The Madness of King Henry VI

Faced with extreme pressures, the ruler of England suffered a complete breakdown. But beware modern diagnoses of medieval mental health.

Henry VI, c.1535  (detail), English.In the summer of 1453 the 31-year-old king of England, Henry VI, bade farewell to his pregnant wife Margaret of Anjou and set out on a judicial tour of the West Country. Pausing at Clarendon hunting lodge in Wiltshire, the king ‘suddenly was taken and smitten with a frenzy and his wit and reason withdrawn’.

The symptoms of this sudden mental breakdown were horrifying. Initial frenzy passed into a paralysing physical and mental catatonia. Henry could neither talk nor walk. He was barely able to hold up his head, sitting slumped and silent like a rag doll in front of his attendants. His only child, Edward of Westminster, born three months into his illness, was brought to the king for a blessing; Henry merely glanced unseeingly upon the baby and then lowered his eyes again. There was no telling when – or if – he would recover.

Few kings have so amply fulfilled the medieval concept of Fortune’s Wheel as Henry VI. The son of Henry V, the victor at Agincourt, Henry acceded to the thrones of England and France before he was one year old, making him the youngest monarch in English history and the only ruler ever crowned in both realms. Yet 50 years later he was murdered in the Tower of London, having twice been deposed from his English throne during the Wars of the Roses, while a slim patch of land around Calais was the last vestige of his French kingdom.

The illness that Henry endured from the summer of 1453 has overshadowed our understanding of this unfortunate king, associating his failures as a ruler with his mental health. Some modern studies have reduced the complex contemporary issues that Henry faced, which undoubtedly contributed to his illness, in favour of a modern medical diagnosis. But, if we are to make sense of Henry’s illness, we must understand it in the context of his own time.

The cause of Henry’s devastating psychotic breakdown – as we would term it today – has inspired debate ever since it afflicted him. Henry was sparsely attended when he fell ill and the details of his condition were suppressed by his advisers, of whom Queen Margaret and Henry’s unpopular councillor, Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, were chief among them. As a result, there are few eyewitness accounts of the illness, which lasted until Christmas 1454. One was provided by a delegation of lords, which reported a visit to the stricken king during the Parliament of March 1454; another by a servant of Margaret’s, who witnessed the queen’s attempt to present Prince Edward to him in December 1453.

In the family?

Despite the paucity of contemporary accounts, it has become common to assert that Henry had some form of schizophrenia, possibly inherited from his maternal grandfather, Charles VI of France. (Charles’ daughter, Catherine Valois, had married Henry V in 1420.) Charles, too, suffered a serious mental breakdown one sweltering summer in his early adulthood (he was 24, Henry 31). But the pattern of Charles’ illness and its symptoms were radically different from Henry’s.

Charles often believed himself to be surrounded by assassins. During his first illness in 1392 he murdered five of his attendants and attacked his brother in the erroneous belief that they were trying to kill him. Charles suffered repeated episodes of mania, interspersed with periods of apparent recovery, reported in considerable detail by eyewitness chroniclers. He would run as hard as he could from one end of his palace to another, believing enemies pursued him, until the entrances had to be bricked up to prevent him from running into the street.

He refused to be washed or to change out of his soiled, vermin-infested clothes and wore an iron rod close to his body, probably to deflect assassins’ blades. Like Henry, Charles did not recognise his wife or children, but his response to evidence of their existence was more violent: he pulled down his wife’s heraldry and tried to erase his own coat of arms, insisting that he was really called George and that his arms included an impaled lion. Charles’ illness caused him considerable distress. Believing it to be the result of his enemies’ witchcraft, he openly wept in front of his advisers, pleading with whoever was behind this torture to release him. He would rather die, he said once, than continue to suffer as he was.

Almost none of Charles’ medical history matches that of Henry, beyond the sudden onset of illness and an inability to recognise those around them. The two kings’ different personalities could have affected the presentation of their illness, but it is probable that they did not share the same condition. Inherited schizophrenia is a satisfyingly neat explanation for Henry’s illness from summer 1453, but history is seldom neat.

