Henry VI: A Misjudged King? Few English Monarchs Have Such a Poor Reputation as Henry VI. Yet He Was Held in High Regard by the Tudors, Says Michael Hicks, despite Losing the Wars of the Roses; a Conflict Whose Troublesome Legacy Presented Henry VIII with His Own Difficulties, as Desmond Seward Reveals on Page 35

By Hicks, Michael | History Today, January 2011 | Go to article overview

Henry VI: A Misjudged King? Few English Monarchs Have Such a Poor Reputation as Henry VI. Yet He Was Held in High Regard by the Tudors, Says Michael Hicks, despite Losing the Wars of the Roses; a Conflict Whose Troublesome Legacy Presented Henry VIII with His Own Difficulties, as Desmond Seward Reveals on Page 35


Hicks, Michael, History Today


It is hard to imagine reigns more catastrophic than those of Henry VI (r. 1422-61 and 147071). Succeeding to the throne as an infant, his long minority was followed by his disastrous majority, in which he lost both the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) and the first two Wars of the Roses (1459-61, 1469-71), both his realms in France (1453) and England (twice). Much blame has always been laid at Henry's door. He did not compare well with his father, Henry V (1387-1422), a charismatic soldier and decision-maker made immortal by his victory at Agincourt in 1415.

Childlike and unimposing in appearance, Henry VI suffered insanity in 1453-55 and may never have fully recovered his mental health. He was no athlete, no soldier or jouster and no orator. Henry showed little inclination or aptitude for either the hard graft of government or for military command. Rather he was a model of the new devotional piety--his most lasting achievements were the great educational foundations of Eton College and King's College, Cambridge. But such a trait, while desirable and highly commendable, was no substitute for effective rule. A pious prince, he found matters of state to be unwarranted interruptions. He let others, especially the dukes of Somerset and Shrewsbury, fight his wars in France and manage his affairs at home. In turn his great-uncle Cardinal Beaufort (1375-1447), William, Duke of Suffolk (1396-1450), Edmund, Duke of Somerset (1406-55), Humphrey, Duke of Buckingham (1402-60) and Queen Margaret of Anjou (1430-82) ruled England in Henry's name, badly and selfishly, provoking violent outbursts of discontent that ultimately swept the regime away. Indeed, so completely passive was Henry that he has been portrayed by the historian John Watts in his 1996 biography, Henry VI and the Politics of Kingship, as simply absent--a vacuum at the heart of government.

Henry's many critics, both contemporary and modern, have overlooked the sheer impossibility of governing mid-15th-century England. Inheriting an unwinnable war against the might of France, Henry was plunged into a 15th-century credit crunch that bankrupted him, denied him both revenues and access to credit and enraged his subjects, who expected government somehow to solve its problems. Add to this the presence of a great nobleman and potential heir in Richard, Duke of York (141160), who staged both coups d'etat and persistently stopped his monarch from ruling, and any king might have faltered. It is not really credible that Henry's councillors were all uniformly evil. Nor does it make sense that the king was completely absent. There could have been no Wars of the Roses had he simply bowed to his critics in 1450, 1452 and 1455 and transferred the reins of government to York. No doubt Henry was ill-fitted for the crises that he faced and certainly all his particular initiatives failed, but there is more to his role than mere resignation and delegation.

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Never having known a time when he was not king, Henry undertook all the formal duties of office. He presided over his court, over formal audiences, parliaments and judicial sessions. He received ambassadors and peers. His right to reign was undeniable. Henry was acutely conscious of the dignity of kingship. He expected respect, deference and obedience. Traitors and disparagers deserved death: he made a point of personally attending their bloody ends, as in Kent in 1451 and 1452. While able to gaol even dukes for long periods, Henry respected the blood royal and found it impossible therefore to treat the rebellious York as he deserved. The search for peace with France rather than effective prosecution of the war was Henry's very own foreign policy. It was he who unwisely made unnecessary concessions to the French. In 1457 it was also he who drove through a thoroughgoing (but ill-fated) reconciliation with the Yorkists in the form of the 'Loveday' held at St Paul's Cathedral in 1458, a formal peacemaking between the victors of the First Battle of St Albans of May 1455 and the heirs of their victims.

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Henry VI: A Misjudged King? Few English Monarchs Have Such a Poor Reputation as Henry VI. Yet He Was Held in High Regard by the Tudors, Says Michael Hicks, despite Losing the Wars of the Roses; a Conflict Whose Troublesome Legacy Presented Henry VIII with His Own Difficulties, as Desmond Seward Reveals on Page 35
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