The miraculous afterlife of Henry VI

In life Henry VI was a pitiful ruler who plunged England into disarray. But in death he became a national hero, hailed for saving the sick and the wrongly accused. Lauren Johnson explores the miraculous afterlife of a medieval monarch

A c1520–40 portrait of Henry VI

On 7 February 1486, Alice Newnett of Mere in Wiltshire was raised from the dead. She had been the latest victim of a virulent plague sweeping through England – a sickness so fast-acting that the priest who had been called to give her Extreme Unction (the final anointing administered to the dying) arrived to find she was already almost lifeless. Before he finished the last rites, Alice apparently expired. The priest hurriedly made his last anointings and commanded the women present to lay Alice out for burial while he arranged her gravesite. (In cases of plague, it was best to bury the dead swiftly, to prevent infection spreading.)

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Alice’s body was laid on the ground and, sorrowfully, her mother sewed the girl into her shroud. There the corpse lay for two hours. But then, as evening drew near, Alice suddenly sat bolt upright inside her shroud. The priest had been too hasty. She was not dead after all. Indeed, on closer inspection it was discovered that all signs of plague had disappeared from her body.

As she explained to her marvelling mother, Alice knew the cause of her resurrection. While she had lain still, she had received a vision of a holy man wearing dark silk and a golden crown, who promised to restore her to life on two conditions: one, that she lay in her shroud until he told her to rise; the other, that she make a wax candle as tall as she was and deliver it to the tomb of King Henry VI at Windsor Chapel. Alice’s surprising saviour was apparently none other than the late King Henry himself, a man who had now been dead for 15 years.

Chains and nooses

Just as Alice had been directed in her vision, she took a large wax candle to the Chapel of St George in Windsor, and there it nestled among an array of votive offerings from others who believed that “Holy King Henry” had saved their life or livelihood. Chains and nooses hung over the tomb, left by wrongfully condemned prisoners who had been saved from imprisonment or death by hanging thanks to the mystical appearance of King Henry VI, sometimes flanked by angels or the Virgin Mary. In some cases, it was claimed, Henry had slipped his hand between the hanging man’s neck and the noose to prevent him suffocating.

A smeared knife on the tomb was testament to what was believed to be another miraculous resurrection: the servant Helen Barker had used the blade to slit her throat “from ear to ear” after being falsely accused of theft by her employer, a London soap-boiler. Repenting after the fact, Helen asked for Henry’s prayers and within 20 days was, it was claimed, fully recovered.

Not all the offerings testified to quite such dramatic miracles. A silver ear had been placed on the tomb by a Devonshire man who had lived for 37 years with a bean in his ear, which only prayer to Henry had released. More than one set of crutches were left by the lamed and sickly whose ailments Henry had apparently healed, enabling them to walk to Windsor on their own two feet. In some cases, thanksgiving was merely for the return of runaway pigs.

These offerings were tended to by the canons of St George’s Chapel, who assiduously recorded the miracles that grateful supplicants came to report at Henry’s tomb. Between 1481 and 1500, more than 300 miracles were ascribed to his agency – an extraordinary success rate for a king who had, in life, been a singular failure.

Catastrophic collapse

Henry VI of the House of Lancaster had inherited the English and French thrones before his first birthday in 1422. His father was the great warrior, Henry V, but Henry VI proved a very different character. Zealously committed to peace, Henry lacked the worldliness or willpower to put his good intentions into effect. His ham-fisted attempts to end the Hundred Years’ War by marriage – or treaty, or release of prisoners, or cession of land – all failed spectacularly, and within 30 years of inheriting France he had lost everything except a sliver of land around Calais.

In England, rebellion and bloody civil war followed. Henry VI suffered a catastrophic mental collapse – what we might term today a psychotic break – and for 16 months was unresponsive and apparently incapable of physical or mental activity. He may never have fully recovered.

After Henry VI's death, memories of his good intentions, his concern for children, his heartfelt desire for peace and his renowned piety scrubbed away the recollections of his personal inadequacies as a ruler

During the Wars of the Roses with his Yorkist dynastic rivals, Henry had the dubious distinction of being deposed twice – on both occasions by Edward IV of York, a man cut from a very different cloth. Edward was militarily minded, charming, sexually alluring and possessed the innate steeliness that Henry lacked. In May 1471, after crushing Henry’s Lancastrian followers during the battle of Tewkesbury, Edward had his rival secretly put to death in the Tower of London. By then, Henry had been Edward’s prisoner, on and off, for six years.

Having processed Henry’s corpse through the streets of London “open visaged” (ie with his face open to inspection), Edward had him buried in a quiet little monastery up the river Thames at Chertsey. He also released an exculpating document that insisted the late Lancastrian king had died “of pure displeasure and melancholy”. Edward hoped this would lay the ghost of Henry to rest – instead, the king continued to trouble the Yorkist regime from beyond the grave.

