The Wars of the Roses by Alison Weir

  The appearance in England at this time of a strong and determined ruler might have saved the situation, with the power of the nobles being diverted to other causes, law and order being effectively enforced, and even the war with France successfully prosecuted or brought to an honourable conclusion. Henry VI was not a strong king and never would be; nor was he ever interested in winning military glory. Therein lay the tragedy of the House of Lancaster.


  A Simple and Upright Man

  In 1910, Henry VI’s skeleton was exhumed at Windsor. Examination showed that he had been a strongly built man, about 5’9″ tall, with brown hair and a small head. The portrait of him in the Royal Collection at Windsor, which dates from about 1518–23 and is probably a copy of an original from life, shows a chubby-faced, clean-shaven youth in a black gown furred with ermine and crimson sleeves, a gold collar and a small black bonnet. One contemporary described him as having a childlike face, and this portrait bears out that description.

  In the National Portrait Gallery another portrait shows him in later life, with a far more angular and care-worn face. He had heavy-lidded eyes and a full underlip, and was inclined to stoop and bow his head.

  In youth he enjoyed dressing in fashionable clothes, on one occasion appearing in a purple chaperon or cloak, a large round headdress with tippet, and a light blue gown known as a houppelande which swept the floor and had tight sleeves, a high scarlet collar, padded shoulders and a crimson belt with a gold buckle. As Henry grew older, however, he came to believe that rich apparel was a worldly vanity, and appeared wearing broad-toed shoes like those of a countryman, a long gown with a round hood like that of a burgess, and a long tunic, every item of a dark grey colour. His courtiers complained that he dressed ‘like a townsman’, and his commons, who expected their sovereign to look and dress like a king and to carry himself with regal bearing, made similar criticisms. So little did Henry care for his clothes that in 1459 he presented his best gown to the Prior of St Albans. His embarrassed treasurer then discovered that the King had no other gown suitable for state occasions, and no money to purchase another, and had to buy it back for fifty marks. Henry was not pleased.

  John Whethamstead, Abbot of St Albans, described Henry as a simple and upright man. Commines calls him ‘a very ignorant and almost simple man’; even John Blacman, who wrote a hagiography of Henry at the behest of Henry VII, uses the word ‘simple’ to describe him, and in 1461, Whethamstead accused Henry of ‘excessive simplicity in his acts’. In each case the word ‘simplex’ should be translated to mean gullible or guileless; it was not until the seventeenth century that the word ‘simple’ was used to describe a half-wit or idiot. Nevertheless, gullibility was not a desirable quality in a king: Waurin says that all the evils that befell England during Henry’s reign were due to his simple-mindedness.

  Although Henry had been comprehensively educated, was well-read and had a love of learning, he was not particularly clever. John Hardyng describes him as being ‘of small intelligence’. He lacked perception, and on one occasion even pardoned four nobles convicted of treason, along with three others who had plotted to kill him.

  He had a strong sense of fairness and, wishing to see justice available to all, ensured that he was accessible to his subjects: ‘Upon none would he wittingly inflict any injustice,’ wrote Blacman. Once, Henry was riding through London when he saw a blackened object on a spike above Cripplegate and asked what it was. Told it was a quarter of a traitor who had been false to him, he commanded that it be removed, saying, ‘I will not have any Christian man so cruelly handled for my sake.’ Yet he showed no such qualms when he voluntarily witnessed the massed hangings of thirty-four rebels in 1450.

  In general, though, Henry was a kindly soul, gentle and generous, honest and well-intentioned, and too humble and virtuous by far successfully to rule a country sliding slowly but surely into political anarchy. He never lost his temper, looked after his servants well, and was not interested in acquiring riches, his prime concern being the salvation of his soul. When a certain nobleman presented him with an expensive ornament of gold filigree, he hardly glanced at it, much to the donor’s chagrin. Indeed, Henry’s qualities were manifold, but they were not the qualities required of a sovereign.

