Henry VI, King of England, 1421-1471

Henry VI (1421-1471) was the last monarch of the Lancastrian dynasty, and the ineffective nature of his rule played a major part in the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses.

The House of Lancaster came to the throne in 1399 when Henry of Bolingbroke returned from exile, deposed Richard II and took the throne as Henry IV. His reign was troubled by frequent revolts, but he did manage to establish his dynasty firmly enough for his son Henry V to be able to succeed without any serious problems. Henry V was the most successful member of the dynasty, and during his short reign (1413-1422) conquered large parts of France and was acknowledged as the heir to Charles VI of France. As part of this agreement Henry married Catherine of Valois, and the future Henry VI was born at Windsor in December 1421.

Within a year the situation had been transformed. Henry V died in 1422 and the infant prince inherited the throne as Henry VI when less than one year old. Soon afterwards Charles VI of France died, and Henry officially became king of both kingdoms. Unsurprisingly Charles's son Charles refused to accept this, and claimed the French throne as Charles VII.

The English held on to most of their holdings in France during Henry's long minority. Henry was blessed with capable uncles - France was ruled by his eldest uncle, John, duke of Bedford, until his death in 1435 and the English administration was run by the council, which was led by his youngest uncle, Humphrey, duke of Gloucester. The French did retake Paris in 1436, but the English still held Normandy, Gascony and large areas between when Henry was declared of age in 1437.

Henry proved to be an incompetent and often disinterested monarch. He was also pious and was actively involved in his foundations at Eton College (1440) and King's College, Cambridge (1441), but his government became dominated by a small number of favourites. Even when the favourites were competent the result was to leave most of the aristocracy feeling excluded from power, causing discontent that could erupt into chaos if things didn’t go well. His general lack of interest in government also allowed local feuds to develop into major causes of instability, where stronger kings would have acted to end the violent. The most famous of these feuds, between the Neville and Percy families, eventually drove Richard Neville, earl of Salisbury, previously a firm support of the dynasty, into the Yorkist camp, but they all served to add to the feeling of instability in the kingdom.

Henry was determined to end the fighting in France. In 1445 he agreed a truce with Charles VII and agreed to marry Margaret of Anjou, a relative of the French king. He also secretly agreed to hand over Maine in the hope that this would held secure peace between the two kingdoms. Instead this move only served to encourage the French and also reduced the popularity of Henry's government at home. The agreement to hand over Maine was made in writing in December 1445, but was then kept secret. Henry must have known that none of his senior advisors would have approved of the idea. His uncle Gloucester was in favour of a more vigorous war effort, while even Henry's chief advisor, William de la Pole, duke of Suffolk, was opposed the idea and made a public declaration to deny any involvement. Gloucester disappeared from the scene in 1447 - on 18 February he was arrested and was to put on trial, but five days later he died. On 28 July 1447 commissioners were appointed to arrange the hand over of Le Mans, but even they weren't enthusiastic and the surrender wasn't made until 29 March 1448. Despite his opposition to this surrender, Suffolk received much of the blame.

Worse was soon to come. In the surrender documents the English had attempted to include the duke of Brittany as one of their allies, This had been true earlier in the Hundred Years War and would be the case later in the Wars of the Roses, but in 1448 Brittany was allied with France. This appears to have been a piece of legal trickery designed to allow England to interfere in Brittany without breaking their treaties with the French, but if that was the case it failed.

In March 1449 an English army attacked the Breton town of Fougères (the attack may have been ordered by Suffolk in an attempt to distance himself from the peace party). The Duke of Brittany immediately protested to Charles VII and a series of conferences were held. The English claimed that this was a dispute between allies and nothing to do with Charles, but unsurprisingly he disagreed. On 31 July 1449 Charles declared that he was no longer bound by the peace treaty, and open warfare quickly resumed. Henry's government had failed to prepare for this option, and the French invasion of Normandy was a spectacular success. At the time Normandy was ruled by Edmund Beaufort, second duke of Somerset, but he proved unable to defend the area. He surrendered Rouen in October 1449 and Caen in the next year. The last English foothold in Normandy was gone by August 1450.

