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Henry VI

King's College, Cambridge

Opinions about monarchs change through history. History is like the Robert Browning poem Prospice, which includes the line: "For sudden the worst becomes the best." Two great memorials to the fifteenth century reign of Henry VI now survive in the chapel at King's College, Cambridge, and the chapel at Eton, Windsor. As we shall see these two beautiful buildings actually portray the worst things about Henry.

Henry of Windsor, the only child of Henry V and Catherine of Valois, was born at Windsor Castle on 6th December 1421. Henry V was to die in France in August 1422, leaving his infant son as King of England. Even as a baby in his crib Henry was brought in to preside over meetings, while a council of nobles took over the business of government. Uncle Humphrey and great uncle Henry Beaufort fell out, but the council was generally harmonious, and England was well run during Henry's childhood. He was educated largely at Windsor, in the company of sons of other nobles, and was crowned at age eight, on 6th November 1429. On his coronation day the boy coped well with an exhausting round of ceremony and feasting, which was taken as a good omen for the future.


Another milestone in what was hoped to be Henry's passage to adult greatness came on St George's Day the following year, 1430. Henry stepped ashore in France to claim the inheritance of his father's conquests. Conditions were difficult in France. Joan of Arc had made her first appearance, at Orleans on 29th April 1429, and her success had sapped the morale of English forces. Cardinal Beaufort and 3000 men had to be diverted from a planned crusade to secure Paris. In May 1431 Joan of Arc was captured at Compiegne, and then tried and executed by the Church. Henry entered Paris, and was crowned King of France on 2nd December 1431 at Notre Dame. The coronation, however, gave a false sense of English power in France. By September 1435 a peace treaty had been finalised between Charles VIII of France, and the Duke of Burgundy, a former ally of England. Henry VI now faced a united France, something which his father had never had to deal with.


The history of the reign that followed was in later years to be heavily influenced by historian Polydore Vergil. This scholar was hired by one of Henry VI's successors, his nephew, Henry VII. Vergil's job was to make Henry VII's ancestry, and particularly his uncle, look good. As we shall see this was not an easy task. During the reign of Henry VI there weren't many great victories, no stirring speeches, and no innovations of government. There were many disasters and humiliations. Vergil decided that his only option was to portray Henry VI as a pious man who was too good for this wicked world. Much was made of his devoutness and spiritual qualities. But according to Bertram Wolffe, reader in medieval history at Exeter University, there is no real evidence to support the view that Henry was excessively god-fearing or saint-like. He had been king since he was nine months old, and rather than shying from kingship, and wanting to go and live in monasteries, this was a young man who was keen to get on with being king. It is true that Henry did spend some time in a monastery, but government budgetary figures from 1433 reveal why. In that year the government was so short of money that not even the young king's basic living expenses could be met. The unusual step was taken of sending Henry and his entire household to St Albans monastery for four months, from Christmas 1433 until April 1434. The king got to live for free; or rather the monks had to pay for him.


Chapel at Eton

Henry's reign became a battlefield in which later struggles were fought. It is hard to settle on accurate details, but perhaps a good picture of Henry can be gained from his two great building projects at Cambridge and Eton. Almost as soon as he took full royal powers in 1435 Henry got on with these projects which were to be the obsessions of his reign. In August 1440 Henry purchased a small parish church near his birthplace at Windsor Castle, and work began. The original plan was for a community of ten priests, four clerks, six choristers, and twenty five poor scholars who would learn grammar under a schoolmaster. Twenty five paupers would also be accommodated, whose sole purpose would be to pray for Henry and his ancestors. Henry's original intention was not for an educational institution. His concern was to win from the pope the greatest possible number of spiritual privileges and immunities. His secretary's letters to Rome show that what he really wanted to do was sell indulgences through these institutions. Indulgences were a means of paying money to offset the problems that sins might cause in the after-life. Henry wanted to compete with Rome itself in the sale of indulgences. Henry was building up spiritual capital. In fact spiritual capital could become the physical kind, since privileges and immunities could be sold for a great deal of money to credulous people. As part of this business plan, Henry insisted that his new chapels at Eton and King's exceed all other churches and cathedrals in England for sheer size. Finding that some existing cathedrals were bigger than Henry's planned buildings, there was much expensive demolition of work already done. By August 1443 there was a change of direction towards a more educationally based institution, with provision made for seventy scholars. Henry had found out about William Wykeham's unique achievement in founding Winchester College and its twin New College, Oxford, in 1382. The fact that Henry didn't know about Wykeham's colleges before building began shows an unfortunate lack of research. Plans were scrapped, and redrawn. Seven years of work at Eton had to be pulled down.The original number of scholars planned for Eton and King's was twenty five, but this was increased to seventy to put Wykeham in the shade. Henry does not seem to have been interested in learning. The scholars were an unimportant add on to religious institutions where provision of indulgences was the main purpose. The number of scholars was increased only for added prestige.

Eton College chapel and Kings College Cambridge, sum up the personality and reign of an English king in physical form. As Bertram Wolffe has written: "His constant change of plan, regardless of expense, show his impractical nature and lack of steadfast purpose. His ambition to surpass all other foundations in privileges and grandeur reveals the ostentatious nature of his piety. His slavish modelling of Eton and King's on Winchester and New College reveals no originality of concept, nor does his addition of scholars as a less important appendage suggest any Renaissance interest in learning" (Henry VI P145). Inspite of these reservations, Eton and King's College are the only two great achievements of Henry's reign.



