Henry IV: the usurper king

Henry IV may be best known for seizing the throne from his cousin Richard II. Yet, says his latest biographer Chris Given-Wilson, Henry's greatest feat wasn't grabbing power but holding on to it...

A painting of Henry IV, housed in the National Portrait Gallery, London. English earls, Scottish kings, French dukes and a Welsh prince all tried to unseat Henry, yet this most resilient of medieval monarchs prevailed over them all. (Photo by Getty Images)

This article was first published in the February 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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On 30 June 1399, Henry of Bolingbroke stepped ashore at Ravenspur on the Humber, ostensibly to recover his inheritance. It was a daring move, for just nine months earlier, Henry had been banished from England by his cousin King Richard II. Then, in March 1399, Richard had seized the great Lancastrian duchy from under Henry’s nose following the death of the latter’s father, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. When Richard unwisely sailed to Ireland in May, Henry seized his chance with characteristic boldness.

No army of invasion accompanied him, just a handful of servants and fellow exiles. Barely had Henry landed, however, when Lancastrian retainers and disaffected nobles, chafing under Richard’s predatory rule, flocked to his banner, while support for the king evaporated. Returning from Ireland, Richard was cornered at Flint Castle in north Wales, where on 16 August the cousins met. Jean Creton, a valet, in Richard’s service, recorded their conversation: “My lord,” said Henry, “I have come sooner than you sent for me, and I shall tell you why: it is commonly said among your people that you have, for the last 22 years, governed them very badly and far too harshly. If it please Our Lord, however, I shall now help you to govern them better.”

Yet whatever Henry claimed, he knew that if Richard was permitted to retain power he would sooner or later exact revenge for his humiliation. So it was as Henry’s prisoner that the king was escorted to London, where on 30 September he was deposed. On 13 October, Henry of Bolingbroke was crowned Henry IV.

Betrayed and lynched

Yet winning a kingdom proved easier than keeping it. For a start, although Richard was childless, Henry was not his primogenitary heir. That right belonged to the eight-year-old Earl of March, great-grandson of Gaunt’s elder brother, Lionel of Clarence, albeit through a female line. Henry’s descent through a direct male line undoubtedly strengthened his claim, but there were many who regarded Lancastrian kingship as illegitimate, and hence a justifiable cause for rebellion.

The first attempt to unseat Henry – the Epiphany Rising – came just three months after his coronation, when the Earls of Kent, Huntingdon and Salisbury devised a plot to ambush him and his sons at Windsor. Although they were betrayed and lynched, and some 40 of their followers beheaded, it was clear that the former king was too dangerous to be allowed to live, and within another month Richard was dead. It was put about that he had starved himself to death “of melancholy”, but in fact he was almost certainly murdered on Henry’s orders.

Nevertheless, the cry of regicide was little heard in England. Instead, it was rumours that Richard was still alive and would return to claim his kingdom that plagued Henry for the next few years. Scotland, where a pseudo-Richard called the Mammet (‘puppet’) was maintained for several years at the court of King Robert III, was the origin of this fable. But it was chiefly English friars who disseminated it, for which nearly a dozen Franciscans were hanged at Tyburn in June 1402.

Far more dangerous was the rebellion of the Percys in 1403. Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, his brother Thomas, Earl of Worcester, and his son ‘Hotspur’ had been instrumental in Henry’s triumph in 1399, but by 1403 they were disillusioned with the king’s policies in Scotland and Wales, and their influence was waning. Declaring that “unless King Richard is still alive”, the Earl of March was rightfully king, they raised an army and met Henry in battle at Shrewsbury on 21 July. It was a bloody, hard-fought affair, but eventually the king prevailed: Hotspur was killed, Worcester beheaded, and Northumberland – who missed the battle and claimed ignorance of the plot – stripped of the lands and offices he had acquired since 1399.

Yet although Henry gave Northumberland the benefit of the doubt in 1403, he never trusted him again, and two years later the earl rebelled once more. His accomplice was Richard Scrope, archbishop of York, whose sermons against the king’s heavy taxation and “evil counsellors” struck such a chord that he soon found himself at the head of an ‘army’ of several thousand clerics, citizens and malcontents. Arrested and brought before the king, he was convicted of treason and beheaded outside the walls of his city. Never before had an English king dared to execute a bishop, but it was Henry’s way of signalling that enough was enough, and in a sense it worked. The spate of domestic rebellions now abated.

Northumberland and his ally Lord Bardolf fled to Scotland. In February 1408 they again tried to topple Henry, but were defeated and killed near Tadcaster.