The fall of Normandy led to chaos in England. Suffolk was blamed and was arrested on 28 January 1450. He was charged with treason and corruption but was saved by Henry, who cancelled the trial and exiled Suffolk for five years. On his way across the channel Suffolk's ship was captured by a fleet of Kentish ships and the duke was murdered. Two of Henry's other senior advisors were also murdered in this period. This was followed by Jack Cade's Rebellion, a vast revolt that began in Kent and for several weeks in June and July threatened to overwhelm Henry's government.

Jack Cade's Rebellion was a turning point in Henry's reign. It was the first violent outbreak against his rule, and produced the first of many manifestos that condemned his rule. It also probably played a part in turning Richard, duke of York, from a fairly loyal supporter of the dynasty into its most determined opponent. Cade's men had apparently claimed some connection with York, who had a good claim to be Henry's heir. In the aftermath of the fall of Normandy the duke of Somerset returned to England and replaced him as Henry's favourite. In September 1450 York, who was then serving as lieutenant of Ireland, returned to England. He was probably motivated by a mix of fear that he would be implicated in Cade's revolt and suffer Suffolk or Gloucester's fate, and anger that Somerset had been rewarded for his catastrophic failure in France. He put himself forward as a friend of good government and formally asked Henry that he become the king's chief advisor.

At this stage Henry was still fairly popular and York found little support. The king stood firm and insisted that he wanted a council in which every member would have an equal voice. This would leave York outvoted and so during 1451 he attempted to act as the bringer of law and order, helping end a feud in the south-west.

Early in 1452 York attempted to resort to arms to seize control of Henry's government. His plan was to trigger pro-Yorkist demonstrations in towns around the country then raise an army which he would lead to London. The plan failed. Very few towns rose for York and very few peers joined his army. Henry was able to raise a much more powerful force, which included most of the peers including many who would be key Yorkist supporters later. The armies came face to face at Dartford, and York was forced to back down. He was lucky to escape more serious punishment, and instead went into voluntary internal exile on his estates.

Henry's government was about to suffer a series of blows from which it never really recovered. The war in France continued to go badly. Bordeaux had been lost on 29 June 1451, and the French held most of Gascony. This was one area where the link with England had been popular, and John Talbot, earl of Shrewsbury, was able to briefly restore the situation. He retook Bordeaux on 23 October and soon had control of most of Gascony. This success would be short-lived - on 17 July 1453 Talbot was defeated at killed at the battle of Castillon, widely seen as the final battle of the Hundred Years War. Gascony, which had been tied to the English crown for nearly 300 years, was lost forever. In the five years between the surrender of Maine and the loss of Gascony the English position in France had collapsed, and Henry's domain was now limited to Calais and the surrounding area.

News of the defeat at Castillon reached Henry early in August 1453. At this time his wife was seven months pregnant with their first and only child, Prince Edward, and Henry may not have been coping well with the stresses of pregnancy - some contemporary accounts suggest that his religious advisors had made him feel guilty about the whole pregnancy and his role in it. In early August Henry was at his hunting lodge at Clarendon, when he suffered a mental breakdown. From then until Christmas 1454 he was completely immobile and incommunicative, so needed constant care and was entirely removed from government.

Henry's first illness led directly to the outbreak of the start of the Wars of the Roses. As the senior member of the aristocracy York had the best claim to be Protector of the Realm. Prince Edward was born on 13 October (sadly to no reaction from his father), and once she had recovered Queen Margaret began to demand a role in government. At first Somerset and the council attempted to rule without the king, but by Christmas York's position had improved and Somerset was confined in the Tower. Parliament met in February 1454 and Queen Margaret officially asked to be made Protector. Given the recent collapse in France a young French princess was never going to be acceptable, and in late March Richard of York was officially appointed Protector.

Battles of the Wars of the Roses
Battles of the
Wars of the Roses

Henry recovered from his breakdown at Christmas 1454. He finally met his son, and York's protectorate ended. Somerset was released and resumed his position at court. Most of York's appointments were cancelled, and the Yorkist lords began to fear that they were about to be attacked. Somerset appears to have been planning a legal challenge, and so the court party was caught out when York, Salisbury and Warwick raised and army and brought it south. The first battle of the Wars of the Roses was fought at St. Albans on 22 May 1455. The smaller Lancastrian army attempted to defend the town, but Warwick's men found their way in. Somerset, Northumberland and Lord Clifford were all killed in the fighting, and Henry himself was wounded in the fighting.

