Royalty, Virtue, and Adversity: The Cult of King Henry VI

By Craig, Leigh Ann | Albion, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Royalty, Virtue, and Adversity: The Cult of King Henry VI


Craig, Leigh Ann, Albion


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. …

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