King Henry VI

This page contains the historical information on King Henry VI. For the Character information click here.

Under Henry VI the last battle of the Hundred Years war were fought, and England eventually lost all of its French holdings, save Calais. Due to this event, and others, Richard of York rebelled against the King and began the War of the Roses, that would eventually place York’s son, Edward IV on the English Throne.

The following entry is quoted from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, writen by R. A. Griffiths.

Henry VI (1421–1471), king of England and lord of Ireland, and duke of Aquitaine, was born at Windsor Castle on the feast of St Nicholas (6 December) 1421, the only child of Henry V (1386/7–1422) and Catherine of Valois (1401–1437).

Infancy and accession, 1422


Henry's godfathers were two senior members of the house of Lancaster: the baby's great-uncle, Henry Beaufort, bishop of Winchester, and Henry V's brother John, duke of Bedford. Henry V never saw his only son, and his 21-year-old queen, Catherine of Valois, joined her husband in France five months after the birth. When she next saw her son, he was king of England, for Henry V died at Vincennes, near Paris, on 31 August 1422, leaving as his heir the nine-month-old baby. As he lay dying he added a codicil to his will which referred to his son as prince of Wales, though no formal ceremony of creation was held. In accordance with the treaty of Troyes (1420), Henry VI was also heir to the kingdom of his mother's father, the elderly and insane Charles VI of France, who died two months later, on 21 October 1422. Within a generation of Henry IV's usurpation in 1399, a baby succeeded to the English throne and inherited awesome claims in France, without any suggestion that an adult prince should be preferred.

Henry IV's arrangements for the succession, declared in parliament in 1406, were followed to the letter, and Henry V's achievements, and the loyalty of his subjects, ensured that his son faced no rival. The new king's reign began on 1 September, the day after the day on which Henry V was alive and dead, a common practice (other than in 1327 and 1399) since Edward I's death that underlined the continuity of English kingship. Not since 1199 had a king of England died outside his realm, but Henry V's youngest brother, Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, had been nominated keeper of the realm in May 1422 during the king's absence, and three senior ecclesiastics were on hand: Bishop Beaufort; Henry Chichele, archbishop of Canterbury, who ordered prayers on 25 September for Henry V's soul and for the health and prosperity of his successor; and Thomas Langley, bishop of Durham and chancellor of England, who arrived at Windsor from Yorkshire by 28 September. Within a month of Henry V's death decisions could be taken to inaugurate the new reign, despite the uncertain and tragic circumstances.

The accession of a baby created major problems: how and by whom should Henry be brought up; and by whom should England and Lancastrian France be ruled during his long minority? Furthermore, Henry V's conquests in France were incomplete, and the ‘dual monarchy’ created by the treaty of Troyes placed unprecedented obligations on his successor. Practical responsibilities had to be shouldered by others in the king's name. Yet the dynasty and realm were stable enough to weather the longest minority in English history and historians (notably K. B. McFarlane) have been impressed by the loyalty and unity of the English noble and ecclesiastical élites after 1422.

The codicils of Henry V's will, dictated on 26 August 1422, outlined his preferred arrangements for his son's upbringing and custody. Gloucester, who was already in charge of England, was nominated as Henry VI's custodian and protector. According to those at Henry V's deathbed, he gave responsibility for English France to Bedford. These wishes were taken into account, but so too were Richard II's and Henry III's minorities in 1377 and 1216, and the expectations of the Lancastrian royal family. Royal relatives and respected soldiers, especially Thomas Beaufort, duke of Exeter, Henry V's uncle, had care of the baby's welfare, with authority to appoint his servants, while nurses saw to his personal needs. Queen Catherine was at his side, and she held him when he attended parliament in 1423. As to the two realms, a compromise was reached which was generally acceptable, though Bedford and Gloucester had serious, but different, misgivings. At a meeting at Windsor on 28 September 1422 a small group of bishops and nobles left in England by Henry V did homage and swore fealty to Henry of Windsor (as the infant king was known), and reappointed royal officials. Further progress required wider consultation and parliament was summoned at the earliest opportunity. Intensive discussions followed the arrival, on 5 November, of nobles and bishops with Henry V's body, and on 9 November parliament opened. It was a further month before the compromise, which departed from Henry V's wishes, was ready.

Bedford and Gloucester and their two uncles, Exeter and Bishop Beaufort, were loyal but suspicious of one another and very ambitious, and each expected a place in the new regime. The outcome of discussions was a regency of English France for Bedford, and the novel constitutional device of a protectorate for England, with Gloucester as ‘protector and defender of the realm and chief councillor for the king’ (RotP, 4.174), so long as Bedford was abroad, and with a formally appointed council to serve during the king's minority. This may have been an appropriate division of responsibilities, but it did not avoid disputes between Bedford and Gloucester, or between Gloucester and Bishop Beaufort, who was assigned no special role other than that of councillor.

Childhood and the protectorate, 1423–1429

Henry VI lived with his mother during the 1420s. He was rarely taken far from the royal residences in the Thames valley—Windsor Castle, Hertford Castle, and Eltham—though occasionally he visited Woodstock, Kennington, and even Kenilworth, and he went on pilgrimage to Waltham Abbey and Bury St Edmunds. On 23 April 1424 his nurses were joined by a senior governess, Dame Alice Boteler, who was charged with his early education in ‘courtesy and nurture’ (Proceedings … of the Privy Council, 3.143); she also had authority to chastise him without fearing the consequences. He was brought up in the company of noble royal wards, and a master was appointed to school them, according to Sir John Fortescue, in ‘physical activity, behaviour and manners’ (Fortescue, 110–11, 193).

A new phase in Henry's education opened in 1428 with the appointment of Richard Beauchamp, earl of Warwick, as his governor, tutor, and master, with a small establishment of knights and esquires of the body to provide a more structured training for the king. Warwick's role was to teach Henry ‘good manners, letters and languages’, as well as the nurture and courtesy that Dame Alice had instilled in him, all in the context of Christian virtue (CPR, 1422–9, 491–2). Warwick had authority to regulate access to the young king as the needs of state and the royal family dictated.

Henry seemed a healthy boy. In May 1423 it was reported to Bedford in France that he was in perfect health, and by March 1428 he was described as ‘ser goon and growen in persone, in wit and understandyng’ (RotP, 4.326–7). There is nothing to suggest that he was other than a normal, healthy child whose upbringing and education took place in an environment dominated by former members of Henry V's establishment who sought to nurture in his son the requisite kingly qualities.

In Henry's early years formal acts were performed in his presence and he was shown to his people on ceremonial occasions, for instance in London before the opening of parliament at Westminster in 1423. The rivalries among his uncles, especially Gloucester and Bishop Beaufort, can hardly have affected him personally, though in 1425–6 he was at their centre in a formal sense. He was brought to London in state in April 1425 for the opening of parliament and rode through the city on a horse; in November he was paraded through the city again, on his way back to Eltham, this time by the triumphant Gloucester after an ugly confrontation with the bishop's supporters. At Leicester Castle, where parliament met in February 1426, the feud in the royal family might have been more apparent to the boy, especially because Bedford returned from France to compose differences. Moreover, towards the end of the session, the authority of the king was emphasized when Bedford knighted his nephew, who then himself dubbed thirty-eight new knights. Yet the protectorate government had fair success in providing stable government and preserving order. Across the channel Henry V's war continued under Bedford's generalship, and several battles were won. Only in 1429, when Jeanne d'Arc's appearance sparked a revival of French morale and revived Charles VII's fortunes, did the tide turn against the English.

Henry's world changed dramatically in 1429. His mother had developed a relationship with Edmund Beaufort, count of Mortain, the bishop's nephew, and then with the Welsh squire, Owen Tudor, despite a statute of 1428–9 governing the future marriage of a queen dowager. By 1430 the king ceased to reside regularly with his mother. In France the French adopted a bolder strategy whose centrepiece was Charles VII's coronation at Rheims on 17 July 1429. This precipitated Henry's visit to France for his own coronation as king of the realm bequeathed to him by the treaty of Troyes. This meant that he should be crowned king of England first, and this was arranged at Westminster on 5 November 1429 when he was barely eight. This ceremony formally vested him with the powers of kingship which had been exercised in his name since 1 September 1422. The English monarchy had emerged from a difficult phase: despite personal tensions and disagreements among the élite, stability had been maintained at home and the military effort in France had been sustained.