For the next few months Henry was effectively York's prisoner. York made a great show of his loyalty, but took control of the government. Henry probably suffered a second breakdown in the aftermath of the battle and wasn’t able to attend Parliament in November 1455. York was appointed as Protector for a second time, but this time Henry recovered quite quickly. On 25 February 1456 the King came into parliament and ended the Protectorate. For the moment York remained in favour, or at least in power, but this didn't last.

Henry's health appears to have been poor for the rest of his life. He was said to have been obsessed with religious devotions and spent much of his time asleep. His cause was now kept alive by his wife Queen Margaret who was determined to protect her son and his rights from the Yorkists. In August 1456 Henry joined the Queen in the Midlands, and after that spent little time in London. Queen Margaret was now able to take over control of the Royal government, slowly forcing York and his allies out.

Henry did make one attempt to end the conflict, arranging the 'Loveday' agreement of 24 March 1458 during one of his more active periods. The Yorkists agreed to pay compensation to the heirs of the lords they had killed at St. Albans and in return both sides agreed to keep the peace. This agreement had little long term impact and in 1459 open warfare broke out again. Henry VI was present with the Royal army in 1459 and this may have had a major part in the Lancastrian success at Ludford Bridge (12-13 October 1459). The Yorkist leaders were already outnumbered, but when the Calais garrison changed sides rather than fight against the king in person York and his supporters realised that they had lost and fled into exile.

The Yorkists returned in 1460, landing at Sandwich in June and defeating Henry's army at Northampton on 10 July 1460. The King was captured and escorted back to London, while Queen Margaret and Prince Edward escaped back to Wales.

In October 1460 the nature of the war changed. Until then both sides claimed to be loyal to Henry, but in October York returned from exile in Ireland and attempted to claim the throne. Henry still represented legitimate authority and the Peers were unwilling to depose him. Henry himself appears to have made no attempt to defend his position, and on 25 October agreed to the Act of Accord. Henry would remain on the throne, but his son was disinherited and York became heir to the throne.

The Act of Accord helped revive the Lancastrian cause. The dispossessed Prince was a better cause than his disappointing father, and revolts soon broke out around the country. York went north to deal with the most serious of them, but was killed at the battle of Wakefield (30 December 1460). Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, had been left behind in London to watch Henry. As the Lancastrians moved south Warwick came out of London, bringing Henry with him. Warwick then suffered a heavy defeat at the second battle of St. Albans (17 February 1461). In the aftermath of this battle the Yorkists lost control of Henry, and he was soon reunited with his wife and son.

The Lancastrians now missed their chance to enter London. York's son Edward, earl of March, beat them into the city, and the Lancastrians retreated north. Eventually Henry and Margaret ended up in York. Their sizable army was commanded by Henry Beaufort, duke of Somerset, although his position would be weakened by the absence of the king.

With Henry out of their control, the Yorkists decided to put Edward of March forward as an alternative king. This time the claim was better orchestrated and in early March he was acclaimed as Edward IV. The Yorkists then moved north, and on 29 March 1461 they defeated Henry's army at Towton. The only flaw with the Yorkist victory was that Henry and his family escaped and found refuge in Scotland.

For the next few years the Lancastrians managed to maintain a foothold in the far north of England, centred around the castles of Alnwick, Bamburgh and Dunstanburgh. Queen Margaret ensured Scottish support by surrendering Berwick on 25 April 1461 but an attempt to take Carlisle failed. Henry now became something of a figurehead or a standard, to be dragged around by various Lancastrian leaders. In June 1461 he was present during a raid from Scotland that reached as far as Brancepeth, south of Durham. In 1462 Queen Margaret went to France to try and gain support. She came back in the autumn with a small mercenary force. Henry joined this army, which then retook the three Northumbrian castles. When Edward announced that he was bringing an army north, Queen Margaret decided to return to Scotland. The royal party's ship was wrecked and Henry found himself returning to Berwick in an open boat. He was also present during a failed attempt to besiege Norham in June 1463. In August 1463, after this failure, Queen Margaret and Prince Edward sailed for France and exile. They would never meet Henry again.

