Henry IV (c. April 15, 1367 – March 20, 1413), also known as Henry Bolingbroke, was King of England from 1399 to 1413. He asserted the claim of his grandfather King Edward III, a maternal grandson of Philippe IV of France, to the Kingdom of France. Henry was the first English ruler since the Norman Conquest, over three hundred years prior, whose mother tongue was English rather than French.
Henry was born at Bolingbroke Castle, in Lincolnshire, to John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster. His epithet “Bolingbroke” was derived from his birthplace. Gaunt was the third son of King Edward III.
Blanche was the daughter of the wealthy royal politician and nobleman Henry, Duke of Lancaster, a member of the Plantagenet dynasty and a direct male descendant of Henry III.
Gaunt enjoyed a position of considerable influence during much of the reign of his own nephew, King Richard II. Henry’s elder sisters were Philippa, Queen of Portugal, wife of João I of Portugal, and Elizabeth of Lancaster, Duchess of Exeter.
His younger half-sister, the daughter of his father’s second wife, Constance of Castile, was Katherine, Queen of Castile, wife of Enrique III of Castile. He also had four natural half-siblings born of Katherine Swynford, originally his sisters’ governess, then his father’s longstanding mistress and later third wife. These illegitimate children were given the surname Beaufort from their birthplace at the Château de Beaufort in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, France.
Henry Bolingbroke was involved in the revolt of the Lords Appellant against Richard in 1388. Henry was later exiled by Richard. After John of Gaunt died in 1399, Richard blocked Henry’s inheritance of his father’s duchy. That year, Henry rallied a group of supporters, overthrew and imprisoned Richard II, and usurped the throne, as King Henry IV, actions that later would lead to what is termed the Wars of the Roses and a more stabilized monarchy.
Seniority in line from Edward III
When Richard II was forced to abdicate the throne in 1399, Henry was next in line to the throne according to Edward III’s entailment of 1376. That entailment clearly reflects the operation of agnatic primogeniture, also known as the Salic law.
At this time, it was by no means a settled custom for the daughter of a king to supersede the brothers of that king in the line of succession to the throne. Indeed, it was not an established belief that women could inherit the throne at all by right: the only previous instances of succession passing through a woman had been those which involved King Stephen and the Empress Matilda, and this had involved protracted civil war, with Stephen being the son of Adela, sister of Henry I and daughter of William the Conqueror.
Yet, the heir of the royal estate according to common law (by which the houses and tenancies of common people like peasants and tradesmen passed) was Edmund Mortimer, 5th Earl of March, who descended from the daughter of Edward III’s third son (second to survive to adulthood), Lionel of Antwerp.
Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt, was Edward’s fourth son and the third to survive to adulthood. The problem was solved by emphasising Henry’s descent in a direct male line, whereas Edmund’s descent was through the female line.
The official account of events claims that Richard voluntarily agreed to resign his crown to Henry on September 29. The country had rallied behind Henry and supported his claim in parliament.
However, the question of the succession never went away. The problem lay in the fact that Henry was only the most prominent male heir, but not the most senior in terms of agnatic descent from Edward III. Although he was heir to the throne according to Edward III’s entail to the crown of 1376, Dr. Ian Mortimer has pointed out in his 2008 biography of Henry IV that this entail had probably been supplanted by an entail made by Richard II in 1399.
Henry thus had to overcome the superior claim of the Mortimers in order to maintain his inheritance. This difficulty compounded when the Mortimer claim was merged with the Yorkist claim in the person of Richard, 3rd Duke of York.
The Duke of York was the heir-general of Edward III, and the heir presumptive (due to agnatic descent, the same principle by which Henry IV claimed the throne in 1399) of Henry’s grandson Henry VI (since Henry IV’s other sons did not have male heirs, and the legitimated Beauforts were excluded from the throne). The House of Lancaster was finally deposed by Edward IV, son of the 3rd Duke of York, during the Wars of the Roses.
Henry avoided the problem of Mortimer having a superior claim by ignoring his own descent from Edward III. He claimed the throne as the rightful heir to King Henry III by claiming that Edmund Crouchback was the elder and not the younger son of Henry III. He asserted that every monarch from Edward I was a usurper, and he, as his mother Blanche of Lancaster was a great-granddaughter of Edmund, was the rightful king. Henry IV also claimed to be king of France, but Henry III had no claim to that throne.
As king, Henry faced a number of rebellions, most famously those of Owain Glyndŵr, the self-proclaimed ruler of Wales, and the English knight Henry Percy (Hotspur), who was killed in the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403. The king suffered from poor health in the latter part of his reign, and his eldest son, Henry of Monmouth, assumed the reins of government in 1410.
The later years of Henry’s reign were marked by serious health problems. He had a disfiguring skin disease and, more seriously, suffered acute attacks of some grave illness in June 1405; April 1406; June 1408; during the winter of 1408–09; December 1412; and finally a fatal bout in March 1413. In 1410, Henry had provided his royal surgeon Thomas Morstede with an annuity of £40 p.a. which was confirmed by Henry V immediately after his succession.
This was so that Morstede would ‘not be retained by anyone else’. Medical historians have long debated the nature of this affliction or afflictions. The skin disease might have been leprosy (which did not necessarily mean precisely the same thing in the 15th century as it does to modern medicine), perhaps psoriasis, or some other disease.
The acute attacks have been given a wide range of explanations, from epilepsy to some form of cardiovascular disease. Some medieval writers felt that he was struck with leprosy as a punishment for his treatment of Richard le Scrope, Archbishop of York, who was executed in June 1405 on Henry’s orders after a failed coup.
According to Holinshed, it was predicted that Henry would die in Jerusalem, and Shakespeare’s play repeats this prophecy. Henry took this to mean that he would die on crusade. In reality, he died in the Jerusalem Chamber in the abbot’s house of Westminster Abbey, on March 20, 1413 during a convocation of Parliament. His executor, Thomas Langley, was at his side.
Despite the example set by most of his recent predecessors, Henry and his second wife, Joan of Navarre, Queen of England, were not buried at Westminster Abbey but at Canterbury Cathedral, on the north side of Trinity Chapel and directly adjacent to the shrine of St Thomas Becket.
Becket’s cult was then still thriving, as evidenced in the monastic accounts and in literary works such as The Canterbury Tales, and Henry seemed particularly devoted to it, or at least keen to be associated with it. Reasons for his interment in Canterbury are debatable, but it is highly likely that Henry deliberately associated himself with the martyr saint for reasons of political expediency, namely, the legitimisation of his dynasty after seizing the throne from Richard II.
Significantly, at his coronation, he was anointed with holy oil that had reportedly been given to Becket by the Virgin Mary shortly before his death in 1170; this oil was placed inside a distinct eagle-shaped container of gold. According to one version of the tale, the oil had then passed to Henry’s maternal grandfather, Henry of Grosmont, 1st Duke of Lancaster.
Henry IV died in 1413, and was succeeded by his son, who reigned as Henry V.