It’s been a while since I updated the blog, as I’ve been slogging away in libraries and getting my head around this little thing called the Hundred Years War. For why? Because I’m currently working on Book No.3, a new biography of Henry VI.
Who, you might ask?
You may have seen him being played rather magnificently by Tom Sturridge in the BBC’s recent adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays, The Hollow Crown.
As my friends remind me, I’m now ‘working my way back through the Henrys’, having covered both Henry VII and VIII in So Great a Prince. But whereas the Tudor monarchs are rightly famous, Henry VI has been very unfairly overlooked in our history. Shakespeare wrote 3 plays named after him and he barely even speaks in them.
For my money, he’s one of the most intriguing and appealing medieval kings going. I mean, he was a terrible, TERRIBLE king (if you want evidence – see below) but he’s one of the few early rulers you can imagine actually quite liking if you met them. He liked peace, his favourite oath was ‘Forsooth and forsooth’ and frankly, if you appreciate a troubled family dynamic, Henry VI had it going on: he spent his entire childhood being the arbitrator in fights between ALL HIS UNCLES ALL THE TIME.
(I am not joking. My notes on his family basically consist of ‘and then this uncle had a go at that one in Parliament, and then this one declared war on someone completely unnecessarily, and then there was a siege on London Bridge, and so the other uncles tried to kick this one out, and then that one impounded the other one’s treasure…’ It’s like a merry-go-round of internecine feuding.)
What’s so interesting about Henry VI then?
Here are my top 5 facts about King Henry VI:
1. Henry VI is the only monarch to be crowned King of France and of England. Unlike many medieval English kings, who claimed this title but basically just owned Calais (handy for a booze run, but not really enough to qualify as ‘France’) Henry had a coronation on both sides of the Channel. True to form, the French complained about the English food, and the English stole a load of hats.
2. He inherited the throne at nine months old. His father was the far more famous Henry V, a warrior king who won the Battle of Agincourt. But Henry Senior’s love of warfare was his undoing – he died as a result of a sickness he caught at the siege of Meaux, leaving a baby to accede as king. The results were – well, not great. Within thirty years, Henry VI had lost almost everything his father had gained in the French wars – and most of what their ancestors had held as well!
3. The only time he led an army, it was to face his own people. Yep, despite being the last English king to ‘fight’ the Hundred Years War, Henry was a peace-loving monarch – something of a rarity among medieval rulers. It’s a terrible irony then that his reign was one of the bloodiest and most chaotic in History. Not only did he rule during the time that England lost their French territories, but his inadequacies saw England itself dissolve into civil war. Henry was from the house of Lancaster – his rival for the throne was Richard, Duke of York. The conflict between them (in which Henry’s wife, Margaret of Anjou, did most of the legwork) is known as the War of the Roses.
4. Henry went ‘mad’ for a year and didn’t even recognise his wife and child. Henry’s grandfather was the definitively mad Charles VI of France, who believed he was made of glass, attacked a load of his attendants and roamed his palaces pulling down his queen’s banners. In 1453, Henry VI himself fell into a catatonic state – he didn’t talk, move or recognise anyone. During this time, his wife Queen Margaret gave birth to their only child, Edward of Lancaster. When she brought their son to the king, he didn’t even blink. Just as suddenly as he had fallen ill, Henry recovered, at Christmas 1454. But his regime never really recovered.
5. He was murdered in the Tower of London. Or, as his rivals expressed it, he ‘died of sadness’. On the exact same day that the Yorkist king who replaced him entered the city of London. Hmm. When Henry’s body was examined in the early C20th, his hair was found to be matted with what may have been blood, and his skull was ‘much broken’. Just the result of his corpse being moved after death, or an indication of a grisly end for this peace-loving monarch…?
My book on Henry (currently titled The Shadow King – wait and see if that changes) will be out early in 2018, published by Head of Zeus.