Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Henry VI: Part One

by Derek Birks

In choosing a title for my first look at Henry VI, I found it convenient to take a leaf out of Shakespeare. Henry is, of course, the king in whose reign the Wars of the Roses began – a subject close to my heart. This post focuses on Henry before his illness and the crisis years after 1453.

Like many figures in history, Henry VI has become almost a caricature, so I think the place to start is: when you think of Henry VI, what thought first pops into your head?

By Unknown - National Portrait Gallery:
NPG 2457
[Public Domain] Wikimedia Commons
 Perhaps that he was a poor king? Or that he was a weak man? Or that he went mad? Or that he recovered from his illness? Or perhaps that he was a saintly figure? Or was a man of peace? Whatever your first impression of him, this king’s personality and policies had a profound impact on the nation’s history.

What difficulties did Henry face as king?

The greatest of Henry’s problems, the war with France, was not of his own making; he inherited it. But most kings inherited problems and a judgement of his kingship requires us to consider whether he made those problems easier to combat, or more difficult. The most obvious fact about his accession is that at the time of his father’s death, Henry VI was very young – scarcely nine months old. This meant that he would not actually be in control of his government for at least fifteen years, perhaps longer. We should not forget either that this infant had inherited the crown not only of England, but also of France.

His minority lasted until 1437, and during that time government policy was largely determined by his uncles or other leading noblemen and churchmen. A royal minority is expected to lead to factional differences, and Henry’s minority was no exception. Having said that, such disputes were generally settled within the council - by stark contrast with those that arose later in 1450s. 

By unknown scribe: [Public Domain]
Wikimedia Commons
Henry’s long minority is worthy of several posts on its own, but suffice to say here: when Henry actually began to rule, his government was already set on courses which he would find very difficult to change. 

Henry’s difficulties were twofold: there were the problems which arose from governing the kingdom of England and there were those associated with his own personality and attributes.

What sort of a person was Henry VI?

Henry was clearly not a martial figure like many kings. He provided a stark – and to the late medieval eye - an unfortunate contrast with his father, Henry V, whose military exploits were almost legendary. The son was not a warlike figure and his unwillingness, or inability, to play the role of war leader confused and disturbed his leading subjects.

Those closest to him were churchmen such as his chaplain, John Blackman. If we are to believe Blackman, then the young king was a very pious, chaste and honest man. Perhaps then, as Shakespeare put it, “fitter for heaven than earth.”

Blackman should have known Henry better than anyone and his description made him appear most respectful of God in his daily life and in his outlook. However, this account was written to support an application to make Henry a saint and thus it might be treated as rather suspect.

By contrast, some popular opinions expressed about the king in the 1440s and 1450s suggest that he was regarded as either a simpleton or a madman. Some of these statements were taken seriously enough to be contested in the courts. Clearly it was in the interests of Henry’s later political opponents, led by Richard, Duke of York, to convince people that Henry was so foolish that someone else needed to rule in his stead.

Both sides of the argument might therefore be treated as propaganda, but if we dismiss both then we are left with nothing! Only by considering what he actually did, can we make any sort of a judgement.

How far did Henry rule rather than simply reign?

This is an important question because if Henry was more concerned with his own spiritual wellbeing than matters of state, then we might draw the conclusion that his neglect allowed others to take control. On the other hand, if he did intervene in policy, and it proved disastrous, then it was not neglect but poor decision making that characterised his kingship. 

The marriage of Henry VI shown in an illustrated
manuscript of Vigilles de Charles VII
by Martial d'Auvergne
For a long time Henry was regarded by historians as merely a cipher who was unable to control some of his most influential advisers. Years of deferring to his councillors during the long minority had apparently made it hard for him to break free from them. It has become clear though, that there were times when Henry specifically intervened in policy. An early, and telling, example of this is his handling of peace negotiations with the French.

The leading councillor in Henry’s government during much of the 1440s was William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk. Rightly or wrongly, Suffolk was credited, or blamed, for what Henry’s government did during that time, but it seems that he disagreed with Henry over peace with France.

In 1445, England still held much of France and thus could negotiate to end the war from a position of strength. Suffolk believed that this strong position should make an honourable peace possible, though many of Henry’s leading subjects would actually have preferred to press the war effort harder rather than contemplate any sort of peace.

