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Henry VI: the Weak King?

King Henry VI
King Henry VI

Henry VI: the Weak King?

Key facts about Henry VI

  • Henry VI ruled from 1422 until 1461 and again from 1470 to 1471
  • He was just nine months old when he became king
  • He lost a lot of English lands in France
  • He was responsible for the start of the Wars of the Roses
  • It is likely he was murdered in the Tower
  • Henry VI is seen as a weak king

People you need to know

  • Henry Beaufort - a cardinal, legitimised son of John of Gaunt, and great-uncle to Henry VI.
  • John Beaufort - nephew of Henry Beaufort, and Earl of Somerset until he was elevated to Duke of Somerset.
  • Charles, Duke of Burgundy - ruler of the Duchy of Burgundy, with lands in France and the Low CountriesA region in western Europe which includes Belgium and the Netherlands. A region in western Europe which includes Belgium and the Netherlands. .
  • Charles VI of France - French king from 1380 until 1422. Father-in-law to Henry V and grandfather of Henry VI.
  • Charles VII of France - son of Charles VI and French king from 1422 until 1461.
  • Edward of March - son of Richard of York, and later Edward IV.
  • George, Duke of Clarence - Richard of York's third surviving son, and brother to Edward IV.
  • Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester - brother to Henry V and uncle to Henry VI.
  • Henry V - warrior King of England, who ruled from 1413 until 1422.
  • Henry VI - son of Henry V, who became king when he was nine months old.
  • Margaret of Anjou - from a noble French family. She married Henry VI in 1445, aged 15.
  • Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick - known as Warwick the Kingmaker, who switched sides from York to Lancaster during the Wars of the Roses.
  • William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk - allyA state (or person) that is formally working with another state (or person), usually confirmed by a treaty or other official agreement. A state (or person) that is formally working with another state (or person), usually confirmed by a treaty or other official agreement. to Henry Beaufort, he helped to negotiate Henry VI's marriage to Margaret of Anjou and became one of Henry VI's principal advisers.
  • Richard, Duke of York - a wealthy and powerful noble with arguably a better claim to the English throne than Henry V (or VI) - he was the great-grandson of Edward III on his father's side and great-great-great-grandson of Edward III on his mother's side. Anne Mortimer was the great-granddaughter of Edward III's second son. Henry VI could claim direct male descent through Edward III's third son, John of Gaunt.
  • Elizabeth Woodville - daughter of a 'new' LancastrianOf, or a follower of, the House of Lancaster during the Wars of the Roses; or someone/thing from Lancashire. family Although her mother was the eldest daughter of Peter I of Luxemburg. who married Edward IV.
  • Richard Woodville - minor noble promoted to Baron Rivers by Henry VI and Earl Rivers by Edward IV, who became his son-in-law when Edward married Elizabeth.

Henry VI is remembered as a weak and mentally unstable king, swayed too easily by his court favourites and his over-bearing wife. He is compared unfavourably with his father who had success in battle, and is remembered as the cause of the Wars of the Roses. However, others, including Shakespeare, It must be remembered though that Shakespeare was writing for a Tudor audience, who would therefore want the Lancastrian King to be portrayed in a favourable light. have suggested that by judging him on his ability to wage war successfully, his better traits have been overlooked. He was pious and took a deep interest in education, founding Eton and King's College, Cambridge. He was sensitive and empathetic, and a man who felt deeply, as his worsening mental state proves. Perhaps he will always be a king who splits opinion.

Henry VI was the son of Henry V, who died of dysentery on campaign against the French during the Hundred Years' War. Henry VI inherited the throne when he was just nine months old, and became Henry II of France shortly afterwards, following the death of his French grandfather Charles VI. A council of regents, led by Humphrey of Gloucester, took over the running of the realm until he was considered old and wise enough to do so himself: he was crowned in England when he was eight, and in France when he was ten.

Margaret D'Anjou
Margaret D'Anjou

As he matured it became clear that he was not a fighter, and many saw him as weak, emotionally, physically and intellectually, particularly in comparison with his warrior father. His advisers still held considerable sway and his overly-generous distribution of titles and patronageThe support given by a patron. to his favourites - many of whom were not considered suitably qualified - did little to help. He even accidentally granted the stewardship of Cornwall to two different people, who happened to be enemies.

