Why Henry VI’s reign was such a disaster
King Henry VI fell foul of the French, his soldiers, his own advisors, and centuries of historians. Yet, writes Lauren Johnson, perhaps his greatest enemy was the revered warrior-king who is commonly lauded as one of England's greatest monarchs and left him the throne 600 years ago, his own father...
In Westminster Abbey, the tomb of Henry V is hard to miss. Towering above the mosaic-encrusted tomb of St Edward the Confessor and his royal successors, for centuries Henry’s final resting place was topped by a shield, helm and warhorse’s saddle. All are symbols of the martial glory of a man many still consider to be the best English king of the Middle Ages.
Meanwhile, in the Lady Chapel behind, tucked away and noticed by almost no one, is a small wooden pew-end representing Henry V’s successor, and only child, Henry VI. Can anything more aptly demonstrate the reputations of this father and son? Henry V loomed over his offspring from the grave, and in his father’s shadow Henry VI grew up stunted, emotionally and politically.
On the 600th anniversary of his death, Henry V’s triumphs are still rehearsed in productions of the eponymous Shakespeare play. His appears to be the ultimate underdog success story. Eldest son of a Lancastrian usurper, Henry V united England to claim the French throne, overcame substantial odds to win the battle of Agincourt in 1415, and was rewarded at the Treaty of Troyes in 1420, where he was named heir to the French kingdom and married Princess Catherine of Valois. Revered as “the flower in his time of Christian chivalry”, he died on campaign, aged 35 in 1422, leaving a nine-month-old son who shortly after was proclaimed King Henry VI, of England and France.
Henry VI’s life also gained Shakespeare’s attention, but in the three plays bearing his name he is an insubstantial figure with few lines, completely overshadowed by more dynamic characters, chief among them his queen, Margaret of Anjou. Where Henry V’s reign is a litany of triumphs, his son’s reads like a top trumps of failure: he lost the Hundred Years’ War and the Wars of the Roses, was twice imprisoned by his Yorkist rivals and died, almost certainly murdered, in the Tower of London shortly after his only child had been hacked to death in battle.
But if we peer beyond the lustre of the father and misfortune of the son, a more complicated image emerges: there is much to praise in the character and priorities of Henry VI, and a good deal reprehensible in the actions of Henry V. Most damningly of all, many of the failings of Henry VI can be traced back to his father. Although Henry VI reaped a bitter harvest for his people, it was Henry V who sowed the seed.
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Lover and fighter
The defining difference between Henrys V and VI can be summed up in a single word: warfare. Henry V was first and foremost a soldier, witness to military campaigns from the time he was 11 and left with a disfiguring scar when struck in the face by an arrow in his first battle, aged 16. The primary focus of his energies was gaining the French throne by military force.
Henry VI, by contrast, was an out and out pacifist. In the cause of peace, he chose his queen, sacrificed bellicose advisers and surrendered vital bargaining chips to the French. Although Henry VI was willing to don armour and ride to battle, he never once raised his sword against an enemy, and his first experience of military violence came in his 34th year, when he watched impotently as his leading supporters were butchered in the streets of St Albans.
Henry V’s military activity provided common experience and a focus for loyalty with his peers and subjects. It made them, to quote Shakespeare, a “band of brothers”, winning Henry fame and his subjects glory.
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Henry VI was trained for warfare by a military veteran and kitted out with weapons and armour as a child. He even rode a courser (warhorse) from the age of three. Yet the only time he visited France was for his coronation as a 10-year-old. Military leadership was always deputised to a noble kinsman.
Why, then, did the son not become a formidable military leader in the mould of the father? After all, the Hundred Years’ War was far from over. The answer is a question of nature but also, importantly, of nurture. Henry V was extraordinarily fortunate in his upbringing, and in many ways his formative years and ultimate monarchical successes mirror those of Henry VI’s Yorkist rival and successor, Edward IV. Both Henry V and Edward hailed from families with many sons. This meant they were expendable, and therefore benefited from being allowed to witness lordship and warfare first hand.
The defining difference between Henrys V and VI can be summed up in a single word: warfare
By contrast, Henry VI was an only child in the utterly unprecedented position of governing two realms, as a baby. His life was so precious that it could not be endangered by proximity to war. Henry VI’s insecurity was exacerbated by biological factors beyond his control: despite marrying and producing illegitimate children, none of his Lancastrian uncles had legitimate offspring, which meant that until 1447 his closest heir was the 50-something Duke of Gloucester, and after that, his distant cousin Richard, Duke of York. If Henry died fighting in France, as his father had done, the Lancastrian line would die with him.