Henry, however, had his own agenda and it was completely at odds with both Suffolk and the rest of the ruling classes: he wanted peace because he believed that peace was always the best policy. He thought that he and the French king, Charles VII, being Christian kings who both desired peace, could settle affairs justly between them. No doubt encouraged – though not coerced - by his newly-acquired young French wife, Margaret of Anjou, Henry decided to extend the olive branch to Charles VII by means of a secret letter. The olive branch amounted to the surrender to France of two of the most important areas held in France by the English: Maine and Anjou.

The fact that Henry kept the contents of this letter secret for some time suggests that he was by no means a fool! He clearly knew very well that his councillors would be very hostile indeed to its contents. So it was, because in the wake of the revelation of the king’s intentions, English policy descended into a chaotic farce culminating in humiliation by the early 1450s. By that time France had gained, one way or another, vast swathes of territory which England had held in 1445. Henry was not solely to blame for all this, but his intervention had prompted it. You could say he was idealistic in seeking peace. He was not a simpleton, but one could argue that his policy was foolish since he was out of step with the views of many of his most powerful contemporaries. I suppose it depends where you draw the line between idealism and folly.

How can we assess the effectiveness of Henry’s policies up to 1450?

England in Henry’s reign up to 1450 was a relatively peaceful and wealthy kingdom. We are often presented with the view that the fifteenth century was a century of disorder and lawlessness – it wasn’t. There were, however, moments when an outbreak of violence occurred – as was the case in both the previous and following centuries. Such outbreaks were evidence not of a warlike society but simply that some elements of society were so outraged by the government’s policies that they resorted to violence.

By 1450, not only had the expensive French war been going on for some time, but worse than that, the English appeared to be losing it. The inevitable conclusion drawn by many folk was that a corrupt and incompetent government was to blame. In that year there was increasing unrest in Kent directed against the government. It reached such a point in February 1450 that Henry ordered that all his household servants should be equipped with bows and then he declared that no man was to carry arms anywhere in London and the south east. This of course was nonsense, but it showed the level of alarm that existed in the government.

In July 1450 a rebellion occurred in Kent led by Jack Cade and it touched a nerve with folk in other areas of the country: for example in Sussex, Wiltshire and Essex. If we consider that about 2000 people were pardoned for their involvement in the revolt, we can see that many more must have participated. King Henry fled to Kenilworth and Jack Cade actually entered London. By July 1450, several key members of Henry’s government, including Suffolk, had been brutally killed.

Yet, after it all, Henry’s government survived, though no doubt somewhat chastened by the experience. Henry had been given a warning – all his closest advisers had paid for their policies with their lives. The question was: would this gentle, peace-loving king learn from his mistakes?

This is the second in a series of posts, entitled: The Magnificent Seven… in the Wars of the Roses. In these posts I am examining the actions and fortunes of seven people without whom, in my view, the Wars of the Roses either would not have happened at all – or would not have lasted so long.

Will Henry learn from his mistakes? We’ll see in the next post of the series: Henry VI: Part 2.

You can see here the first post of the series, on Richard Duke of York, on my blog: Dodging Arrows.


Derek Birks was born in Hampshire, England, but spent his teenage years in Auckland, New Zealand, where he still has strong family ties.

For many years he taught history in a secondary school but took early retirement to concentrate on writing. Apart from his writing, he spends his time gardening, travelling, walking and taking part in archaeological digs at a Roman villa.

Derek is interested in a wide range of historical themes but his particular favourite is the late medieval period. He writes action-packed fiction which is rooted in accurate history.

His debut historical novel Feud is set in the period of the Wars of the Roses and is the first of a series entitled Rebels & Brothers which follows the fortunes of the fictional Elder family.

The fourth and final book of the series The Last Shroud was published in the summer of 2015.

The Elders will return in Scars from the Past, the first of a new series in December 2016.

Connect with Derek through his website (derekbirks.com), blog (Dodging Arrows), and on Twitter (@Feud_writer).

Feud is available on Amazon and Amazon UK.


  1. Terrific post.

    The question was: would this gentle, peace-loving king learn from his mistakes?

    It's interesting he had a 2nd chance. Life as King sometimes doesn't offer that.

    1. Yes, actually he had quite a lot of opportunities to get it right!

  2. He looks weak, doesn't he?

    1. Yes, this image does him no favours at all, but I'm not sure he was as weak as he looks - at least not all the time...


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