were agreed to in the Treaty of Tours, but the cession of Maine and Anjou was kept secret from parliament. It was known that this would be hugely unpopular with the English populace.

The marriage went ahead in 1445, and Margaret’s character seems to have complemented that of Henry’s, in that she was prepared to take decisions and show leadership while he was content to be led by her. In this much, Margaret proved a more competent ruler than Henry ever was, even though she was only sixteen at that time. Now came the thorny issue of Maine and Anjou. Henry had procrastinated about keeping his end of the bargain with Charles VII, knowing that it would be a hugely unpopular move and that Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester and the war party would be especially critical of it. However, Margaret was determined to make him see it through and finally it became public knowledge in 1446. Most public anger was directed at Suffolk, for having negotiated the Treaty of Tours, but Henry and Margaret were determined to protect him, knowing they were vulnerable too, having also had full knowledge of the conditions of the marriage.

In 1447, the king, the queen and the group surrounding them (Suffolk, Somerset, and the aging Cardinal Beaufort) summoned Gloucester before parliament on a charge of treason in Bury St Edmunds, and he died in captivity, whether of natural causes or foul play was not clear. The death of Gloucester left York as Henry’s heir presumptive, but Henry never officially acknowledged this and York continued to be excluded from the court circle, being banished to govern Ireland, while Henry and Margaret promoted Suffolk and Edmund Beaufort to dukedoms, (a title normally reserved for immediate relatives of the monarch). Beaufort, the new Duke of Somerset (and Cardinal Beaufort's nephew) was sent to France to lead the war.

Increasing unpopularity and insanity

The government's increasing unpopularity was due to a breakdown in law and order, corruption, the distribution of royal land to the king's court favorites, the troubled state of the crown's finances, and the steady loss of territories in France. In 1447, this unpopularity took the form of a Commons campaign against the Duke of Suffolk, who was the most unpopular of all the King's entourage and widely seen as a traitor. Henry was forced to send him into exile, but his ship was intercepted in the English Channel, and he was murdered. His body was found on the beach at Dover.

In 1449, Somerset, leading the campaign in France, reopened hostilities in Normandy, but by the autumn had been pushed back to Caen. By 1450, the French had retaken the whole province, so hard won by Henry V. Returning troops, who had often not been paid, added to the sense of lawlessness in the southern counties of England, and Jack Cade led a rebellion in Kent in 1450, calling himself "John Mortimer" in sympathy with York and setting up residence at the White Hart Inn in Southwark (the white hart had been the symbol of the deposed Richard II). Henry came to London with an army to crush the rebellion, but was persuaded to keep half his troops behind while the other half met Cade at Sevenoaks. Cade triumphed and went on to occupy London. In the end, the rebellion achieved nothing, and London was retaken after a few days of disorder, but the rebellion showed that feelings of discontent were running high.

In 1450, the Duchy of Aquitaine, held since Henry II's time, was also lost, leaving Calais as England's only remaining territory in France. By 1452, York was persuaded to return from Ireland, claim his rightful place on the council, and put an end to bad government. His cause was a popular one, and he soon raised an army at Shrewsbury. The court party, meanwhile, raised their own similar-sized force in London. A stand-off took place south of London, with York presenting a list of grievances and demands to the court circle, including the arrest of the Duke of Somerset. The king initially agreed, but Margaret intervened to prevent the arrest of Somerset. By 1453, his influence had been restored, and York was again isolated. In the meantime, an English advance in Aquitaine had retaken Bordeaux and was having some success. The queen announced that she was pregnant.

However, English success in Aquitaine was short-lived, and on hearing the news of the English defeat in August 1453, Henry slipped into a mental breakdown and became completely unaware of everything that was going on around him. This was to last for more than a year, and Henry failed even to respond to the birth of his own son and heir, who was christened Edward (Edward of Westminster and Prince of Wales). York, meanwhile, had gained a very important ally, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, one of the most influential magnates and possibly richer than York himself. York was named regent as Protector of the Realm in 1454. He finally had the position of influence he had wanted, the queen was excluded completely, and Somerset was detained in the Tower of London, while many of York's supporters spread rumors that the king's child was not his, but Somerset's. Other than that, York's months as regent were spent tackling the problem of government overspending. On Christmas Day 1454, however, Henry regained his senses.

Henry presumably inherited his illness from Charles VI of France, his maternal grandfather, who coped with intermittent periods of insanity over the last 30 years of his life. He, in turn, had in all likelihood inherited the hereditary trait from his mother Joanna of Bourbon, who showed obvious signs resembling mental breakdown, and her Bourbon family, where her grandfather Louis I, Duke of Bourbon, her father Peter I, Duke of Bourbon, and her brother Louis II, Duke of Bourbon each had symptoms of the ailment.

