Henry VI (king of England)

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Henry VI (king of England)

Henry VI, 1421–71, king of England (1422–61, 1470–71).

Reign

Early Years

The only son of Henry V and Catherine of Valois, he became king of England when he was not yet nine months old. When his grandfather, Charles VI of France, died, Henry was proclaimed king of France by the English, in accordance with the terms of the Treaty of Troyes (1420). The French, however, recognized the son of Charles VI as Charles VII.

During Henry's early years, England was under the protectorate of his uncles, John of Lancaster, duke of Bedford, who was regent in France, and Humphrey, duke of Gloucester. Gloucester did not wield full authority, however, for much of the actual power resided in a council dominated by Henry Beaufort. After the English defeat by Joan of Arc at Orléans in 1429 and Charles VII's coronation at Reims shortly thereafter, the council attempted to protect English interests in France by crowning Henry king of France at Paris in 1431. After the death of Bedford in 1435 and the defection of Burgundy from the Anglo-Burgundian alliance, however, the English cause in France became hopeless.

Factional Struggles

From c.1435, Henry fell under the dominance of a faction headed first by Henry Beaufort and later by William de la Pole, 4th earl of Suffolk (see Pole, family), both of whom opposed continuing the war in France. Suffolk negotiated a marriage for Henry with Margaret of Anjou in 1445. This marriage was at first favorably received in England, but when Henry, now under the influence of his wife, surrendered Maine to Charles VII, Suffolk and the queen lost their popularity.

Suffolk was impeached in 1450 and mysteriously murdered at sea while on his way to France. The rebellion of Jack Cade, which broke out after Suffolk's death, was but one of many riots and uprisings indicating popular dissatisfaction with the government. The faction headed by Queen Margaret and Edmund Beaufort, 2d duke of Somerset, which dominated the king after Suffolk's death, was opposed by Richard, duke of York, the most powerful noble in the kingdom and heir presumptive to the throne. The struggle between these two factions developed into the dynastic battle between the Lancasters and the Yorks known as the Wars of the Roses.

Insanity and War

In 1453, shortly before the birth of his son, Edward, the king became insane. The duke of York was made protector (1454) in spite of the protests of Margaret, but when the king recovered, York was excluded from the council. In 1455, York met the Lancastrians at St. Albans in a conflict generally regarded as the first battle of the Wars of the Roses; Somerset was killed, and the Yorkists gained control of the council. York was again protector (1455–56), but thereafter Margaret was in control until 1460 when the Yorkist party won another victory at Northampton. Henry was made a prisoner, and York was named protector and heir apparent to the throne to the exclusion of Henry's own son.

York was killed at Wakefield in 1460, but his son Edward defeated the Lancastrian forces at Mortimer's Cross, entered London, and was proclaimed king as Edward IV in Feb., 1461. Henry, who had been rescued from Yorkist captivity at the second battle of St. Albans a few days earlier, now fled to Scotland. He remained there during most of the subsequent fighting until 1465, when he was captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London.

When Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, allied himself with Queen Margaret and invaded England in 1470, Henry was restored to the throne, but his second reign was short-lived. The unfortunate king was captured at the battle of Barnet and returned to the Tower. He was murdered there only days after Edward IV's final victory at Tewkesbury in May, 1471.

Character

Henry was a mild, honest, and pious man, a patron of literature and the arts and the founder of Eton College (1440). He was, however, unstable, weak-willed, and politically naive. It was his complete inability to cope with the pressures and responsibilities of kingship that probably drove him to insanity.

Bibliography

See biography by K. H. Vickers, England in the Later Middle Ages (7th ed. 1950); E. F. Jacob, The Fifteenth Century (1961).

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