Saturday, November 19, 2016

Henry VI: Part Two

by Derek Birks

Henry VI

At the end of my first post about Henry VI (click here for Part One), I posed the question: would Henry VI learn from his mistakes? 

I think you might already suspect the answer but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and see what he does after 1450.

King's College, Cambridge: Endowed by Henry VI
After the failure of Cade’s rebellion in 1450, Henry was given another chance to get it right. Up to 1450 his rule was characterised by the three Ps: prayer, piety and peace which underpinned not only his spiritual life but also his kingship. There is nothing wrong with the three Ps at all, except that a successful king had to consider other aspects of life too. Most medieval kings thought prayer and piety very important, but they also knew they must understand what their subjects – especially their leading subjects – wanted from them.

I don’t believe Henry was a fool but I do think he was an idealist. In fact, the influence of his ideals on his policies meant that at times of crisis he sometimes made the wrong call. I see this as perhaps the most important failure of his disastrous reign.

What factors dominated politics after 1450?

By 1450 Henry had been married to Margaret of Anjou for five years without producing an heir to the throne. A male heir is what every king needed. Though it has been suggested that Henry’s apparent awkwardness with the naked body made his marital relations difficult, it seems to me that Henry took his royal duties seriously enough.

Of course, if Henry did not have a child then the crown would most likely pass to Richard, Duke of York. When, in the troubled summer of 1450, most of Henry’s inner circle of advisers were killed, rebel manifestos already argued that the Duke of York should play a greater role in advising the king. Yet York had been recalled from France in 1447 and sent to Ireland where he was very far indeed from the political epicentre.

Clearly Henry mistrusted or feared the Duke of York but, up to 1447, York appears to have been a loyal crown servant. Supplanting York as a commander in France was Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset – a man with modest qualifications as a military leader. After the rebellion in 1450, Somerset was brought home and became a close royal confidant.

Beaufort was not just any old peer. His family, like those of the king and York, was descended from Edward III. He was closer in blood to Henry than York was, though barred from the succession by letters patent of Henry IV. We do not know whether Henry wanted to restore the Beaufort line to the succession, but he must have considered the possibility and York saw Somerset as a clear rival. No, not just a rival; he was the enemy, for he was receiving the very rewards that York believed his status warranted, whilst York had acquired only debts from his government service.

How did the Rivalry between York and Somerset cause Henry problems?

Henry probably thought it best to leave York in Ireland – out of sight, if not entirely out of mind – but I fear he should have paid attention to the maxim: ‘Keep your friends close but your enemies closer.’

As I’ve pointed out in a previous post, Richard, Duke of York, took his position in the state very seriously indeed and whilst he remained loyal to the king, he did not wish to see his status eroded by the presence of Edmund Beaufort at court. He must have been spitting blood in Ireland, looking on during Cade’s rebellion as Henry’s government floundered.

So, in September 1450 York returned to England without Henry’s permission and arrived at Westminster with a large retinue. He had come, he said, to proclaim his loyalty and offer himself publicly as the man to lead the king’s government and remove corruption. This was a popular, if rather elusive - and illusory - aim. York waged a propaganda war against Somerset, posing as the champion of justice. He called in favours from his many clients, raising their hopes of gaining advancement in a ‘new order’ with York at the helm. His influence in parliament was especially strong but sadly parliaments were called only at the bidding of the king.

How did Henry respond to York’s Challenge?

Henry, not unreasonably I would suggest, issued a response which declined York’s kind offer and emphasised that he preferred the collective advice of a council to that of one man.

Whilst this sounds laudable enough, it did not stop Somerset’s rise and his appointment in 1451 as Captain of Calais gave him access to a powerful military garrison. Yet, at the same time, the war with France went from bad to worse and soon Gascony was lost.

By February 1452, York had had enough. Action was required and he launched another propaganda campaign to muster support. A surviving letter from the Duke of York to the folk of Shrewsbury shows us clearly his attitude to both the king and Somerset. He cited the: “envy, malice and untruth of the Duke of Somerset” and stressed: “it not being my intent to displease my sovereign lord, but seeing that the said duke ever prevaileth and ruleth about the king’s person and that by this means the land is likely to be destroyed, I am fully determined to proceed in all haste against him with the help of my kinsmen and friends.”

