The miracle of Henry VI: how the weak medieval king became a 'saint'
In life, Henry VI lurched from one disaster to the next. Yet in death, his countrymen venerated the Plantagenet king – whose inability to provide good government resulted in the Wars of the Roses – as a saint-like figure. Here, Desmond Seward explains this miraculous turn of events...
Everybody knows that Geoffrey Chaucer’s pilgrims – as related in his world-famous tales – were on their way to St Thomas Becket’s shrine at Canterbury. Fewer realise that a hundred years later far more pilgrims went to Windsor than Canterbury, to the shrine of Henry VI, whom they credited with working miracles.
When, during the early 1480s, Thomas Fuller of Hammersmith was hanged on a false charge of stealing cattle, he prayed to the king, whom he said kept him alive for a whole hour by thrusting a hand between the rope and his windpipe until he was cut down. There were many stories like this about late medieval England’s most popular saint (an informal title – he was never officially canonised).
Yet Henry failed spectacularly as a ruler, losing two kingdoms. Son of the victor of Agincourt, not only did he lose Lancastrian France but his inability to provide good government resulted in the Wars of the Roses and eventually in his own murder.
His father, Henry V, had conquered north-western France, marrying the daughter of the French king Charles VI, who recognised him as his heir. When both the English and French monarchs died in 1422, Henry became king of England and France as Henry VI. He wasn’t even a year old.
Thanks to his exploits in France, Henry V was always going to be a tough act to follow – and, from an early age, it was obvious that his son wasn’t up to the job. One of his earliest, and most damaging, errors was to hand over Maine, the gateway to Lancastrian Normandy, to the French.
As Henry had impoverished the crown by giving away royal manors, there was no money to maintain proper garrisons. When the French attacked Normandy in 1449, English resistance collapsed.
In July 1450 John Paston heard how “Shirburgh [Cherbourg] is gone and we have not now a foot of land in Normandy”. Settlers streamed back over the Channel, to parade through Cheapside with their bedding, and to beg in the City’s streets.
More like this
All England felt humiliated. The Duke of Suffolk, Henry’s first minister, was lynched, his head hacked off over the gunnel of a boat as he attempted to sail to Calais. Jack Cade’s rebels stormed into London, hoping to kill the king’s other ministers, because of whom, said Cade, “his lands are lost, his merchandise is lost, his commons destroyed, the sea is lost, himself so poor that he may not pay for his food and drink”. (Curiously, no one blamed Henry.) English pride was momentarily soothed when Lord Talbot reoccupied Gascony in 1452, to be further bruised by his total defeat and death at Castillon the following year.
The king had replaced Suffolk with his (Henry’s) cousin, the Duke of Somerset, the man largely responsible for losing Normandy. Outraged, the Duke of York (heir to the throne) led the opposition, with little effect until 1453 when Henry’s mind gave way at the news of the Castillon debacle. The king fell into a coma that lasted for 18 months and York briefly became lord protector (regent).
On recovering, Henry was astonished to find his wife had given birth to a son, Edward, during his illness. He then reinstated Somerset as his first minister – a move that merely led to Somerset’s death at the hands of York’s men at the battle of St Albans in 1455.
The king seems never to have fully recovered from his breakdown. His tigerish French queen, Margaret of Anjou, who was determined to save the throne for their son, took Somerset’s place as the court faction’s leader and tried to destroy York and his allies. She failed. York laid claim to the throne and England descended into the struggle between the houses of York and Lancaster that later became known as the Wars of the Roses.
On 29 March 1461 York’s son Edward IV annihilated the royal army at Towton near Tadcaster in the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil. Henry fled to Scotland, before returning to Northumberland where his supporters occupied a few castles along the coast. However, the last Lancastrian army was destroyed at Hexham in 1464.
