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Henry IV of England

Henry IV (April 3, 1367March 20, 1413) was born at Bolingbroke Castle in Lincolnshire, hence the other name by which he was known, "Henry Bolingbroke". His father, John of Gaunt was the third and oldest surviving son of King Edward III of England, who had enjoyed a position of considerable influence during much of the reign of Richard II. Bolingbroke, however, had a rather more equivocal relationship with Richard as king, leading the Lords Appellantís forces at Radcot Bridge in 1387, and Richard came to view him with the utmost suspicion. The relationship between Bolingbroke and the King had reached a crisis point in 1398 when Richard banished him from the kingdom for ten years on a spurious pretext, and the following year prevented him from inheriting his fatherís title of Duke of Lancaster.

Returning to England while Richard was away in Ireland, Bolingbroke took advantage of widespread popular discontent with the king's autocratic tendencies and took the throne, rising from Henry, Duke of Lancaster to King Henry IV and by-passing Richardís heir-apparent Edmund Mortimer. Henry invoked the Salic Law (which had never and still does not apply to the English royal succession) to justify this. However in reality Henry's claim to the throne was simply that he was the best candidate: popular with parliament and with the majority of barons and magnates in the land, he seemed to bring the best prospect of good government. Henry's coronation, on October 13, 1399, is notable as the first time following the Norman Conquest that the monarch made an address in English. As king, Henry was at pains to consult with parliament on every important decision.

In 1380 Henry married Mary de Bohun; they had two daughters and four sons, one of which was the future Henry V of England. In 1406, one of their daughters, Philippa, married Eric of Pomerania, king of Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Mary died in 1394, and in 1403 Henry married Joanna of Navarre, the daughter of Charles d'Albret, King of Navarre. She was the widow of John IV of Brittany, with whom she had four daughters and four sons, but she and Henry had no children. The fact that in 1399 Henry had four sons from his first marriage was undoubtedly a clinching factor in his acceptance onto the throne. By contrast, Richard II had no children, and Richard's heir-apparent Mortimer was only seven years old.

Henry spent much of his reign defending himself against plots, rebellions and assassination attempts. His first problem was what to do with the deposed Richard, and after an early assassination plot was foiled, he probably ordered his death by starvation in early 1400, although there is no evidence for this. Richard's body was put on public desplay in the old St Paul's Cathedral to show his supporters that he was dead. Henry was able to win backing from the church quickly by condemning Lollardy which was politically convenient for him since many Lollards had supported Richard II.

However, rebellions continued throughout the first ten years of Henryís reign, including the revolt of Owen Glendower who declared himself Prince of Wales in 1400, and the rebellion of Henry Percy, 1st Earl of Northumberland. The king's success in putting down these rebellions was due partly to the military ability of his eldest son, Henry, who would later become King Henry V of England. These events form the plot of Shakespeare's Henry IV, part 1.

In 1406, English soldiers captured the future James I of Scotland as he was going to France. James remained a prisoner of Henry for the rest of Henry's reign.

The later years of Henry's reign were marked by serious health problems. He had some sort of disfiguring skin disease, and more seriously suffered acute attacks of some grave illness in June 1405, April 1406, June 1408, during the winter of 1408–9, December 1412, and then finally a fatal bout in March 1413. Medical historians have long debated the nature of this affliction or afflictions. The skin disease might have been leprosy (which in any case didn't mean precisely the same thing as it does to modern medicine), perhaps psoriasis, a symptom of syphilis, or something else. The acute attacks have been given a wide range of explanations, from epilepsy to some from of cardiovascular disease.

In 1413, he died in the Jerusalem Chamber in the house of the Abbot of Westminster. He was buried in Canterbury Cathedral. His body was well embalmed, as an exhumation some centuries later established.

Preceded by:
John of Gaunt
Lord High Steward
Succeeded by:
Thomas of Lancaster


  • Peter McNiven, "The Problem of Henry IV's Health, 1405–1413", English Historical Review, 100 (1985), pp747–772

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