It would seem he genuinely sought peace with France and to promote this, and swayed by his advisers Cardinal Henry Beaufort Great uncle to Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry Tudor who founded the Tudor dynastyA line of hereditary rulers of a country, business, etc. as Henry VII. and William de la Pole, he married Margaret of Anjou, Charles VII’s niece. In doing so, he ceded Maine and Anjou to France. When news of this broke in 1446 there was outcry, leading to the exclusion of Richard Duke of York from court and the arrest for treason of Humphrey of Gloucester. Gloucester subsequently died in prison, with many suspecting poison. In return for their on-going support during the crisis, Henry had Suffolk, and Cardinal Beaufort’s nephew John, Earl of Somerset, raised to dukes (at a time when that title was reserved for immediate relatives of the king), and distributed more royal land to his supporters, leading to further divisions and dissension at court. John Beaufort negotiated considerable advancement out of Henry in return for leading a campaign in France. However, the campaign ended in disaster: John, who had previously been held captive for 17 years in France, used it as a way of recovering some of his ransom money. He returned home in disgrace, facing an official investigation, and committed suicide in 1444, a day before his daughter Margaret's first birthday. This corruption, together with the loss of Normandy in the costly war with France, reduced Henry's popularity further, and added to concerns over Henry's seeming inability to father a child, for Margaret had yet to produce an heir.

Tensions were already simmering at court and in the country when, in 1450, the decapitated body of Henry's favourite, William de la Pole, was dumped on the Kent coast. Accused by his enemies of treason and convicted of misprision (hiding knowledge of a treasonable act), the Duke of Suffolk had been banished for five years. He had made it as far as the Channel when his boat was captured and he was executed with a rusty sword. The death, and rumours of vengeance against the put-upon Kentish people, was a catalyst for local rebellion. Followers of Jack Cade stormed London with a list of demands, including the return of Richard of York from exile to become the King's chief adviser. Despite Cade's best efforts, once they reached London the rebels went on a spree of looting and killing. After an inconclusive showdown, Henry VI offered full pardons, which he later ignored, and the rebels left London. Henry VI was not the first king to do this: less then 100 years earlier, Richard II had used the same tactic to suppress the Peasants' Revolt, which was also upset about corruption and debt caused by war. Pockets of rebellion continued in Kent and Cade was wounded during capture, dying of his injuries on his way to face trial. Richard of York, perhaps inspired by this episode, returned from Ireland promising to bring order and sense back to the government, in the King's name. However, when he tried to force the points of both the succession and the behaviour of the Duke of Somerset, York was forced to back down. After spending weeks under virtual house arrest, he was allowed to retire from national politics after swearing an oath of loyalty at St Paul's Cathedral.

Richard Neville the 16th Earl of Warwick, nicknamed the "Kingmaker"
Richard Neville the 16th Earl of Warwick, nicknamed the "Kingmaker"

In 1453, England finally lost its remaining lands in France, with the exception of Calais, after its defeat at the Battle of Castillon. Henry, whose mental health had been deteriorating since at least 1450, suffered a breakdown. He went catatonic, to the point where he couldn't even recognise his newborn son, Edward. This was problematic for the succession: if the king didn't formally recognise his heir, then that heir didn't exist. York, now allied with Richard Neville, had the Duke of Somerset thrown in prison and declared himself Protector. Government of the country was taken in hand and Richard worked to fulfil his earlier promises. Yet his position was not secure and on Henry’s (partial) recovery in 1455 York stepped down. Henry undid everything York had implemented, releasing Somerset from prison, and Richard, suspecting charges would be brought against him at a meeting in Leicester, found himself cornered into armed rebellion. The Wars of the Roses had begun.

The royal party were intercepted by the YorkistsPeople supporting, or belonging to, the House of York during the Wars of the Roses. These included Richard of York and Edward of March (later Edward IV). People supporting, or belonging to, the House of York during the Wars of the Roses. These included Richard of York and Edward of March (later Edward IV). at St Albans on their way to Leicester. In a politically significant battle three of Henry's main supporters - Somerset, the Earl of Northumberland, and Lord Clifford - were killed. Henry survived but was captured and the Duke of York, unwilling to execute Henry, again became Lord Protector.

The calm didn't hold for long, despite the ostentatious 'loveday' held on Lady Day, 25 March 1458, when the two factions walked arm in arm to hear Mass for the dead of St Albans. Henry's wife, Margaret of Anjou, was able to rally enough support to be ready when the next crisis appeared. In 1459 Warwick, forced into piracy to pay for the defence of Calais, arrived in England with his forces and met with those of the Duke of York and York's son, Edward. The three were defeated at the Battle of Ludford Bridge, but in July 1460, they managed to capture Henry again. It was agreed that the Duke of York would succeed to the throne after Henry's death, thus bypassing Henry's son.