Welsh woes

English dissidents apart, the most serious threat Henry faced was from the Welsh. Fourteenth-century Wales was largely quiescent under English rule, but in September 1400 Owain Glyndˆwr, a descendant of native Welsh princes, declared himself Prince of Wales and began devastating English-held towns and estates.

The revolt spread rapidly. Legislation imposing virtual apartheid in Wales only exacerbated the situation and, by 1405, large parts of Wales were under Welsh control.

Here, as in England, Henry’s usurpation was used to justify rebellion. The greatest Anglo-Welsh landholder to defect was Edmund Mortimer, uncle of the Earl of March, who was incensed at his nephew’s treatment. In 1406 he, Glyndˆwr and Northumberland drafted the Tripartite Indenture, whereby they agreed to partition England and Wales between them once they had destroyed the Lancastrian ‘imposter’.

The early years of Henry’s reign also witnessed an upsurge of Anglo-Scottish hostilities, not least because Robert III persisted in addressing Henry as ‘steward of England’. When English ambassadors suggested at a peace conference in 1401 that the two nations submit their differences to arbitration, the bishop of Glasgow inquired – in “very undiplomatic language” – whether Henry would also care to submit his claim to the English throne to arbitration. Although Scottish wings were severely clipped by their defeat at the battle of Hamildon Hill in Northumberland in 1402, they remained reluctant to acknowledge Henry’s kingship.

The French found Richard II’s deposition even harder to swallow, for he had been married to their 10-year-old princess Isabelle. This ‘lamb among wolves’ evoked a storm of outrage in Paris. With King Charles VI periodically insane, it fell to his brother Louis, Duke of Orléans, to act as Isabella’s avenger, a role he relished: “Where is King Richard?” he wrote to Henry in 1403: “Does not God know? Does not the world know? If he is alive, then let him go free; and if he is dead, then it was you who did it.”

Between 1402 and 1407, Orléans repeatedly sponsored privateers to prey on English shipping, launched raids on English ports, and invaded Guyenne, the English-held duchy in south-western France. Only after his assassination in November 1407 by agents of the Duke of Burgundy did the onslaught relent and the French could bring themselves to address “Henry, king of England”, rather than “Henry of Lancaster, despoiler and wrongfully ruler of the kingdom of England”.

The spoils of victory

Beset from every quarter, how did Henry respond? Initially he tried conciliation, pardoning several of Richard II’s chief cronies and retaining many of his lesser supporters. But Lancastrian stalwarts resented this, expecting the spoils of victory to come to them. It was, after all, the Lancastrian affinity that had won Henry the throne. Richard II had feared John of Gaunt’s retainers, with their military might, their local influence in the Midlands and the north, and their conspicuous livery collars of interlocking esses, “through which”, declared one chronicler, “they thought they could gain riches before heaven and earth”.

It was to counterbalance John’s power that Richard built up his own retinue of knights and esquires, distributed his white hart livery badges in the 1390s, and exiled Henry. But the Lancastrian affinity, built up over decades and rooted in local traditions of service, was resilient. Now its time had come.

The real question facing Henry was the degree to which he could broaden his support without jeopardising the security of his regime. Could he truly be “a king for all his people”, as he claimed to be, or would he continue to be seen as the leader of a faction? To some extent, the decision was made for him, for his initial moves towards conciliation backfired. It was men whose lives he had spared who spearheaded the Epiphany Rising, following which the royal household was militarised, local power vested in those with unimpeachable Lancastrian credentials, and the royal family elevated to an increasingly dominant position.

After the battle of Shrewsbury, Henry’s reliance on his family and retainers deepened. Treason and rebellion were suppressed mercilessly, while parliament came to resemble a Lancastrian party conference. The unease at this was palpable. War, rebellion and the price of allegiance bankrupted the government, but when Henry begged parliament for money in 1404, the usually supportive Thomas Arundel, archbishop of Canterbury, rounded on the royal retainers. It was they, he declared, who “grew proud and rich” on the proceeds of taxation, while “the king is in penury”.

Politically, too, the royal retainers’ influence over Henry was seen as excessive. It was “those standing around the king” who would brook no pardon for Archbishop Scrope in 1405. It was “the king’s friends” who insisted that Thomas Percy be executed, despite Henry’s wish to spare his life. True or not, such accusations add up to a perception that Henry was as much the prisoner as the master of his affinity.

Law breaks down

After 1406, as Henry’s health deteriorated, gentry hitherto excluded from power in the Midlands and the north hit back, attacking royal ministers and devastating crown lands. In counties such as Shropshire, Staffordshire and Northumberland, law and order broke down, and it was left to the future Henry V, whose ties to the Lancastrian old guard were less binding, to attempt to restore order.