The fullest recent examination of Henry’s alleged schizophrenia was provided by Nigel Bark in 2002, using the criteria for classifying mental disorders provided by the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Bark found it particularly suggestive that Henry’s confessor, John Blacman, reported the king experiencing religious hallucinations or visions in later life, hearing ‘an audible voice’ of the saints and seeing Jesus and the Virgin Mary appear during mass.

Yet catatonia such as Henry suffered in 1453-4 occurs in numerous mental disorders and medical conditions and the DSM states that hallucinations are ‘a normal part of religious experiences in certain cultural contexts’, of which Henry’s is one. To the medieval mind, mystical visions were an accepted part of religious experience and could be described in a literal way without any suggestion of mental illness.

We should, in any case, treat Blacman’s claims cautiously. Writing in the aftermath of Henry’s death, as a popular cult developed around Henry’s grave, Blacman desired to cast the king as a saint. He even claimed that during Henry’s exile to the north of England, he had miraculously multiplied loaves of bread for his supporters. But, if we reject the diagnosis of schizophrenia, what else might have been the cause of Henry’s illness?

Tough times

Henry may have been suffering a particularly severe episode of depression, exacerbated by traumatic events and near continuous physical exertion. We may find the roots of Henry’s illness in the horrors that befell him three years earlier in 1450. A resurgent French force had driven the English from France with horrifying efficiency. As one gleeful French herald put it, ‘the whole duchy of Normandy was conquered … within one year and six days; which is a very wonderful thing’.

It was not so wonderful for Henry’s subjects. As Norman refugees poured across the Channel in search of sanctuary, violent unrest broke out in England. Henry’s disgruntled subjects focused their ire on his chief minister, William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, who had been at the forefront of politics for at least a decade, helping transform Henry’s lacklustre leadership into concrete policy. Having served in Henry’s household since the monarch was 11 years old, Suffolk may have become something of a father figure to the young king.

Henry managed to protect Suffolk from a parliamentary campaign to indict him for treason, but as the duke escaped into exile he was seized by sailors, subjected to a mocking trial and summarily beheaded. His body was tossed ashore at Dover Sands, his head impaled on a spike like a traitor.

Murder of William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, engraving, 19th century.

Suffolk was one of four royal advisers murdered by Henry’s vengeful subjects in 1450. In July, the city of London fell to a rebel army led by Jack Cade, also known as ‘John Mortimer’. Alarmingly, Cade’s Mortimer moniker insinuated an association with Henry’s cousin and heir presumptive, Richard, Duke of York (whose mother was a Mortimer). It took considerable effort to suppress Cade’s rising and restore peace. Perhaps in the midst of his exertions Henry did not fully process the grief of losing men who had served him, in some cases, all his life.

The return of the Duke of York to English politics in autumn 1450 unleashed further chaos that Henry struggled to suppress. By summer 1453 the king had spent three years in near constant physical and mental exertion to regain control of his realm. His efforts were rewarded: the English retook the ancient patrimony of Gascony, Parliament had grown compliant and, for the first time in their eight-year marriage, Margaret was pregnant.

But even among this joy there was cause for anxiety. Margaret’s pregnancy might be a source of comfort to the nation but there was no certainty of the child’s safe deliverance, nor of Margaret’s survival. Henry’s father had died soon after the birth of his first child in his thirties. Might this association of fatherhood and mortality have played on Henry’s mind?

It seems Henry could endure these anxieties and physical and mental exertions while his efforts yielded results, but on 17 July 1453, at the Battle of Castillon, an English army was annihilated by the French and the Duchy of Gascony was lost, ending four centuries of English rule. News of this military disaster may have been the ‘sudden shock’ that one contemporary chronicler reported precipitated Henry’s illness.

The reversal of Castillon threatened to incite domestic bloodshed such as had occurred in 1450. It may be wiser to see Henry’s breakdown as a result of a combination of the stresses and strains that, in the summer of 1453, overwhelmed him.

