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An Analysis of the causes of the Wars and the course which they took.

Michael D. Miller

Chapter 31: King Henry VI comes of age


Henry's appearance and character

By the autumn of 1436, King Henry VI, being nearly 15 years of age, was judged to have come of age so that he was old enough to rule in his own right. There could no longer be any question of somebody else ruling in his place.

Henry had no wish to be King, and had no illusions of his fitness to sit on the Throne. He was a gentle and kindly man in a rough age, and the decisions which a medieval King needed to take, often harsh, sometimes brutal, and frequently dishonest and bereft of all honour, were well beyond him. He was totally lacking in strong character or forceful personality, and was quite unable to take a firm line with those on the Council who possessed plenty of both. There were many occasions when it was necessary for a King of his time to form a view of his own, and to insist upon it in the teeth of opposition from his nobles and advisers. Since he was very nearly an absolute ruler, and was with all the massive powers of the Throne something of an autocrat, this should not have been a problem except for the overruling of those who noisily, persistently, and sometimes by intrigue, urged the opposite view, but herein lay the difficulty; Henry rarely, if ever, formed a view of his own on any matter of importance, and even when he did, he was quite incapable of insisting upon it in the face of vociferous and insistent opposition. Instead, he would allow himself to be influenced by others, and generally the man who spoke to him last of all was the one who got his way. This lead to favourites, some of whom were of a venal nature.

Henry was aware of these deficiencies, but was unable to see the way around all of them. In some cases, solutions readily presented themselves. If he was too weak a personality to persuade Parliament to take the courses he wanted it to take, then there were others of the Council, particularly the Chancellor, who could have addressed Parliament in his name. This was quite a usual custom at the time, and would not have caused any surprise. The Council however was more difficult, but failing all else, he could have presided over Council meetings in the way that a good chairman of a modern company does. He could have invited views, listened to them, then summed them up and invited a vote, with the majority decision being entered in the Council minutes as the agreed policy which all should follow. This may have invited resignations, perhaps even dismissals, of those who could not, or would not, follow the agreed policy. He had the unchallengable right to dismiss, and to appoint others who were more likely to agree with the other members of the Council so that it spoke with one voice and followed the agreed policy. [Bishop Stubbs would disagree with this view. The King should only dismiss Councillors and appoint replacements with the consent of Parliament. See Pages where the Bishops view is questioned] But even this was too much for him, and kindly man that he was, he hesitated to wound the feelings of those who might be forced into resignation, or who merited dismissal.

Henry had many endearing qualities, but in a medieval King these were akin to vices, not virtues. He was very loyal to his friends. Many of them had their own axes to grind and interests to pursue. Being incapable of intrigue or deviousness of any nature himself, he could not recognise it in others. Further, being a man of outstanding honesty, he was manifestly unable to understand that others might have ulterior motives, which they chose not to reveal, let alone to detect for himself what these motives might be. This led to Henry feeling that he was in honour bound to support his favourites, even when their incompetence and peculations were an open scandal. John Blacman, who was for many years one of Henry's chaplains, has left a character sketch of the King which reveals a simple and thoroughly honest man, a "second Job", who was as far from evil as any man could be. He avoided rough and unkind language, but always strove to keep to the truth, being upright and just in his dealings with all. There were lapses from these high ideals as the pages of this work will show, but neither his piety nor his chaste view of his marriage bond to his Queen could be doubted. His kindly regard for women was an example to all, as an incident at a Christmas revel was to show. A courtier introduced a dance by young ladies naked from the waist up. This drew a reproach from the King which was as angry as he ever permitted himself to be. In short, King Henry VI was far too good for the 15th-century.

When Henry did venture a will of his own, there were several occasions when he showed the gentle side of his nature and ways. Once he saw a ghastly object impaled upon a pike above London Bridge, and asked what it was. He was told that it was a quarter of the body of an executed traitor put there as a warning to others. He commanded that it should be taken down at once and buried, because such a thing was unworthy of a civilised and Christian society. At the Parliament of Devils in 1459, he refused the Attainture of several individuals, when prudence required that they should pay the penalty of rebellion, because the whole idea was repellent to him. [Chapter ] Richard, Duke of York should have been severely punished for rising in arms against him in 1452 even though he was close to the Throne.[pages ] Instead, Henry forgave him and merely sent him back to his post in Ireland.

