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King Henry VI

(r.1422-1461 and 1470-1471)

Born at Windsor on the 6 December 1421, Henry was the only child of King Henry V and Catherine of Valois.

He succeeded to the throne at just nine months old after the death of his father on the 31 August 1422.

Henry was brought up to be a king.

He was well educated with Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick being appointed his tutor in 1428.

From a very young age he attended state functions and the opening of parliament.

In later life Henry’s personal piety and interest in education saw him spend lavishly on the foundations of Eton College and King’s College Cambridge.

An admirer of King Alfred the Great, Henry also authorised a new library at Salisbury Cathedral.

A regency parliament, dominated by his father’s family, ran the country while Henry was in his minority.

It included his great uncle Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester and his uncle Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester who was appointed Lord Protector.

Another uncle John, Duke of Bedford was given responsibility for the English held territories in France.

On the 5 November 1429 Henry was crowned king at Westminster Abbey.

The ceremony emphasised that Henry was not just king of England but also of France.

Under the Treaty of Troyes Henry VI had become king of France after the death of his grandfather Charles VI in October 1422.

To promote this dual monarchy, in April 1430 Henry sailed to Calais before travelling on to Rouen where he stayed for over a year.

The Duke of Bedford had continued the war in France but in 1429 Joan of Arc’s victory at Orléans and the subsequent coronation of Charles VII at Reims had boosted French morale and seen the fortunes of war turn against the English.

The unfavourable military situation left Henry unable to travel to Reims.

Instead he was crowned in Paris at Notre-Dame on the 16 December 1431 before hastily returning to England at the beginning of February.

Henry VI never returned to France.

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15 year old Henry takes charge

Despite their personal rivalries the regency government had been successful in ruling the country.

However, in 1436 the fifteen year old Henry began to govern the country for himself.

Henry was intelligent and well-educated but totally unsuited to kingship.

He struggled to assert his independence and was influenced by powerful individuals at court, often to the detriment of the country’s good governance.

Inexpert in the political realities of government, he generously rewarded his friends and servants with land and titles causing his household debts to spiral out of control.

By 1450 Henry’s rule was in crisis.

Despite high levels of taxation the crown was in serious debt.

Law and order was breaking down and banditry was rife.

Henry was repelled by war and had adopted a policy of peace with France.

On the 22 April 1445 he’d married Margaret of Anjou, niece of the French queen at Titchfield Abbey, but it did not end the war with France and in August 1450 Normandy was lost to the French.

By the end of 1453 only Calais would remain in English hands.

Trade with the continent had suffered due to the hostilities and French ships raided the south coast.

Factional infighting and the English failure in France led to the downfall of Henry’s favourite William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk who was impeached by parliament and murdered while leaving for exile abroad.

The widespread discontent at Henry’s government led to Jack Cade’s Rebellion, whose manifesto included demands to end the corruption and injustices in local and national government.

The Wars of the Roses

In August 1453 Henry had a severe mental breakdown that left him unable to speak.

He showed no sign of awareness when told of the birth of his son Edward on the 13 October.

While Henry was incapacitated at Windsor, Duke Richard of York was appointed Protector of the Realm.

Distrusted and disliked by Queen Margaret, the Duke of York had a claim to the throne as a descendant of Edward III.

The king returned to health at Christmas 1454 and promptly reversed many of York’s decisions including releasing York’s political rival Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset from the Tower and restoring him to favour.

Henry’s ineffectual leadership alienated Duke Richard and his supporters at court.

Professing his loyalty for the king, York raised an army intending to remove Somerset from power.

They met at St Albans in May 1455, in what became the first battle of the Wars of the Roses.

Somerset and several high ranking Lancastrians were killed.

Henry was wounded in the neck by an arrow and fled the field, taking refuge in a tanner’s cottage.

A victorious York escorted Henry back to London where they were formally reconciled at a ceremony in St Paul’s Cathedral.

In November 1455 Henry’s health deteriorated and York once again governed England as Protector until his resignation in February 1456.

Soon after, the royal court moved out of London to the Lancastrian heart-lands in the midlands.

Favourites of the queen were appointed to senior positions and Margaret of Anjou came to be a political force at court with a great influence over Henry.

The Yorkist leaders were forced to flee abroad after their men refused to fight against the king at Ludford Bridge in October 1459.

On the 20 November at the Parliament of Devils in Coventry, Duke Richard and the leading Yorkist nobles were accused of treason and attainted.

The following year they returned with an army, defeated the royal forces at Northampton and took the king captive.

Henry was taken back to London where he was powerless to prevent the Act of Accord, which disinherited his own son and made York heir to the throne.

Parliament appointed Duke Richard Lord Protector of England. Henry was now little more than a king in name only.

Pope Pious II described Henry as “a man more timorous than a woman, utterly devoid of wit or spirit”.

It was the queen who was forced to take up the Lancastrian cause and defend the throne for her husband and son Edward. Margaret rallied the Lancastrian supporters and sought aid from the king of Scotland.

In December 1460 Duke Richard of York was killed at the Battle of Wakefield.

Margaret was reunited with Henry after the Lancastrian victory at the Second Battle of St Albans in February 1461.

However the tide soon turned in the Yorkist’s favour.

Declaring Henry unfit to rule, Richard of York’s son proclaimed himself King Edward IV and went on to win a resounding victory at Towton on the 29 March.

Henry, who was at York with the queen and his son, spent the battle in prayer.

They fled to Scotland when they received word of the defeat.

Imprisoned in the Tower

Deposed as king, Henry spent four years as a fugitive moving between Scotland and the Northumbrian coast.

He evaded capture during the Battle of Hexham by hiding at Bywell Castle.

On the 13 July 1465 Henry was apprehended by King Edward’s men at Ribblesdale in Lancashire.

Strapped to the back of a horse Henry was taken to London and imprisoned in the Tower, where he would remain for five years.

Members of King Edward’s household attended on him, a priest heard Mass with him daily and he was allowed visitors.

However when Henry was freed from captivity one account describes how he was not “arrayed as a prince, and not so cleanly kept as should seem such a prince”.

In October 1470 King Edward IV fled to Burgundy after Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick turned against him and allied himself with Margaret of Anjou.

Henry was re-installed as king in a ceremony at St Paul’s Cathedral.

In reality Henry was little more than a puppet king.

The real power lay with the Earl of Warwick.

Henry’s second reign was to last only a few months.

Prince Edward was killed at the Battle of Tewkesbury on the 4 May 1471, and his mother Margaret of Anjou captured.

On the 21 May Henry died, almost certainly murdered, in the Tower of London.

He was buried at Chertsey Abbey, although his body was later relocated by King Richard III to Saint Georges Chapel in Windsor Castle.