Bad humour

Henry’s condition confounded his contemporaries. Until 1453 he seemed to enjoy good mental and physical health; confronted with his collapse, even Henry’s own doctors were uncertain how best to proceed. A commission provided by the royal council to Henry’s medical team in March 1454 contains a list of treatments they could attempt, which is extensive to the point of scattershot, permitting everything from baths and gargles to bloodletting and head purges.

Medieval medicine was heavily dependent on classical theories deriving from the works of the Greek physicians Hippocrates and Galen. Relating humanity to the four elements of Nature, it was believed that humans were made up of four humours: blood, phlegm, choler (or yellow bile) and black bile. Unbalanced humours caused illness.

Every individual inclined towards a particular humour. Born in December, in the depths of wet and cold winter, Henry inclined towards the phlegmatic: he was vacillating, pacific and weak-willed. As the historian Carole Rawcliffe has noted, his winter birth also rendered him ‘vulnerable to the influence of the moon’, which had long been associated with mental troubles. (‘Lunacy’ derives from the Latin word for moon.) Henry, like many of his educated contemporaries, took astrological theory seriously. When he was still a teenager, a court-sponsored plot to replace him revolved around a horoscope that foresaw his imminent demise. Those involved were imprisoned or executed for their conspiracy.

Henry’s subjects were aware of this association. Throughout the 1440s, as Henry’s regime mired itself deeper in debt and diplomatic incompetence, disgruntlement against Henry focused on his alleged simple-mindedness. In 1442 a Kentish yeoman was summoned to appear before the Court of King’s Bench for calling Henry ‘a lunatic’.

Treasonable denouncements notwithstanding, there is little evidence that Henry suffered from mental health problems until 1453. He was sufficiently cogent to found two colleges to celebrate his attainment of adult power by 1441, making alterations to their plans in the hope they would rival the architectural works of his forebears. Henry’s failings as a king before 1453 were a result of nurture and nature, not mental illness. His long minority rule, surrounded by warring uncles, had inculcated in him an almost pathological desire to avoid confrontation, rendering him over-generous in his patronage, granting estates on little more than a petitioner’s appeal, to the detriment of his finances and occasionally even to law and order.

Because of his propensity to rely on chief councillors such as Suffolk to promote his policies, Henry has been accused of lacking a policy of his own, but his overriding aim until 1450 was clear: he sought international peace. He was appalled by the expense and bloodshed of the Hundred Years War, which he may have witnessed first-hand as he progressed slowly towards Paris for his French coronation aged ten. For the cause of peace he defied his father’s will and the noisy opposition of his uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, in order to release the Duke of Orléans from English captivity in 1441. He also married Margaret of Anjou and surrendered (pointlessly, it transpired) the territory of Maine. His peace policy was often unpopular, bungled and futile. But it was his, all the same.

Treatments

Henry’s apparent good health before his collapse in 1453 made his physicians’ task all the more delicate. Under the circumstances, the first recourse of his medical team was probably cautiously holistic: a change of diet, the preparation of herbal baths and specially brewed syrups. Music may have been provided, as it had been for Charles VI. The French king’s case was a warning to Henry’s doctors, however, for Charles grew to despise his physician, Regnault Freron, and eventually banished him. Even worse awaited the friars, Pierre and Lancelot, who treated Charles with a medicine distilled from powdered pearls. When they fell from grace they were beheaded and quartered, their dismembered corpses displayed across Paris.

As the efforts yielded no results, the two royal surgeons were probably called upon to attempt some of the more invasive treatments permitted by their council commission. To treat Henry’s ‘frenzy’, caused by an excess of choler destabilising his naturally cold and moist brain, they needed to cool the fevered brow with shaving, drenching with water or even blood-letting from the scalp. This would draw hot blood away from the brain and restore it to its normal state.

However, the extreme lethargy that defined Henry’s illness required completely different care. Stupor was associated with an excess of cold, wet phlegm – a humour that Henry already had in dangerous abundance. Excess phlegm could affect the brain’s memory faculty, as memories were stored as imprints on wet matter at the back of the brain, which explained why Henry could neither recognise nor respond to those around him. Heating and drying were essential to rebalance the royal humours. Among the remedies believed to ‘relieveth and repaireth wits enfeebled’ by stupor was ‘theriac’ or treacle, a hot medicine derived from roasted snake flesh that was so potent royally appointed alchemists inspected its quality on import.

