Who's Who

Henry VI: A Misjudged King?

Few English monarchs have such a poor reputation as Henry VI. Yet he was held in high regard by the Tudors, says Michael Hicks, despite losing the Wars of the Roses.

Henry VI
Henry VI

It is hard to imagine reigns more catastrophic than those of Henry VI (r. 1422-61 and 1470-71). Succeeding to the throne as an infant, his long minority was followed by his disastrous majority, in which he lost both the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) and the first two Wars of the Roses (1459-61, 1469-71), both his realms in France (1453) and England (twice). Much blame has always been laid at Henry’s door. He did not compare well with his father, Henry V (1387-1422), a charismatic soldier and decision-maker made immortal by his victory at Agincourt in 1415.

Childlike and unimposing in appearance, Henry VI suffered insanity in 1453-55 and may never have fully recovered his mental health. He was no athlete, no soldier or jouster and no orator. Henry showed little inclination or aptitude for either the hard graft of government or for military command. Rather he was a model of the new devotional piety – his most lasting achievements were the great educational foundations of Eton College and King’s College, Cambridge. But such a trait, while desirable and highly commendable, was no substitute for effective rule. A pious prince, he found matters of state to be unwarranted interruptions. He let others, especially the dukes of Somerset and Shrewsbury, fight his wars in France and manage his affairs at home. In turn his great-uncle Cardinal Beaufort (1375-1447), William, Duke of Suffolk (1396-1450), Edmund, Duke of Somerset (1406-55), Humphrey, Duke of Buckingham (1402-60) and Queen Margaret of Anjou (1430-82) ruled England in Henry’s name, badly and selfishly, provoking violent outbursts of discontent that ultimately swept the regime away. Indeed, so completely passive was Henry that he has been portrayed by the historian John Watts in his 1996 biography, Henry VI and the Politics of Kingship, as simply absent – a vacuum at the heart of government.

Henry’s many critics, both contemporary and modern, have overlooked the sheer impossibility of governing mid-15th-century England. Inheriting an unwinnable war against the might of France, Henry was plunged into a 15th-century credit crunch that bankrupted him, denied him both revenues and access to credit and enraged his subjects, who expected government somehow to solve its problems. Add to this the presence of a great nobleman and potential heir in Richard, Duke of York (1411-60), who staged both coups d’état and persistently stopped his monarch from ruling, and any king might have faltered. It is not really credible that Henry’s councillors were all uniformly evil. Nor does it make sense that the king was completely absent. There could have been no Wars of the Roses had he simply bowed to his critics in 1450, 1452 and 1455 and transferred the reins of government to York. No doubt Henry was ill-fitted for the crises that he faced and certainly all his particular initiatives failed, but there is more to his role than mere resignation and delegation.

Never having known a time when he was not king, Henry undertook all the formal duties of office. He presided over his court, over formal audiences, parliaments and judicial sessions. He received ambassadors and peers. His right to reign was undeniable. Henry was acutely conscious of the dignity of kingship. He expected respect, deference and obedience. Traitors and disparagers deserved death: he made a point of personally attending their bloody ends, as in Kent in 1451 and 1452. While able to gaol even dukes for long periods, Henry respected the blood royal and found it impossible therefore to treat the rebellious York as he deserved. The search for peace with France rather than effective prosecution of the war was Henry’s very own foreign policy. It was he who unwisely made unnecessary concessions to the French. In 1457 it was also he who drove through a thoroughgoing (but ill-fated) reconciliation with the Yorkists in the form of the ‘Loveday’ held at St Paul’s Cathedral in 1458, a formal peacemaking between the victors of the First Battle of St Albans of May 1455 and the heirs of their victims.

King Henry insisted on his royal prerogatives, especially that of mercy. He reserved for himself the right to pardon even when he was otherwise sidelined: during York’s Second Protectorate (1455-56), for example; in the Accord (1460) that enabled York to rule on his behalf; and in the constitutional arrangements for his Readeption (second reign) in 1470-71. Those seeking pardons were wise to find religious justifications, for instance in honour of Christ’s Passion, that appealed to the king himself. Henry insisted on establishing his expensive educational foundations, took a personal interest in Church appointments and could be a prudish moral censor, banning, for example, nude bathing at Bath. John Benet’s Chronicle attributed government actions to his personal anger, sorrow and disapproval. We still possess hundreds of warrants initialled by the king, often endorsed with his wishes – ‘The king wills’ – or with humble recommendations to him that make it clear that it was Henry who took the final decision. Henry may have been managed, but such final decisions were his.