English and French coronations, 1429–1432

The king's English coronation emphasized Henry VI's dual heritage as monarch of two realms. On the eve of the coronation he lodged in the Tower of London, where he followed tradition and created new knights, more than thirty of them. Next day his guardian and governor, Warwick, took him to Westminster Abbey where Bishop Beaufort, a cardinal since March 1426, sat on his right and Queen Catherine sat nearby. Archbishop Chichele anointed the young king with holy oil. Henry seems to have appreciated the significance of the occasion, for he reportedly looked round ‘saddely and wysely’ as the heavy crown was placed on his head (‘Gregory's chronicle’, 165). The coronation ordo was modified in the light of French practice, underlining the theocratic nature of Henry's kingship of both realms. Hurried though the arrangements had been, this coronation also marked the formal end of the protectorate, though others perforce continued to rule for him.

The English position in France was causing anxiety, especially after the failure before Orléans (1429) and Charles VII's coronation at Rheims, which owed much to Jeanne d'Arc's inspiration. Bedford responded with propaganda and military campaigns centred on the young King Henry and his dual monarchy, combined with blackening Jeanne's reputation before and after her execution at Rouen on 30 May 1431. The aim was to encourage the English forces in northern France, maintain the Anglo-Burgundian alliance, and reassert the agreements made at Troyes. More immediately, hard-pressed cities like Paris and Rouen had to be relieved. The results were less effective than was anticipated.

Henry's journey to France was his first outside his English realm. It required much planning: in April 1430, the royal entourage, more than 300 strong, crossed the channel with a large army; the king was accompanied by senior nobles, and the cost was prodigious. The exodus had implications for English government as well as for Lancastrian France. The company crossed to Calais in the last week of April, but the military situation in the Seine valley delayed Henry's arrival at Rouen until the last week of July. There he remained for over a year. Both Warwick, his governor, and Master John Somerset, his doctor and tutor, went with him.

French kings, including Charles VII, were traditionally crowned at Rheims, but despite the capture of Jeanne d'Arc in May 1430, and her subsequent burning, the military situation and expense prevented Henry from journeying to Paris, let alone Rheims, until December 1431. His coronation therefore took place in Notre-Dame on 16 December; it had a strong English flavour, with Cardinal Beaufort crowning the ten-year-old monarch. It was marred by a dispute between the canons of Notre-Dame and English courtiers, an invasion of the banqueting hall by Parisians, and the failure of ‘Henri II’ to distribute largess. This French ceremony was hardly the propaganda coup that had been envisaged, for Henry and his entourage returned to the safety of Rouen in haste, and then on to Calais in the first week of January 1432. Henry VI never again visited France after returning to England at the beginning of February.

Some Lancastrian advisers remained worried about the future of English rule in France, and about the reliability of Burgundy; and Bedford showed signs of exhaustion and disillusion. Three days before Henry landed at Dover, the Burgundians concluded a truce with Charles VII which reflected the hollowness of the coronation spectacle. It was a turning point in the fortunes of Lancastrian France. Nevertheless, Henry VI made a solemn entry into London on 21 February, amid festivities and services of thanksgiving in St Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Abbey that celebrated his two crowns. The impression on the king himself may be imagined: contemporaries observed how well he endured the long and gruelling ceremonies, and he can hardly have failed to note the significance of the rituals and his part in them.

The king's adolescence, 1432–1436

The two coronations delayed a radical reappraisal of the situation in France. Most royal advisers were not ready to make peace with the French, and did not believe that anything more than a truce could properly be negotiated while Henry was a minor. In these circumstances, differences of view emerged about future strategy: Bedford wanted to defend Normandy, while Gloucester was committed to Calais, and Cardinal Beaufort inclined to peace. Negotiations were inconclusive, even at the congress of Arras in the summer of 1435, when Beaufort was mediator. The English were unrealistic in their demands and concessions, and a few days after the congress ended in September, the duke of Burgundy deserted to Charles VII. This was a mortal blow to English sovereignty in France and Henry VI wept when given the news, evidently understanding its implications: years later, in 1456, he told Burgundian envoys that the duke had ‘abandoned me in my boyhood, despite all his oaths to me, when I had never done him any wrong’ (Wolffe, 83). Bedford, Henry V's effective successor in France, had died shortly before, on 15 September.

The end of the protectorate in November 1429 had few immediate consequences in England: although the status of Bedford and Gloucester was affected, the latter was designated the king's lieutenant while Henry was in France. These changes, and the situation in France, sharpened the tension between Gloucester and Cardinal Beaufort, and in the 1430s their differences over French policy, and their rivalry in the government of England before Henry's coming of age, were accentuated. Only Bedford, who returned to England in June 1433, seemed able to contain their mutual hostility when he acted temporarily as the king's chief councillor. Bedford's own handling of the war was criticized by Gloucester in the parliament of 1433, and the twelve-year-old king, with a child's innocence, intervened in the council personally, begging his uncles to become friends again, before Bedford's departure for France in July 1434. The failure of the congress of Arras and Bedford's death left Gloucester in an advantageous position at home and his policy in France in the ascendant, culminating in the raising of the siege of Calais and the defeat of Burgundy in August 1436.

Changes in the king's household after his return to England in 1432 bear the stamp of Gloucester, though they made Warwick, the king's governor, uneasy. Several clerics who were engaged in the household were firmly orthodox in religion and may have influenced the king's Christian upbringing. Warwick noted in 1432 that Henry was ‘growen in years in stature of his persone and also in conceyte and knowleche of his hiegh and royale auctoritee and estate’ (Proceedings … of the Privy Council, 4.134) and may have become less easy to direct. There was also a danger that he would be distracted from his studies and influenced by others when Warwick and the household knights were absent. Accordingly, on 29 November 1432 Warwick received detailed guidelines for the king's upbringing to safeguard the earl's position and protect the king: at least one knight should be present at all interviews with Henry.

By August 1433 William de la Pole, earl of Suffolk, who was married to Beaufort's kinswoman, became steward of Henry VI's household. In July 1434, before Bedford left for France, the council confirmed the authority of Warwick, Suffolk, and other household officials to arrange the king's movements as seemed appropriate; the council was aware that ‘mocions and sturinges’ of which Warwick had complained might re-emerge once Bedford was gone (Proceedings … of the Privy Council, 4.259–61, 287). In November 1434 it was necessary to tell the king that, despite ‘greet understandyng and felyng, as evere thei sawe or knewe in eny Prince, or other persone of his age’, he still lacked sufficient experience of government to dispense with his councillors; he was advised not to change his officers or policies without consulting them, and to be wary of those who urged him to do so (ibid., 4.287–9). Warwick eventually resigned as Henry's guardian on 19 May 1436 and no successor was appointed. He may have felt that his influence with the teenage king was ebbing and that political changes made his position increasingly untenable.

As for Queen Catherine, she does not appear to have lived with the king following his return to England, or to have associated with him much except at ceremonies or special occasions, such as new year festivities at Gloucester in 1435. She married Owen Tudor c.1430 and had four children with him thereafter; by 1436 she had fallen into serious illness which caused her death on 3 January 1437. Joan of Navarre, the widow of Henry IV, had long lived in seclusion, and apart from presenting her with new year gifts, Henry's relations with her were distant, though he formed a close friendship with her grandson, Gilles of Brittany, after he arrived in England in 1432.

Contemporaries who observed Henry VI as a young teenager thought him personable, educated, even precocious. However, his closest relatives created about him an atmosphere of political bitterness, even personal hatred, and after Bedford's death Gloucester and Beaufort strove to dominate him in private and public. These pressures accustomed Henry VI to dependence: most commentators agree that his ability to assert his own will consistently was stunted. To go so far as to say (as, for instance, John Watts has done) that he had no independent will is to contradict councillors' reports, like those cited above, of his early self-awareness and youthful powers of perception. Observers in France and England in the 1430s noted an elegant, dignified, good-looking, and well-mannered boy who spoke French as well as English. On 1 October 1435, apparently for the first time, Henry attended a council meeting that was not merely ceremonial, and he was personally involved in making appointments and grants in the first half of 1436. In May Warwick resigned as his governor. It is not realistic to suppose that a fourteen-year-old could initiate personal rule alone or suddenly, but henceforward the king and his developing attitudes would need to be taken into account by those who had governed for him, and especially by Gloucester and Beaufort.