Blackheath, the setting for Jack Cade's rebellion

Henry, changeable and vacillating, seems to have presided over a worsening political, economic and military situation. Military disasters in France led in 1450 to the loss of all of England's possessions except Calais. May 1450 saw a rising, known as Jack Cade's rebellion. A large group of men from Kent gathered on Blackheath with the stated aim of rescuing Henry from his evil councillors. When the king himself sent his army against the rebels, they dispersed, no one wanting to take on the king directly. Henry ordered his men to pursue the rebels, and had to swallow the humiliation of his royal troops being soundly thrashed by the men of Kent. Surprisingly Henry managed to recover from these reverses, and by 1452 he enjoyed a much stronger position. Even news from France was good, with a successful expedition to Bordeaux being led by Talbot. But then in the first week of August 1453 news arrived that Talbot had been killed and his army destroyed at Castillon. Henry was at Clarendon near Salisbury, and news of disaster in Bordeaux seems to have brought on complete mental collapse. Henry quickly slipped into a state of extreme depression and lethargy. For over a year the king was unable to communicate with, or even acknowledge, anyone around him. Henry's great rival Richard of York was made regent in March 1454, beginning the dynastic struggle which later became known as the Wars of the Roses. The history of this period, like that of Henry's reign itself, is one shaped by propaganda. J.R. Lander was moved to describe the history of the later fifteenth century as " a patchwork of legend and rumour mingled with, and all too often taken for, fact " (Preface to The Wars of the Roses J.R Lander). Perhaps the best thing to do is simply to present the bare facts, and leave propagandists of the past to their battles:

August 1453: Henry VI suffers a mental breakdown, which lasts for over a year. By March 1454 Richard of York has been made protector, to rule while Henry is incapacitated. Soon after Richard's rise to the position of protector, Queen Margaret, who had married Henry in 1444, gives birth to a son, Edward. Henry VI now has an heir to the throne, which weakens Richard's claim to the throne. Queen Margaret now supports Richard's enemy, the Duke of Somerset.

May 1455: rival armies representing the "Lancastrian" supporters of Henry and the "Yorkist" supporters of Richard meet at St Albans. Some writers say there was a battle, others say it was a "scuffle" in a street.

1459: Queen Margaret is in control, wanting the Yorkists out of the way to boost the future prospects of her son. The York camp led by the Earl of Warwick takes up arms, but realising their forces are too weak, leading Yorkist nobles flee abroad.

October 1459: a parliament (Parliament of Devils) agrees that Richard of York and his supporters must forfeit their lands. The Yorkist earls of Warwick and Salisbury in Calais respond by mounting their own invasion of England. Rebel forces meet the royal army near Northampton, and Henry VI is captured. Parliament proclaims that while Henry can continue as king, Richard of York will take the place of Henry's son as heir. Queen Margaret, ever mindful of the future prospects of her son, will not accept this. In a confused battle near Wakefield, Richard of York is killed, leaving his son Edward as heir to his title as Duke of York.

2nd February 1461: the Yorkists fight back at Mortimer's Cross in Wales, and then march on London. Queen Margaret manages to rescue Henry, but is too cautious in making her own advance on London. By 4th of March 1461 Richard of York's son, Edward has been proclaimed king, as Edward IV.

29th March 1461: the decisive Battle of Towton in south Yorkshire. This seems to have been a huge encounter. The Yorkists win, strengthening Edward IV's position as king. The Lancastrians carry on fighting in northern England. Castles at Alnwick, Banburgh and Dunstanburgh are won and lost several times by both sides.

Early 1464: Edward IV's government finally wins control of northern England. In July Henry VI, roaming as an exile in the north is captured and sent to the Tower. Edward IV, however, loses the Earl of Warwick's support. This might have been partly due to Edward's decision to marry Elizabeth Woodville, whose up and coming Woodville family caused jealousy among established nobles.

During this period Edward IV orders the rebuilding of St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle as a rival to Henry's symbolic buildings at Eton and Cambridge.


Wakefield Tower, Tower of London - traditional place of Henry's death

March - May 1470: Henry VI, with the Earl of Warwick's support is returned to his throne. But Henry is a broken man, and Edward IV is able to take the throne back in a campaign waged between March and May 1471. The crucial battle takes place in fog at Barnet on Easter Sunday. The Lancastrians try to reach safety in Wales, but Edward intercepts them at Tewkesbury.

4th May 1470: the Battle of Tewkesbury sees the death of Henry's son, Prince Edward. King Edward returns to London on 21st May, and on the same evening Henry VI is murdered in the Tower of London.


That in outline is the story of Henry VI's troubled life, and death. The traditional place given for Henry's murder, in a little shrine in the Wakefield Tower, does of course add to Henry's air of sanctity. Here a memorial alter stands, where Eton and King's College lay their roses and lilies each year on the anniversary of his death.

Eton and King's, the two great monuments to Henry VI, actually reveal how worldly ambition can express itself in apparently unworldly ways. The story of Henry VI reminds me of Chaucer's Summoner's Tale where a Friar hides worldly ambition in the disguise of spirituality. People like to divide life up into the sacred and profane, the good and bad. In reality these categories are never clear. Historians spend a great deal of time giving their judgments, weighing up this quality against that fault, describing what so and so should have done. These arguments will go on forever. The past is chaotic, like the present. We think we know it, and then we don't. It's almost as though the past is still happening, still alive, still full of doubt and argument, just like the present. Perhaps this is a good thing. Life would rather continue turbulently on than be placed in a dusty book on a shelf in a college library.















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