What was really wrong with King Henry VI?

Henry VI (1422–60 and 1470–71) was comfortably the most incompetent king of the whole Plantagenet line, and his benign but ultimately disastrous rule began the series of conflicts that we now call the Wars of the Roses.

The crisis broke in 1453 when Henry appears to have suffered a near-complete mental collapse. He stopped responding to other people; he didn’t recognise his own wife or newborn son; and for several months he was completely helpless and utterly withdrawn from the world. One contemporary said the king was “smitten with a frenzy”.

The obvious comparison was with Henry’s grandfather Charles VI of France, who had suffered similarly long bouts of madness in which he attacked his courtiers, smeared himself in his own waste and screamed that he felt thousands of sharp needles piercing his flesh.

So was Henry’s illness hereditary? And how would we diagnose it today? Catatonia? Schizophrenia? Severe depression? Medical diagnoses across the centuries are fraught with difficulties, and it is quite possible that we will never be able to say for sure. What we do know is that Henry’s debilitating illness had a correspondingly dreadful effect on both the man and his kingdom, as his subjects fought at first to save the realm, and then to steal control of it for themselves.

Were the Tudors really Tudors?

The great survivors of the Wars of the Roses were a strange little half-Welsh, half-French family who took the surname Tidyr, or Tudur, or Tudor. Famously, it was Henry Tudor who emerged victorious from the battle of Bosworth in 1485 and, as Henry VII of England, went on to establish the most famous royal dynasty of them all.

But the origins of this remarkable family are surprisingly foggy. Their first connection to the English crown came through Henry VII’s grandmother, Catherine de Valois, widow of Henry V and mother of Henry VI. As dowager queen Catherine had caused quite a stir by secretly marrying her lowly servant, Owen Tudor. Plenty of romantic rumours have swirled around that union, but whatever the case, during the early 1430s Catherine gave birth to several children who took the Tudor name, most notably Henry VII’s father, Edmund Tudor, and another boy named Jasper Tudor.

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But were they really Tudors? Intriguingly, shortly before Catherine became involved with Owen, there was a widespread suggestion that she was having an affair with Edmund Beaufort, the future duke of Somerset, who would be killed at the battle of St Albans in 1455. This rumour was taken so seriously that parliament took up the matter and issued a special statute restricting the right of queens of England to remarry.

Edmund Beaufort, c1450. Engraving taken from portrait painted by Hans Holbein the Younger. (Photo by Kean Collection/Getty Images)

It has been speculated that Catherine’s marriage to the lowly Owen Tudor was contracted to cover up her politically dangerous relationship with Edmund Beaufort. In that case, is it possible that Edmund Tudor was not a Tudor at all, but was actually given the forename of his real father?

The great 15th-century expert Gerald Harriss made precisely this suggestion in a fine footnote written in 1988:

“By its very nature the evidence for Edmund ‘Tudor's’ parentage is less than conclusive, but such facts as can be assembled permit the agreeable possibility that Edmund ‘Tudor’ and Margaret Beaufort [ie Edmund Tudor’s wife and Henry VII’s mother] were first cousins and that the royal house of ‘Tudor’ sprang in fact from Beauforts on both sides.”

Wouldn’t that be something?

Who was Edward IV’s real wife?

The history books usually state that Edward IV’s wife was Elizabeth Woodville (or ‘Wydeville’). That in itself is a delicious fact: when Edward married Elizabeth in 1464 she was of lowly rank, a widow with two children from her previous marriage and one of the king’s subjects, rather than a foreign princess. What’s more, Edward’s choice of queen upset his closest political ally, the earl of Warwick; caused diplomatic trouble with more than one other country; and annoyed a significant number of other English noble families.

But nothing caused quite so much trouble as the suggestion that Edward IV had in fact married someone else. Following the king’s death in 1483, his brother Richard duke of Gloucester claimed that, before the Woodville marriage took place, Edward IV had promised to marry Lady Eleanor Boteler (née Talbot), a daughter of the famous soldier John Talbot, earl of Shrewsbury.