The ending of the minority, 1436–1437

Henry VI took an active part in decision making just when the future of the dual monarchy was beginning to divide English political opinion as never before. Gloucester and Beaufort had not only to fight for their respective policies, but also to pay attention to, and to mould, the young king's attitudes. Beaufort's position was undermined by the collapse of the congress of Arras and the defection of Burgundy. England's policy thereafter concentrated on defending Calais and prosecuting the war in Normandy. After Gloucester departed to relieve Calais in July 1436, Beaufort had the king's ear: on 28 July he induced Henry to make him a grant, under his sign manual (or signature), of Canford manor and the town of Poole, in Dorset, free of charge and for the cardinal's life. However, Gloucester's success at Calais made him popular: when parliament met early in 1437 he was warmly thanked and on 25 February he knelt before his nephew seeking reinforcements for Calais. Gloucester was determined to pursue his French policy and preserve his political influence.

A measure of Henry's emergence in government was his personal authorization of warrants by his signet seal and sign manual; before February 1438 his signet was being kept by a secretary, Thomas Beckington, who was previously in Gloucester's household. The king rewarded members of his household, headed by Suffolk, and he sometimes expressed political views, such as on the conditions under which Warwick took command in France (20 May 1437). Without formal announcement, Henry was exercising his prerogative, though with guidance from his councillors, especially Gloucester and Beaufort.

Two particular issues attracted the king's attention and determined on whom he would most heavily rely for advice. The first was the tussle between Pope Eugenius IV and the Council of Basel; this dispute was of great interest to a young king whose piety was nurtured by chaplains (and by a lengthy stay at Bury St Edmunds in 1433–4, when he asked to be admitted to the abbey's fraternity) and whose coronation oaths enjoined him to uphold the faith and protect the church. Henry supported Eugenius, whose agent, Piero da Monte, personally appealed to the king. Though exaggerated for public effect, Monte's report lauded Henry's intelligence, wisdom, and kindliness, his royal dignity, and Christian morality. The young king's attitude to Eugenius accorded with Beaufort's. The second issue was the French war. It became apparent that Henry was inclined to share Beaufort's preference for peace. Gloucester resigned the captaincy of Calais on 8 January 1438, and in November the king authorized negotiations, under Beaufort's leadership, at Gravelines, even though Henry was aware that several of his relatives and of his great council were hostile.

Thus, as Henry VI emerged from his minority, Gloucester was losing his influence. In the summer of 1437 Henry VI visited the midlands and west country. On his return a great council met at Sheen on 21 October. An adjustment of the roles of king and council took place on 12 November, ending Gloucester's formal position as chief councillor, at a time when Beaufort was becoming Henry's most influential adviser. The king's public crown-wearing at Merton Priory in Surrey on 1 November may have marked the change that was taking place. This peaceful adjustment reserved all matters of grace to the king and referred all matters of ‘grete weght and charge’ to him (Proceedings … of the Privy Council, 6.312). The initiative may have sprung from councillors like Beaufort, from the king himself, and, of course, from the English and French custom whereby kings in their mid-teens began to shoulder their royal responsibilities. It happened gradually probably because it happened peacefully and without crisis. Control of affairs shifted gradually from the formal council of the minority to the king. A group of councillors, without a nominated chief councillor, assisted the young and inexperienced monarch, with no formal control over him but stressing the wisdom of his taking advice on important matters.

Early personal rule: the problem of France, 1437–1444

By 1437 Henry VI was ruling in fact as well as in name; his confidence grew with the years. He seems to have been repelled by war—its misery, waste, and expense—to judge by the declaration to which he lent his name in October 1440; and he believed that it prevented Christendom from ending the scandalous division between pope and council. It was probably his personal decision, fortified by Beaufort and others, to release the highest-ranking prisoner captured by Henry V at Agincourt (1415), Charles, duke of Orléans, to advance the cause of peace by influencing Charles VII and his nobles. Yet Henry did not contemplate surrendering hard-won territory at this stage, still less his title of king of France. His dilemmas were highlighted by the fierce clash between Beaufort and the militant Gloucester, who was the king's presumptive heir from Bedford's death in 1435 until Gloucester's own demise in 1447. They flung insults at each other whenever France was discussed, and the peace conference at Gravelines, near Calais, in the summer of 1439 collapsed. Its only outcome was the release of Orléans, whose political value in peacemaking was exaggerated in England. Gloucester skilfully denounced the release as unwise and a betrayal of the past. In 1440 a ransom was agreed for the duke: 40,000 nobles down and 80,000 more in six months' time; if Orléans arranged a peace then the ransom would be cancelled. As Orléans swore his oath in Westminster Abbey on 18 October 1440, Gloucester stalked out. Orléans crossed the channel early in November, was greeted by the duchess of Burgundy, and married a niece of the duke, but failed to gain even an interview with Charles VII.

It soon became clear that to consolidate Lancastrian rule in northern France and Gascony was beyond English resources, and confused arrangements for military command after Bedford's death poisoned relations among the English nobles, especially the Beaufort family, the duke of York, and Gloucester. By 1442 Henry VI was studying marriage proposals from a southern French noble, the count of Armagnac, and he commissioned portraits of the count's daughters so that he could choose the more appealing. Such an alliance would protect Gascony and wean some French nobles to the English side, and it is not reasonable to doubt Henry's personal interest in his own nuptials. The prospect of such an alliance outraged Charles VII, and it was abandoned. After the failure of the expedition of John Beaufort, duke of Somerset, to northern France in 1443, the most far-reaching step in the search for an honourable peace was conceived: Henry's marriage to a princess of the French royal house, with Charles VII's blessing; by early 1444 the name of Margaret (1430–1482), daughter of René, duke of Anjou, and niece of the French queen, was canvassed.

A Christian prince

The king's other passion at this time was the planning of two educational and religious foundations, Eton College and King's College, Cambridge. Henry's education had not been neglected, and his habit of reading chronicles and books is attested; he developed an interest in King Alfred, for whom he sought canonization in 1442. This admiration for a king who was a notable promoter of education and literacy in a Christian context may reflect Henry's convictions. Moreover, several councillors and officials had similar interests, and some of them participated in Henry's schemes. There is no reason to doubt that the inspiration for Eton, in the lee of his birthplace, Windsor Castle, was the king's; similar motives were expressed in his authorization in March 1445 of a new library at Salisbury Cathedral, ‘for the keping of the bookes to the said Churche belanging and also for thencrece of connyng and of vertu of such as wol loke and studie in the same’ (TNA: PRO, E28/75/11–13). Henry's devotion to Eton and King's was sustained with lavish endowments and privileges during the 1440s; he laid foundation stones and personally supervised (and modified) the building details. According to Eton's foundation charter of 11 October 1440:
having now taken into our hands the government of both our kingdoms, (we) have from the very beginning of our riper age carefully revolved in our mind how, or in what manner, or by what royal gift, according to the measure of our devotion and the example of our ancestors, we could do fitting honour to that our same Mistress and most Holy Mother (that is, the church), to the pleasure of that Great Spouse (that is, God). (Maxwell Lyte, 6–7)

The new college's size was remarkable: no previous king of England had endowed such a public grammar school, even though it was not completed at the time of Henry's deposition in 1461. The plans for King's were formulated a little later, and in August 1443 an even larger site was designated; in 1448 architectural specifications were approved by Henry. An enlarged Eton could appropriately serve an augmented university college, for by August 1446 Eton's scholarly community was increased to seventy. Henry's pride in his new ‘general school’ was undisguised: ‘the lady mother and mistress of all other grammar schools’ (English Historical Documents, 4.918–19). John Blacman, who was at Eton in the 1440s, recalled the king's interest in the boys of Eton whom he met at Windsor and what he proudly said to them: ‘be you good boys, gentle and teachable, and servants of the Lord’ (Blacman, 34).

