Henry VI (December 6, 1421 – May 21, 1471) was King of England and Lord of Ireland from 1422 to 1461 and again from 1470 to 1471, and disputed King of France from 1422 to 1453. The only child of Henry V and Catherine of Valois, (daughter of Charles VI of France and younger sister of Isabella of Valois the widow of Richard II). Henry VI succeeded to the English throne at the age of nine months upon his father’s death, on August 31, 1422; he was the youngest person ever to succeed to the English throne. A few weeks later on October 21, 1422 in accordance with the Treaty of Troyes of 1420, he became titular King of France upon his grandfather Charles VI’s death. His mother, Catherine of Valois, was then 20 years old. As Charles VI’s daughter, she was viewed with considerable suspicion by English nobles and was prevented from playing a full role in her son’s upbringing.and succeeded to the French throne on the death of his maternal grandfather Charles VI shortly afterwards. The subject of Henry VI’s claim to the French throne is a topic for another blog entry.
Henry VI inherited the long-running Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453), in which Charles VII of the House of Valois who contested his claim to the French throne. The early reign of Henry VI, during which several people were ruling for him, saw the height of English power in France, but subsequent military failures, the desertion of England’s allies, and a faltering economy resulted in the decline of English fortunes in the war. Upon assuming personal rule in 1437, Henry VI found his realm in a difficult position, faced with diplomatic and military reverses in France and divisions among the nobility at home.
In the later years of Henry’s reign, the monarchy became increasingly unpopular, due to a breakdown in law and order, corruption, the distribution of royal land to the king’s court favourites, the troubled state of the crown’s finances, and the steady loss of territories in France.
In the midst of military catastrophes in France and of a general breakdown in law and order in England, the king’s cousin Richard, Duke of York, led an increasingly popular league of disaffected elements aiming to reform the government. He challenged the authority of the unpopular queen Margaret (widely held to be the real hand behind Henry VI’s decisions) and of the king’s clique of councillors, accusing them of misconducting the war in France and misruling the country.
Upon reaching his 21st year in 1442, and thus the legal age of majority, Henry VI saw the question of his marriage gain importance in English politics. The heir presumptive at the time, the King’s uncle Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, (the fourth and youngest son of Henry IV, King of England and his first wife Mary de Bohun, the brother of King Henry V, and the uncle of Henry VI) saw his public image become severely damaged after his wife Eleanor Cobham was arrested and tried under charges of witchcraft in 1441. This scandal seems to have highlighted the need for Henry VI to produce heirs of his own, and public focus began to place itself on the King and potential marriage plans.
The first major proposal was to marry the King to a daughter of John IV, Count of Armagnac, a powerful noble in southwestern France who had been at odds with the Valois crown for a while, and whose lands were located very closely to the English territories in Guyenne. Already on good terms with the English since 1437, Armagnac would benefit from a strong alliance which would protect him from threats by Charles VII, while the English could use his lands as a defensive buffer zone against French attacks. The English took long to make a final decision, however, and when Charles VII invaded Gascony in 1442, the frightened Count of Armagnac seemed to change his mind. The prospect for the marriage and alliance was destroyed when Armagnac’s lands were invaded by Charles VII’s forces in 1443.
Cardinal Beaufort and the Earl of Suffolk persuaded the king that the best way of pursuing peace with France was through a marriage with Margaret of Anjou, the niece of King Charles VII. Henry agreed, especially when he heard reports of Margaret’s stunning beauty, and sent Suffolk to negotiate with Charles, who agreed to the marriage on condition that he would not have to provide the customary dowry and instead would receive the land of Maine from the English. These conditions were agreed to in the Treaty of Tours in 1444, but the cession of Maine was kept secret from parliament, as it was known that this would be hugely unpopular with the English populace. The marriage took place at Titchfield Abbey on April 23, 1445, one month after Margaret’s 15th birthday.
After the death of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester on February 23, 1447, Richard, Duke of York, became the heir presumptive to King Henry VI until the birth of Henry’s son Edward in 1453. In 1449, the Duke of Somerset, leading the campaign in France, reopened hostilities in Normandy (him having been one of the main advocates for peace), but by the autumn had been pushed back to Caen. By 1450, the French had retaken the whole province, so hard won by Henry V.