However you dress it up, York was talking rebellion. He raised an army and camped at Dartford. The king also raised an army and camped at Blackheath. This is 1452 remember – before the first battle at St Albans in 1455 which is often regarded as the start of the Wars of the Roses. Two armed camps then, with cannons and so on, but no battle. Why not? Well mainly because York’s support amongst those who mattered – i.e. lords – was minimal. Those we know as the great Yorkist supporters of a few years later, the earls of Salisbury and Warwick, were firmly in the king’s camp. Besides, no-one really had the stomach for a fight. The councillors talked York out of it in the end and, on a promise that Somerset would be arrested and put on trial, York capitulated. However, having disbanded his army, he found that Somerset was neither arrested nor tried.

Whether by luck, good judgement or the diplomacy of the Neville lords, Henry had averted rebellion. Yet, had the Duke of York not committed open treason and escaped unpunished?

Herein lay a critical failure of Henry VI: he did not have a ruthless bone in his body. York walked free having brought the kingdom to the brink of chaos. Was this because Henry was a simpleton? No. Was it because he was in the thrall of Somerset? Hardly! It was the three Ps again. Henry wanted peace between his warring factions. A more ruthless man, a more pragmatic king, would have realised that York had overstepped too far and had to go. One could say it was admirable on Henry’s part, but it was a genuine political risk to leave such a powerful man at large. For the time being York went away to lick his wounds, whilst Somerset found ways of punishing his followers if not the man himself.

If York was humiliated and rebellion averted, what went wrong?

Margaret of Anjou from the Talbot Shrewsbury Book
In the latter part of 1452, things were actually looking up for Henry with victories in France and then in the spring of 1453 came the news that Queen Margaret was finally pregnant. It seemed Henry’s fortunes had turned, but it was not to be. In July the English army in France was annihilated at Castillon and its heroic general, the Earl of Shrewsbury, killed.

Shortly after this catastrophe, the king himself suffered a breakdown. Perhaps it was prompted by news of the defeat, or perhaps by the reality of his wife’s pregnancy, but in truth we’ll never know. It may just have been lying in wait in his genes ready to pop out and cause maximum disaster – well it certainly did that!

Henry was incapable of movement, let alone thought. In a personal monarchy this meant there was a vacuum at the centre of power. Nothing important could be done without the king’s approval, so effectively nothing important could be done… For two months the king’s condition was kept secret but that could not go on forever. It’s ironic in a way that despite all the frequent criticisms of Henry’s weakness or folly, it is his absence that propels the government of England into the abyss.

In mid-October 1453 the queen gave birth to a son, the heir Henry so desperately needed. But later in October the King’s Council met to discuss what to do about Henry’s condition. Somerset clearly intended to rule as some sort of regent, hoping that the council would be swayed in his favour by York’s previous misdemeanours. If York was allowed to return to the council, there would not be room for both of them.

In 1452 York was isolated but in the year since then, far away from the royal court, something very important had happened: York had found some powerful friends.

This new development will be the focus of my next post in this series, which will focus on Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick.

Previous posts in the series, see The Magnificent the War of the Roses, and Henry VI: Part One.

Henry VI: By Unknown - National Portrait Gallery: NPG 2457 [Public Domain]
King's College Chapel, Cambridge: By Dmitry Tonkonog (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Margaret of Anjou: By Talbot Master (fl. in Rouen, c. 1430–60) - Cropped image of File:Presentation of the Book of Romances.jpg, a scan of the manuscript illuminated by the Talbot Master (British Library, Royal 15 E VI, f. 2v), Public Domain


Derek Birks was born in Hampshire in 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 November 2016.

Connect with Derek through his Website, Blog, and Twitter (@Feud_writer). The Rebels & Brothers series is available on Amazon UK and


  1. It sounds as though Henry was in a catatonic state after the disaster in Castillon. Looking forward to the next instalment.

  2. Thanks, Cryssa. I think the word tragic was formed with Henry in mind!

  3. When I have read lists of England's worst kings, Henry is not there. I wonder if it's because we feel a little sorry for him. He was a poor king but a good man.


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