Nevertheless, the last years of the reign saw stability. France’s slide into civil war following Orléans’ assassination, the capture of the Scottish prince James I in 1406, the death of Northumberland in 1408 and the effective end of the Welsh revolt by 1409 brought financial recovery.

Yet, paradoxically, this security created new disagreements, especially the question of which side to support in France. In 1411, when Prince Henry controlled the government (while his father was indisposed with illness), he sent an English force to help the Burgundians. But in 1412, after the king had regained power the previous year, he despatched his second son, Thomas, to help the Burgundians’ opponents, the Armagnacs.

Prince Henry was furious. He did not have long to wait to regain power, however, for his father was by now desperately ill. Henry IV died on 20 March 1413, after collapsing in Westminster Abbey, and was buried in Canterbury Cathedral, as he had requested.

Due partly to Shakespeare, it is his usurpation that has defined his reputation, but it is worth remembering that he also rescued England from Richard II’s despotism, saw off each of his enemies in turn, and founded a dynasty that would rule for more than 50 years. His martial reputation was second to none: as contemporaries noted, he never lost a battle.

Henry’s misfortune was to fall ill just at the moment when he had won his regime a measure of security. Had he lived longer, he might have achieved much more, for Henry was well suited to kingship: steely and resourceful, he kept his friends close and his enemies afraid. On the scale of the possible for a usurper, his achievement ranks high.

Chris Given-Wilson is professor emeritus in the School of History at the University of St Andrews.

The adventures of Henry IV

15 April 1367: Henry is born at Bolingbroke Castle, in Lincolnshire (pictured), son of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and Duchess Blanche.

1387–88: Henry is one of the five ‘Appellants’ who oppose Richard II. They defeat a royalist force at the battle of Radcot Bridge and purge the court in the Merciless Parliament.

1390–93: Henry goes on crusade to Prussia and on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, thereby winning a reputation for chivalry and militant piety.

October 1398: Richard II exiles Henry and the Duke of Norfolk following accusations of treason. Henry spends the next nine months in Paris.

1399: Henry returns to England, captures and deposes Richard II, and is crowned king on 13 October.

21 July 1403: Henry defeats an army led by Harry Hotspur and the Earl of Worcester at the battle of Shrewsbury.

June 1405: Henry suppresses a rebellion led by the Earl of Northumberland and the archbishop of York. The archbishop is beheaded and the earl flees to Scotland.

June 1408: Henry is taken seriously ill, probably with a heart attack. His health remains precarious for the rest of his life, and his energy declines.

1410–11: Prince Henry, the heir to the throne, assumes power for nearly two years, from January 1410 until the king reasserts his authority in November 1411.

20 March 1413: Henry IV dies in the Jerusalem Chamber of Westminster Abbey, after collapsing while visiting the shrine of Edward the Confessor.

A reign of pain

From “festering of the flesh” to a prolapsed rectum, Henry IV was blighted by poor health

Henry IV suffered from at least three medical conditions. In 1387, aged 20, he was afflicted by the pox, the first evidence of the skin condition – perhaps psoriasis – that would resurface in 1399 and 1405 and later severely disfigure him. Some contemporaries wrongly attributed this to leprosy as a punishment for the execution of Archbishop Scrope.

In April 1406 he wrote from Windsor informing the council that “an illness has suddenly affected us in our leg”, causing him such pain that his physicians had advised him not to travel. This was probably a euphemism for the prolapsed rectum of which he was cured with a treatment devised by the physician John of Arderne. This involved applying an ointment called unguentum apostolorum to the rectum, whereupon, it was claimed, the protrusion “shall enter in again”.

Towards the end of June 1408, when he was 41, Henry (shown below in the most authentic likeness we have of him) collapsed with what was probably a coronary thrombosis. He recovered, but a relapse six months later was almost fatal. On 21 January 1409 he made his will, but again he recovered. For the rest of his life, however, his health remained precarious, and by early 1412 he could no longer walk or ride without pain. Chroniclers described him as “all sinews and bones”, or “cruelly tormented with festering of the flesh, dehydration of the eyes and rupture of the internal organs”. His body, said one, was “completely shrunken and wasted by disease… his flesh and skin eaten away, all his innards laid open and visible”.

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Such putrefaction was probably the result of blocked arteries cutting off the blood supply to parts of his body, leading eventually to necrotic ulcers turning gangrenous. Prince Henry and others tried to persuade him to abdicate, and only through a ferocious act of will did Henry retain power until the end of his life.