The Madness of King Henry

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After the death of the well-loved warrior-king Henry V in 1422, the country crowned his infant son, Henry VI, as monarch. The new Henry seemed to be in an unassailable position, in large part thanks to his father’s French conquests. By 1455, however, defeat in the Hundred Years War, overmighty nobles, disputes over the King’s claim to the throne and Henry’s own inabilities and deficiencies as a ruler had plunged England into a bloody civil war. 

Thanks to his predecessor’s triumphs, Henry VI was the only English ruler to also be crowned King of France in Notre-Dame. Since Henry was only nine months old when his father died, a regency was established until the King came of age in 1437. Despite the dangers posed by a juvenile (and largely defenceless) monarch, the years between 1422 and 1437 were remarkably successful, and England flourished. Yet when the King began ruling, problems emerged. 

Unlike his father, Henry displayed an intense apathy for warfare, preferring instead to devote himself to religious studies – a fact soon noticed by the French, who began a rapid reconquest of the lands lost to Henry’s forebears. Henry’s Gallic counterpart, Charles VII, was that rarest of medieval figures: a capable, energetic and motivated French monarch. Charles skilfully broke the alliance between England and all-important Burgundy in the Treaty of Arras (1435) and, armed with a novel cannon corps that could turn English fortresses into ruins, began to steadily push the English back to the Channel. 

Faced with a string of defeats, the English began turning on each other. Henry’s nobles were divided on how best to deal with the French onslaught, with the Dukes of Gloucester and York demanding greater reinforcements and a more aggressive campaign, while the Dukes of Somerset and Suffolk proposed appeasing the French by trading land for peace. Henry, in a colossal blunder, threw his weight behind the more conciliatory approach. In 1444, he married Margaret of Anjou (Charles VII’s niece) in exchange for a twenty-three-month ceasefire with France. Not long after, Maine was handed over to the French.

By supporting the pro-peace faction, he froze out the extremely wealthy and extremely powerful Duke of York and, in doing so, severed ties with the faction the Duke led. Instead, Henry chose to ally with figures such as the Duke Suffolk, a man so unpopular that he was eventually murdered by sailors who held him accountable for the reversals in France. Many began suspecting Henry was being dominated by his foreign wife, and the King’s support went into free fall. 

To the astonishment of no-one, Charles used the peace to prepare for war. When Henry finally realised his error, he made a second. York was recalled, and the pro-peace Somerset was made commander of English forces in France. In 1449, Charles stormed Rouen, beginning the French reconquest of Normandy. The rest of the region and Caen fell the next year. News of each successive defeat ate away at Henry’s authority. Having vocally repudiated the popular policies advocated by the Dukes of York and Gloucester, Henry had managed to pin blame for the calamity on himself. 

It is perhaps unfair to suggest that Henry was the sole factor behind the war’s outcome, but there is little doubt that a king who was a better military strategist, nay a king who was a military strategist at all, could have at least slowed the French avalanche. Instead, his decision to try and buy the French off projected an image of meekness in an age of strength. In the eyes of many, Henry VI had simply squandered away the gains his father and previous kings had secured with English blood. 

Discontent with Henry’s lacklustre performance triggered Cade’s rebellion in 1450. Infuriated by corruption, high taxes, high prices and the loss of Normandy, Jack Cade and his followers took up arms and defeated a royal army in Kent. Cade was eventually routed, but not before looting London and demanding Henry listen to the counsel of the Duke of York. England was tiring of the Lancastrian regime figureheaded by the feeble Henry. In 1452, York attempted a half-hearted coup, but his efforts fizzled out, and he ended up swearing an oath of allegiance to Henry. 

As ineffective and weak as Henry was at this point, matters deteriorated yet further. In 1453, news landed on the shores of England of yet another defeat; Bordeaux had fallen, and France had secured vital Gascony for the first time since Eleanor of Aquitaine. 

For Henry, this was too much, and the King began to suffer from mental illness and entered a catatonic state – most likely the product of severe schizophrenia. For eighteen months, the King was utterly unaware of what was occurring around him and unable to rule. As the most powerful noble in the land, Richard, Duke of York, was named Protector of the Realm. In his new position, Richard quickly developed a taste for power. In refusing to rule, Henry had accidentally planted a seed of ambition in the minds of his most powerful subjects: that they deserved to rule themselves.

Henry, having proven himself militarily inept and politically incompetent, accidentally added yet another failure to the rapidly growing list. He was known to have a horror of naked bodies and, given his debilitating illness, the birth of a child to Margaret of Anjou in October 1453 roused more than a little suspicion. Far from securing the succession, the new prince only fuelled rumours of an affair between the Duke of Somerset and the Queen. Henry’s only response to his ‘son’s’ birth was that he blinked. 

