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

Michael D. Miller

Chapter 44: King Henry VI goes mad - Summer 1453


The onset of the King's illness

King Henry VI now suffered the first of several bouts of madness which were to leave him permanently feeble. There is dispute as to the time this illness first struck him. Some writers attribute the onset to the Translation of St Thomas, or 7th July 1453, whilst the King was still in London. [Whethamstede i 163] Others place it at 7th August when the King was in Clarendon. [MS Reg 13, Ch 1; Paston letters i xcvii] Both dates may be consistent with each other if the onset of the King's illness was gradual. It is perfectly possible that Henry first began to show signs of distress in July, and one month later, the illness had him totally in its grip. Thus the weakness of the Valois, which he carried in his blood and genes, manifested itself, as it had done in his grandfather, King Charles V1 of France,  [page ] at a critical time.

There has been some speculation that Henry's illness was caused by the catalyst of a sudden shock upon an already unhinged and unstable mind, as had been the case with his grandfather. King Charles V had been frightened by a madman leaping from the bushes and seizing his horse's bridle whilst shouting out some gibberish that he was about to be murdered. [page ] There had been a considerable flurry when his escort had attempted to pinion the poor wretch, and a lance was said to have fallen with a loud clang onto a helmeted head. It is possible that in Henry's case, one of the more petty inconveniences of life, which were scarcely worthy of the chronicler's attention, had caused the shock, such as a door banging or a cook dropping a metal dish onto the stone floor. The King and Queen were surrounded by hundreds of people, and people have always been noisy. There could have been a minor piece of carelessness by some functionary which tipped the delicate balance of the King's mind over the edge.

There were other things that could have caused the King's mind to wander, either separately or accumulatively.

It was true that Parliament had ended most successfully on 2nd July, but the strain had been intense. On the other hand, there were some dreadful pieces of news which would have been delivered to him suddenly and without warning. The tidings of John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury's defeat and death, and the destruction of his army at the battle of Castillon, which was fought on 17th July, would have reached England about one week later. The loudly voiced dismay of Queen Margaret and Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, at the dashing of all their hopes cannot have helped the King's peace of mind. During June 1453, the Nevilles and the Percys had been sternly enjoined to keep their families in order.

These orders had since been repeated several times that their younger bloods must not let their rivalries descend into open fighting as though they were the Montagues and the Capulets. Instead, they must submit their 'griefs' to the King. In spite of this, a minor pitched battle ensued when Sir Thomas Neville's marriage procession encountered Thomas, Lord Egremont, a scion of the House of Percy, at Stamford Bridge. There were a number of people killed and injured in this minor pitched battle, which took place in late July or early August. They had been bidden not to fight each other, but had nonetheless done so. [This fight is mentioned briefly on page ]

The nature of the King's illness

To the hapless King, it all seemed so pointless. Trying to govern this murderous and unruly bunch of ruffians seemed a lost cause. Henry desired nothing more than his riotous nobles should live at peace with one another in the same beautiful world where he spent his time. The means he employed to ensure that they did so were ineffectual, and he could not understand why they should always want to murder each other. The French always seemed to defeat his armies, reversing the more usual trend of his father's time, and nowhere could he do anything which succeeded. In any case, he felt inadequate to a job which he had never wanted, but which had been thrust upon him by the accident of his birth. What on earth was the point of going on trying? To his weak-willed mind, it was all too much.

Illness of the body was well understood in the 15th-century, even if the remedies were usually horrific and generally ineffectual, but this understanding did not extend to illness of the mind. Such illnesses aroused derision rather than sympathy, and the sufferers were the butt of cruel jokes and equally cruel comments, where nobody minded who played or heard them. The work of the mind doctors lay far in the future, and there was nobody who could treat Henry. The probability is that Henry's mind, faced with all sorts of problems with which it simply did not have the resources to cope, took refuge in a form of amnesia, and simply refused to function. The time had come for it to take a rest. [The opinion has recently been expressed that Henry was suffering from catatonic schizophrenia, or total withdrawal of the mind]

Henry was unable to speak or even to rise unaided from his chair. To all appearances, once his attendants had dressed him and placed him in his chair, he looked perfectly normal. When addressed, it very soon became clear that he had no comprehension of what was been said. Incapable of speech himself, he could give no reply, and seemed unaware of any activity or personage in his vicinity. He had to be helped from room to room, and sometimes this required the united efforts of two men. He was, to all intents and purposes, physically and mentally helpless. However imperfectly he had previously performed his duties, there was no question of his being able to discharge them now.