As if expressing divine displeasure with Edward, the following years were marred by plague. Pestilence swept through the kingdom, driving the English out of their cities and onto the roads towards holy shrines, where they prayed for deliverance from one fatal scourge after another. The first outbreak of plague appeared within four months of Henry’s death. In autumn 1471, plague killed a fifth of the adult population of East Anglia.

After so many years of political turmoil, the recurrence of sickness fed an underlying sense of instability and vulnerability. In their time of need, the English began to pray to the man who until recently had been their king – now conveniently positioned in the afterlife, where he could more readily intercede on their behalf to God.

Henry had always been a man who inspired sympathy and a peculiar sort of paternalistic care in those who met him. After his death, memories of his good intentions, his concern for children, his heartfelt desire for peace and his renowned piety scrubbed away the recollections of his personal inadequacies as a ruler.

Combined with stories of his suffering – his deposition, exile, imprisonment and violent death – Henry gained a reputation as a man who had been too good for this corrupt world. This concept of the late king as a holy innocent was most clearly expressed in a biography written by his confessor, John Blacman, in the 1480s. Blacman insisted that Henry had eschewed magnificence and experienced mystical visions – both stories of questionable veracity that nonetheless fed an appetite for an image of “Holy King Henry” that helped promote his cult.

Embarrassingly for the Yorkist regime, among the earliest devotees of Henry’s cult was their namesake city of York. Within a year or two of Henry’s death, an image of him had been placed in York Minster and was already receiving offerings. The archbishop of York received a royal directive to ban this veneration, but to no avail.

The cult of Henry VI spread far and wide, with shrines appearing everywhere, from rural churches in Norfolk and Northumberland to major cathedrals including Hereford and Durham. Pilgrim badges began to be cast in metal, showing Henry clasping his orb and sceptre and occasionally bestride an antelope, the symbol of the Lancastrian dynasty. The badges were carried from Chertsey back into the shires, and then on to ports like London, King’s Lynn and Southampton – even to Rouen, across the Channel. Nearly 400 such badges associated with Henry still survive.

Relics connected to the late king also started proliferating. At Bridgnorth in Shropshire, Henry’s coat was displayed to visiting pilgrims, while the Lady Chapel on the bridge at Caversham near Reading boasted the blade with which Henry was allegedly murdered, “sheath and all”. (Caversham held a veritable ossuary of the holy, having assembled a jawbone of St Æthelmold, St Anastasius’s hand and an angel with one wing.) Windsor Chapel exceeded them all, however, with a pair of Henry’s spurs, a chip from his bedstead and his red velvet hat, described as “a sovereign medicine against headache”.

By 1484, in the reign of the second Yorkist king, Richard III, Henry’s cult had grown to unprecedented levels of popularity. Richard attempted to control – and benefit from – the rising tide of pilgrims by transporting Henry’s body from Chertsey to the Yorkist dynasty’s chivalric mausoleum at Windsor, where Edward IV was himself buried.

Thirteen years after his death, Henry’s corpse remained uncorrupted and sweet-smelling

On Henry’s tomb being opened 13 years after death, it was discovered that his corpse was uncorrupted and sweet-smelling (it was believed that God could intervene to prevent the decomposition of saints). To facilitate the reburial, Henry was dismembered and placed in a small lead coffer, but not all of him made it to Windsor. At some point during this transfer, Henry’s right arm was stolen, presumably as a relic, and replaced in the coffin with the left humerus of a pig. The switch was not discovered until Henry’s tomb was reopened in 1910 – where Henry’s arm ended up remains a mystery.

Mad, imprisoned, dead

Under the Tudors, interest in Henry’s cult intensified, spurred by the fact that the new king, Henry VII, was the nephew and namesake of his Lancastrian forebear. Henry VII made repeated appeals to the pope to have his uncle canonised, and he even planned to move the corpse again, to Westminster Abbey, to lie close to his own tomb.

By then, Henry’s cult had grown into one of the most successful of the Middle Ages. Perhaps this was because Henry was undiscriminating in who he helped. Epileptic nuns, children choking on fish bones, farmers struck by lightning, those afflicted with scrofula – the mad, the imprisoned, the dead. All were healed by his intercession. A high preponderance of dead children were brought back to life by Henry, cementing an association between the king and the young that had begun when he founded Eton and King’s College, Cambridge in the 1440s. Now he rescued children who fell on pitchforks or were crushed beneath woodpiles.