Nonetheless, if Henry VI had really wished to lead an army, he could have done so. The teenage king Henry VIII insisted on riding to war early in his reign, despite lacking brothers or an heir. Indeed, more than once in the reign of Henry VI, preparations were made for him to cross the Channel in force before royal command was delegated elsewhere, and when the Lancastrian throne was threatened by internal rivals it would have greatly bolstered Henry’s cause if he had personally fought alongside his men.
Henry V knew the power that the presence of the king in the field could hold. At Agincourt, the French noblemen were numerous but their king, Charles VI, was too mentally unwell to attend. By contrast, Henry V was, according to a contemporary English chronicler, “the first to charge the enemy… giving his men in his own person brave examples of daring as he scattered the enemy ranks with his ready axe”.
Henry V’s dominant leadership was a major factor in English victory, but there was a dark side to warfare that never sat well with the pious Henry VI. He never forgot that his father’s “glorious” French wars had unleashed suffering on both sides of the Channel. Indeed, by modern standards some of Henry V’s military choices rank as atrocities. After Agincourt, he ordered that prisoners of war be murdered.
And it was not merely enemy combatants who suffered. Innocent women and children were starved to death during Henry V’s five-month siege of Rouen in 1418 and 1419. Even his direct contemporaries found some of the king’s actions excessive. An English eyewitness at Rouen described with pity: “A child of two years or three going about to beg its bread, [as] father and mother both were dead… And women holding in their arms dead children… and the children sucking in their pap within a dead woman’s lap.”
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Two years after Agincourt, another (anonymous) Englishman commemorated Henry’s victory in ambiguous terms: “Our England, therefore, has reason to rejoice and reason to grieve. Reason to rejoice [in] the victory gained and the deliverance of her men, reason to grieve for the suffering and destruction wrought in the deaths of Christians.”
This was the true face of medieval war, and it was a reality that Henry VI could not stomach. In this, he was far from alone. By the time his father died, the English were sick of conflict, being already 85 years into the Hundred Years’ War. It was increasingly difficult to extract taxes to pay for military campaigns from a parliament that felt the war offered little advantage to Englishmen. The sheer scale of the bloodshed was starting to be questioned.
The English were sick of conflict, being already 85 years into the Hundred Years’ War. It was increasingly difficult to extract taxes to pay for military campaigns from a parliament that felt the war offered little advantage to Englishmen
By 1439 it was claimed that more men had died in the century of warfare than were alive now in both kingdoms. As a member of Henry VI’s council (or the king himself) observed: “So much Christian blood shed that it is [both] a sorrow and a horror to think or hear it.”
In 1440, aged 18, Henry VI marked his accession to adult rule – which had been slowly proceeding since 1437 – with two statements of intent. He founded Eton College and shortly thereafter another at Cambridge, becoming the first king to create his own educational establishments. And he took the first step towards peace with France, defying his father’s last wishes by freeing the French prisoner of war, Charles, Duke of Orléans. Orléans had been pulled from a pile of corpses on the battlefield at Agincourt 25 years earlier – and his release had been expressly forbidden by Henry V. Flouting the late king’s will yet further, Henry VI suggested to one of his negotiators with France that in return for an alliance, he would surrender the French crown.
Henry’s peace policy was so audacious that it divided public opinion and alienated his closest advisors. His uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, declared it was “the greatest sign of infamy that ever fell to [the king]… or to [his] noble progenitors”, and that he “would rather die” than accept it. Henry VI was at pains to emphasise that his new peace policy was the natural continuation of his ancestors’ wars. They, too, had ultimately negotiated peace – Henry V’s Treaty at Troyes was a case in point. But his subjects were not appeased. And worse was to follow.
Henry VI was right that a grand gesture was required to end the Hundred Years’ War – but his judgment was poor on exactly what that gesture should be. Having freed Orléans, he then married the impoverished French noblewoman Margaret of Anjou to please her uncle, Charles VII of France, and ceded the hard-won territory of Maine in the process. He lost control of his disgruntled garrisons in France, giving the wily Charles VII justification for military vengeance. The result, ultimately, was the loss of all Henry’s French territories, including some that had been held by the kings of England for centuries.