If Henry had not been placed on the Throne, whether he wanted it or not, by the accident of his birth, he would probably have become an academic or a scholar, and there is every reason to suppose that he would have excelled in these roles. He had a deep and sincerely love of learning, and every wish to encourage it in others. He founded several eminent centres of learning, notably Eton College (1440) and King's College Cambridge (1441), and took a hand in the foundation of others as well. [The 1420s and 1430s saw the foundation of many colleges. Richard Fleming, Bishop of Lincoln founded Lincoln College Oxford in 1427. All Souls was founded in 1437 by the aged Henry Chichele, Archbishop of Canterbury.Magdalen followed in 1456, its founder being William of Waynflete, later Bishop of Winchester and Chancellor of England] Learning was his guiding passion, and the improvement of his own mind and those of others was the value in which he put most store. It was not the case that the medieval Kings of England were unlearned; many were very highly educated. They did require however a strong streak of pure pragmatism, resolution and ruthlessness, coupled with a knowledge and appreciation of human nature. These qualities were totally lacking in Henry.

There are existing portraits of King Henry VI, all of them dating from his later years. These show him to be a man slightly above the average height for the time. He has the long nose and full mouth of his father, but the chin recedes, and lacks the determined and pronounced thrust of that of the parent. The eyes are thoughtful and gentle, and it is difficult to see them taking on a steely gaze. The hair is long, and comes down to cover the ears in marked contrast to the short military cut which was in vogue during his Father's time. The hands are clasped in front of the chest in an almost self-deprecating air. This is not the face of a determined man or one who is used to making difficult decisions, but rather the face of a dreamer who sees the world as he would like it to be, not as it is. What the portraits cannot reveal is the inherent weakness of the mind, which was nevertheless lurking and ready to make itself apparent. During the 1450s, Henry suffered two mental breakdowns, (pages ) and these left him permanently feeble.

Through his mother, he was related to the House of Valois, and it would not have been surprising if the mental illness of his grand-father, King Charles VI of France, had come down to him in a greater or lesser degree.

In one sense, it was perhaps just as well that his father died whilst Henry was still only a few months old. King Henry V would have tried to instil 'manly virtues' into his son, and would soon have lost patience with a scholar who was only happy when reading his books. There would have been many clashes between the disappointed parent and the chastened son, and the effects upon a gentle and sensitive nature during its formative years can be imagined, particularly as the father was always one to speak his mind.

Instead, Henry was entrusted to two guardians. First, there was his uncle, Thomas Beaufort, Duke of Exeter, an outstanding man in every way, and when he died in 1424, his place was taken by Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick. Both these men would have been more patient with him than his father; aware that they were educating the infant King, they would have been more inhibited than a natural parent would have shown himself to be. Warwick was often absent in France, and the main task of educating the young King would have fallen on the tutors whom Warwick engaged and oversaw. There does seem to have been a bond of affection between the guardian and the charge, even though Warwick, more than once, expressed some exasperation at his charges lack of aptitude for the manly skills required of the heir to the Throne. Skill-at-arms, hunting, archery, out-of-door pursuits, and the bawdy pleasures in which a young nobleman was expected to be proficient, and readily willing to take part, had no appeal for Henry. He was happiest with his books and his teachers and, whilst there was no harm with that, the full picture of a future King was not complete. [The accomplishments which a young nobleman was expected to master are described on pages . His father could be said to have excelled. It must remain a matter for speculation what he would have said about his son]

The public perception of Henry was not flattering. He was now:-

"Lord of himself, that heritage of woe."

It was commonly agreed that Warwick had done his best, but a silk purse was not to be made of a sow's ear. Hardyng, who Ramsey thinks was being unfair, had this to say:-

"Therle Richard of Warwicke......

.....in mykell worthyhead,

Enfourmed hym; but of his symplehead

He could litle within his brest conceyve;

The good from eivill he could uneth perceyve."

[In modern parlance:- "Richard, The Earl of Warwick, a gentleman who was well qualified for the task, had educated and instructed him as well as anyone could have done. But his pupil was such a simpleton that he could barely distinguish good from evil]

It was expecting much of any 15-year old to step into the shoes of a medieval King and to grapple with the horrendous problems of 1436, even for one who did not have Henry's personal problems. There was no familiar face to whom he could turn for help. His dearly loved mother died in the first few days of 1437 and, whilst she could not have given him much assistance of any value, Henry mourned her deeply and was disconsolate at her loss. Warwick, who might have given him much help, went to France to take over command of the English armies when Richard, Duke of York asked to be relieved of his own command. A callow youth, lacking the guidance of those close to him, was expected to cope with all the demands of medieval Kingship. Inevitably, he was like putty in the hands of such as Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, who was his father's only remaining brother and the immediate heir to the Throne. Henry worshipped his uncle, whose influence over him can only be called malign.