Henry showed unwavering interest in these foundations, and the colleges' statutes and constitutions demonstrate that his aims were educational and devotional; his pride in them need not be mistaken for vainglory, and to claim that their inspiration and execution stemmed from courtiers alone is unwarranted. Educational and religious motives were closely entwined in such foundations. Henry's encouragement of university reform and clerkly education, and his promotion of scholars and his religious advisers and confessors to the episcopate from 1436, suggest a concern for the quality of the church and its leadership, and probably an active piety in the king. One consequence was that the theologically trained presence on the bench of bishops was strengthened: most of the dozen bishops elected between 1437 and 1445 were capable men with an interest in spiritual matters.

Henry practised Christian virtues. His piety was orthodox, and he took seriously his oath to protect the faith and church. Less conventional in a king were the compassionate, humane, and sensitive traits of character that became well known to his subjects, and which led him to pardon lawbreakers too readily. He was shy of women in his youth (according to John Blacman who knew him); he was shocked to see women and men bathing naked when he visited Bath in 1449, and concerned to shield the boys of Eton from corrupting influences of courtiers in the nearby castle. He enjoyed hunting and gaming, and he dressed well, especially on formal and festive occasions. He was generous to a fault.

The king's household and advisers

Henry rewarded friends, servants, and courtiers to such a degree that the crown was impoverished and his control in the localities was weakened. Analyses of the king's household and councillors, his appointments to offices in England and Wales, and his grants of favours and rewards lend substance to these observations. After Henry came of age, it was natural that his household should expand and be a focus for his activities and decisions. At the same time his relationship with his councillors was adjusted, though not always easily; the king attended council meetings frequently after 1437, and there seems to have been greater flexibility as to whom he consulted. Additions to the ranks of councillors may reflect the king's interventions, and household officials were soon nominated, as well as the earl of Salisbury, Beaufort's nephew recently returned from France. Gloucester's eclipse became more obvious from 1439 as the peace policy gained momentum; correspondingly, Cardinal Beaufort's influence grew, along with that of household officials led by the steward of the household, Suffolk, who was appointed a councillor himself in 1441. Sir Ralph Boteler, the chamberlain of the household, joined the council in 1441 and was created Lord Sudeley by the king; two years later he became treasurer of England. Adam Moleyns, clerk of the council since 1436, became a councillor in February 1443 and remained close to Suffolk; in 1445 he was appointed bishop of Chichester. And Edmund Beaufort, marquess of Dorset and the cardinal's nephew, also joined them as a councillor in February 1444. It was Suffolk, above all others, who was the most constant, intimate, and influential of Henry VI's advisers by the mid-1440s, exercising authority through government departments and the royal household, and also by dint of his personal relations with the king, Cardinal Beaufort, and several nobles. When Beaufort withdrew from affairs at the end of 1446 (his death followed on 11 April 1447), Suffolk had no effective rival as the king's mentor. He also had large ambitions of his own.

Disquiet appears to have been expressed among the councillors as to the handling of important business and the exercise of the king's authority. During 1444 formal arrangements were made to ensure efficiency and clarity in decision making and managing the king's patronage; Henry did not demur, and may have welcomed relief from routine duties. These arrangements in no way prejudiced Suffolk's role; indeed, his masterminding of Margaret's journey to England for her wedding in 1445 strengthened it. Such power tempted him to abuse his position in his own interests and those of his associates, servants, and dependants, at court, in East Anglia (where his estates were mainly situated), and elsewhere in the realm. Suffolk and his circle—which included Lord Sudeley, Suffolk's successor as steward of the household from 1447, Sir Roger Fiennes, treasurer of the household in 1439–46, Roger's brother James, who became chamberlain of the household in 1447 and was created Lord Saye and Sele, and Sir Thomas Tuddenham, keeper of the great wardrobe from 1446—became deeply unpopular, and their unpopularity inevitably tarnished the reputation of the household and of the king himself.

An associated source of criticism was the burgeoning size and cost of the household under Suffolk's stewardship. The numbers of servants in the king's employ increased to such an extent that it was found necessary to limit them to 420 in 1445, when a new establishment was created for the queen. Henry also accommodated his closest friends in the household, notably Henry Beauchamp, the young earl of Warwick, and Gilles of Brittany; after 1442 he seems to have taken a close interest in the upbringing of his two half-brothers, Edmund Tudor and Jasper Tudor, the children of Catherine of Valois and Owen Tudor. The residences which Henry used most often—Westminster Palace, Windsor Castle, and manor houses in the Thames valley like Sheen and Eltham—were repaired at considerable expense, especially in preparation for his marriage. By the later 1440s the debts of the household were spiralling.

Household servants were foremost among those who received lands, cash, offices, and other favours from Henry VI after 1436: they had a unique opportunity to attract his attention. In June 1444 Suffolk secured the wardship and marriage of the richest heiress in England, Margaret Beaufort, daughter of the duke of Somerset and therefore Henry's kinswoman; and a number of household officials benefited in 1446 when Henry Beauchamp, whom the king had created a duke the year before, died leaving his young heiress and estates in Henry VI's charge. Henry was even prepared to make life grants, and to do so without asking for payment in return. Such prodigality ran the risk of depleting the king's resources, and also of undermining accountability on the part of officers who frequently relied on deputies to discharge their duties. Thus Sir Robert Roos, a household knight who regularly attended on the king, was nevertheless granted the offices of chamberlain and customer of Berwick, on the Anglo-Scottish border, for life in 1443. Henry was even ready to pardon their misdemeanours. These ill-conceived actions caused misgivings and damaged effective royal government, both in the English shires and in royal dominions like the principality of Wales, where Suffolk was justiciar of north Wales from 1440. Such lack of foresight produced conflicting grants that could be embarrassing or even cause disputes. Most famously, the royal stewardship in Cornwall which had been assigned to Lord Bonville in 1438 was granted in similar terms to his rival, the earl of Devon, three years later, and this worsened relations between them.

Henry mistrusted those who attacked him personally. He took a close interest in the prosecution of Gloucester's second wife, Eleanor Cobham, in 1441 because he believed her to be plotting his death by magic. The duchess's disgrace was a measure of her husband's declining influence during the years when the king placed his confidence in Beaufort and Suffolk. Duke Humphrey bitterly resented the way in which he and other of the king's relatives were ignored, and he was implacably opposed to policies designed to reach a peace with France, and especially to withdraw from hard-won territory. By 1447 Henry VI may have believed rumours that his uncle was plotting, and he condoned the duke's arrest at the parliament held at Bury St Edmunds. Gloucester's sudden death in custody on 23 February inevitably, but almost certainly mistakenly, gave rise to reports that he had been murdered.

At the time of his death Gloucester, though a political opponent, was still the king's heir. Dynastic insecurity explains Henry's elevation of his closest relatives, the Beauforts, Hollands, and Staffords, in the peerage in 1443–8, culminating in the creation of his two half-brothers, Edmund and Jasper Tudor, as premier earls in November 1452, and the advantageous marriages that were arranged for some of these kinsmen.

The traditional view that Henry was the epitome of Christian virtue is myopic. At the other extreme, K. B. McFarlane's view that he never acquired the mental equipment of an adult is contradicted by evidence. Nor is it easy to endorse B. P. Wolffe's verdict of a wilful and untrustworthy incompetent. Rather does he seem well intentioned with laudable qualities, especially in relation to war, education, and religion, but with other qualities that were obstacles to effective kingship—extravagance, generosity, compassion, and suspicion. He disappointed many of his subjects by failing to provide fair and effective justice. He lacked foresight and discrimination; instead, simplicity was the abiding characteristic that contemporaries ascribed to him. He was neither uneducated nor unintelligent, but he remained inexpert in government and politics, and found it difficult to assert his independence and to concentrate on kingly matters in which he had little interest.