But it was not to be. Richard of York died in battle at Wakefield, and his son Edward of March took command. Henry was rescued by his wife and her supporters at the Second Battle of St Albans, the duration of which Henry is said to have spent sitting under a tree. As the Yorkists fled the battlefield, two knights stood by the King, sworn to protect him. When the King was reunited with the Lancastrian army the young Prince Edward was asked what their fates should be. Edward, perhaps showing the sort of king he could become, ordered them to be executed. Despite the Lancastrian victory, the army didn't turn for London, its inhabitants having barred the gates to them. This, along with Edward of March's victory at Mortimer's Cross, gave him the opportunity to declare himself king, and he was crowned Edward IV on 28 June 1461. There were, however, a few loose ends, particularly the fact that Margaret, Henry VI and their son - as well as a number of supporters - were still alive, living first in Scotland and then in France.

The marriage of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville
The marriage of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville

All would not remain well in the House of York. In 1464, Edward IV met, swiftly fell in love with, and secretly married, Elizabeth Woodville, the daughter of supporters of Henry VI. In 1460, Elizabeth's father, Lord Rivers, was captured by the Yorkists and given a severe dressing down by the 17-year-old Edward. He was accused of being a social climber and not worthy of his position or of talking to Edward. It must have made for fun family conversations five years later, when Lord Rivers became Edward IV's father-in-law. Many, including Richard Neville, didn't view it as a suitable match. Elizabeth Woodville was from a large 'new' family, who had only risen to prominence through the favouritism of Henry VI. An alliance with them was at best seen as politically useless, and at worst damaging to foreign policy. But more than this, Edward honoured the Woodville clan with positions of power within England, upsetting many of his former allies, including Neville. The Kingmaker switched sides, enabling Henry to make a brief return to the throne on 30 October 1470.This is known as the readeption.

Henry, however, was certainly no longer capable of being king, with years of imprisonment and exile taking an even greater toll on his already unstable mental state. Instead he was a puppet king, with Neville and Edward IV's brother George Duke of Clarence governing in his name. But Warwick was not wise: he declared war on Burgundy, prompting the Duke of Burgundy to provide funds for Edward to re-seize the throne. At the Battle of Tewkesbury, just six months after Henry's return, the LancastriansPeople supporting, or belonging to, the House of Lancaster during the Wars of the Roses. These people included Henry VI and Henry Tudor. People supporting, or belonging to, the House of Lancaster during the Wars of the Roses. These people included Henry VI and Henry Tudor. were defeated and Henry's son was killed. This short-lived spell ended with Henry being placed back in the Tower, Margaret of Anjou being paraded through London in chains, and the Kingmaker being killed in the Battle of Barnet.Margaret of Anjou was held captive until the French King Louis XI paid for her ransom in 1475. She lived in France until her death in 1482.

On 21 May 1471, the same day that Edward IV paraded through London with Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI died in the Tower. Murder was rumoured, although the Yorkists denied it, claiming he had died of ‘pure displeasure and melancholy’. While murder was the likely cause, his history of mental breakdown coupled with the death of his only son and the loss of hope in regaining the crown may well have led him to die of what is romantically known as a broken heart. Certainly the exhumation of his remains in 1910 showed no conclusive evidence of a violent death.The professor of anatomy who was present at the time commented on breaks to the skull, but it is possible that this happened post-mortem.

In judging Henry VI, it is tempting to do so by the standard marks of success: victory in battle and political and financial stability. Without a doubt, by this count, Henry was a terrible king. He lost all of the gains made by his father in France, and led the country into civil war. He wasn't a good king for troubled and warlike times. But, he could be compassionate and feel deeply. As a sensitive soul who was introduced to politics at far too young an age, perhaps it is easier to understand Henry the person.

Things to think about

  • How did Henry VI die?
  • How powerful was Margaret of Anjou?
  • Did Richard of York have reason to rise up against Henry?
  • What role did advisers play at the court of Henry VI?
  • Was Henry a weak king?

Things to do

  • It is possible to visit many of the battlefields of the Wars of the Roses. To find one local to you, use the Battlefields Trust website. You can search for battles by date (any between 1455 and 1471 would be relevant) here.
  • As with much of English history, the Tower of London played a large part in the life (and death) of Henry VI and the Wars of the Roses. Our review on visiting the Tower of London can be found here and you can find out more information and buy tickets here.
  • Henry VI was born at Windsor Castle, and is reburied there, by the altar in St George's Chapel (as is Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville). You can find out more information about visiting and buy tickets here.

Further reading

The Wars of the Roses tend to divide historians, writers and readers, mainly due to their opinion on Richard III. This often affects their telling of the whole story. One book that manages to avoid most of these pitfalls, and is accessible, is Matthew Lewis' The Wars of the Roses: The Key Players in the Struggle for SupremacyThe state of being superior to all others in authority, power, or status . Two of the best biographies of Henry VI are costly and can be a bit academic, but they do present a good reassessment of him. They are David Grummitt's Henry VI  and Bertram Wolffe's Henry VI. The Penguin Monarchs series offers a good introduction to all English monarchs, including James Ross' Henry VI.