Death of the Queen-Mother, Queen Catherine

In the first few days of January 1437, the Queen Mother, Queen Catherine died. It was a sad end for King Henry V's Queen, whose future had seemed so full of promise at her wedding and coronation in 1420 and 1421. Since her husband's death she had lived almost as a recluse. She had wished to marry Edmund Beaufort, Earl of Mortain, but this was thwarted by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. Gloucester was innately suspicious of the House of Beaufort, and had no wish to see it increase in influence. He had harried Cardinal Beaufort mercilessly for years.

Upon Catherine's death, some remarkable facts came to light. Far from leading a saintly and chaste existence, which was the common belief, she had secretly married [there is some doubt whether such a ceremony indeed took place] Owen-ap-Tudor, a gentleman of her household. Owen was a fine upstanding and good-looking man of some accomplishments, and no doubt this had some appeal to the beautiful young widow who must have felt that, young as she still was, her life had run its course. He was of only moderate estate, and was scarcely of sufficient rank to become espoused to the daughter of a King and the Queen of a national hero. Not only had they managed to keep their union a secret:-

"Unwetyng [concealing from] the comoun peple tyl sche were ded"

but they had also succeeded in keeping as a close secret the births of no less than four children, three sons and a daughter. The daughter and one son had died whilst still young, but the other two sons, Edmund Tudor and Jasper Tudor, later became Earls of Richmond and Pembroke respectively. Both were to play leading parts in the Wars of the Roses, and Edmund was to father King Henry VII, the victor of the battle of Bosworth 1485.

Some indication of the Queen's matrimonial intentions must have leaked out at an early stage, because the Parliament which met in Westminster on 13th October 1427 had passed a Statute making it a criminal offence to marry a Dowager Queen without the permission of the Council. Both Catherine and Owen were well aware of this, and clearly were under no illusions that the Council would give its assent to their union. In an effort to keep her new family away from public attention, her will left everything to King Henry VI. It made no provision for her later children.

Owen was summoned to the Council in London to give such explanation of his conduct as was possible in the circumstances. He declined to appear unless the King gave him safe-conduct so that he might:-

"freely come and freely goo"

A verbal assurance was given by Gloucester, but Owen felt this was not quite enough. Arriving in London, he took sanctuary in Westminster Abbey. After some persuasion, he could be induced to present himself to the Council, where he was roundly reproached and required to give an undertaking that he would duly appear to answer any criminal process started against him. Gloucester's safe-conduct was honoured in the letter but not the spirit. Owen was allowed to return to Wales and, as he thought, to welcome obscurity but, once there, he was arrested, brought back to London, and put into Newgate Prison. The Council felt happier to have him under lock and key and in a place where he could just as easily answer any criminal charge as anywhere else.

[It seems no criminal process was ever started, but that Owen managed somehow to assuage the Council's wrath and was released. The King's proverbial kindness no doubt played a part. Owen lived until 1461, when he fought on the Lancastrian side at the battle of Mortimers Cross. He was taken prisoner and beheaded. pages ]


Further matrimonial problems

Jacquette, the Dowager Duchess of Bedford, was also a young and attractive widow who found herself in trouble by fulfilling her natural desires and marrying again soon after the death of her husband, John, Duke of Bedford who died in 1435. She needed the leave of the Council to re-marry, and knew she was scarcely likely to obtain it to marry somebody so far beneath her station as Sir Richard Wydeville  who had been her husband's Steward. Sir Richard was her choice, so she dispensed with an application for such leave and married him anyway. Inevitably she was summoned before the Council to give an explanation. The marriage had been duly solemnised and, as Jacquette had correctly foreseen, the Council could do nothing about it except to express its annoyance, and this it did at some length. She did not escape totally scot-free; the Council took its revenge by requiring her to pay a 'fine' of 1, 000, a colossal sum for those days, to allow her dower to continue. This was four times its annual value.

The Wydevilles, although strongly Lancastrian in their sympathies, were in course of time to include a Yorkist Queen among their number. Elizabeth Wydeville secretly married King Edward IV in 1464, to the fury of the King's Chief Minister, the so called 'Kingmaker', Richard Neville, then the Earl of Warwick.[page ] She thus became the mother of the Princes in the Tower.

The abduction of heiresses is an activity particularly associated with the 18-century. Reckless and impoverished noblemen would seek to improve their fortunes by abducting an heiress and marrying her, whereupon they would take possession of her fortune. Usually at dead of night, sometimes with the ladies consent and sometimes without it, they would kidnap some heiress and carry her off to be married that very night by some disreputable clergyman who had been sobered-up sufficiently for the ceremony. So great a nuisance did this become that an Act of Parliament had to be passed to provide that marriages were only valid if the ceremony took place in daylight hours. [It has only recently been repealed] The offence is in fact far older than this, and was already enjoying some antiquity by the 1430s. In 1436, there was a particularly gross case, although it was typical of all too many. Lady Isobel Boteler, the respectable widow of Sir John Boteler of Beaufey in Lancashire, was carried off by William Pulle of Wirral and was made to go through a marriage service by threats. In 1437, she petitioned the King to have the offending William brought to justice and suitably punished for his offences.