  There was nothing in Henry’s early years to indicate that he might be mentally unstable, but during early manhood he suffered from spells of excessive melancholy and depression which hindered his ability to lead a normal life. In the 1440s he was described as being ‘not steadfast of wit as other kings have been’, and prior to 1453, the year in which he suffered his first really incapacitating mental illness, several of his subjects were hauled before the justices, charged with having referred to the King as a lunatic, or even as being childish, for which they were punished. Given the state of England at that time, they might have been forgiven for believing such things. Henry VI was no lunatic, but we must conclude that his mental health was never very stable.

  Henry’s piety is legendary, yet the question now has to be asked: was he as pious as later writers, who supported Henry VII’s bid to have him canonised as a Lancastrian saint, would have it? The answer is probably not.

  There is no doubt that Henry VI was a religious man and that his personal piety was genuine. Blacman says that, at the principal feasts of the year, ‘but especially at those when of custom he wore his crown’, he wore next to his skin a rough hair shirt. He was ‘a diligent and sincere worshipper of God, more given to devout prayer than to handling worldly things or practising vain sports or pursuits. These he despised as trifles.’ He feared God and avoided evil. He would not transact any business on Sundays or holy days, nor would he allow his courtiers to speak during services, bring their hawks into church, or wear their swords or daggers there, and he would remain on his knees throughout the service in perfect silence, his head bowed. When going about his daily duties he was constantly engaged in meditation and prayer, withdrawn into a world of his own to which he could retreat from the harsh realities of political life.

  It is true that he was rather more than conventionally pious, but then so were many people at that time. Because he was the King, his piety attracted attention. By the time he was twenty-five he was famed for it throughout Europe, and Pope Eugenius IV, impressed by the King’s charities and care for the poor, awarded him the highest papal honour, the Golden Rose. There was, nevertheless, a more cynical reason for this award – Eugenius wanted money from the Church in England and hoped Henry would assist him in obtaining it.

  The King’s piety generally endeared him to his subjects, although there were those who were privately of the opinion that he would make a better monk than a king. He was forever exhorting his magnates to prayer, and, knowing that it was in their interests to do so, they acquiesced, for Henry could be very generous to those he favoured.

  Like his father, another pious man, Henry VI was merciless to Lollards and other heretics, and many were burned at the stake during his reign. Unlike Henry V, he did not found any religious houses or endow many chantries. Towards the end of his reign, sermons preached before him were censored beforehand by the Council so as to avoid the King being confronted by any embarrassing criticisms.

  It would be fair to say that Henry saw himself as a guardian of public morality. He never took the Lord’s name in vain, could not abide swearing, and refused to tolerate it in his presence, gently admonishing or severely chiding any noble who disobeyed this edict: ‘Everyone who swore was abominable to him.’ His strongest oaths were ‘St John’ or ‘Forsooth and forsooth!’

  He had no time for the vagaries of fashion, believing that the revealing clothes of the period led people into promiscuity, an opinion shared by many contemporary moralists. Blacman says, ‘He took great precautions to secure not only his own chastity but that of his servants,’ and was so concerned about immorality at his court that he was not above keeping ‘careful watch through hidden windows of his chamber’ on ladies entering his palace, ‘lest
any foolish impertinence of women cause the fall of any of his household’.