Henry's marriage, 1444–1449

Henry V's marriage to Catherine of Valois in 1420 had symbolized England's victory over the French. The significance of Henry VI's marriage was quite different. Following the disastrous expedition of 1443 and the failure of peace negotiations, England was now the suppliant: Henry's marriage might do no more than stop the fighting, leaving the matters of English sovereignty and occupied territory in France unresolved. Charles VII offered negotiations in 1443 and a new marriage proposal may have been conveyed to Henry VI by the duke of Brittany's envoys as early as August; the friendship between Henry and Gilles of Brittany, the younger brother of Duke François II, may have helped. Yet Charles VII did not offer one of his own daughters, which might buttress the English claim to his throne. The queen's niece, Margaret of Anjou, seemed more suitable. From the English point of view, Margaret was not ideal: she was not her father's heir, and Duke René was not a wealthy noble. Nevertheless, by the end of January 1444, Henry's council resolved to pursue the match with Margaret. By 1 February it was decided to send the earl of Suffolk to France to negotiate a marriage and an end to the war, though he left with misgivings, not least about his own exposed position. The king's role was central in this decision and more than formal. In the 1430s the council had declined to entertain marriage proposals so long as Henry was young; now that a firm proposal had emerged with important political implications affecting his French realm, it was inconceivable that he should play little part; he had certainly investigated the count of Armagnac's daughters in 1442. The marriage with Margaret was arranged during Suffolk's embassy, and on 24 May a ceremony of betrothal was held at Tours Cathedral, with Suffolk taking the king's place. On his return, Henry VI rewarded him with a marquessate, a rare distinction, on 14 September.

Suffolk's second mission to France in 1444 was to bring Margaret (who was already referred to as queen) to England and to advance the peace negotiations. A large embassy crossed the channel in November at considerable cost. Margaret was received by an English delegation at Nancy in February 1445, and on 2 March the party began its journey to England via Paris and Rouen. The wedding of Henry and Margaret in person took place at Titchfield Abbey in the New Forest on 22 April. Margaret's entry to London on 28 May and her coronation two days later were lavish celebrations: the queen was portrayed in the accompanying pageants as the dove of concord. Gloucester, York, and Cardinal Beaufort had been present at her reception, but this could not conceal the caution—even scepticism—of some about the prospective peace arrangements; Suffolk assured parliament that he had made no embarrassing commitments. This did not end rumours that concessions had been made, and within a year talk was heard of Margaret's lack of dowry, and accusations that the surrender of Maine and Anjou had been promised to Duke René.

The dynastic significance of Henry's marriage was another matter. It took place when the king badly needed an heir to give security to his crown, for Gloucester was fifty-five years old, and had a disgraced wife and no legitimate children. However, the failure of Henry and Margaret to produce an heir for eight and a half years, Margaret's association with the fraught issue of negotiating peace, and the recurrence of war and English defeats in 1449–50, made her unpopular. As Henry later acknowledged, she intervened, in a minor way, in December 1445, to exert pressure on her husband, at the request of Charles VII and Duke René, to surrender Maine as an aid to peace. As a peace agreement proved elusive, despite the surrender of Maine, and the war recommenced in July 1449, with her own father serving in the French army that invaded Normandy, Margaret's stock plummeted.

There is no reason to doubt that Henry and Margaret were close after their marriage. They spent much time in each other's company, and until the crises of 1450–51 they were together for most of each year. As befitted a queen, she was endowed handsomely with land and income, and Margaret took an active interest in affairs, and specifically followed her husband's example at King's by founding another Cambridge college nearby, appropriately named Queen's, in 1447. Her household was staffed by many servants who also served the king.

Unrest and rebellion, 1449–1450

Judgements on Henry VI in fifteenth-century chronicles are mostly distorted by the propaganda of civil war, and Yorkist or Tudor views of recent history. Even those few chronicles completed in Henry's reign may be distorted by a reluctance to criticize the monarch; but when they do offer criticisms these are telling ones. One anonymous writer noted Henry's habitual dilatoriness; John Hardyng, in the first version of his chronicle, while acknowledging that Henry ruled well enough, obliquely criticized him by drawing attention to civil unrest and local injustice. John Capgrave's eulogy of the king in 1446 also reported that the navy and sea-keeping were neglected. And Abbot John Whethamstede of St Albans tempered his praise of the king c.1456 by saying that Henry could not resist those who led him to unwise decisions and prodigality. These strictly contemporary estimates hint at a monarch who, though possessed of worthy personal qualities, neglected some of his kingly duties.

Nor did he cut a dash in war. Henry VI was the first English king never to command an army against an external foe, despite the occasional plans to lead an army to France. He never visited France after 1432: the projected visit in 1445–7 to discuss peace with Charles VII never took place. He never fought in Scotland or crossed to Ireland, and he rarely set foot in Wales—perhaps only once, in August 1452, when he visited Monmouth. The only occasion when his subjects saw him in battle array before the civil war were in 1450 and 1452 when he rode through London with his nobles against his own subjects. Henry's interest in the Order of the Garter was genuine, and he rarely missed the festivities at Windsor on St George's day, but in the 1440s the order began to lose its exclusively military character as the king conferred membership on European princes and knights, and on members of his household.

By 1449 England faced political, military, and commercial crises that distressed many of his subjects and were an indictment of Henry's rule. In the summer of 1449 parliament was critical of Suffolk, the handling of Normandy's defence, and the king's impoverishment. Henry refused to resume all grants made from his resources, and parliament was soon dissolved, on 16 July. The next parliament, which assembled in November 1449, faced mounting crisis: the French war had resumed in May and military defeats followed, culminating in the duke of Somerset's expulsion from Rouen just before parliament opened. Naval protection was so defective that it could not deter French raids on coastal towns, and trade with France collapsed as Burgundy took measures against England's cloth trade with the Low Countries. During this parliament, Suffolk, the king's chief adviser and steward of his household, and other counsellors and servants were denounced; the keeper of the privy seal, Bishop Adam Moleyns, was murdered at Portsmouth on 9 January 1450. Suffolk defended himself in parliament in January 1450, but he was sent to the Tower and formally impeached on 7 February, accused of treason and plotting to kill the king, and of abusing his trust and exploiting Henry's favour, to the crown's impoverishment. Henry sought to protect him, and Suffolk placed himself in the king's hands. On 7 March Henry summoned a large group of lords and officials to his private chamber at Westminster and interviewed Suffolk, who again protested his innocence of any charge and threw himself on the king's mercy. The chancellor read out Henry's decision: Suffolk was banished for five years, from 1 May, but Henry declined to make a decision on the substantive charges. Suffolk fled, so exposing Henry directly to his regime's critics. The duke was apprehended and executed on 2 May, as he was taking ship abroad.

Henry withdrew from London as soon as he had announced his decision, and on 29 March made his way to the midlands, a favourite retreat during the next few years. Parliament was adjourned to the relative calm of Leicester. While it was still sitting, the south-eastern shires closest to events across the channel rose under John Cade, and other parts of the south followed suit, partly for economic reasons. Having earlier rejected demands for resumption of grants, Henry now capitulated and accepted a bill of resumption, but with a large number of exemptions which he signed himself. News of the popular rising brought the king back to London, to St John's, Clerkenwell, by 13 June. Stubbornly refusing to consider the rebels' petitions, he moved to confront them with a force. Claiming to be loyal subjects, on 17 June they withdrew from Blackheath temporarily. Firmness with restraint might have saved the day for the king. Instead, he refused concessions and his men rampaged in pursuit of the rebels: he and his courtiers were badly jolted when a royal contingent was ambushed near Sevenoaks in Kent. Signs of mutiny among his own supporters, and the spectacle of defeated soldiers returning from Normandy, made the situation worse: Henry responded by arresting leading members of his household whom the rebels had denounced. He moved to Greenwich, then to London on 20 June, and on to Westminster; he resisted pleas from the mayor to stay in the city. By 26 June he retired further west to Berkhamsted and then to Kenilworth Castle in the midlands; many of the rebels returned to Blackheath on 29 June, their morale high, and they broke into London. The queen remained at Greenwich and was instrumental in offering pardon to persuade the rebels to disperse on 6–7 July. Henry had been obstinate, then vacillated, and finally lost his nerve.

New ‘captains of Kent’ appeared following the capture and death of Cade in mid-July, and disturbances continued in southern England after the duke of York returned from Ireland in September 1450 and the duke of Somerset's forces slunk back from Normandy. Henry recovered his nerve to some extent: he tried to restore order in London and toured disaffected areas, garnering ‘a harvest of heads’ in 1451 (‘Gregory's chronicle’, 197). Yet in spurning the rebels Henry also spurned those in parliament and elsewhere who shared their grievances.