The War in France

By the middle of 1437, the expedition dispatched to France the previous year [page ] under the command of Richard, Duke of York had stalled, as had so many other expeditions before it. It had achieved something,  [pages ] and some further successes were to follow, but it was manifestly unable to complete the task given to it, namely the conquest of France. In mid-1437, Richard asked to be relieved of the command whose task he felt was beyond him.

Richard had earned the respect of his subordinate commanders, the Earls of Salisbury, Suffolk and Mortain, as a vigorous and effective commander, but it was clearly necessary for an older and more experienced man to take his place. No war is easy, but this one was especially difficult. The country-folk were now actively hostile, and harassed the English army in a form of guerrilla warfare. Not for the last time were English soldiers to find how difficult it was to fight against armed peasants who were one moment launching a surprise attack upon them and were peacefully tilling their fields the next. The French armies were a much tougher proposition than they had been earlier in the century. Richard, a young man of 25, felt that he was to blame for the expedition not fulfilling its task, and implored his subordinates to remain at their posts when his replacement arrived. They undertook to do this. Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick was sent to take over command as the King's Lieutenant-General at the end of the Year. Warwick grumbled furiously that he was no longer a young man and the task was:-

"full farre from the ease of my years"

but nevertheless he agreed to devote himself to:-

"continuall laboure...att sieges and daily occupation in the Warre."

So indeed he did until he died in 1439. He had extracted a number of promises from King Henry VI before he left England for the last time that he would be supported to the necessary extent. As a measure of his distrust, he stipulated that if any of these promises were not kept, or were thwarted by others, then he would throw up his command and return to England.

Some successes did attend English arms during 1437. In February 1437, Pontoise was wrested from Marshal de L'Isle-Adam, the English besiegers being able to cross the frozen moat. Ivry was again taken, as were some minor towns and castles. An attempt on Rouen by La Hire and Pothon de Xaintrailles was foiled. John, Lord Talbot and Lord Scales caught up with their retreating army near Ry and utterly defeated it. Philip-the-Good laid siege to Crotoy. In a fast moving action reminiscent of the days of King Henry V, John, Lord Talbot and Sir Thomas Kyriell crossed the River Somme by the ford at Blanche Taque and stormed Ponthieu, thus forcing the abandonment of the siege.

Not all the successes were on the English side. In 1437, King Charles VII at last began to stir himself and show the qualities expected of a King. First of all, he took active steps to suppress the 'free companies' of Frenchmen who were roaming and ravaging the countryside. They were not fighting the English, but restricted themselves to thieving from their own countrymen, and the only distinction between them and bandits were 'charters' given to them by some of the nobles. They were rounded up and offered the choice of summary execution or service in the French armies. Not surprisingly, they chose the latter, and at least some of them rendered stirling service. Next, Arthur of Brittany and the Compte d'Anjou captured Chateau Landon and Nemour. They judged Montargis too strong to attack, so they laid siege to Montereau in August 1437. In September, King Charles joined them, and in October a grand assault was mounted. The English were unable to send a relieving force, and Sir Thomas Gerrard surrendered. In November, King Charles, with the 14-year old Dauphin Louis riding beside him, made his first entry into Paris.

In 1438, Jean, Compte de Dunois, the bastard of Orleans, was able to 'buy' back Dreux and Chevreuse from Guillaumede Brouillart, a Frenchman in the English service. A little later he was able to persuade the Arragonese mercenary, known as Francois de Surrienne, who had captured Montargis for the English in 1433, that the fortress was now too exposed to be tenable and that therefore he had better surrender it. The main French thrust of the year was directed at the English possessions in Southern France, Gascony and Guienne, in order to cause the English as much trouble as possible and to throw them off balance by attacking a sensitive area. King Charles had left Paris for Tourraine to see Rodriguez de Villandrada, a Spanish captain renowned for his daring, set off to attack these provinces. [page ]Its whirlwind success seems to have surprised even Villandrada. Joined by the Sieur d'Albret, they even laid siege to Bordeaux, an operation for which their force, lacking artillery, was unprepared. They did tempt the garrison into making an ill-judged sortie, and inflicted severe losses upon it. More then this they could not do, and prudence required a retreat back into France, but not before they had caused consternation to the English government. 

Copyright Michael D. Miller 2003