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England's boy kings: Henry VI

Henry VI is remembered as pious, benevolent, and occasionally insane king. Born in 1421 to Henry V and his wife, Katherine of Valois, the young prince was heir not only to the throne of England, but also France.. His father Henry V was a military genius, reviving the Hundred Years’ War with great success. In 1420, the Treaty of Troyes named Henry and his heirs as successors to Charles VI, the insane and sickly King of France. As part of the treaty, Henry married Charles’ daughter Katherine. The union only produced one child; Henry V died of dysentery in France in 1422, leaving the nine-month-old prince as the new king. Just two months later, the infant was also proclaimed king of France after the death of his grandfather.

Henry VI.
National Portrait Gallery, London

Henry’s long minority was governed by his two paternal uncles: John, Duke of Bedford, and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. The former controlled the continuing war in France, further exacerbated by the rise of Joan of Arc, while the latter controlled domestic issues. Young Henry’s half-uncle, Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester, also had a prominent place on the Council, and became more controlling when the Duke of Bedford died in 1435. The young king was crowned King of England in 1429 at Westminster Abbey at the age of seven; he was crowned King of France in Paris in 1431. It was the only time Henry would go to France. England began to lose traction in France in 1429, which continued into a slow decline with the conflict finally ending in 1453.

In 1434, Henry began exerting some of royal authority. He was declared to be of age in 1437, the same year his mother died. At the age of sixteen, Henry was not bellicose like his father, but religious and soft-spoken. He disliked violence and conflict, which contributed to the loss of most French possessions. His half-uncle, the now-Cardinal Beaufort, and William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, supported the young king’s peaceful approach; the Duke of Gloucester and Richard, Duke of York, disagreed with Henry’s policies.

Henry’s marriage to Margaret of Anjou in 1445 further split the nobles. The Treaty of Tours laid out the terms of the union: Henry would forfeit Maine and Anjou to Charles VII of France and receive no dowry from Margaret, and France and England agreed to a truce of 21 months. The treaty, handled by the Earl of Suffolk, was extremely unpopular in England. The only thing gained by England was the young bride, who brought no dowry and was not even a princess, but the daughter of a penniless duke. The provisions of the treaty were publicized in 1446, leading to general outcry from the nobility and populace.

The country began to split into two factions after the king’s unpopular French marriage: the Duke (formerly Earl) of Suffolk, Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, and Cardinal Beaufort supporting the king; the Duke of Gloucester and the Duke of York opposed the king, with the situation further complicated by the fact that the Duke of York was the childless Henry’s heir presumptive. Henry and Margaret made a power move in 1447, charging Gloucester with treason. Gloucester died in custody before his trial. York was sent to Ireland to govern. Henry’s unpopularity continued to worsen when the Duke of Suffolk was impeached by Parliament and sent into exile, but Suffolk was murdered during his journey across the English Channel. Somerset was sent to France to regain lost lands, but by 1453 all was lost but the port city of Calais.

Henry’s first bout of insanity coincided with the news of Somerset’s losses in 1453. York, having returned from Ireland, was declared Protector of the Realm in 1454. The situation was further complicated by Margaret’s pregnancy, which threatened York’s position as heir. Henry was unresponsive, almost comatose, during this time period. Even when Margaret presented her son, named Edward after the saintly Confessor, to the king, there was no reaction. Henry’s mental condition was likely hereditary; his grandfather Charles VI of France experienced bouts of insanity, which increased in duration and intensity as he aged. Rumors spread that Somerset was the baby prince’s father, and York imprisoned Somerset and excluded the queen and her supporters from court. York also gained a powerful ally: Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. However, York’s control abruptly ended when Henry miraculously came to his senses on Christmas Day 1454.

The king’s troubles had only begun after his recovery. York’s supporters, the Earls of Warwick and Salisbury, as well as York’s four sons, demanded that York be restored as heir over Henry’s young son, the Prince of Wales. York’s claim was undoubtedly better than the king’s claim; York was descended from two sons of Edward III: Lionel, Duke of Clarence, and Edmund, Duke of York. When Henry IV deposed Richard II in 1399, he passed over Edmund Mortimer, his seven-year-old nephew. The young boy was descended from Lionel, the second son of Edward III, while Henry IV was descended from the third son, John of Gaunt. York himself was the product of the union of Anne Mortimer and Richard, Earl of Cambridge. His mother died when he was young and his father beheaded for treason. With the death of his father’s brother shortly thereafter, York inherited the Duchy of York along with other various estates and titles, becoming the wealthiest orphan in England. York was now in the prime position to use his power and take the throne by force. York and his supporters, wearing the white rose, were now prepared to be the executors of karma and retake the throne from the house of Lancaster, the red rose. The Wars of the Roses had begun in earnest.

In 1455, the forces of York and Lancaster met at the First Battle of St. Albans. Margaret of Anjou rallied the Lancastrian supporters and forced York and his allies into exile, but Warwick captured the king in 1459 at the Battle of Northhampton. Margaret again led her army against York, leading to success for Lancaster at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460. York and his son Edmund were killed, and Margaret advanced south to free the king at the Second Battle of St. Albans. She failed to recapture London, and York’s oldest son, Edward, now Duke of York, was proclaimed Edward IV.

Edward was the embodiment of his Plantagenet ancestors; tall, blonde, and skilled in battle. Together with his remaining brothers, George, Duke of Clarence, and Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the new king put down several Lancastrian revolts in the north, successfully recapturing the unfortunate Henry VI. However, Edward made a crucial misstep that would overshadow his success. In 1464, Edward secretly married Elizabeth Woodville, a low-ranking aristocrat. This marriage alienated Warwick, now known by the moniker “The Kingmaker”, who suddenly switched sides to support his old enemies, Margaret of Anjou and her now teenage son Edward, and restore Henry to the throne in 1470. Edward IV returned with a vengeance in 1471, first defeating the Lancastrians at the Battle of Barnet, where Warwick was killed, and then again at the disastrous Battle of Tewkesbury. The Prince of Wales was captured after the battle and killed, crushing Lancastrian hopes. Henry himself, always the pious and oblivious king, was murdered in the Tower of London shortly thereafter. Margaret of Anjou fled to France, devastated by the loss of her only son. The Lancastrian line through Henry IV had ended, and the Yorkists now had total control of England.

Henry VI was regarded as a saint and martyr by many in the time after his demise. His reign was one of the worst England had endured up to that point. His insistence on a policy of peace, even in times of outright civil war, required his foreign queen to raise armies on his behalf. Henry was increasingly removed from the world due to his bouts of insanity. Had he been more like his legendary father, the Wars of the Roses may have never happened and history would not be what we now know it to be.

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