On Christmas 1454, the King finally returned to the world. Unfortunately for Henry, York had formed an alliance with the Earl of Warwick, Richard Neville, one of the great lords of northern England. With his new backer, York crossed the Rubicon and marched on London. Royal forces were routed, the King was captured and York had himself once again declared Lord Protector. By 1445, the Wars of the Roses had begun.

Considering his failings, it is reasonable to argue that the rule of Henry VI in the lead up to 1455 was little short of disastrous. In eighteen years, he had successfully lost the Hundred Years War, seen his court split down the middle, provoked Cade’s rebellion and allowed the emergence of suspicions surrounding his wife’s faithfulness.

There are arguments, of course, that civil war was prompted more by deeper societal issues than one man’s failings. The English nobility had become dangerously powerful, and the feudal system was bound to come under strain when a handful of subjects grew stronger than their master. The Duke of York and the Earl of Warwick both possessed wealth as great as, if not greater than, the King himself. With such wealth came influence, armies and the means to depose a sitting monarch.

Yet powerful nobles had existed long before 1450, and bastard feudalism (the social order that allowed nobles to mobilise vast numbers of fighting men) had been in place since before the reign of Henry’s great grandfather, Edward III. Yet in the century and a quarter between its emergence and Henry’s reign, not a single civil war had erupted. Though the nobles wielded considerable power, they could only bring it to bear in the event that their King lost popular support and the backing of most of his court. It was necessary for a monarch to prove supremely unfit before his nobles could even contemplate the treasonous task of overthrowing him. 

The other mitigating circumstance put forth used to absolve Henry is that, from the onset of his reign, he faced questions concerning his legitimacy. Had primogeniture been strictly enforced since the times of Richard II, then the Duke of York would have sat on the throne. As it was, Henry IV had usurped Richard II in 1399, meaning the crown now rested on the head of his grandson and namesake, Henry VI. Therefore, the argument in Henry’s defence goes, war was prompted not by any failings of the King himself, but because of the existence of an unresolved dynastic dispute.

Yet this apologia is hard to accept. It is surprising that this claim against Henry VI would wait until the 1450s, half a century after the usurpation of Richard II. Had the Duke of York been determined to press his ancestral claims from the onset of his career, it would have been far more logical for him to have made a move when Henry VI was a vulnerable child-King at his courtier’s mercy. Instead, the Duke of York only began manoeuvring after he had been alienated by Henry.

Even then, he only pressed his claim to the throne in 1460, and when Parliament had refused to ratify his claim, he backed down, compromised and as a result never became King. Instead of being driven by a hunger for the crown, York’s main ambition was to wield real power as Lord Protector. Finally, there had been virtually no pro-Yorkist stirrings under Henry V, strongly suggesting civil war was anything but inevitable. Instead, the Duke of York’s dynastic claim was only used as an aid to drum up support against an unpopular King, who had raised taxes and lost France.  

The root cause of the Wars of the Roses, therefore, were the myriad failings of Henry. His failure to manage events, control his nobles and act as the beacon of authority the monarchy demanded ultimately doomed him, and he often dealt with problems that surfaced so poorly that his actions only created further calamities. Had Henry not proven so incompetent, the Duke of York, for all his power, would never had the opportunity to dethrone him. Instead, the nugatory nature of Henry permitted already existing societal tensions – such as dynastic disputes and strong nobles – the opportunity first to fester and then to consume his country. A capable King could have handled both issues – as Henry’s predecessors had for over a century.

Henry would live until 1471, but for the rest of his life he was a pawn and a puppet – traded around by more ambitious, determined and capable figures than he. His wife, Margaret of Anjou, quickly emerged as the true leader of the Lancastrian faction. After a four-year lull, she organised a counter-coup and forced Richard to flee in 1459. The war see-sawed between the Yorkists and Lancastrians, with each appearing at points to be on the verge of victory before suffering a crushing reversal. In 1460, Henry fell into the hands of his enemies, but a bold counter-offensive orchestrated by Margaret managed to liberate the King and slay Richard, Duke of York that same year.

Unfortunately for the Lancastrians, however, Richard’s son Edward proved even more driven and energetic than his father, and the King was forced to flee his Kingdom. In his absence, the new Duke of York was crowned Edward IV. By this stage, Henry had become completely detached from the world around him and scattered restoration plots all failed. In the aftermath of one such failure, Henry was captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London. 

Eventually, Henry’s old enemy Warwick grew to resent his new monarch, severed ties with the Yorkists and orchestrated Henry’s return to power. Yet Edward fought back, and soon the mutinous Warwick was dead and Henry was hurled back into the Tower. This time, Edward had no intention of taking chances and (almost certainly) had Henry murdered. 

Grummitt, D., 2014. A Short History of the Wars of the Roses. Bloomsbury

Fortescue, J., The Governance of England: Otherwise Called The Difference Between an Absolute and a Limited Monarchy

Pollard, A. J. 2013., The Wars of the Roses. Palgrave Macmillan.