In 1451, the Duchy of Aquitaine, held since Henry II’s time, was also lost. In 1452, the Duke of York was persuaded to return from Ireland, claim his rightful place on the council and put an end to bad government. His cause was a popular one and he soon raised an army at Shrewsbury. The court party, meanwhile, raised their own similar-sized force in London. A stand-off took place south of London, with York presenting a list of grievances and demands to the court circle, including the arrest of Edmund Beaufort, 2nd Duke of Somerset. The king initially agreed, but Margaret intervened to prevent the arrest of Beaufort.
In October 1452, an English advance in Aquitaine retook Bordeaux and was having some success but by 1453, Bordeaux was lost again, leaving Calais as England’s only remaining territory on the continent. However, on hearing of the final loss of Bordeaux in August 1453, Henry experienced a mental breakdown and became completely unresponsive to everything that was going on around him for more than a year. (Henry may have been suffering from a form of schizophrenia, according to modern experts, as he reportedly demonstrated other symptoms of schizophrenia, especially hallucinations.) He even failed to respond to the birth of a son and heir, who was christened Edward. Henry may have inherited a psychiatric condition from Charles VI of France, his maternal grandfather, who was affected by intermittent periods of insanity during the last thirty years of his life.
The Duke of York, meanwhile, had gained a very important ally, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, one of the most influential magnates and possibly richer than York himself. On Christmas Day 1454, King Henry VI regained his senses. Disaffected nobles who had grown in power during Henry’s reign, most importantly the Earls of Warwick and Salisbury, took matters into their own hands. They backed the claims of the rival House of York, first to the control of government, and then to the throne itself (from 1460), due to York’s better descent from Edward III. It was agreed that the Duke of York would formally become Henry’s successor, despite York being older.
York was also named regent as Protector of the Realm in 1454. The queen was excluded completely, and Edmund Beaufort was detained in the Tower of London, while many of York’s supporters spread rumours that Edward was not the king’s son, but Beaufort’s. Other than that, York’s months as regent were spent tackling the problem of government overspending.
Edward of York, eldest son of Richard, Duke of York, carried on a factional struggle with the king’s Beaufort relatives. He established a dominant position after his victory at the First Battle of St Albans in 1455, in which his chief rival Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, was killed. However, Henry’s Queen, Margaret of Anjou, rebuilt a powerful faction to oppose the Yorkists over the following years. In 1459 Margaret moved against the Duke of York and his principal supporters—his brother-in-law Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury, and Salisbury’s son Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, who rose in revolt.
The Yorkist leaders fled from England after the collapse of their army in the confrontation at Ludford Bridge. The Duke of York took refuge in Ireland, while Edward went with the Nevilles to Calais where Warwick was governor. In 1460 Edward landed in Kent with Salisbury, Warwick and Salisbury’s brother William Neville, Lord Fauconberg, raised an army, and occupied London. Edward, Warwick and Fauconberg left Salisbury besieging the Tower of London and advanced against the king, who was with an army in the Midlands, and defeated and captured him in the Battle of Northampton. York returned to England and was declared the king’s heir by parliament (in the Act of Accord), but Queen Margaret raised a fresh army against him, and Richard, Duke of York was killed at the Battle of Wakefield on December 30, 1460, along with his second surviving son Edmund, Earl of Rutland, and the Earl of Salisbury.
This left Edward, now Duke of York, at the head of the Yorkist faction. He defeated a Lancastrian army at Mortimer’s Cross in Herefordshire on February 2-3, 1461. He then united his forces with those of Warwick, whom Margaret’s army had defeated at the Second Battle of St Albans (February 17, 1461), during which Henry VI had been rescued by his supporters. By this point, however, Henry VI was suffering such a bout of madness that he was apparently laughing and singing while the battle raged.
Richard, Duke of York, had restricted his ambitions to only becoming Henry’s heir, but Edward now took the more radical step of proclaiming himself king on March 4, 1461. He then advanced against the Lancastrians, having his life saved on the battlefield by the Welsh Knight Sir David Ap Mathew. He defeated the Lancastrian army in the exceptionally bloody Battle of Towton in Yorkshire on 29 March 1461. Edward IV had effectively broken the military strength of the Lancastrians, and he returned to London for his coronation. King Edward IV named Sir David Ap Mathew Standard Bearer of England and allowed him to use “Towton” on the Mathew family crest.
Edward IV failed to capture Henry and his queen, who fled to Scotland. During the first period of Edward IV’s reign, Lancastrian resistance continued mainly under the leadership of Queen Margaret and the few nobles still loyal to her in the northern counties of England and Wales. Henry VI, who had been safely hidden by Lancastrian allies in Scotland, Northumberland and Yorkshire, was captured by King Edward in 1465 and subsequently held captive in the Tower of London.