This article is about the English king. For Shakespeare's plays about his life, see Henry VI, part 1, Henry VI, part 2, and Henry VI, part 3. For the Holy Roman Emperor, see Henry VI, Holy Roman Emperor.
Henry VI (December 6, 1421 – May 21/22, 1471) was King of England from 1422 to 1461 (though with a Regent until 1437) and then from 1470 to 1471.
Henry was the only child and heir of King Henry V of England, therefore great things were expected of him from birth. He was born on December 6, 1421 at Windsor, but his father died when he was only a few months old. His mother, Catherine of Valois, was French and only twenty years old. Because of general suspicion of her nationality, she was prevented from having much to do with her son's upbringing.
During Henry's minority, England was ruled by a regency government which came to be dominated by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, Henry IV's youngest son, and Bishop Henry Beaufort (Cardinal Beaufort from 1426) who was Henry V's half-uncle. Henry IV's other son John, Duke of Bedford was appointed Regent of France and was in charge of running the ongoing war with France.
From 1428, Henry's tutor was the Earl of Warwick, whose father had been instrumental in the opposition to Richard II's reign. Henry was also influenced by Henry Beaufort, and later William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk. Henry came to favour a policy of peace in France.
Henry's half-brothers, Edmund and Jasper, the sons of his mother's second marriage, were later given earldoms, Edmund being the father of Henry Tudor, later King Henry VII of England.
Henry was eventually crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey on November 6, 1429 at the age of eight, and King of France at Notre Dame in Paris on December 16, 1431. However, he did not assume the reins of government until he was declared of age in 1437—the year in which his mother died.
Early in the child king's reign, the most powerful of the regents were his uncles, John, Duke of Bedford and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. The former died in 1435; the latter was disgraced, accused of treason and probably murdered in 1447.
Henry's marriage to Margaret of Anjou
As a result of his successes in the Hundred Years' War, Henry V had left England in possession of considerable territories in France, but the momentum was lost on his death. While Henry VI was still a child, and England was ruled by a regency government, much of the ground his father gained was lost. A revival of French fortunes, beginning with the military victories of Joan of Arc, led to the repudiation of Henry's title to rule France, and the crowning of the French dauphin at Reims. Diplomatic errors as well as military failures resulted in the loss of most of the English territories in France.
On gaining his majority, Henry VI proved to be a deeply spiritual man, lacking the worldly wisdom necessary to allow him to rule effectively. Right from the time he assumed control as king in 1437, he allowed his court to be dominated by a few noble favorites, and the peace party (which was in favour of ending the war in France) quickly came to dominate, while the voices of Richard, Duke of York and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, the leaders of the pro-war faction, were sidelined and generally ignored.
Cardinal Beaufort and Suffolk meanwhile persuaded the king that the best way of pursuing peace with France was through a marriage with Charles VII’s niece, Margaret of Anjou. Henry agreed, especially when he heard reports of Margaret’s stunning beauty, and sent Suffolk to negotiate with King Charles. Charles agreed to the marriage on condition that he would not have to provide the customary dowry and instead would receive the lands of Maine and Anjou from the English. These conditions were agreed to in the Treaty of Tours , but the cession of Maine and Anjou was kept secret from parliament. It was known that this would be hugely unpopular with the English populace.
The marriage went ahead in 1445 and Margaret’s character seems to have complemented that of Henry’s in that she was prepared to take decisions and show leadership where he was content to be led by her. In this much Margaret proved a more competent ruler than Henry ever was, even though she was only eighteen at that time. Now came the thorny issue of Maine and Anjou. Henry had procrastinated about keeping his end of the bargain with Charles VII, knowing that it would be a hugely unpopular move and that Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester and the war party would be especially critical of it. However, Margaret was determined to make him see it through and finally it became public knowledge in 1446. Most public anger was directed at Suffolk, for having negotiated the Treaty of Tours, but Henry and Margaret were determined to protect him, knowing they were vulnerable too, having also had full knowledge of the conditions of the marriage.
In 1447, the king, the queen and the group surrounding them (Suffolk, Somerset, and the ageing Cardinal Beaufort) summoned Gloucester before parliament on a charge of treason in Bury St Edmunds, and he died in captivity, whether of natural causes or foul play was not clear. The death of Gloucester left York as Henry’s heir apparent, but Henry never officially acknowledged this and York continued to be excluded from the court circle, being banished to govern Ireland, while Henry and Margaret promoted Suffolk and Edmund Beaufort to Dukedoms, (a title normally reserved for immediate relatives of the monarch). Beaufort, the new Duke of Somerset (and Cardinal Beaufort's son) was sent to France to lead the war.
Increasing unpopularity and insanity
The government’s increasing unpopularity was due to a breakdown in law and order, corruption, the distribution of royal land to the king’s court favourites, the troubled state of the crown’s finances, and the steady loss of territories in France. In 1447, this unpopularity took the form of a Commons campaign against the Duke of Suffolk, who was the most unpopular of all the King’s entourage and widely seen as a traitor. Henry was forced to send him into exile, but his ship was intercepted in the English Channel, and he was murdered. His body was found on the beach at Dover. The Queen was distraught.
In 1449, Somerset, leading the campaign in France, reopened hostilities in Normandy, but by the autumn had been pushed back to Caen. By 1450, the French had retaken the whole province, so hard won by Henry V. Returning troups, who had often not been paid, added to the sense of lawlessness in the southern counties of England, and Jack Cade led a rebellion in Kent in 1450, calling himself ‘John Mortimer’ in sympathy with York and setting up residence at the White Hart Inn in Southwark (the white hart had been the symbol of the deposed Richard II). Henry came to London with an army to crush the rebellion, but was persuaded to keep half his troups behind while the other half met Cade at Sevenoaks. Cade triumphed and went on to occupy London. In the end, the rebellion achieved nothing, and London was retaken after a few days of disorder, but the rebellion showed that feelings of discontent were running high.