Political divisions, 1450–1453

Richard, duke of York, who returned from Ireland without authority in the autumn of 1450, had a good claim to be the king's heir presumptive after Gloucester's death in 1447, although Henry VI may have regarded other kinsmen, especially Edmund Beaufort, duke of Somerset (d. 1455), as more acceptable. Dynastic uncertainties, along with York's resentment at his treatment by the government while he served in France, and popular shock at the loss of Normandy in 1449–50, were a dangerous combination. To the near revolutionary atmosphere caused by popular revolt, parliamentary outbursts, and the murder of Suffolk and others, York added his protest and claimed a central role in affairs. Henry, ten years the duke's junior, resented him and distrusted his presumption. Their first known contact was at Henry's coronation in 1429; York accompanied the king to France and attended the coronation in Paris. Between 1436 and 1445 he was mostly in France and hardly knew the king as the latter embarked on personal rule: they were never close. Critics of the government in 1450 urged York's recall. Towards the end of April, when the king was at Stony Stratford on his way to the Leicester parliament, he was confronted by John Harries, a Yorkshire shipman, who wielded a flail in front of Henry and declared that York would do the same to traitors when he returned from Ireland. The king took such things seriously (Harries was executed for treason), and, as he later explained to York, he resented threats and prognostications. Cade's uprising was a further sign of York's popularity, not least because Cade took the name of Mortimer which had unmistakable dynastic overtones: Duke Richard himself had a Mortimer mother, and would eventually claim the throne on the grounds of his descent from Edward III through successive Mortimer earls of March.

When York landed in north Wales in September, Henry and his servants were alarmed. The king may have authorized the duke's arrest, but he eluded the royal servants and spent two months in eastern England, attracting support before the parliament of November 1450, and capitalizing on the hostility in London towards Somerset and the Lancastrian court. On 3 December the king asserted himself, and with his nobles tried to overawe the city. Yet parliament introduced a bill demanding the dismissal of Henry's entourage, headed by Somerset and the dowager duchess of Suffolk. Henry eventually gave way and granted the Commons' petition, but inserted so many exemptions that its purpose was defeated. Henry refused a bill of attainder against the dead Suffolk and in the last session in May 1451 he was offended by a proposal that York be acknowledged as his heir. York had withdrawn to Ludlow by Christmas 1451.

By the beginning of 1452 York resolved on another political challenge, focused on the duke of Somerset, the neglect of France, and his own victimization—while carefully stressing loyalty to Henry VI. Henry and his advisers resolved to confront the duke and hold a council at Coventry. With a retinue in the royal livery of white and blue, the king and his nobles left London on 16 February, but news of the duke's advance caused them to return to the capital. On 24 February the king ordered London to bar York's entry; when York arrived he was denied entry to the city and made for his estate at Dartford in Kent. The king arrived in the capital soon after, on 27 February, and on 1 March advanced to Blackheath with a large force. A delegation of lords was sent to interview the duke, and fighting was avoided. Henry and York met peaceably and the duke made his protests against Somerset. But he was deceived and Somerset was not placed under restraint. York was disarmed and escorted to London by the king's men: on 10 March, at St Paul's Cathedral, he was induced to swear in the king's presence never to rebel again.

Henry joined some of the judicial commissions that sat in the summer and autumn of 1452 in areas where York had estates, including the Welsh marches and the midlands. He and his court had again recovered their nerve. On 23 November 1452 Henry ennobled his Tudor half-brothers, Edmund and Jasper, thereby buttressing the royal house; they were also given wardship of the Beaufort heir, Margaret, in March 1453—a grant of dynastic significance. Henry is unlikely to have made these arrangements ‘without some expectation that the collateral lines (of the house of Lancaster) would be entwined’ (Chrimes, 13). The Reading parliament of 1453 consolidated the king's political recovery, for it was one of the most royalist parliaments of his reign. Henry may have lacked finesse, but he was not without imagination in fortifying himself dynastically and quelling opposition; he had not, however, removed the sources of criticism.

The king's illness, 1453–1454

York's third opportunity came unexpectedly. About the beginning of August 1453 Henry VI suffered severe mental collapse, accompanied by crippling physical disablement. He appeared in the parliament chamber at Westminster on the last day of parliament, 2 July; days later he began a tour to the west country. By the end of July news arrived of the final English defeat at Castillon in Gascony: it may have been a bitter blow for the king, since the duchy had been English since 1154. The onset of his illness was accompanied by a frenzy, and it seemed as if ‘his wit and reson [were] withdrawen’ (Flenley, 140), and that he had ‘no natural sense nor reasoning power’ (Incerti scriptoris Chronicon Angliae, 4.44). He was prostrate for seventeen months, spent in seclusion at Windsor. He was in the care of a committee of doctors and surgeons, under the council's oversight. The precise cause of Henry's illness is unclear and speculation as to its nature—catatonic schizophrenia is favoured by some, a depressive stupor by another—is less worthwhile than estimating its effect upon him and his capacity to rule. He was left helpless, and several pages and grooms stayed with him day and night so long as the illness lasted; he was fed by them and supported by two of them when he moved from room to room. He was mentally unresponsive: he recognized nobody and understood nothing, and after he recovered he could not recall what had happened in the meanwhile. No English monarch since 1066 had been in such an impotent state. The dynastic implications were serious: his father's brothers were dead and he himself had no children, though the queen was pregnant. More immediate was the problem of who should rule the realm.

Henry VI was oblivious of the birth of his son, Edward, on 13 October 1453, and when the baby was presented to him after new year's day 1454, he gave no sign of recognition. Edward's birth eased the dynastic uncertainty but it made the political problem of who should govern the realm during the king's incapacity and while his heir was a minor—or, if the king should die, during the long minority—a more sensitive one. Arrangements made now would have implications for the succession, since it was unclear who the next heir was after Prince Edward. Efforts were made to exclude York from the discussions in the autumn of 1453, and parliament was delayed until February 1454. There was bitter dispute between Somerset and York, who could hardly be ignored. In the new year Queen Margaret staked a claim to the regency, and tensions in London increased. York opened parliament at Westminster on 14 February and the death on 22 March of the chancellor, Archbishop John Kemp, precipitated matters: York was appointed protector and defender of the king and realm, after councillors visited Windsor on 25 March to verify that Henry was still incapacitated.

When the king recovered at Christmas 1454, there was widespread joy: ‘Blessed be God, the Kyng is wel amended’, reported John Paston's correspondent on 9 January (Paston Letters, 3.13). There was no formal announcement, and the illness ended as suddenly as it began. Henry recognized his son for the first time when Margaret presented the baby to him: his elation at the birth and naming of the child was genuine. Before his illness Henry expressed delight when the queen became pregnant, and stories in the later 1450s that Edward was not his son were unfounded. Whether Henry recovered fully his powers may be doubted: it was reported on 28 October 1455 that ‘summe men ar a-ferd that he is seek ageyn’ (ibid., 3.50), and the measures taken to establish a protectorate in 1455–6 were identical with those of 1453–4, when he certainly had collapsed.

The approach of civil war, 1454–1456

York's first protectorate was different from that of 1422. Henry VI might recover at any time and his household remained in existence; the queen was frustrated yet vigilant; and Prince Edward's rights were safeguarded. Henry VI's secretary, Master Richard Andrew, continued to keep the signet seal, though it was little used during the king's illness. In the summer of 1454 York and the council limited the size and cost of the royal establishments, but political control was beyond their reach. The protectorate was challenged by Henry Holland, duke of Exeter, whose royal blood gave him a plausible claim to influence during the king's incapacity; he was captured on 23 July and imprisoned.

The king's recovery removed the reason for the protectorate and Henry VI, Margaret, and certain nobles sought Somerset's release from prison, where he was held without charge. His release on 26 January was confirmed at a council meeting, in York's presence, on 5 February. York resigned as protector soon afterwards. Henry presided at the council on 4 March when the conditions were nullified that secured freedom for Somerset, who two days later was reinstated as captain of Calais in York's place. Exeter was freed from prison on 19 March. The Lancastrian royal family was thus reassembled in the spring of 1455 to buttress the king's throne. In mid-April the Yorkist lords abruptly and without permission left the court, probably for Yorkshire.