Unsurprisingly in an era that endured new and devastating forms of pandemic, Henry was also associated with mystical cures. Surviving prayers, including a book of Dublin provenance, plead for him to preserve the orator from epidemics, while on a Devon rood screen he was painted beside the plague saints Sebastian and Roch. Little wonder his cult was promoted by Margaret Beaufort, Henry VII’s mother and matriarch of the Tudor dynasty – a woman deservedly paranoid about pestilence. (Her husband, Edmund Tudor, had died of plague while she was pregnant with the future Henry VII.)

Despite the widespread popularity of Henry VI’s cult, he was never canonised as a saint. Throughout the Middle Ages the papacy was uneasy with the beatification of murdered laymen, and they resisted Henry VII’s fervent efforts.

Ultimately it was the Tudors who destroyed any chance of sainthood. The religious changes of Henry VIII in the 1530s entailed the widespread destruction of pilgrims’ shrines, including Henry VI’s. The reliquary at Caversham was dispersed, and Henry’s exact burial place in Windsor was lost to memory for centuries. As late as 1543, however, pilgrims still travelled from Cornwall and Devon to surreptitiously visit his tomb. And still, today, a wrought-iron money box stands beside the plain stone tomb of Henry VI – a last testament to the hundreds of pilgrims who had deposited their coins in thanksgiving to “Holy King Henry”.


Cult figures: three other medieval miracle-workers who attracted devoted followings

1

St Gwenfrewi: the nun who sprang to life

St Gwenfrewi’s brutal death – and remarkable afterlife – made her a popular saint in England and Wales. A seventh-century nun from Tegeingl (now Flintshire), St Gwenfrewi was educated to a high standard by her patron St Beuno. Despite her vow of virginity, a local prince called Caradog ab Alog demanded sexual favours from her, and when Gwenfrewi tried to flee towards her church, Caradog overtook her and beheaded her with his sword. Miraculously, a spring bubbled up in the place her head fell. Even more miraculously, Beuno rejoined her head and body, restoring Gwenfrewi to life. Caradog was killed with a curse.

After her “first death”, Gwenfrewi went on pilgrimage to Rome and later settled as an abbess of nuns at Gwytherin, where she died for a second time. Five hundred years later, she was still sufficiently celebrated that her remains were removed to Shrewsbury Abbey. The hallowed spring where she had first died became known as Ffynnon Gwenfrewi, or “Holywell”, and was a popular site of pilgrimage for centuries, said to have curative powers for all manner of ailments.

In 1483, William Caxton printed Gwenfrewi’s biography. As late as the 16th century, poems were composed in Gwenfrewi’s honour and religious buildings were constructed at Holywell. The site can still be visited today.

2

John Schorn: The man who kept the Devil in a boot

Henry VI shared the attentions of Windsor pilgrims with another popular saint whose body was translated there in the 15th century: John Schorn, a Buckinghamshire vicar famous for catching the Devil in his boot. This boot would be produced during John’s sermons, to the mingled amazement and horror of his parishioners, who could glance inside at the Devil.

Schorn’s other chief claim to popularity was that during a local drought, he had produced a perpetual spring by striking the ground with his staff. The spring, laden with gypsum, epsom salts and carbonic acid, had healing properties, particularly for those suffering from eye conditions and rheumatism. After his death in c1314, both the spring and Schorn’s tomb at North Marston became a popular resort for pilgrims – so popular that a later vicar dug up a skull from the graveyard, sprinkled it with blood and exhibited it as Schorn’s head.

In 1478, as Edward IV undertook extensive building work to the chapel at Windsor, Schorn’s corpse was moved to a new shrine there, in the hope that the newly constructed tomb would be a money‑spinner with pilgrim visitors.

3

Richard Scrope: The angel of the north

In his lifetime, Archbishop Richard Scrope had been a thorn in the side of Henry VI’s Lancastrian forebears. The northerner had joined the doomed Percy uprising against Henry IV in 1405 and, on being captured, became the first English bishop to be executed after trial. He was beheaded on royal orders outside York, allegedly by five blows of the axe (representing the five wounds of Christ).

Viewed by many northerners as a martyr, Scope was buried inside York Minster, where his tomb was swiftly the site of several miracles. Within a year, his cult had grown so popular that Henry IV ordered Scrope’s tomb to be cordoned off with high log barriers.

A popular myth claimed that Henry IV was struck down with leprosy as divine punishment for killing Scrope. During the Wars of the Roses, Scrope was held up as a champion of anti-Lancastrianism, and Edward IV tried to secure his canonisation. Ironically, it was probably Yorkist victories in the wars that ended Scrope’s cult. His veneration seemed superfluous in an age of Yorkist ascendancy.


Lauren Johnson is a historian and writer. Her books include Shadow King: The Life and Death of Henry VI (Head of Zeus, 2019). She discussed Henry VI in a 2019 episode of our podcast

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This article was first published in the February 2021 edition of BBC History Magazine