Thursday, March 26, 2015

A Charmed Royal Life

by Anne O'Brien

Henry Bolingbroke, later Duke of Lancaster, son and heir of John of Gaunt, became King Henry IV of England in September of 1399 after seizing the crown from his cousin Richard II and being acclaimed king by the English lords. It was to be a short and eventful reign, Henry dying in March 1314 at the relatively young age of 45 years, from longstanding ill-health rather than violence.  I knew about this when I first started writing about Joanna of Navarre, Henry's second wife.  What I did not know was that in the first five years of Henry's reign seven attempts were made on his life, either directly or indirectly.  It was astonishing that he survived at all.

This is a contemporary image of Henry from an illuminated letter in the Great Cowcher of the Duchy of Lancaster, made in 1402.  Probably far more accurate than the above portrait of Henry, which was painted much later in the century.

1400 The Epiphany Rising

In the first months of Henry's reign when the deposed Richard was still alive, imprisoned in Pontefract Castle, this rebellion, sometimes known as the Revolt of the Earls, was planned by a group of lords sympathetic to Richard's plight and led by the Duke of Exeter, Henry's brother-in-law.  The plot was to assassinate Henry and his four sons at Windsor on the occasion of the celebratory tournament, planned by Henry to honour the Feast of the Epiphany on 6th January.  Richard would be restored as King.  Details of the pot were leaked to Henry and, because London remained loyal to Henry, the plotters, who fled, were subsequently captured and suitably dealt with.  A bloody beginning to the reign.

Here, easily recognisable, is Windsor Castle where the deed was to have taken place.

1400 The Owain Glyn Dwr Rising

Glyn Dwr claimed the title of Prince of Wales and vowed to kill Henry and his eldest son, becoming a permanent thorn in Henry's flesh, raiding along the Marches and into England.  The threat became more serious when he allied with the Percy family and Edmund Mortimer whose claim to the English throne could be considered stronger that Henry's except that it came through a female line.  Glyn Dwr ultimately failed in his bid, but in the early years of Henry's reign he appeared to be a serious threat to English security and Henry's life, forcing Henry into numerous Welsh campaigns, and ultimately into the Battle of Shrewsbury, as illustrated below.

1400 the affair of the poisoned saddle

One of the more exotic attempts on Henry's life.  Henry's saddle was said to have been smeared with some poisonous substance that would cause him to swell up and die before he had ridden ten miles.  Fortunately for Henry, the plot was discovered before Henry mounted his horse.  The perpetrator of this imaginative scheme is not on record.

1402 the Friars' conspiracy

Another plot to kill Henry and his sons and restore Richard.  Although Richard had now been dead for two years, the rallying cry "Richard is Alive" was widely used to win supporters to any insurrection against Henry.  Rumours were particularly rife that Richard was at large in Scotland, waiting for the call to resume his crown. Once again detail of the plot was leaked, and on this occasion, the church was involved in the planned uprising.  Eight friars were put on trial and condemned as being central to the plot.

1403 the Percy Rising

The powerful northern family that had been so instrumental in bringing Henry to the throne in 1399 turned against him, complaining of lack of financial appreciation for their efforts on Henry's behalf.  They joined forces with Glyn Dwr to increase their power in England.  This rebellion culminated in the Battle of Shrewsbury in which Henry and his eldest son fought.  It ended with the execution of the Earl of Worcester for treason, the death of Harry Hotspur on the battlefield and the arrest and imprisonment of the Earl of Northumberland.  This was the battle in which the prince (the future Henry V) was struck in the face by an arrow, which left him badly scarred.

Henry knew that the sole purpose of his enemies on that day at Shrewsbury would be to kill him.  Therefore  he took the precaution of asking two of his knights to wear his livery, to confuse the issue.  Henry survived what was to be a blood-bath with thousands dead.

This is the impressive Battlefield Church of St Mary Magdalene which stands, now unused but still consecrated, in open countryside on the site of the Battle of Shrewsbury of 1403.  Its building was authorised by Henry in the years after the battle and it is said that it stands over a grave pit holding many of the thousands who died there.

1404 Countess of Oxford

This lady was first cousin to the Percys and mother of Richard II's erstwhile favourite Robert de Vere, who had been forced into exile by the five Lords Appellant, so she had a vested interest in revenge against Henry who had been one of the Lords Appellant as well as responsible for the Percy downfall.  She invited the Duke of Orleans and the Count of St Pol to invade England with a French army and march on Henry in the name of King Richard.  It was proposed that Richard, alive and well, would meet with Glyn Dwr at Northampton, thus making the most of Glyn Dwr's continuing antagonism, before joining with French invaders.  It did not come to pass.  No one was in favour of French troops on English soil.  French attempts to land at Dartmouth and on the Isle of Wight were effectively repulsed.

1404 Assassination at Eltham

Details are vague for this attempt to remove Henry from the scene, but Lady Constance Despenser, Henry's cousin, accused her brother the Duke of York of plotting an assassination.  The assassins were to scale the walls of Eltham Palace or waylay Henry on the road when he went to spend Christmas there with his wife Joanna and his family.  Whether this was true or not is open to debate, but certainly York and Lady Constance were involved in the plot to take control of the two young Mortimer heirs and deliver them into the hands of Glyn Dwr as a focus for the rebellion against Henry.  The plot never came to fruition, and the escape of the Mortimer boys in the company of Lady Constance was foiled.

The affair of the metal contraption.

The strangest of all.  Rumour said that it was planned to place a metal contraption in Henry's bed, that would spear his vitals and kill him.  There appears to be little truth in this, but it shows the atmosphere of the time that such rumours should be spread.  A man who took the crown from the Anointed King must accept that many of his subjects would feel aggrieved when the country was suffering from high taxes.

The tomb of Henry IV and Queen Joanna
in Canterbury Cathedral.

What a violent few years this was in English history with no comfortable corners to give sanctuary to any player in the game. Henry survived these many and various attempts on his life, sadly to succumb to a most painful and debilitating skin complaint that caused his body to waste away so that ultimately he could neither walk nor ride.  It was said by contemporaries to be leprosy.  Today it is considered not to be, but it brought Henry to an early death three weeks short of his forty sixth birthday.


My website gives up to date news of my books, signings and talks.  Do drop by. My novel, The Queen's Choice, about Joanna and Henry will be published in November 2015.


  1. It's a fascinating story. I must admit to having a soft spot for Glyn Dwr and Shakespeare certainly had a soft spot for Hotspur, whom he made much younger and a likeable character. For that matter, Edith Pargeter, aka Ellis Peters, had plenty of sympathy for Hotspur, judging by her fiction.

    But the Percy family seem to have been traitors to whoever was in power over the centuries, ever noticed that?

  2. Oops. Typo. He died in 1413. Not 1313. It happens all the time. Nice article, though. :)


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