While taking responsibility for his decisions, Henry did not acknowledge anybody to whom he was accountable but God and hence accepted no personal liability. He had the moral strength to stand by ministers who had carried out his instructions, most notably the Duke of Suffolk in 1449-50. Certain of his right to rule, he repeatedly resisted apparently overwhelming pressure from York, the people and Parliament on several occasions. He simply refused to give way. He approved, vetoed and deferred parliamentary bills regardless of circumstances. When York threatened the court with overwhelming force in 1455, Henry refused to surrender and declared his intention to seek advice. He was fortunate to survive the shower of Yorkist arrows and cannonballs at the First Battle of St Albans. Too much is inexplicable without acknowledging Henry’s obstinacy. The king’s loyalty to his ministers, councillors and courtiers, too often dangerously identifying them with himself, blinded him to the justice of any charges of personal misconduct against them. Henry’s stubborness, so admirable in some respects, was possible only because his loyal subjects drew back from the brink and would not depose their rightful king. It meant also that no political settlement could be negotiated and that real and justifiable political tensions could not be defused. Henry’s seemingly eternal willingness to forgive, not to hold past offences against the Yorkists and to accommodate York, did ultimately enable the defeated Yorkists to recover from their discomfiture and to prevail. However, it left Henry the moral high ground, albeit largely concealed for 500 years by Yorkist propaganda. He was still regarded generally as the rightful king in 1470, when he briefly recovered his throne.

With hindsight, Henry’s greatest defect was in his man-management skills, especially in his relations with Richard, Duke of York. York was not as blue-blooded nor as capable as he supposed himself to be, but he thought he was best suited to rule. York convinced himself that he had the public interest at heart and therefore could not commit treason, nor indeed perjure himself. He was amazingly persistent in his quests for power. He never seems to have convinced his fellow peers, however, and was indeed voted out of office by them in 1456. Henry unfortunately accepted York as exceptional and was unwilling to treat him as harshly or violently as York had treated the king’s other ministers. It was a fatal flaw that brought both men to ruin and to violent deaths. It would have been better to discipline York more effectively in 1452 or even to have executed him.

Yet Henry strove to be a good king. He was committed to good government and to the protection of the Church. He made good appointments. He even produced a son to succeed him – an obligation which, it has always been suspected, gave him no pleasure at all. Henry was never arbitrary in his rule and certainly no tyrant. He was always seeking advice as kings were meant to do, constantly convened great councils and parliaments and even on occasion allowed himself to be overruled. Unfortunately, so his critics claimed, all these councillors and therefore all their policies were evil. Drawn from the most noble, royal and experienced in the land, they appear suitably qualified. None could drive Henry to act in ways that he did not wish to. In fact Henry never had a favourite with that monopoly of advice or patronage that all favourites sought because Henry’s easy pliancy allowed him to be advised and persuaded by mere courtiers – by those who, in Sir John Fortescue’s words, could not (or should not be allowed to) advise him. If the king’s ministers and councillors took rewards from office, as was normal at the time, they also recognised the risks – as each in turn was eliminated – but were proud to serve their king. The decisions they persuaded Henry to make may not have been wise, but actually he had little freedom of choice. Undoubtedly naive, hesitant and perhaps even wilful, the king may often have misunderstood the real issues and was undoubtedly inflexible, but that did not make him unfit to rule. After all, he ruled as king for 39 years and was making his own decisions to the very end. All the disasters happened on his watch, but not much that went wrong was his personal fault. He has been misjudged.

Deserved or not, Henry’s memory was cherished. His tomb at Chertsey Abbey in Surrey became a major destination for pilgrims, who followed Henry to St George’s Chapel, Windsor when he was re-interred there in 1484 by Richard III (who probably used the pilgrims’ offerings to finance the move). Henry’s chaplain, John Blacman, compiled a memoir of his king’s pious doings and sayings, a collection of miracles was assembled and Henry’s nephew, Henry VII, attempted to have him canonised, albeit unsuccessfully. Although Henry VIII, as the grandson of Edward IV, found his Yorkist lineage more immediately useful in asserting his dynastic legitimacy, Henry VI was remembered warmly by the Tudors and their heirs, products themselves of the union of Lancaster and York.

Michael Hicks is Professor of Medieval History at the University of Winchester. His latest book is The Wars of the Roses (Yale University Press, 2010).

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