Henry VI succeeded his father, Henry V, in 1422. Henry was just nine months old. He was also King of France from 1422 to 1453, his coronation delayed until he was old enough in 1431. Henry VI holds the distinction of having been King of England twice. However this is due to his failings as a king and the turmoil that England underwent during his reign.
As a child his rule was conducted on his behalf by a council dominated by his uncles. John, Duke of Bedford was to command English forces in France; Humphrey of Gloucester was Lord Protector; Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester, was also on the Council. The Earl of Warwick was appointed as Henry’s tutor. His age led to Charles of France attempting to wrestle control there. He had himself crowned at Reims in 1429. This prompted the English to arrange for Henry’s coronation in both England and France to be brought forward. He was crowned as King of England in 1429 and in Paris he was crowned King of France in 1431.
Henry was still young when he took charge of government himself. He was immediately faced with difficult decisions around the ongoing conflict in France. Whilst his father had dominated them and won the right for Henry to be crowned King, the French had not accepted it. They were fighting back under the banner of Joan of Arc. The nobles were split on the best route forward. Finances need to be considered; military capabilities and limitations taken into account; prestige and rights upheld. Senior nobles were split into two factions. Those who wanted peace, with some loss of land. Those who wanted war to maintain or expand.
The third route forward was the traditional method of settling disputes over territories: marriage. After some discussion over the best option, Henry was married to Margaret of Anjou. Margaret was a niece of Charles VII and so their would be ties between the families which may improve relations. There was a problem though. In the terms of the marriage agreement, Henry agreed to cede the province of Maine to France. He had not told Parliament. When this was discovered there was uproar. The Dukes of Gloucester and York in particular were incensed that land so important to the defence of Normandy could be given away.
While Henry VI was still young and had only recently married, there was concern about succession to the throne. If Henry VI were to die young there was no clear and obvious successor. This led to many political moves to gain power and influence, or to limit those of others.
Potential succession to the throne before 1453
Alfonso of Portugal: descent from Henry IV’s sister and would be the legitimate heir under line of primogeniture
Richard of York: Senior Royal, descendant of Edward III
Edmund Beaufort: Descendant of Edward III but his family line was barred from succession by Henry IV
John Holland, Duke of Exeter: Descendant of Henry IV’s sister so next in line after Alfonso if the line of primogeniture is used
Margaret Beaufort: heir through the House of Lancaster if the Beaufort line were permitted to succeed and if the succession were to be given to a woman
In an age where death could strike young, healthy people down, the need to have a line of succession was important. Until Henry produced an heir, which did happen in 1453, there was instability as the right to succeed of the possible candidates was fought through politically. This led to Richard, Duke of York being given the role of Governor of Ireland. In theory an important role. In reality it removed him from the court, massively reducing his own influence and allowing his opponents to influence the king.
The conflict between those who gained favour under Henry and those who they sought to ostracise dominated Henry’s reign. As Lords Suffolk and Somerset became more powerful, they angered the likes of York. Decisions were being made that made the nobility unpopular. The English position in France weakened. Somerset, once in favour of peace in France, reopened hostilities in Normandy. The French not only defeated him but went on to recapture most of the land that Henry V had fought so hard to gain.
In 1450 a rebellion led by Jack Cade outwitted the kings army and occupied London. For several days the army did little to relieve the city, the townsfolk eventually restoring order themselves. It was clear that government was breaking down. As discontent increased and the situation in France worsened, the Duke of York was persuaded to return to London.
The return of York caused problems in government. He resumed his role on the Council and attempted to have Somerset arrested. Henry VI initially agreed. The Queen intervened. Soon both York and Somerset had raised armies to back up their authority.
1453 became a critical year in Henry’s reign. Margaret, his wife, was pregnant. An heir was about to be produced. However this good news was countered by a military disaster for the English. The French captured Bordeaux, in August. Henry VI suffered some form of breakdown. For over a year he was unable to function. Debate continues around the precise cause but he was incapacitated for this period.
With Henry VI unable to rule, Richard of York was named as Protector. He was supported by the equally powerful Warwick. For the duration of Henry’s illness, York ruled. He soon rid the court of the influence of the Queen and of Edmund Beaufort. A focus was put on reducing government spending.