  He was excessively prudish and much offended by nudity, often quoting Petrarch on the subject, saying, ‘The nakedness of a beast is in men unpleasing, but the decency of raiment makes for modesty.’ When he visited the Roman baths at Bath, he saw men ‘wholly naked, with every garment cast off, at which he was displeased’, and fled with embarrassment from the scene, ‘abhorring such nudity as a great offence’. One Christmas time, a certain lord, probably for a malicious prank, ‘brought him a dance or show of young ladies with bared bosoms who were to dance in that guise before the King, who very angrily averted his eyes, turned his back upon them, and went out to his chamber, saying, “Fie, fie, for shame!” ’

  Shortly before Henry married at the age of twenty-three, the papal envoy to England reported that he lived more like a monk than a king and ‘avoided the company of women’. Blacman says that as a youth he was ‘a pupil of chastity’. He was ‘chaste and pure from the beginning of his days and eschewed all licentiousness in word or deed while he was young’. He was fond of reading moral treatises and other improving literature, and firmly believed that the spread of such works would lead to more virtuous behaviour on the part of his subjects. Indeed, his chamberlain, Sir Richard Tunstall, recalled how the King would spend much of his leisure perusing books and chronicles, or, on holy days, the scriptures.

  Like his father, Henry was a patron of music, and was the first king to appoint a master for the children of the Chapel Royal, while under his auspices the first degrees in music were awarded by the University of Cambridge. He himself was no mean composer and the manuscript of his Sanctus is still preserved at King’s College, Cambridge.

  Education was one of Henry’s chief passions, and he was especially anxious to promote the spread of literacy among his subjects: in fact, he was more enthusiastic about education than he was about governing his realm and righting its wrongs. He was a generous patron of scholars and a great benefactor of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. During his reign a great many grammar schools were founded, catering for boys from the newly prosperous middle classes and for poor boys who might not otherwise obtain a good education and could benefit from the charitable places available.

  Henry’s chief interest was in his two great academic foundations, Eton College and King’s College, Cambridge. Not only did he found these two institutions, but he also devoted great care and expense to their buildings. Blacman states that he ‘graced the laying of the foundation stones with his presence, and with great devotion offered his foundations to Almighty God’.

  Since he was seventeen, Henry had wished to found a college dedicated to prayer and charity, where the sons of poor families could benefit from a free education. ‘The King’s College of Our Lady of Eton beside Windsor’ was founded in 1440, with provision for a provost, a schoolmaster, ten priests, four clerks, six choristers, twenty-five poor and indigent scholars, and twenty-five feeble and poor old men. Tuition was free. In 1443 the King raised the number of poor scholars to seventy and cut the number of poor men to thirteen. The Lower School at Eton, which is still in use, dates from this time, the college hall and chapel from a few years later. Henry was concerned that, being near the court at Windsor, ‘the young lambs should come to relish the corrupt deeds and habits of his courtiers’. If he found any boys within the castle boundaries, he would promptly send them back, telling them his court was no place for the young. He liked nothing better than to visit Eton, and would give the scholars money and bid them be good boys, ‘gentle and teachable, and servants of the Lord’.

  King’s College, Cambridge was founded in 1441 to provide further education for boys who had completed their studies at Eton. The college buildings and chapel are still numbered among the chief glories of the University of Cambridge. There was an element of laying up treasure in heaven about Henry’s foundations, for in lavishing so much expense and care on them he was consciously aiming to eclipse similar foundations such as the schools and colleges founded by William of Wykeham in the fourteenth century.

  Henry spent lavishly on his educational projects, his palaces, and – above all – his favourites, with little regard for his depleted treasury. He was easily manipulated and exploited by unscrupulous courtiers, who took advantage of his extravagant generosity; he, in turn, lacked the perception to judge the worthiness of its recipients. He was an unworldly man, basically shy and naive, who had little aptitude for dealing with people. He was too simple to adopt a political role, too open and honest, lacking in cunning and the ability to dissimulate. He was sensitive, not only about the Lancastrian title to the throne, but also about attempts to limit his royal authority, which – given his long minority and the difficulties he faced in asserting his authority – is perhaps understandable. As a man he was virtuous and good; as a king, he was a disaster.

