The last king of the Lancastrian dynasty, Henry VI was born at Windsor Castle on 6th December, 1421 the son of Henry V and Catherine of Valois, daughter of Charles VI of France. Henry became King of England in his cradle, he was barely nine months old when his famous father, Henry V, died of dysentry on campaign in France. Two months later he became King of France also, on the death of his maternal grandfather, the mentally unstable Charles VI.
During Henry's minority, the war in France had been executed loyally and ably by his paternal uncle, John Duke of Bedford. He struggled with the almost impossible task of retaining his brother's conquests in France. England was ruled by a council led by Humphrey Duke of Gloucester, the youngest of Henry V's brothers.
In November 1429, the young king was considered old enough to undergo the arduous coronation ceremony and was crowned at Westminster Abbey at eight years old. The following year, at the age of nine, he crossed to his French kingdom and was crowned King of France at Notre Dame. In the streets of Paris he was observed from an upper storey window by his notorious grandmother, Isabeau of Bavaria, the wanton widow of Charles VI, to whom the young king courteously doffed his hat.
Henry's mother, Catherine of Valois, died in 1437 amidst scandal, when it was discovered that the Dowager Queen had contracted a secret marriage with her Welsh clerk of the wardrobe, Owen Tudor and had borne him several children, three sons and a daughter. Henry later created the eldest of these half-brothers, Edmund, Earl of Richmond while Jasper Tudor was raised to the title Earl of Pembroke. Both were later to play leading parts in the Wars of the Roses, the elder, Edmund was to become the father of King Henry VII, the founder of England's Tudor dynasty . Owen Tudor was summoned before the king's council to explain his conduct, but was released without punishment, he ended his days in 1461, when after fighting on the Lancastrian side at the Battle of Mortimer's Cross, he was beheaded on the orders of Henry's supplanter, Edward IV.
The wheel of fortune had begun to turn against the English in France. Joan of Arc led the French to victory, and by 1453, after the death of the great John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury at the Battle of Castillon all of the great Henry V's conquests, apart from Calais, were lost.
According to the terms of a peace agreement with France, Henry married Margaret of Anjou, daughter of Rene, Duke of Anjou and titular King of Jerusalem and Isabella, Duchess of Lorraine. Margaret was also the niece of the French King, Charles VII. The match was unpopular amongst disaffected elements in England. Margaret, unlike her husband, was a strong willed character, who was unyielding and belligerent, none of which augured well for her future in England.
Henry himself was a gentle, devout and kindly man, but early in his reign is said to have been "unsteadfast of wit". He did not appear to enjoy wearing the magnificent clothing expected of a sovereign and often dressed simply "like a farmer". Unlike his warlike father, Henry possessed a strong aversion to violence and was deeply, even obsessively, devoted to religion.
'He was a man of pure simplicity of mind, truthful almost to a fault. He never made a promise he did not keep, never knowingly did an injury to anyone. Rectitude and justice ruled his conduct in all public affairs. Devout himself, he sought to cherish a love for religion in others. He would exhort his visitors, particularly the young, to pursue virtue and eschew evil. He considered sports and the pleasures of the world as frivolous, and devoted his leisure to reading the scriptures and the old chronicles. Most decorous himself when attending public worship, he obliged his courtiers to enter the sacred edifice without swords or spears, and to refrain from interupting the devotion of others by conversing within its precincts.
He delighted in female society, and blamed that immodest dress, which left exposed the maternal parts of the neck. "Fie, fie, for shame!" he exclaimed "forsooth ye be to blame." Fond of encouraging youth in the paths of virtue he would frequently converse familiarly with the scholars from his college of Eton, when they visited his servants at Windsor Castle. He generally concluded with this address, adding a present of money: "Be good lads, meek and docile, and attend to your religion."
He was liberal to the poor, and lived among his dependants as a father among his children. He readily forgave those who had offended him. When one of his servants had been robbed, he sent him a present of twenty nobles, desiring him to be more careful of his property in the future, and requesting him to forgive the thief. Passing one day from St. Albans to Cripplegate, he saw a quarter of a man impaled there for treason. Greatly shocked he exclaimed "Take it away, take it away, I will have no man so cruelly treated for my account."
In his dress he was plain, and would not wear the shoes with the upturned points, then so much in fashion, and considered the distinguishing mark of a man of quality. Where are warm baths in which they say the men of that country customarily refresh and wash themselves, the King, looking into the baths, saw in them men wholly naked with every garment cast off. At which he was greatly displeased, and went away quickly, abhorring such nudity as a great offence.'