Parliament - November 1453 to April 1454

The Parliament which had first met in Reading on 6th March 1453 duly re-assembled in Reading on 12th November. It was further adjourned until 11th February 1454 because King Henry VI was unable to attend. It was hoped that in the meantime His Majesty's health would improve. It did not do so, and when Parliament met again, it was to find that time had provided no solution. Instead it was asked to adjourn yet again and meet in Westminster on 14th February 1454.

When this Parliament had first assembled in March 1453, it had shown a marked bias in favour of the ruling dynasty and an equally marked disapproval of the Yorkist faction. [page ] It now had to deal with Richard, Duke of York, and his friends, who had made good use of the time between July 1453 and February 1454 to re-group and re-establish themselves so that Richard was now in a good position to reach for the Royal power, at least during the period of the King's illness. So frightened were many of Richard that they stayed away. No doubt some members of the Common House took this course, but those of the House of Lords who did not attend included such notable persons as the Percies, John de la Bere, Bishop of St Davids, John Talbot, the new Earl of Shrewsbury and son of the veteran Earl, and Lords Greystock, Poynings, Lovel, Clifford and de Roos. In October 1454, writs were issued by the Council to 13 peers to come and explain their conduct, so it seems there were some further absentees. Their absence was of some immediate help to Richard as he did not enjoy a majority of support in the House of Lords, whilst the Common House was mostly Lancastrian in its sympathies.

The most noticeable point of time which marked the process of re-grouping and re-establishing the Yorkist faction began with a Council meeting on 24th October 1453 to which Richard had not been invited. Somerset made it clear that he and the Queen were agreed that no Regency was necessary, and they would rule in the King's name until he recovered. This improper proposal drew forth some noisy dissent, and Richard had sufficient support, notably from the Treasurer, John Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester, to insist that the meeting should be adjourned until such a time as Richard was present. Somerset was furious, and stormed out of the Chamber without waiting to sign the minute. On 21st November 1453, the Council re-assembled, this time with Richard present. Somerset, by now more than a little afraid of Richard, stayed away. Richard, who had learnt discretion since the debacle of his rebellion in 1452, did not press matters too far. He demanded the release of his Chamberlain, Sir William Oldhall, from prison where he had been languishing for some months, and this was done. [Sir William promptly took sanctuary and remained there until after the 1st battle of St Albans 1455]

Richard stopped short of requesting that the proceedings against him should be dropped; this was a matter for a later time. Then Richard had a stroke of luck. The pro-Lancastrian Speaker, Thomas, Baron Thorpe and another member, had seized some arms and armour belonging to Richard which he had stored in London. Richard sued both men for trespass in the Baron's own Court of Exchequer, and was awarded a sizeable sum in damages. Until this civil debt was paid, he had both confined in the debtors prison of the Fleet.

Emboldened by Richard's success in neutralising one of his main enemies, John Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, took steps to deal with another. He petitioned that a Commission of Enquiry should look into Somerset's handling of affairs both at home and abroad because:-

"The losse of ii so noble duchees as Normandie and Guyen"(could not be thought a mere)"trespasse...."

and many a stout Captain had lost his head for far less.

Norfolk was aware that, as with Richard's draft charges, [page] no case for treason could be proved, and the defeat at Castillon 1453 was a misfortune beyond Somerset's control.

His aim was to get Somerset into the Tower and thus keep him out of the way at a crucial time. He got his wish, Somerset's friends no doubt thinking that he would be safe from the mob and from the fear of assassination once he was behind those stout walls. The Commission never sat, and Somerset remained in the Tower until King Henry VI recovered his wits and released him in February 1455. Somerset complained bitterly that he had been imprisoned for over a year without being given the chance to answer any charges.