In 1483 Richard argued that since Edward had once promised to marry Lady Eleanor, he had not subsequently been legally entitled to marry Elizabeth Woodville. This in turn made their union invalid, and their children bastards.

Elizabeth Woodville, 1463. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

This claim was the basis of Richard’s usurpation of the crown. He made it known that Edward IV’s young son and successor, Edward V, was illegitimate, and instead claimed the throne for himself, as Richard III.

But was it true? Conveniently, in 1483 the case could not be properly tested, since Lady Eleanor had died 15 years previously. But today, those seeking to rehabilitate Richard III’s reputation frequently rely on the ‘pre-contract’ argument to defend his actions.

Did Richard III really kill the princes in the Tower?

Perhaps the greatest mystery of them all, and certainly the question most likely to start a fistfight among any given group of medievalists.

For centuries Richard III’s name has been blackened thanks to his usurpation of the throne in 1483 and the subsequent disappearance of his nephews, Edward V and Richard duke of York – better known as ‘the princes in the Tower’.

Did the boys really die? And if so, who was to blame? Did Richard have them murdered? Or did they die of natural causes? Were there other agents at work? And if so, who? Could it be, as one contemporary source suggested, that Richard’s sometime ally, the oily and feckless Henry Stafford, duke of Buckingham, was the prime mover behind the boys’ deaths? Or was there an even more sinister conspiracy, perhaps involving Henry Tudor’s wily mother, Margaret Beaufort?

Readers of my book The Hollow Crown (2014) will know where I stand on this, and you can find out more by watching the third episode of Channel 5’s Britain’s Bloody Crown. But I do not pretend that the case is closed. For many Ricardians, the charge of murdering the princes in the Tower is a heinous and unjust accusation levelled at a grievously misunderstood monarch… Where do you stand?

Was Perkin Warbeck really Richard IV?

An odd young man with an even odder name, Perkin Warbeck is usually described as either a ‘pretender’ or an ‘imposter’. Who was he really?

We usually think of the Wars of the Roses as having ended in 1485 at the battle of Bosworth. In fact, the threat of a revived dynastic war to put a Yorkist king back on the English throne haunted England deep into the Tudor years – well into the 1520s, in fact.

One of the most dangerous times was the 1490s, when the threat of Yorkist plots sponsored from the continent seriously unsettled the fragile Tudor regime. For several years the figurehead for these plots was a young man who claimed to be Richard, duke of York – the younger of the princes in the Tower. If he were crowned, he would have taken the throne as King Richard IV.

Perkin Warbeck, c1495. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

It is easy now to scoff at all this. But at the time, this supposed Richard IV had serious support from rulers in Ireland, France, the Netherlands, Scotland and the Holy Roman Empire, and he attempted several sea invasions of England.

Events came to a head in 1497 when the pseudo-Richard finally succeeded in landing in England and joined up with rebels in the west country. He was captured and brought before Henry VII, where he confessed that he was not, in fact, Richard duke of York, but a French-Flemish merchant’s son, a troublemaker and a puppet for enemies of the Tudor regime.

At first Henry VII was merciful, keeping Warbeck at court and parading him in public to assure people that he was not the real Richard duke of York. But this peaceful situation did not last long. In 1498 Warbeck escaped. He was recaptured and placed in the Tower of London. But while there he was caught up in further plotting against the crown, this time in league with another Yorkist claimant, Edward earl of Warwick.

Again the plotting was foiled and in 1499 Warbeck was forced once more to confess his imposture, and was hanged at Tyburn.

Yet doubt remains. Was Warbeck a pretender? Or were his confessions made under duress? The plots against Henry VII have more than a whiff of a set-up about them: could it be that really was the young Richard duke of York, entangled in a nightmare of Henry VII’s concoction and forced to deny his own birthright?

Most historians would say not. But the possibility remains tantalizing enough to consider…

Dan’s four-part series, Britain’s Bloody Crown, aired on Channel 5 in 2016. To find out more, click here.


This article was first published in June 2016.