  Henry VI’s chief weakness was allowing himself to be dominated by political factions, who frequently manipulated him into making unwise decisions and who were chiefly concerned with promoting their own interests. He had a peculiar talent for surrounding himself with the most rapacious, self-seeking and unpopular magnates, in heeding whose advice he showed a marked lack of political judgement. Nor did he make much attempt to stand up to those he disagreed with. Whoever controlled the King controlled the country; throughout Henry’s reign, therefore, the government of England was carried out according to the wishes of whichever faction was able at any given time to influence him.

  Few kings can have inherited so many problems: a kingdom near bankruptcy, a Council divided by factions, a legal system corrupted by local magnates and their armed retainers, an aristocracy that was growing ever mightier and losing its integrity, and a war that could not be won but which was draining the country of its resources. None of these problems was Henry’s fault, but his failure to address them effectively made their escalation his responsibility.

  Waurin wrote: ‘The King was neither intelligent enough nor experienced enough to manage a kingdom such as England.’ Although Henry’s chamberlain, Tunstall, says that he did spend a good deal of time ‘diligently treating of the affairs of his realm with his Council’, he left much of the business of government to whichever faction was in power, and when he did assert control it was sometimes only to make serious mistakes. Lord Chief Justice Fortescue, who remained faithful to Henry in prosperity and dire adversity, was yet a realist when it came to assessing his sovereign’s limitations, and in his treatise The Governance of England he stressed the need for a strong and united Council to protect the King from his own follies and extravagance, especially when it came to the profligate giving away, or alienation, of crown lands.

  People inevitably compared Henry VI to his father, usually to his detriment, but criticism of him was rarely voiced out loud. Because of his virtues and his inherent goodness, even his most unruly nobles respected him, and the universal reverence for an anointed monarch acted as a brake on those who might have rebelled against him. Those who did rebel, in the cause of good government, aimed their complaints at the nobles who controlled the King, not at Henry himself. His favourites naturally shielded him from such complaints, while Henry himself was inordinately sensitive to any implied criticism of himself and his abilities as king. Those who dared openly to take him to task for his shortcomings – Gloucester in the early years, York later on – provoked in him deep suspicion of their motives. To such men he could be – and was – vindictive and dangerous.

  A king’s most important function was to protect and defend his subjects, therefore he had to be an efficient warrior and general, capable of planning campaigns and winning battles. Henry VI was the complete antithesis of this, categorically refusing to take the field against his fellow Christians. He did not share the enthusiasm of his magnates for martial endeavour, and they in turn were shocked and astonished that the son of Henry V should display such marked lack of interest in military glory. Although Henry rode at the head of his arm
ies during the Wars of the Roses, he remained by his standard while battles were fought and awaited the outcome, leaving the planning of strategy to his commanders. He never fought any campaigns in France, and therefore earned the dubious distinction of being the first English king since the Norman Conquest of 1066 never to have led an army in battle against a foreign foe.

  Conversely, although he desired peace with France on his terms, he made little effort to endear himself to his French subjects, and never set foot in France after 1431. This was a fatal policy in an age when monarchical government was expected to be carried out on a personal level.

  Unlike Richard II, who had sought peace with France because he had feared the effect of war upon the Crown’s finances, Henry VI’s wish for peace was inspired by his piety and his distaste for the carnage and waste of war, and above all by the views of his uncle, Cardinal Beaufort. To pursue a peace policy in the current political climate was a bold move but, predictably, it was not at all popular in England. Fired by Henry V’s victories and the acquisition of an empire in France, the vast majority of his English subjects were greedy for more conquests and more glory, and were convinced that, given the right strategies, the present dismal trend of the war could be reversed. Their view was that the only person who could possibly benefit from a peace policy was Charles VII. Already it had created divisions at court, which could only be to Charles’s advantage, for the English magnates now preferred to fight each other in the Council chamber than confront the enemy on the field in France.

  Henry VI’s court was a dull place compared with the later courts of the Yorkist and Tudor sovereigns. Like all mediaeval courts it was itinerant, moving from palace to palace throughout the year so that royal homes recently vacated could be cleaned and their larders restocked.

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