For over a year, the ex-king hid in remote houses in Lancashire and Westmorland, but was finally captured in June 1465 while fording the Ribble at Bungerly Hippingstones with only three companions. On his way to imprisonment at the Tower, he was derisively paraded through London, wearing an old straw hat with his feet tied beneath his horse’s belly.
Then the Earl of Warwick – the ‘king maker’ – fell out with Edward IV, who fled into exile, and in October 1470 Henry was recrowned. His second reign, known as the ‘Readeption’, lasted for less than a year. Edward returned next spring, wiping out the Lancastrians at Barnet and Tewkesbury, killing both Henry’s son, Edward, and Warwick, and capturing Queen Margaret.
On the day Edward IV returned to London from his victory at Tewkesbury, according to the Cambridge don Dr Warkworth: “King Harry being inward in prison in the Tower of London was put to death, the 21st May, on a Tuesday night between 11 and 12 of the clock, then being at the Tower the Duke of Gloucester, brother to King Edward, and many other.” (When Henry’s skeleton was examined in 1910, his hair was found to be matted with blood, suggesting a blow to the head.) After being put on show in an open coffin at St Paul’s, the body was buried in Chertsey Abbey.
Politically, Henry VI’s reign had been an unmitigated disaster. Besides lacking the qualities essential for a medieval monarch, he was – as a 17th-century historian put it – “over subjected and over-wived”. Not only had he inherited an unwinnable war in France but most of his time on the throne coincided with the ‘Great Slump’ (caused by a shortage of bullion), during which trade declined and standards of living fell. Though he tried to ensure that justice was administered fairly – he travelled all over England to hear appeals in provincial law courts – law and order had broken down even before the conflict between York and Lancaster.
Despite all of these failings, something remarkable was soon unfolding: rich and poor across England were beginning to regard the dead king as a saint. By 1473 prayers were being said and lights lit before his statue on a stone screen at York Minster by an ever-increasing number of pilgrims. In 1479 King Edward had the statue removed and tried to stop pilgrims from flocking to Chertsey. In 1484, however, Richard III – possibly motivated by guilt – had Henry’s remains reburied in St George’s Chapel at Windsor. It was to become a national shrine.
So how did this come about? There is no evidence that Henry’s subjects saw him as a saint in his lifetime. They were, however, impressed by his generosity, and by his compassion – as when he ordered a traitor’s impaled quarter to be taken down, commenting: “I will not have any Christian man so cruelly handled for my sake.”
Undoubtedly, he inspired affection and loyalty in those around him. Above all, he had the gift of forgiving and forgetting. On Good Friday 1452, after an abortive rebellion by the Duke of York, he issued 144 pardons, while time and again he tried to reconcile Yorkists and Lancastrians.
But what made people decide that Henry was a holy man was his murder. There was widespread pity for a king who, after his deposition, was treated as a thief, then put to death without having committed any crime.
About 1484, John Blacman, a Carthusian monk who had been a fellow of Eton and a chaplain to Henry, wrote an admiring memoir of his old master, to show how even a great man could be a saint.
Blacman emphasised Henry’s piety and simplicity – shabby clothes with a hair shirt beneath them – and a sexual puritanism that seems odd to modern minds. He claimed that the king had had visions of Christ, the Virgin and of the saints. Interestingly – as a Carthusian accustomed to identifying qualities that suited men for a hermit life, one of which was sanity – Blacman did not see him as having a mental disability.
We know that Henry practised the Devotio Moderna – a movement for religious reform that advocated humility and obedience. He meditated on the sufferings of Christ, probably to the point of hallucination, and enjoyed staying in monasteries.
As a young man, Henry’s best friend was the short-lived Duke of Warwick, who read the entire 150 Psalms every day. (Monks took a week to recite them.) Henry took special care in appointing bishops. His colleges at Eton and King’s College, Cambridge were essentially religious foundations.
