King Henry VI ascended to the throne in infancy. His reign was managed on his behalf until he came of age. Then, quite suddenly, he entered a state of Catatonia. Unable to function, the crown had lost its figurehead. Politically this posed problems, while there were systems in place for many aspects of government, much of the decision making still came directly from the monarch. With Henry incapable, a means of fulfilling his role was required. Unlike in other instances of monarchal incapacity such as that of King George III, there was no adult crown prince to step into the role. It left a number of possibilities and led to increased factionalism within court.
As a child King Henry VI had his rule managed by Regents and a Council. By the time of his breakdown, at the age of 31, the men who had managed the country on his behalf had already passed away. This meant that as he became incapable of ruling, there was nobody available with experience of fulfilling the role.
Furthermore, Henry and his wife, Margaret of Anjou, were expecting the birth of their first child. Therefore there was no Crown Prince to act as Regent in his place.
Richard, Duke of York
Typically the next in line to the throne would assume the role. They are the senior Royal and would have a wealth of experience of Governing, leading and the respect of the court. As Henry fell ill in 1453 this was not quite as straightforward as it may seem. The next in line to the throne was Richard, Duke of York. Richard himself had a claim to the throne. He had been a vociferous opponent of the faction that had emerged around the King and his wife, ‘The Court Party’. Indeed, after returning from his governing of Ireland he had raised an army and taken up arms against the King’s men. Richard, senior and experienced as he may have been, was far from everybody’s choice.
An alternative was to look within the immediate Royal Family. Margaret of Anjou put herself forward as Regent. From a French culture in which women could fulfil this role, it seemed only natural to her that she should take on the role. It would also strengthen her position within court, solidify the position of the Court Party and isolate Richard and his followers. In England though, there was no such tradition of women on such senior roles at this point in time. For many it simply wasn’t plausible to have a female regent.
A third option would be the appointment of a senior noble from within the Court faction. The most likely contender for this position would be the Earl of Somerset, Beaufort. He was prominent amongst the nobles loyal to Henry VI.
The choice of regent was made by a government that by this point was quite divided. Richard appealed to those who valued military experience. Margaret appealed to those favourites who had been promoted by Henry VI.
In the end Richard was appointed as Regent. Why? The 1450’s were proving to be quite turbulent. Not only had Richard himself raised arms in protest at the way in which the country was being governed but there had been a popular uprising, the Cade Rebellion, that had shocked many nobles. Richard, despite having been sent to his estates in disgrace after his uprising, was seen as the best man to keep the peace and he was the heir to the throne: remember, nobody knew whether Henry would recover.
He was too powerful to proceed to extremities with; so was only dismissed to his seat on the borders of Wales. Though he thus lost the fruits of this armament, yet the king at this time having his natural weakness of mind increased by disorder, his party had influence enough to get him appointed protector, and to send Somerset to the Tower. The whole power of the kingdom was now in his hands; yet, instead of improving it to establish himself in the royalty which he aimed at, his irresolution appeared in the cautious use of the powers conferred on him. He was too moderate for the time and for the occasion; as a more decisive conduct might have saved much of the blood afterward shed in the contest.
John Noorthouck, ‘Book 1, Ch. 6: Cade’s Rebellion to Henry VII’, in A New History of London Including Westminster and Southwark (London, 1773), pp. 94-106. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/no-series/new-history-london/pp94-106 [accessed 22 April 2019].