This was one of several instances in which Henry’s good intentions, but poor judgment, proved his undoing. He was honest to a fault, politically naïve, generous in the extreme. In a king, such virtues became vices. He failed to match his rivals for guile and was horrified by what he considered their treachery in abandoning alliances with England.
In his own realm, Henry rewarded servants and overlooked wrongdoing in his supporters. When asked for favour, he invariably showed it, without considering the consequences. In the most notorious instance of his absent-minded liberality, he gave the same West Country title to two men at once, inciting a decades-long civil war. His constant desire was to avoid conflict. Where he had a choice between something right but difficult, or wrong but easy, he always chose the latter.
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The cause of this character fault is to be found in his childhood. It had taken an extraordinary collective effort by the ruling elite of England to ensure Henry V’s son inherited England peacefully. There had been boy kings before – the last, Richard II, was crowned at the age of 10 half a century earlier. But there had never been a baby king of England. While who should rule was never in question, how they should rule was, and the resulting factionalism dividing Henry’s council was to blight his childhood.
Henry VI had a superfluity of uncles and mentors, each with their own ideal of government. His great uncle, Archbishop (later Cardinal) Henry Beaufort, led a band of noblemen and bishops who favoured a royal council; his eldest uncle John, Duke of Bedford, sought to rule France and act as protector over a council in England; and his youngest surviving uncle, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, craved the regency of England solely for himself.
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These were powerful men, the wealthiest and most influential of the realm, and reconciling their conflicting demands would have been challenging for an adult king. It proved insurmountable for Henry. Time and again during his childhood he was called upon to witness public peace-making between his uncles, only for cohesion to collapse in private. Bedford was often abroad fighting Henry’s wars, leaving Cardinal Beaufort and the Duke of Gloucester to scrap things out between them: in parliament, palaces and even the streets of London, where tensions once escalated to such an extent that armed men faced off across London Bridge.
Gloucester was the first to realise that Henry’s essentially pliable nature made him susceptible to coercion, and tried to motivate his nephew into assuming power early so he could rule through him. This led to a bewildering face-off between king and council, where the adolescent monarch was told, with all possible respect, that he simply wasn’t up to the job of ruling yet.
The encounter compounded the sensitive Henry’s mistrust of his own judgment, encouraging his instinct to delegate authority to one leading courtier after another: first Gloucester, then the generally despised Duke of Suffolk, the unfortunate Duke of Somerset under whom France was lost, and eventually his queen, Margaret of Anjou.
The fatal flaw
But Henry V must share some of the blame for the problems of his son’s reign. In 1422, as he lay dying in France, physically wasted by camp sickness but still mentally acute, Henry V added codicils to his will that dictated how his successor should fight the French war. Those deathbed directions held his successor hostage for 20 years, leaving no room for his son and his advisors to manoeuvre, even as circumstances changed beyond the late king’s foresight.
Had Henry V lived, he almost certainly would have adapted his policy, as Henry VI was forced to do. But leaving no latitude in his directions, Henry V effectively stymied Lancastrian government. Henry V’s decision to lead his armies in person at the sickness-ravaged siege of Meaux was also disastrous to his regime. It directly caused his death, and left his infant son without kingly example or paternal protection.
This proved to be Henry VI’s fatal flaw. Because he never met his father – who departed to France during Queen Catherine’s pregnancy – Henry VI never witnessed kingship in action. He never even saw true leadership first hand, since those ruling on his behalf took pains to defer to him in public. His exempla were biblical figures and historical kings, but he never learned how to temper the ideals of kingship with the realpolitik of medieval rule.
If Henry V had lived to have more sons, and to offer an example to his heir, things could have been different. He would have been beset by the same troubles as his son. Charles VII would have raised an army against him. Continental intrigues and English infighting would have bedevilled attempts at peace. The English treasury would have been drained to breaking point. Henry V was lucky, then, to die at the height of his powers, ensuring his lasting fame.
Had Henry VI died in spring 1453, when his wife was pregnant, French lands being reclaimed, talk of a fresh invasion led by the king himself on the wind, and parliament pliable, we would remember him considerably more kindly. Instead, he died a prisoner of Edward IV, aged 49, shabby and bearded, teeth ground down by years of anxiety, having lost almost everyone he cared about – most of them violently. As William Shakespeare recognised, Henry V’s life story is a glorious history because of how it ended, just as Henry VI’s life was a tragedy.
Lauren Johnson is a historian and writer. Her books include Shadow King: The Life and Death of Henry VI (Head of Zeus, 2019)
This article was first published in the September 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine
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