By now thoroughly alarmed at what the Yorkists were doing, Queen Margaret and her supporters now decided to try and jolt the sick King into resuming his wits. The young Prince Edward had already been christened by William of Waynflete, Bishop of Winchester with Cardinal John Kemp, Somerset, and Isabel, Duchess of Buckingham as his godparents.

[Isabel was Richard's sister] On or about New Years Day 1454, Buckingham presented the three-month old baby to his father, and requested he should give him a father's blessing. No flicker of recognition crossed the King's face. Queen Margaret then repeated the experiment with the same lack of success. The King merely cast his eyes downward, and said nothing. He was still a very sick man, firmly in the grip of his malady. No help was to be found from him.

So matters stood when Parliament resumed its sittings in Westminster on 14th February 1454. The previous day, Richard had obtained an appointment from the Council as 'Commissioner' (sometimes described as 'the King's Lieutenant') to deal with Parliament during the King's illness. This was to last until the King should recover, or Parliament should dissolve when the appointment would expire. As has been noted, many Lords were too frightened of Richard to appear. The Common House was enraged, and on 28th February petitioned that the absentees should be fined; each Duke and Archbishop should pay 100, each Bishop and Earl 100 marks (66-13-4), and each Abbot and Baron 40. In other words, each absentee Lord should be penalised for non-attendance as were the members of the Common House themselves. [pages ] Nothing ever came of the idea, but much indignation was expressed that Lords should be treated in the same way as Commoners. It was previously unheard of.

The Common House first attempted to challenge Richard by demanding the release of their Speaker. He had committed no crime, and was merely in prison until a civil debt had been paid. Richard refused, saying that if Thorpe was released he would have no security for his damages and costs, and added that Thorpe and the other member had been imprisoned during vacation time when Parliament was not sitting. The House of Lords refused to intervene, and referred the question of the Privilege of Parliament to the Chief Justice, Sir John Fortescue. Sir John replied that, after "sadde" communication with his brother Justices, they considered that the Judges should not intervene. Their answer is an interesting one because it shows how high Parliament stood at the time. It could have been dictated by pure funk, but Sir John was an up-right man; even if his subsequent record sometimes shows that he could trim sails in a way the Vicar of Bray might have envied, he was never afraid to up-hold the law:-

"For it hath not be used afore tyme, that the Justices shuld in eny wyse determine the Privelegge of this High Court of Parlement; for it is so high and mighty in his nature, that it may make Lawe, and that that is Lawe it may make no Lawe; and the determination and knowlegge of that"

(which) "is Privelegge belongeth to the Lordes of the Parlement and not to the Justices."

Sir John added a warning that if Parliament used its Privilege to set aside the civil judgements of the Courts, it would undermine the rights of successful Plaintiffs with judgements in their favour. This was enough for the House of Lords, and they told the Common House to elect another Speaker so that progress may be made. Sir Thomas Charleton, Knight of the Shire for Middlesex was then elected, and Thorpe, and his companion in misfortune, remained in jail.

[Parry - Parliaments and Council of England page 187]

This contretemps having ended in the Yorkist's favour, a Parliament of generally Lancastrian sympathies did not give Richard and his friends an easy time. At times, it seemed as if each side, those who favoured the ruling dynasty and their Yorkist opponents, were more intent on scoring points off each other than in reaching decisions and dealing with business. Richard had a difficult time in holding the balance and seeing to it that the country's problems were properly addressed. The country was in a very disturbed state, and the Great Lords were openly recruiting soldiers.

Already on 9th March 1454, Ralph, Lord Cromwell had asked the Henry Holland, Duke of Exeter should be required to keep the Peace and to give sureties that he did so. On 14th March, there was a move to impeach Thomas Courtenay, Earl of Devon for taking part in Richard's rebellion in 1452. Devon simply waved his pardon in Parliament's face and had to be acquitted. [A similar pardon had not been of much help to Lord Broke. He was in prison for the same offence] Richard found it necessary to show his own pardon, to protest his loyalty to King Henry VI, and to remind Parliament that he had sworn a solemn oath to keep the Peace. [page ] On 15th March, a demand was made that the five-month old Prince Edward should be created Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester. On its face, this was unobjectionable, but the demand was a challenge that the Yorkists should repeat in Parliament their propaganda that the Prince was illegitimate. Wisely, they did not rise to the bait and consented to the proposal. These were pin-pricks which showed that the Yorkists did not have things all their own way, and that their support was by no means whole-hearted.

