Henry VI (1421–1471) was not a successful king. Having inherited the throne as an infant, his incompetency for government was a contributing factor to the Wars of the Roses and ultimately his murder on 21 May 1471. Here we bring you the most curious facts about his life – from his relationship with his wife, Margaret of Anjou, to his mysterious 18-month illness…
When Henry’s wife, Margaret of Anjou, visited the king’s bedroom, they were sometimes joined by “trusted attendants”
Pious, simple and puritan. This is how Henry VI is often described by historians and scholars. And the label certainly fits: the medieval king spent his free time meditating on the sufferings of Christ; staying in monasteries; and practising Devotio Moderna, a movement for religious reform that advocated humility and obedience.
The recent revelation – made by the historian Lauren Johnson – that Henry VI may have had a “sex coach” in his marriage bed seems therefore unsurprising. Johnson, who has been investigating the king’s private life, claims to have discovered evidence in the National Archives and royal household accounts that suggests Henry and his wife, Margaret of Anjou, were occasionally joined by “trusted attendants” in the bedroom.
Was it because the famously chaste Henry didn’t know what he was doing? “I think it’s entirely possible that it had reached a certain point where it perhaps became necessary to make clear to him what he should be doing,” Johnson told the Observer. “That couldn’t be done in a public way at all. The king’s chamber is the most private place [where] you could be having this conversation or, indeed, checking what was going on.”
Read Lauren Johnson’s article on Henry VI in the March 2019 issue of BBC History Magazine – out now:
He was more popular after he died than when he was alive
Henry VI was not a vengeful king – if anything, he was quite the opposite. He once ordered a deceased traitor’s impaled ‘quarter’ to be taken down, commenting: “I will not have any Christian man so cruelly handled for my sake.” And in 1452, on Good Friday, he issued 144 pardons following an attempted rebellion by the Duke of York.
While the king was certainly a kind man, he made for a poor monarch. “He failed spectacularly as a ruler, losing two kingdoms,” wrote historian Desmond Seward in the April 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine. “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.”
Despite his poor leadership, people across England venerated Henry as a saint-like figure following his death on 21 May 1471. An increasing number of people embarked on pilgrimages to Chertsey Abbey, where the king was buried, before Richard III had Henry’s remains reinterred at St George’s Chapel in Windsor. The idea of ‘Henry the holy man’ was rapidly accepted, and in 1500 a book materialised that suggested the king could perform miracles, even after his death – from resurrecting plague victims to saving a servant unjustly accused of a capital offence.
So why did the cult of ‘Saint Henry’ take off? The answer, claims Seward, lies in the fact that he was unjustly murdered: “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.”
He experienced a mysterious illness that lasted 18 months
In August 1453, Henry VI fell into an inertia that lasted 18 months. Some historians believe he was suffering from catatonic schizophrenia, a condition characterised by symptoms including stupor, catalepsy (loss of consciousness) and mutism. Others have referred to it simply as a mental breakdown. He certainly had the genetic disposition for it; his maternal grandfather, Charles VI of France, suffered from recurrent bouts of mental illness for the last 30 years of his life.
There are few contemporary accounts that shed light on the matter, but those that do exist suggest Henry had a notable lack of interest in the world around him during this time. In January 1454, a London merchant called John Stodeley wrote of how Henry barely responded when first introduced to his own new-born son, Edward. “He looked on the Prince and cast down his eyes again,” Stodeley reported. A few months later, visitors to the king described how “they could obtain no word or sign” from Henry after travelling to inform him of the death of Archbishop John Kempe.
When Henry finally recovered from his 18-month illness, he was reportedly “astonished to find his wife had given birth to a son”. Edward was born in October 1453 – just a few months after Henry became unwell.
He was the youngest person to become king of England – and the first (and only) English monarch to be crowned king of France
Henry became king of England on 1 September 1422, at nine months of age, following the death of his father, Henry V. A regency council governed the country until 1437, when Henry was considered old enough to rule. He was the youngest person to inherit the English throne.
Less than two months after he succeeded the English throne, Henry added another crown to his belt. His grandfather, King Charles VI, died on 21 October – and Henry was proclaimed king of France in line with the terms of the 1420 Treaty of Troyes. The military successes of Henry’s father, Henry V, meant that England held vast territories in France. These were, however, gradually lost over the course of Henry VI’s reign – and by 1453 (and the end of the Hundred Years’ War) England was left with only Calais.
He tried to stop the Wars of the Roses by implementing a ‘Love Day’
So devoted was Henry to the idea of peace, he once attempted to instigate a ‘Love Day’ to help reconcile the warring factions of the Wars of the Roses. The premise was as follows: a parade (or something similar) would take place on 24 March 1458 in which the leading Lancastrians would hold hands with the leading Yorkists as they walked through the streets of London. Needless to say, the plan did nothing to quell the hostility between the two sides.
Why did Henry have such a problem with conflict? In the latest issue of BBC History Magazine, Lauren Johnson speculates that the roots of Henry’s troubles lay in his childhood. “His uncles were ambitious men who blighted Henry’s youth with their sometimes violent disputes,” she explains. “Time and again Henry was called upon, despite his youth and inexperience, to resolve their quarrels, expected to serve as final arbiter of complex, adult dynamics that had taken form before he was born. As he was a sensitive, serious child, it is little wonder that he shrank from conflict in later life.”
Rachel Dinning is Digital Editorial Assistant at HistoryExtra.com.