In 1450, the Duchy of Aquitaine, held since Henry II's time, was also lost, leaving Calais as England's only remaining territory in France. By 1452, York was persuaded to return from Ireland, claim his rightful place on the council, and put an end to bad government. His cause was a popular one, and he soon raised an army at Shrewsbury. The court party, meanwhile, raised their own similar-sized force in London. A stand-off took place south of London, with York presenting a list of grievances and demands to the court circle, including the arrest of the Duke of Somerset. The king initially agreed, but Margaret intervened to prevent the arrest of Somerset. By 1453, his influence had been restored, and York was again isolated. In the meantime, an English advance in Aquitaine had retaken Bordeaux and was having some success, and the queen announced that she was pregnant.
However, English success in Aquitaine was short-lived, and on hearing the news of the English defeat in August 1453, Henry slipped into a mental breakdown and became completely unaware of everything that was going on around him. This was to last for more than a year, and Henry failed even to respond to the birth of his own son and heir, who was christened Edward (Edward of Westminster and Prince of Wales). York, meanwhile, had gained a very important ally, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, one of the most influential magnates and possibly richer than York himself. York was named regent as Protector of the Realm in 1454. He finally had the position of influence he had wanted, the queen was excluded completely, and Somerset was detained in the Tower of London, while many of York's supporters rumoured that the king's child was not his, but Somerset's (there is no proof of this). Other than that, York’s months as regent were spent tackling the problem of government overspending. On Christmas Day 1454, however, Henry regained his senses.
Henry’s character as king is best summed up as pious, indecisive and easily-led, and of course later in life, he became severely mentally unstable. He was kind and generous to those who he cared about (which did not help the dire financial situation of his government) giving away land and titles to his advisors. He avoided the ostentatious trappings of his role, preferring simple dress. He was keen on reading and 'book-learning' but showed no inclination whatsoever towards leading his country in battle - ironic, considering his reign was one of the bloodiest in English history. He disliked making war on his fellow Christians and he was keen for justice to be done in his name - again ironical, considering the widespread corruption and collapse of law and order which occurred under him. Henry seems to have used religion and piety as a means of escape from the harsh world of bitter rivalries and power struggles which surrounded him at court. He was excessively prudish, which was encouraged by his confessor who advised him to abstain from sex with his wife as much as possible.
Keen on the promotion of education, Henry gave generous grants for the foundation of both Eton College near Windsor, for the education of students from poor backgrounds, and King's College, Cambridge, where they could continue their education. Henry seems to have been a decent man, but completely unsuited to kingship. He allowed himself to be totally dominated by the power-hungry factions which surrounded him at court and was later powerless to stop the outbreak of bloody civil war. It was clearly too much for him to cope with, as his recurring mental illness from 1453 onwards showed. During the Wars of the Roses it was his queen, Margaret, who was the driving force behind the Lancastrian faction, while Henry was captured first by one side, then the other. Whoever had the king in their possession was able to claim to be ruling in his name.
The Wars of the Roses
Disaffected nobles who had grown in power during Henry's reign (most importantly the Earls of Warwick and Salisbury) took matters into their own hands by backing the claims of the rival House of York, first to the Regency, and then to the throne itself. After a violent struggle between the houses of Lancaster and York, (see Wars of the Roses), Henry was deposed on March 4, 1461 by his cousin, Edward of York, who became King Edward IV of England. But Edward failed to capture Henry and his queen, and they were able to flee into exile abroad. During the first period of Edward IV's reign, Lancastrian resistance continued mainly under the leadership of Queen Margaret and the few nobles still loyal to her in the northern counties of England and Wales. Henry was captured by King Edward in 1465 and subsequently held captive in the Tower of London.
Queen Margaret, exiled in Scotland and later in France, was determined to win back the throne on behalf of her husband and son, and with the help of King Louis XI of France eventually formed an alliance with Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, who had fallen out with Edward IV. After marrying his daughter to the Prince of Wales, Warwick returned to England, defeated the Yorkists in battle, liberated Henry VI and restored him to the throne on October 30, 1470. Henry's return to the throne lasted a very short time. By this time, years in hiding followed by years in captivity had taken their toll on Henry, who had been weak-willed and mentally unstable to start with. By all accounts Henry looked lethargic and vacant as Warwick and his men paraded him through the streets of London as the rightful King of England, and the constrast with the imposing King Edward whom he had replaced must have been marked. Within a few months Warwick had overreached himself by declaring war on Burgundy, whose ruler responded by giving Edward IV the assistance he needed to win back his throne by force. The Prince of Wales was killed at the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471.
Death and legacy
Henry VI was imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he was murdered some time during May of 1471. Although legend has accused Richard, Duke of Gloucester of his murder, Richard is an unlikely suspect, having been only nineteen at the time.
King Henry VI was originally buried in Chertsey Abbey ; then, in 1485, his body was moved to St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle.
He was succeeded by Edward IV, son of Richard, Duke of York.
Ironically for one so personally pious and peace-loving, Henry left a great legacy of strife and civil war. Perhaps his one lasting positive achievement was his fostering of education—he founded both Eton College and King's College, Cambridge.
In the 1590s, William Shakespeare wrote a trilogy of plays about the life of Henry VI: Henry VI, part 1, Henry VI, part 2, and Henry VI, part 3.