Waking nightmare

It was 17 months before Henry fully recovered. At Christmas 1454 he appeared to revive overnight (although he had been slowly improving since autumn). He spoke, moved and recognised his advisers again, but had no memory of the events of his illness. He met his infant son with delight. There was every indication he would make a full and permanent recovery.

Unfortunately, during Henry’s illness the political realm had fractured once more. Rival parties vied around the incapacitated king for control of government. York was eventually appointed protector, but when Henry awoke to the realities of 1455, he was distressed to learn that York had used his protectorate to imprison two of his rivals, the senior dukes of the blood royal, Somerset and Exeter. Like all medieval kings, Henry was acutely sensitive to questions of aristocratic honour. He swiftly released the pair, an implicit challenge to the ambitions of York and his allies, the earls of Salisbury and Warwick.

On his recovery, Henry declared himself ‘in charity with all the world’, but his nobility could not agree. Tensions escalated as the rival factions manoeuvred to eliminate their opponents, reaching a bloody denouement in the first Battle of St Albans in May 1455. For the first time in Henry’s life, aged 33, he found himself in battle. He saw members of his household butchered in front of him and was dragged to safety after being wounded by a stray arrow. The battle was a resounding success for the Yorkist lords, who killed Somerset, assumed control of Henry and dominated government once more.

For Henry, this traumatic experience impeded the recovery he had made since Christmas. A fortnight after the battle, the physician and alchemist Gilbert Kymer was summoned to Windsor to treat Henry’s ‘sickness and infirmities’. Perhaps the wound he had received in battle troubled him, but it is also likely that Henry was again suffering from problems with his mental health. He slept more often after the battle, suggesting depression. Though not in the paralysing stupor that had afflicted him throughout 1453-4, he was lethargic and passive, apparently incapable of resisting Yorkist demands. He was puppeteered through a parliament that vindicated Yorkist actions and sidelined Henry, bringing about a brief second protectorate under the Duke of York.

The end

Inertia and submission became the defining features of Henry’s kingship after 1455. Before he fell ill in 1453, he had been inattentive, vacillating and averse to conflict – but he had exhibited occasional flashes of independent will. Despite assertions of his ‘monkish’ tendencies, the young Henry demonstrated a capacity for personal magnificence and an enjoyment of hunting and plays.

After 1455 he was dominated by one powerful puppet-master after another: Margaret, York, the Earl of Warwick. When he was deposed by York’s son, Edward IV, in 1461 he left it to Margaret to fight for his crown. As he retreated from one refuge to another, Margaret travelled widely in search of international aid for the Lancastrian cause. In 1465 Henry was captured in Lancashire and imprisoned at the Tower of London.

Surviving records of Henry’s activities and health are scarce after 1461. When he was briefly restored to the throne in 1470-1, a northern chronicler reported that he was ‘not worshipfully arrayed as a prince and not so cleanly kept’. London chroniclers similarly described his shabby appearance, parading through the streets in a blue velvet mourning gown in an attempt to win support, but winning only pity.

By the time he died, in May 1471, his only child had been killed in battle, he and Margaret were Yorkist prisoners and he had lost the vast majority of his servants and supporters to the bloodshed of the Wars of the Roses. He was almost certainly murdered on Edward IV’s orders. If he had anticipated this outcome – his own Lancastrian forebears had similarly disposed of Richard II, the king they usurped – it would have been another worry. When Henry’s body was exhumed in 1910, his teeth were discovered to be ground down, testament to years of anxiety.

When considering the mental health of Henry VI we should not seek a simplistic diagnosis but recognise a complex interplay of griefs, bereavements, traumas and anxieties. He was not just a ‘mad king’, but a sensitive, well-intentioned man enduring distressing circumstances. In later life they proved too much for him. We might wonder who among us would prove wholly ‘sane’ under the same conditions.

Lauren Johnson is the author of Shadow King: The Life and Death of Henry VI (Head of Zeus, 2019).

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