The Wars of the Roses

Disaffected nobles who had grown in power during Henry's reign (most importantly the Earls of Warwick and Salisbury) took matters into their own hands by backing the claims of the rival House of York, first to the Regency, and then to the throne itself. After a violent struggle between the houses of Lancaster and York, (knowns as the Wars of the Roses), Henry was deposed and imprisoned on March 4, 1461, by his cousin, Edward of York, who became King Edward IV of England. By this point, Henry was suffering such a bout of madness that he was apparently laughing and singing while the second Battle of St. Alban's raged, which secured his release. But Edward was still able take the throne, though failed to capture Henry and his queen, and they were able to flee to Scotland. During the first period of Edward IV's reign, Lancastrian resistance continued mainly under the leadership of Queen Margaret and the few nobles still loyal to her in the northern counties of England and Wales. Henry was captured by King Edward in 1465, and subsequently held captive in the Tower of London.

Queen Margaret, exiled in Scotland and later in France, was determined to win back the throne on behalf of her husband and son, and with the help of King Louis XI of France, eventually formed an alliance with Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, who had fallen out with Edward IV. After marrying his daughter to the Prince of Wales, Warwick returned to England, defeated the Yorkists in battle, liberated Henry VI and restored him to the throne on October 30, 1470. Henry's return to the throne lasted a very short time. By this time, years in hiding followed by years in captivity had taken their toll on Henry, who had been weak-willed and mentally unstable to start with. By all accounts, Henry looked lethargic and vacant as Warwick and his men paraded him through the streets of London as the rightful King of England, and the contrast with the imposing King Edward, whom he had replaced, must have been marked. Within a few months, Warwick had overreached himself by declaring war on Burgundy, whose ruler responded by giving Edward IV the assistance he needed to win back his throne by force. The Prince of Wales was killed at the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471.

Death and legacy

Henry VI was imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he was murdered on May 21, 1471. Popular legend has accused Richard, Duke of Gloucester of his murder, as well as the murder of Henry VI's son, Edward of Westminster. King Henry VI was originally buried in Chertsey Abbey; then, in 1485, his body was moved to St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle.

He was succeeded by Edward IV, son of Richard, Duke of York.

Perhaps his one lasting positive achievement was his fostering of education—he founded both Eton College and King's College, Cambridge. Continuing an architectural patronage trend begun by his father, these (King's College Chapel and Eton College Chapel respectively) and most of his other architectural commissions (like his completion of his father's foundation of Syon Abbey) consisted of a single, grand, late Gothic or Perpendicular-style church (usually called a chapel, a term which belies their size) with a monastic and/or educational foundation attached. Each year on the anniversary of Henry VI's death, the Provosts of Eton and King's College, Cambridge, lay roses and lilies on the altar which now stands where he died.

Henry's legacy

As king, Henry was pious, indecisive, and easily-led, and of course later in life, he became severely mentally unstable. He was kind and generous to those he cared about (which did not help the dire financial situation of his government), giving away land and titles to his advisers. He avoided the ostentatious trappings of his role, preferring simple dress. He was keen on reading and "book-learning," but showed no inclination whatsoever towards leading his country in battle—ironic, considering his reign was one of the bloodiest in English history. He disliked making war on his fellow Christians and he was keen for justice to be done in his name—again ironic, considering the widespread corruption and collapse of law and order which occurred under him. Henry seems to have used religion and piety as a means of escape from the harsh world of bitter rivalries and power struggles which surrounded him at court. He was excessively prudish, which was encouraged by his confessor, who advised him to abstain from sex with his wife as much as possible.

Henry seems to have been a decent man, but completely unsuited for kingship. He allowed himself to be totally dominated by the power-hungry factions which surrounded him at court and was later powerless to stop the outbreak of bloody civil war. It was clearly too much for him to cope with, as his recurring mental illness from 1453 onwards showed. During the Wars of the Roses it was his queen, Margaret, who was the driving force behind the Lancastrian faction, while Henry was captured first by one side, then the other. Whoever had the king in their possession was able to claim to be ruling in his name. One consequence of Henry's reign was the emergence of Parliament's role in determining succession, and in validating any aspirant's claim on the throne.

Henry's ancestors in three generations
Henry VI of England Father:
Henry V of England
Paternal Grandfather:
Henry IV of England
Paternal Great-grandfather:
John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster
Paternal Great-grandmother:
Blanche of Lancaster
Paternal Grandmother:
Mary de Bohun
Paternal Great-grandfather:
Humphrey de Bohun, 7th Earl of Hereford
Paternal Great-grandmother:
Joan FitzAlan
Catherine of Valois
Maternal Grandfather:
Charles VI of France
Maternal Great-grandfather:
Charles V of France
Maternal Great-grandmother:
Joanna of Bourbon
Maternal Grandmother:
Isabeau of Bavaria
Maternal Great-grandfather:
Stephen III, Duke of Bavaria
Maternal Great-grandmother:
Taddaea Visconti

House of Lancaster
Cadet Branch of the House of Plantagenet
Born: 6 December 1421; Died: 21 May 1471

Preceded by:
Henry V
King of England
1422 - 1461
Succeeded by: Edward IV
Lord of Ireland
1422 - 1461

Preceded by:
Henry V
Duke of Aquitaine
1422 - 1449
Succeeded by: Charles VII
Titles in pretence

Preceded by:
Henry V
English Claimant to France
Succeeded by: Edward VI


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