On 21 April the king summoned a great council to meet at Leicester, well out of range of the Londoners. The Yorkists feared punitive measures: they declared their loyalty but expressed resentment especially of Somerset, and with an army they advanced towards London. Mediation failed, and so did efforts to avoid confrontation. The king took no discernible part in these negotiations on 21 May on the way to St Albans, where the duke of Buckingham acted for him with full authority. Even if Henry had not fully recovered from his illness it is likely that he approved the royal negotiating position and the protection of Somerset. In the fighting that followed in St Albans on 22 May, Henry was deserted beneath his banner and wounded in the neck; Somerset was killed and Buckingham struck in the face more than once. The king took refuge in the tanners' house, whence York escorted him to the abbey; there the duke and his Neville allies submitted to Henry on their knees. Henry besought them ‘to cesse there peple, and that there shulde no more harme be doon’ (Paston Letters, 3.29). Most of the dead were servants of the king's household or the duchy of Lancaster. This was the first battle in which Henry VI had been personally involved, and he had lost.

York's objectives—to resume political life with himself as the king's chief councillor—were more difficult to achieve after the battle than before. He formally made his peace with Henry, and the two men entered London together; at a solemn crown-wearing at St Paul's Cathedral on 25 May, Henry received the crown from York's hands. The queen and many nobles were not reconciled so easily. Parliament met on 9 July: it established York's control, and on 24 July a great council received declarations of loyalty to the king from sixty spiritual and lay lords. When parliament adjourned a week later, Henry thanked its members in person. For six months York tried to rule the realm. His second protectorate was established on 19 November because Henry was said to be unable to discharge his responsibilities personally. There are hints that he was not fully restored to health, but no incontrovertible evidence of a major relapse. York's hold on power was uncertain in the second half of 1455 and it could be ended at the king's pleasure, though with the Lords' advice—a significant difference from his commission in 1454. York's relations with several nobles were strained; moreover, Prince Edward's position as his father's eventual heir was emphasized, and that of the queen, who resented York's dominance, was safeguarded. An Act of Resumption protected Margaret and the king's Tudor half-brothers, and Henry VI was enabled to make further exemptions at his pleasure, though with advice. Henry's uncertain health, the existence of an heir, and the queen's determination created an impossible situation for a man with York's grievances, dynastic claims, and political objectives. Lack of support from the Lords led him to resign the protectorship on 25 February 1456, in the king's presence.

Failing kingship, 1456–1459

The weakness of the English monarchy, in the hands of a listless king and with the succession hanging by a thread, produced governmental paralysis and conflicting personal ambitions. In March 1456 there was rioting in London against Italian merchants; Henry wanted to intervene and on 30 April was rowed from Westminster to the bishop of London's palace where he established a commission of inquiry next day; but then he withdrew on 5 May, leaving the city tense. From the end of August Henry, Margaret, and their son, their courtiers, and advisers, spent much time away from the capital, usually in the midlands, where many of Margaret's and the prince's estates, as well as a substantial number of those of the duchy of Lancaster, were concentrated. Government did not collapse, but it was ineffective and weakened by political faction; regular communication with London was maintained by the king's messenger service. Relations with York disintegrated: he did not attend a great council at Coventry after the winter of 1456–7, and several nobles urged Henry to treat him and his allies firmly. Consultation with the king's councillors and lords was not easy, but the court returned to the south-east in November 1457 and stayed until April 1459. At a great council at Westminster on 28 November 1457 Bishop Reginald Pecock was brought before the king and Archbishop Bourchier to recant his heresy. In these years Henry seems to have been actively well-meaning, and a ‘compelling desire to pardon became a pious obsession’ (Griffiths, 775). He may have devised the ‘loveday’ of March 1458 which sought to reconcile his nobles, despite large royalist forces in London. On 24 March an arbitration award was accepted by the Yorkists and the young Lancastrians whose fathers had been slain at St Albans. Henry stayed in the capital for much of the following year, attending jousts and tournaments at the Tower and the queen's manor of Greenwich. His personal initiation of warrants was rare, though he cherished his foundations of Eton and King's. Henry appeared passive in public, which contemporaries interpreted as simplicity. Yet he went to Westminster Abbey in the late 1450s to discuss at length his tomb. In May 1459 he and Margaret returned to Coventry.

Helpless in a political world from which he could not escape (and perhaps mentally enfeebled), Henry VI abandoned his responsibilities, and his actions were dictated largely by his wife. One later chronicler even claimed that she tried to persuade him to abdicate in favour of Prince Edward, though this is probably a Yorkist slander. She increasingly dominated the king's and prince's households, and, in so far as it was possible from the midlands, the government too. A crucial great council was held at Coventry in late June 1459: the queen and prince seem to have been present, but York, the Nevilles, and other lords were not. At Margaret's insistence, charges were laid against York and his allies, with the result that the accused and their retinues planned to converge on Worcester to appeal as loyal subjects directly to the king. When the earl of Salisbury's men were intercepted in an indecisive engagement at Bloreheath on 23 September, Henry was not present but the queen awaited the outcome a few miles off. Henry and his force arrived from Nottingham to join Margaret, and they made their way to Worcester and then to Ludlow in pursuit of the retreating Yorkists. At Ludford Bridge, his pardon was offered to the Yorkists, who were reluctant to face Henry personally in battle; some of Warwick's men from Calais deserted, despite rumours that the king had died. The confrontation on 12 October saw the Yorkists surrender or flee.

In parliament at Coventry on 20 November the Yorkist leaders were attainted. Towards the end of the meeting, on 11 December, those present swore an oath to Henry in his presence, acknowledging him as king, and undertaking to preserve the queen and honour the prince as his heir. It was a military triumph, but the enemy had fled and were still at liberty.

Henry's downfall and captivity, 1460–1470

Warwick, York's son Edward, earl of March (see Edward IV), and the Yorkist lords who had fled to Calais returned to Sandwich on 26 June 1460; they swore loyalty to Henry VI but demanded radical changes in government. The king's army, outnumbered, confronted them at Northampton on 10 July. Henry and his advisers rejected a parley on three occasions; in the battle that followed, the king was taken in his tent, deserted by some supporters while others were killed. The victors recoiled from deposition and maintained their loyalty to the captive monarch; he was taken in some state to London on 16 July and installed in the bishop's palace. Thenceforward he was their creature, ‘more timorous than a woman, utterly devoid of wit or spirit’, recorded Pope Pius II, who was kept informed of events in England in 1460–61 (Wolffe, 20). Whatever his mental state, Henry was presumably dejected by recent events. His household was purged, and his servants were replaced by keepers rather than by congenial companions.

The duke of York arrived from Ireland on about 8 September 1460. On his way he engaged retainers in the Welsh marches by contracts that omitted expressions of loyalty to the king. Arriving in London in regal state he made as if to take Henry's place in parliament on 10 October. He disdained to meet the king, who strove to avoid him in the Palace of Westminster. The customary ceremonies on St Edward's day, 13 October, when Henry could be expected to wear his crown in Westminster Abbey, were cancelled. On 31 October he was brought to accept a compromise settlement, whereby York would succeed to his throne after his death. To demonstrate his acceptance, Henry went crowned in procession to St Paul's the next day, accompanied by available nobles.

In the months that followed, Queen Margaret and the young Prince Edward rallied support in Wales and Scotland to challenge the Yorkist settlement, even promising in Henry's name to cede Berwick to the Scots. At Wakefield, near Sandal in Yorkshire, on 30 December, the duke of York was killed and his army defeated. The way was open for Margaret and her northern forces to advance on London and recover possession of her husband. Henry supposedly spent the battle of St Albans on 17 February 1461 under a tree a mile or so off. The king was so overjoyed by the success of his wife's army and his own release that he blessed and knighted their son on the spot. It was a decisive battle that ensured that civil war would continue. Henry was accused by the Yorkists of breaking his oath to the accord of 31 October, though he may have been as passive a figure then as he subsequently was at St Albans. When Edward, earl of March, at last entered London, after defeating the western Lancastrian army at Mortimer's Cross on 3 February 1461, he declared Henry unfit to rule and was crowned himself (4 March). And Henry, Margaret, and Prince Edward waited at York while their army was destroyed by the new Yorkist king, Edward IV, at Towton, on 29 March. All three fled to Scotland.

