In 1471, King Henry VI of England died in the Tower of London amid disputed circumstances. Between his death and Henry VIII's break with Rome in the 1530s, he was venerated as a saint and martyr. Modern historians have generally dismissed this cult as a political phenomenon, created and used by the Tudors as they sought legitimacy. While there is some truth in that assessment, political allegiance was only a part of the impetus for the participation of Henry's devotees in the cult. Alongside carefully crafted (and perhaps, artificial) portrayals of Henry's virtues lay something else his former subjects found compelling: his very real political failures, and more importantly the adversity that they engendered. Henry's devotees used these royal adversities as the basis from which to imagine a sympathetic relationship between themselves and "good King Herre" in which he had great concern for their fatal and near-fatal emergencies. These neglected devotional aspects of Henry VI's cult are the subject of this article.
King Henry VI of England was born in 1421, the only child of Henry V and Catherine of Valois. (1) His father, lauded for his success in the Hundred Years' War, died in 1422, leaving his nine-month-old son to inherit the crowns of both England and France. While his uncle, Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, and great-uncle, Cardinal Henry Beaufort, the Bishop of Winchester, wrestled for control over his minority government, Henry grew into a shy and pious young man interested in charity and education (later founding both Eton and King's College, Cambridge). He also had a genuine distaste for deceit, avarice, and bloodshed; as such, he made a poor leader. He was indecisive, lenient to dangerous foes, unable to intercede effectively in noble feuds, and generous with money he did not have. His wife, Margaret of Anjou, was an equally problematic leader, considered abrasive because of her French background and commanding personality. (2) Between his marriage in 1445 and his deposition in 1461, Henry's reign was a string of disasters. His generals steadily lost his French territories to Joan of Arc and Charles VII. He failed to cope with constant tension between noble factions led by Richard, Duke of York and his own allies. He twice suffered from long spells of mental illness during which he was unable to rule at all. England endured a state of intermittent military tumult, including Jack Cade's rebellion of 1450, Richard, Duke of York's military actions against "traitors" (generally Henry's closest advisors and allies), and finally, open war between Lancaster and York, beginning in 1459.
In 1461 Henry's weak leadership and desperate financial situation led to his deposition at the hands of Edward, Duke of York, who became Edward IV. For four years Henry was hidden by Lancastrian allies in Scotland, Northumberland, and Yorkshire. He was captured by Edward IV in 1465, and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Meanwhile, Margaret of Anjou raised troops abroad and led forays into England in the attempt to regain the Crown for her husband and son. Not until the Earl of Warwick (later called the "Kingmaker") fell out with Edward IV and decided to ally with Margaret was she successful. Together, the two reinstated Henry as king in late 1470. Edward rallied quickly, and by May of 1471 he had recaptured both Henry and London and re-assumed the throne. Henry died in the Tower during the night of May 22, 1471; Edward was recrowned the following morning, and this convenient timing left lingering suspicions as to the cause of Henry's death. Many contemporaries believed that he had died by the dagger of Edward's brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III), who was in charge of the Tower at the time, (3) but there is no definitive proof of this. (4) His jailers claimed that Henry had died of melancholy. (5)
Although Henry's body was hurried along the Thames to be buried at the out-of-the-way abbey of Chertsey, he could not be disposed of so easily as Edward might have hoped. After his death, rumors began to circulate: the king had been murdered by Gloucester, rather than having died of melancholy; his corpse, like those of all murder victims, had bled during his funeral; and he was now performing posthumous miracles, in thanksgiving for which pilgrims had begun to appear at Chertsey. (6) Edward IV tried to suppress the growing cult, with little success. (7) In 1484 Richard III, having seen the failure of suppression, chose the role of patron instead. He moved the king's body to St. George's Chapel at Windsor Castle, and the dean of St. George's began to record the stories of pilgrims who arrived claiming that Henry had performed a miracle for them. One hundred and seventy-four such stories were edited and compiled into a single volume by 1500. John Blacman, a Carthusian monk and one of Henry VI's former spiritual advisors, also wrote a vita of Henry some time before 1510. (8) Royal patronage of the cult peaked under the Tudors, when Henry VII appealed to Rome sometime before 1492 to begin canonization proceedings. (9) By the mid-1520s, during the reign of Henry VIII, these proceedings had progressed to the point where papal representatives sought to verify the miracles by gathering testimony from those who claimed to have benefitted from them or witnessed them. (10) But the canonization proceedings stalled after 1528 because of the problems between Henry VIII and Rome. By 1538 pilgrimage, votive offerings at shrines, and the veneration of relics had been banned by royal injunction. (11) With little further need to legitimize Tudor rule and such veneration considered heretical, the cult of Henry VI faded.
Given his political failures and the partisan nature of the times, there is an understandable skepticism among modern scholars who have dealt with Henry's cult. When one compares Henry's earthly achievements with, for example, those of the brilliantly successful French royal saint, Louis IX, Henry's cult seems incongruous at best and laughable at worst. Ralph A. Griffiths began his political biography of Henry by tracing the growth of the cult, explaining that in posthumous propaganda Henry had been changed "from an incompetent innocent into a guileless saint." (12) Bertram Wolffe's biography sought to debunk the hagiographic view of his personality, which insisted he was meek, gentle, and pious, and hence innocent of blame for the difficulties that beset England during and after his reign, by showing how the mismanagement of government was the direct result of his capricious decision-making. (13) In his investigation of the cult itself, John W. McKenna insisted that "Henry VI ... was as poor a saint by modern standards as he was unkingly in the eyes of his contemporaries," concluding that the growth of the cult rested on the efforts of "shrewd royal publicists" who manipulated the "flourishing lay piety of the age." (14)
While it is possible to assume that propagandists intended Henry's cult strictly to underscore the royal blood of the reigning or aspiring scions of Lancaster, Simon Walker has proposed a somewhat more balanced explanation. He has investigated Henry's cult together with those of Thomas of Lancaster, Simon de Montfort, Richard Scrope, and Edward II, calling them "political saints," because all of them had died for their opposition to a ruling regime. But he argued that these cults, instead of becoming a locus for continued discontent, "help[ed] to restore a measure of harmony after the strife was over in making reconciliation ... easier for the losers by offering a higher, and more objective, constraint to which all could submit without dishonor." (15) Thus, he observed that Henry's cult, like those of other political saints, encompassed themes of re-established social harmony.
But even if we accept the argument that contemporary partisan politics provided the impetus for such cults, Henry VI's case still requires further explanation. This is because it was a larger presence in late-medieval devotion than the rest by several orders of magnitude. Walker himself points out that Edward II's cult was localized and left little documentary evidence, Simon de Montfort's seems to have faded on its own as rapidly as it was established, and Scrope's cult may have been following the same pattern. (16) Even where other political cults had a certain staying power, none of them can claim the widespread activity that Henry's could. For example, Henry's pilgrim badges have been studied by Brian Spencer, who called them "an impressive testimony to Windsor's enormous ... appeal to pilgrims. Canterbury is the only English shrine to have left behind significantly more souvenirs, but these were deposited over a period of three …