By the start of 1464 Henry and the Lancastrians had been forced out of Scotland, and Henry held court in the isolated Northumbrian castles. He gained an able supporter when Henry Beaufort, duke of Somerset, abandoned a brief allegiance to Edward and returned to his Lancastrian loyalty. Somerset managed to establish Lancastrian control of a large part of the north-east, forcing Edward to prepare for a major expedition north. This would prove to be unnecessary. Warwick's brother John Neville, Lord Montagu, inflicted a defeat on Somerset's men at Hedgley Moor on 24 April 1464. Somerset decided that he needed a victory before Edward arrived, and took Henry from his court in exile into the Tyne valley. Henry was a spectator from the opposite side of the Tyne as Montagu's army swept west to catch Somerset at Hexham (15 May 1464).

Henry only just evaded capture after the battle, but he was escorted into relative safety in the north-west. Henry managed to elude capture for over a year, but he was finally captured in July 1465 and taken to the Tower of London. Given that the Wars of the Roses had become increasingly bloodthirsty at the higher levels of society his survival might seem surprising, but in fact Edward had nothing to gain from killing Henry. The old king made a poor figurehead for Lancastrian resistance, and seems to have been fairly happy in the Tower. If Henry VI was killed then the Lancastrian claim would pass to his unproven young son Prince Edward, who might have made a much more effective figurehead for the Lancastrian cause.

Henry remained a prisoner in the Tower until Edward IV was forced into exile by Richard, earl of Warwick, late in 1470. In 1469-70 Warwick had made two attempts to seize control of the Yorkist regime, before being forced into exile in France. He came to terms with Queen Margaret (Angers Agreement of July 1470), and later in the year returned to England and forced Edward to flee into exile. On 6 October Warwick entered London. Henry was removed from the Tower and taken to the Bishop's Palace, where he officially resumed power. In reality Henry had no influence on his new government, and Warwick ruled.

In March 1471 Edward IV returned to England, landing on the Yorkshire coast at the head of a small army. Warwick and his allies rather bungled the campaign in the North and Midlands that should have seen Edward's tiny army defeated. On 3 March his brother Clarence, who had sided with Warwick, changed sides, and the two armies became fairly equally balanced. Warwick refused to risk a battle at Coventry and so Edward slipped past him and began a race for London.

It was soon clear that Edward would arrive before Warwick. The key Lancastrian leaders left the city on 8 April, leaving Warwick's brother George Neville, archbishop of York, in command of the defence. In an attempt to raise enthusiasm for the Lancastrian cause Henry was forced to take part in a parade on 9 April. His sword was carried before him by a veteran of the Hundred Years War and his father's standard went ahead of him, but Henry was now a shadow of even his former self, and the archbishop had to hold his hand for the entire parade. Henry was dressed in an old blue tunic and was said to have 'pleased the citizens as a fire painted on a wall warmed the old women'. It was clear that London couldn't be defended, and even the archbishop entered into negotiations with Edward.

On 11 April Edward returned to London. One of his first priorities was to regain control of Henry VI, who is said to have welcomed him and said 'Cousin of York, you are very welcome. I hold my life to be in no danger in your hands'. Edward took Henry with him as he turned back to fight Warwick, but after Warwick's defeat and death at the battle of Barnet (14 April 1471) Henry was returned to the Tower.

On the same day as the battle of Barnet Queen Margaret and Prince Edward finally landed in the south-west. They raised an army and then attempted to move north into Wales. Edward intercepted them at Tewkesbury (4 May 1471). The Lancastrians were defeated and Prince Edward was killed.

The death of Prince Edward meant that Henry was no longer needed. On 21 May Edward IV returned to London and that night the old king died, officially of 'pure displeasure and melancholy' at the news of his son's defeat and death. While this can’t be entirely discounted it is far more likely that Edward IV had him murdered to remove a potential rival.

Henry's death ended the direct male line of the Lancastrian dynasty. The next Lancastrian claimant was Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond, whose claim came from Henry's Beaufort cousins, but it would only be the early death of Edward IV and the usurpation of Richard III that would give Tudor the chance to revive the Lancastrian cause and gain the throne as Henry VII.

The great tragedy of Henry's reign was that he hadn’t been competent (or interested) enough to be a successful Medieval monarch, but at the same time he hadn’t been actively malicious in the same way as Richard II. There was thus always some support for his as the legitimate monarch, and his supporters were able to maintain his cause even after the battle of Towton had seen Lancastrian authority removed from most of England and Wales. 

Books on the Middle Ages - Subject Index: War of the Roses

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (17 February 2014), Henry VI, King of England, 1421-1471 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_henry_VI.html

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