On Christmas Day, 1454, Henry suddenly became better. This immediately resulted in problems. The favourites and his queen returned to court. Richard, however, had gained much support during his time as Regent. Changes to policy and arming of Royalist militias concerned York. When a Great Council was called in Leicester, at the centre of loyalist support for the King, Richard feared the worst. He along with Earls Warwick and Salisbury ensured that the Council could not convene. An armed standoff turned into the First Battle of St. Albans. York and his supporters won the battle, killing Somerset and capturing the king.
With York in control and Henry unwell again, an agreement was made that named York as Henry’s successor. Not only did this disinherit the Prince of Wales but was odd as Richard was older than the king. It would however mean his line inherited.
This compromise lasted until 1460. The supporters of York fought Henry’s army at the Battle of Northampton. Henry VI was captured in a Yorkist victory. Henry was imprisoned. Tides quickly turned though. Queen Margaret mustered an army that killed Richard of York. They then freed King Henry as they won another victory at St. Albans. The new Duke of York, Edward, raised another large army and proclaimed himself king. At the Battle of Towton, he defeated the Kings men in one of the bloodiest battles ever fought on English soil. With Henry in hiding, Edward was secured as king. Henry VI was later captured in 1465 and imprisoned.
This was not the end for Henry VI though. His wife and Queen had fled to France. Here she made plans with allies. The new King soon fell out with Warwick and with his brother the Duke of Clarence. The group talked with the King of France. Louis XI agreed to the marriage of his daughter to the son of Henry and Margaret. An army of Warwick, Clarence, Margaret and the King of France’s men was mustered. On arrival in England, Warwick forced Edward IV into exile.
Henry VI was king again, though in name only. In real terms the country was now being run by his wife, Warwick and Clarence. This was a short lived arrangement. Warwick declared war on the Duke of Burgundy. In response, Burgundy promised Edward IV assistance in regaining the throne in return for his help against Warwick. Edward landed a force in England in 1471. He reconciled himself with his brother, Clarence, and went on to defeat the kings army at Barnet. Warwick was killed in this battle. Henry VI’s heir, Edward of Westminster, was then killed at the Battle of Tewkesbury and Henry himself captured once more.
Henry was taken to the Tower of London following his capture in May 1471. He died on 21st May. Chronicles say that he died in shock at hearing of his sons death. Historians have argued that he was most likely murdered to end the chances of another escape.
Henry VI had a life and reign that was beset by medical problems. He suffered from illnesses that would be considered to be mental health issues today. His choice of favourites and their promotion over those who were both more experienced and more entitled through lineage led to the breakdown of government in the country. With no stable government as a result of his weaknesses, factions sought power. These led to armed conflict which escalated into what we know as the War of the Roses.
|Henry II||Richard I||King John|
|Henry III||Edward I||Edward II|
|Edward III||Richard II|
|House of Lancaster|
|Henry IV||Henry V||Henry VI|
|House of York|
|Edward IV||Edward V||Richard III|
|Murder of Thomas Becket||Magna Carta||Ten Facts about the Black Death|
|Edward I's Conquest of Wales||Madog ap Llywelyn||Causes of the Peasants Revolt|
|Timeline of the Peasants Revolt|
|Sources and Interpretations|
|Paston Letters||John Rous|
Royal Family Official Website – Henry VI
HenrySixth.com – The Kings Greatest Illness
Richard III Society – The Murders of Edward of Westminster and King Henry VI
History Extra – The Miracle of Henry VI
J.P Summerville – Lecture Notes on Henry VI and the outbreak of the War of the Roses
Ranker – 14 Crazy Facts about Henry VI
Kings and Queens of England – Biographies of England’s Monarchs
Battles in the Wars of the Roses
First Battle of St. Albans – Battle of Blore Heath – Battle of Ludford Bridge – Battle of Northampton – Battle of Wakefield – Battle of Mortimer’s Cross – Second Battle of St. Albans Battle of Ferrybridge – Battle of Towton – Battle of Hedgeley Moor – Battle of Hexham – Battle of Edgecote Moor – Battle of Losecote Field – Battle of Barnet – Battle of Tewkesbury – Battle of Bosworth – Battle of Stoke Field
Documents, Maps and Evidence
People and periods
British History – The Wars of the Roses – The Plantagenets – The Tudors – King Henry IV – King Henry V – King Henry VI – King Edward IV – King Edward V – King Richard III – King Henry VII – Margaret of Anjou