Pure, honest, holy
After 1485, Henry VII petitioned three popes in succession to canonise his uncle. Excusing his inadequacy as a statesman, Polydore Vergil (Henry’s tame historian) wrote how he had been “a man of mild and plain-speaking disposition, who preferred peace before wars, quietness before troubles, honesty before utility… there was not in this world a more pure, honest, and more holy creature”.
A book was compiled of 174 miracles performed by him between 1471 and 1495. A servant of Lord Stourton, unjustly accused of a capital offence in 1484, was saved – as Thomas Fuller had been – by a ghostly royal hand thrust between his neck and the gallows’ rope. Wearing the king’s red velvet bonnet, which was kept at Windsor, cured ‘headaches’ (brain tumours?). Henry was credited with bringing back to life victims of the plague or seemingly dead children.
Henry was commemorated in churches and cathedrals, in stained-glass windows or on rood screens, with votive lights burning before his image, while the dagger that killed him was displayed for veneration at Caversham Priory in Oxfordshire. Hymns, litanies and prayers were composed in his honour, more pilgrim badges being produced for Windsor than Canterbury. (Some 500 of these have been excavated in London alone.)
As the Victorian historian William Stubbs put it, Henry “left a mark on the hearts of Englishmen that was not soon effaced… the king who had perished for the sins of his fathers and of the nation”.
His cult became so popular that the abbots of Westminster and Chertsey both tried to secure possession of his body. Henry VII planned the great chapel that he built at Westminster as a shrine for his saintly kinsman, who would be reburied there when canonised. However, diplomatic problems with Rome blocked the canonisation.
Until the day he died, Henry VIII venerated his great-uncle. In 1528, he asked that he should be canonised. Even after breaking with the papacy and ending pilgrimages to Windsor, he left instructions in his will for the tomb in St George’s Chapel to be made more imposing and for the banner of ‘King Henry the Saint’ to be carried at his funeral.
Recusant Catholics continued to venerate him, Alexander Pope referring to the ‘Martyr-King’ in his poem Windsor Forest. During the 1920s there were attempts to secure his canonisation and he became one of the author Evelyn Waugh’s favourite saints. The 1970s witnessed another, unsuccessful, campaign to have him canonised.
Henry VI may have impressed all-too few of his countrymen during his life, but there’s little doubt that he more than made up for it in the centuries following his death.
The life and afterlife of Henry VI
1422: Henry V’s son becomes king of England and France as Henry VI. The new king is less than a year old.
1431: In May, the English burn at the stake Joan of Arc, who had taken up arms against their occupation of France. Later that year, Henry is crowned king of France in Paris.
1445: Henry marries Margaret of Anjou who, according to Shakespeare, possessed a “tiger’s heart, wrapped in a woman’s hide”.
1450: The English are defeated at Formigny. All Lancastrian Normandy falls to the French. Jack Cade’s rebels occupy London
1453: Final loss of Gascony. Henry goes temporarily insane and the Duke of York becomes protector. Birth of the king’s son, Edward of Westminster
1455: First battle of St Albans, during which the Duke of York kills his Lancastrian enemies, making the Wars of the Roses inevitable
1461: Edward IV’s Yorkist army annihilates the Lancastrians at Towton and Henry VI ceases to be king of England, taking refuge in Scotland
1465: Capture of the ex-King Henry VI, who for five years is imprisoned in the Tower, where he survives an attempt to murder him
1470: The Earl of Warwick restores Henry VI in the ‘readeption’
1471: Edward IV returns and defeats Henry’s Lancastrian forces at Tewkesbury. Henry VI is murdered
1484: Richard III has Henry reburied in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, where his grave attracts pilgrims from all over England in search of healing
Desmond Seward is a historian and author who specialises in the 15th century. In the autumn the Folio Society are republishing his Richard III: England’s Black Legend
This article was first published in the April 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine
Subscribe to BBC History Magazine and receive a signed copy of 2023 edition Windrush: 75 years of modern Britain by Mike Phillips and Trevor Philips
As a print subscriber you will also get FREE access to HistoryExtra.com worth £34.99