On 19th March 1454, a meeting took place with members of the Common House which indicated that however much they disliked him, they were coming to see that there was no alternative to Richard. Richard had asked that more money should be provided for the defence of Calais, and the Common House answered that they had already given as much as they could at the first session of Parliament in 1453. They neither could nor would give any more. Most of this was true, and Richard accepted the position. The Common House had something more to ask; when was a wise Council going to be appointed to govern the country? They had been promised this, but so far had seen no sign of it. The Chancellor, Cardinal John Kemp, Archbishop of Canterbury, now a very sick man, promised them 'a good and comfortible aunswere'. The Common House followed up their requests by another which betrayed their real concerns for the peace of the country. They asked that the peace of the Realm should be 'tenderly recommended' to the Lords.

This was the moment for which Richard and his friends had been waiting, and for which they had so carefully and cautiously prepared. Parliament had been a nightmare with many insults directed at them, many irritations created of a pointless nature, and much equally pointless obstruction.

Throughout the sitting, they had born themselves with patience and fortitude, and they had never once allowed themselves to be riled by even the most offensive epithets. Richard gently pointed out to the meeting that he had no more than a 'Commission' which authorised him to preside over Parliament in the King's absence. He did not have the power to appoint members of the Council. Only the King had that power, or in his absence any Regent or Protector that may be appointed; it had not been delegated to him. The Common House's request on the matter of the Council was tantamount to asking that he should seek appointment as Regent or at least Protector. Was that what they were seeking? Yes answered the members, it was.

Richard took a few moments to savour the opportunity which had been offered to him, not granted to him reluctantly on his own request. He had no doubt that they still disliked and distrusted him, but they had seen for themselves how moderately he and his friends had conducted themselves, refusing to rise even to the grossest insult. They had come to the conclusion that the Yorkists, who by now enjoyed a strong following, were the only faction, and Richard as its head was the only man, who could prevent the country from sliding into civil war. There was much disorder already and more was threatened. There was much that needed to be done to quell it, and even more to be done to give the country satisfactory government.

Richard proceeded with extreme caution, as he had done ever since the onset of the King's illness in July or August 1453. A deputation of Lords was sent to Windsor to enquire after the King's condition. They were unable to elicit one single word or sign from him, and with 'sorowfull hartes' returned to London on 25th March 1454 to make their report.

Events now played into Richard's hands. On 22nd March, a bare three days after Richard's meeting with the Common House, the aged and venerated Cardinal Kemp died.

He was much mourned as a man of great experience and impartiality whose wise and fair Counsel would be sorely missed, but it did mean that Richard was now able to separate the offices of Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury, which he had long wanted to do, without causing offence. On 27th March, he was appointed 'Protector et Defensor Angliae -

Protector and Defender of the Realm of England:-

"....in whom by th' occasion of th' enfirmitie of our said Souveraine Lord restethe th' exercice of his auctoritee...."

by the House of Lords with the concurrence of the Common House. Even before his Patent was sealed on 3rd April, he had made two appointments. Thomas Bourchier, Bishop of Ely, became Archbishop of Canterbury. He was a man as renowned for impartiality as his predecessor had been, and was connected to both sides. His half-brother was Humphrey Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, whose sympathies lay with the King even though he was married to Anne Neville, the daughter of Ralph, 1st Earl of Westmorland. His full brother was Henry, Viscount Bourchier, who was married to Richard's sister Isabel. The other appointment was more partisan. Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury, became the Chancellor.

[Thomas Bourchier reigned as Archbishop of Canterbury for more than 30 years, and crowned no less than 3 Kings, Edward IV, Richard III and Henry VII]

Copyright Michael D. Miller 2003