After Towton, Henry and his queen were received by the queen regent of Scotland, Mary of Gueldres, who on 25 April 1461 agreed to aid them in return for the surrender of Berwick. Henry seems to have accompanied Lancastrian raids in northern England, perhaps to express a determination to recover his throne, while Margaret turned to negotiate French aid from her father and Louis XI. But on 9 December 1463 an Anglo-Scottish truce, following soon after an Anglo-French truce, meant that the Scots ceased to support the fugitives, and Henry crossed into northern England, where he installed himself in Bamburgh Castle for a season. He was not at the encounter with a Yorkist force on Hedgeley Moor on 25 April 1464, nor at the Lancastrian defeat at Hexham on 15 May, when he awaited the outcome at Bywell Castle some distance away. Thereafter, he was on the run until he was captured in Ribblesdale in July 1465. He was taken to the Tower of London, securely bound to his saddle, and there kept for five years, until division within the Yorkist ranks enabled his supporters to release him. His captivity was strict but honourable: members of Edward IV's household were his attendants and he was allowed visitors. But on his release in October 1470 it was observed that he was ‘not worschipfully arayed as a prince, and not so clenly kepte as schuld seme such a Prynce’ (Warkworth, 11).

The restoration and death of Henry VI, 1470–1471

In May 1470 Warwick and Edward IV's brother, Clarence, arrived in France as rebels against Edward IV. Their reconciliation with Margaret of Anjou at Louis XI's court was the beginning of a campaign to restore Henry VI to his throne, with essential help from Yorkist dissidents. After Warwick's invasion caused Edward IV to flee abroad, Henry was enthroned a second time, on 3 October 1470; but his second reign (described by contemporaries as his ‘readeption’, or reattainment, of his throne) did not last long. Returning from Flanders, Edward IV approached London in the first week of April 1471: Warwick's brother, Archbishop George Neville, accompanied Henry VI through the streets, presumably to rally support for his cause. But the fifty-year-old monarch, who may not have understood the significance of events and was dressed shabbily in a long blue gown, aroused little enthusiasm among the citizens. When Edward arrived on 11 April, he took Henry from the bishop of London's palace and returned him to the Tower. Two days later Henry was forced to join Edward to confront the approaching Lancastrian army at Barnet, presumably in order to induce its surrender. After Edward's victory back to the Tower he went.

Following the battle of Tewkesbury on 4 May, when Margaret was captured and Prince Edward killed, Henry was put to death in the Tower on 21 May, within hours of Edward's return to the capital. There is little doubt that he died violently, and on Edward's authority, since no less a person than King Edward's brother, Richard, duke of Gloucester, and other lords were then in the building. The next evening the body was escorted to St Paul's, where it bled on the pavement and lay overnight, ‘opyn vysagid, that he mygth be knowyn’ (Great Chronicle of London, 220). The following morning it was conveyed up river to Chertsey Abbey for a modest burial. ‘And so no-one from that stock remained among the living who could now claim the crown’, in the words of a contemporary notice (Kingsford, English Historical Literature, 375).

The ending of the dynasty and the manner of Henry VI's death explain why he was venerated as a martyr in several parts of England by 1472–3. His statue on the rood screen of York Minster was removed in 1479 to stop the veneration. Richard III, on the other hand, in 1484 transferred the body from Chertsey to a new shrine at St George's Chapel, Windsor, in a symbolic act of reconciliation; he was wise to harness the dead king's reputation rather than try to suppress it as his brother had done, in view of the growing popular veneration and the miracles associated with Henry's name which are recorded from 1481.

Henry VI's rehabilitation continued under Henry VII, his nephew. The statue in York Minster was restored, and John Blacman penned A Compilation of the Meakness and Good Life of King Henry VI which was part of an official campaign to secure Henry's canonization. From 1494 Henry VII petitioned several popes, ordered the compilation of a book of miracles allegedly worked by the king (BL, Royal MS 13 C. viii), and proposed to rebury the body in Westminster Abbey as Henry VI had wished. Pilgrims flocked to Henry's tomb at Windsor, even Henry VIII, and Tudor writers like Polydore Vergil attributed the stylized qualities of sainthood to him. The Reformation cut short the canonization campaign, though even at the end of the twentieth century the Henry VI Society kept his memory bright. Historians take a less charitable view.


No king who loses his crown and dies in prison, and whose reign ends in civil war, can be counted a success. Henry VI's inheritance as king was daunting, and the legacy of his reign disastrous for the realm, though assessments of his personality and abilities have varied widely since the fifteenth century. He was the youngest monarch ever to mount the English throne; his minority came to an end earlier than that of all other young English kings since 1066; and he inherited not only a realm and dominions that extended throughout the British Isles (excepting Scotland), but also large territories and claims in France, where he was the only English monarch to be acknowledged by French authorities as the rightful French king, and to be crowned as such. The early death of his father, Henry V, at the height of his European-wide fame left a military and political void which a baby could not fill. Nevertheless, his reign was the third longest since the Norman conquest—almost thirty-nine years—and not all of it was a catalogue of blunders and failures.

Care is needed lest Henry as a ruler be judged in the light exclusively of the last eight years of his reign, after his mental collapse. He faced a uniquely daunting inheritance in England and France, a long minority, dynastic fragility, exceptional military commitments, and vaunting noble ambitions and rivalries, without, however, the requisite character, intellectual capacity, and powers of judgement. Ruling the ‘dual monarchy’ overstrained his capacities. His peace policy was bold, but he lacked subtlety and foresight in executing it. His choice of advisers and servants was not always sound, and in patronizing them and others he could be careless and profligate. The foundation of Eton and King's are enduring monuments to his piety and concern for education. His qualities and inclinations, admirable in a private person, did not make him a successful ruler. Gathering crises by 1453 broke him.

The last decade of his reign saw political upheaval and the beginnings of a civil war during which (for only the second time since 1066) the monarch and his rightful heir were discarded in favour of another claimant. In the ensuing dynastic struggle, the Wars of the Roses, Henry was restored briefly in 1470—the only English king to date to have a second reign. His murder in 1471 began a rehabilitation that brought him a reputation approaching sanctity under the early Tudors. Opinions of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century writers about Henry VI were therefore frequently distorted, either by partisanship, fear, or propaganda generated by civil war, or by the reflections of those who wrote after 1485. Chroniclers writing after 1461 disparaged the king and official Yorkist writings denounced his rule. After 1471 John Warkworth was less harsh about Henry's character but judged him an unsuitable ruler. Veneration of the dead king from the 1470s, and the accession in 1485 of his nephew, Henry Tudor, produced verdicts that suggested a man of remarkable personal virtue and piety who was the victim of malign forces at home and abroad. The early Tudor campaign for his canonization had an echo in the twentieth century.

Historians of the twentieth century reduced his reputation and stressed his inability to provide effective rule and so prevent the descent of England and its dominions into civil war. Yet they differed sharply in their conclusions about Henry VI himself, about the depths of his inadequacy and ‘inanity’ (underlined by McFarlane and by Watts), the complexity of his personality and attitudes before they were undermined by a breakdown in 1453 (Griffiths), and the extent of his active role in government (stressed by Wolffe). The reasons for these differences of opinion are not far to seek. Henry VI was not a robust ruler who left a consistent stamp on the workings of government, though to dismiss recorded expressions of his opinions and will as mere administrative convention goes too far. Henry was not a successful soldier, but to judge his (and Cardinal Beaufort's) policy of reaching an accommodation with France as defeatism, and the loss of Normandy and Gascony as entirely the king's fault, is too simplistic. Henry lost his crown at the outset of a dynastic, civil war, but to regard him (as many writers have done) as directly and solely responsible for the Wars of the Roses fails to take fully into account the circumstances of Henry's own life and of the age in which he lived.

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