In 1453, at the age of 32, Henry VI began to exhibit signs of serious mental illness. By means of a "sudden fright" he entered into a trance-like state reacting to and recognising no one. Catatonic schizophrenia or depressive stupor have been suggested as a likely diagnosis. This was probably an inheritance from his maternal grandfather, Charles VI of France, who himself suffered from bouts of schizophrenia, which is reported to have come on suddenly in 1392 when he was then aged 24, and into which he then suffered relapses for the next thirty years. Charles VI's mother, Joanna de Bourbon, also exhibited signs of mental illness, as did various ancestors of hers, including Louis I, Duke of Bourbon, Peter I, Duke of Bourbon and Louis II, Duke of Bourbon.
The king's cousin, Richard, Duke of York was appointed Lord Protector, to the annoyance of the Queen, who strongly felt that she and her party should govern England. An intense personal rivalry developed between Richard of York and Margaret's favourite, Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset. Somerset was descended from John of Gaunt's liaison with Catherine Swynford.
Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, stood very near to the throne, his mother, Anne Mortimer, was by the strict rules of primogeniture the true heir of Richard II and York was her only son. Anne's claim derived from her descent from Edward III's second surviving son, Lionel of Antwerp, Duke of Clarence. Henry VI's claim, although in the direct male line, was only through Edward's fourth son, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. Plantagenet Genealogy
Two months later, Queen Margaret gave birth to a son, Edward of Lancaster. Rumours abounded, fueled by the Yorkists, that the child was not the feeble minded king's but Somerset's, all of which threw more fuel on the fires of discontent. The Queen, "a strong laboured woman", was fiercely protective of her son and his rights. Henry eventually recovered his senses and when showed his son, declared himself pleased and enquired about the child's godfathers. Adding to existing doubts about the child's paternity, he declared that Edward must have been fathered by the Holy Ghost.
York, dismissed from office, was discontented. His position, he realised, was now a precarious one, exposed as he was to the suspicion and venom of the Queen, who once again controlled the government. A great council was called at Leicester. York and his allies, Richard, Earl of Warwick and his father, Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury, suspecting unimpartial treatment, travelled south with an army. Attempts at discussion between the factions evoked further anger on both sides.
The First Battle of St. Albans was fought on 22nd May 1455. Margaret's favourite, Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset was killed and Henry captured by the victorious Yorkists. York was appointed Protector of England. Margaret, true to character, was not going to accept this meekly. She gathered an army to advance her son's cause and York, Salisbury and Warwick were forced into flight before her.
The rebel lords gathered support and in retaliation took London. Warwick met with forces loyal to the king at the Battle of Northampton, defeated them, and took the unfortunate Henry captive back to London. York returned from exile and laid formal claim to the throne. When asked why he had not previously done so, he responded that "though right for a time lies silent, yet it rotteth not, nor shall it perish." A compromise was agreed on, whereupon Henry VI was to keep the throne for the rest of his lifetime but the succession was to pass to York and his heirs. No one for a moment expected that the spirited Margaret would accept the disinheriting of her son and this proved to be the case.
Queen Margaret lead a Lancastrian army to attack the Duke of York at his castle at Sandal at Wakefield. The Duke was killed leading an impulsive charge against the Lancastrian forces, as was Salisbury and York's second son, the seventeen year old Edmund, Earl of Rutland, whose pleas for his life were ignored. The Queen had their heads impaled on spikes on the city walls of York.
Edward, Earl of March, York's able eldest son, aged eighteen and now leader of the Yorkist cause, retaliated and defeated the Lancastrians at Mortimers Cross. He continued to utterly crush the Lancastrian cause at the decisive and bloody Battle of Towton in Yorkshire. Margaret and her son took flight to Scotland where they found refuge and the new Duke of York was crowned at Westminster as King Edward IV. King Henry VI was eventually taken prisoner in Lancashire and imprisoned in the Tower of London.
Edward IV shocked the nobility when he announced he had been secretly married to Elizabeth Woodville, the beautiful but penniless widow of a Lancastrian knight. The new King had hoped to make the highly attractive Elizabeth his mistress, but she held out for marriage and Edward eventually succumbed to her charms. The old established nobility, and in particular, Warwick, were alienated by the meteoric advancement of the new Queen's large and needy family. In 1470, Warwick, later referred to as the Kingmaker, seething with hatred of the "upstart" Woodvilles, changed his allegiance to the House of Lancaster and was reunited with Margaret of Anjou under the auspices of Louis XI.
Edward IV was forced to flee the country before Warwick and King Henry VI was briefly restored. A sad and pitiful figure, he was paraded through the streets of London in a shabby blue gown by George Neville, Archbishop of York and set up as a puppet King, whom the ambitious Warwick ruled through. Edward IV returned to England and defeated and killed his cousin Warwick at the Battle of Barnet. On Edward's return to London, Henry greeted him, stating, "Cousin of York, you are very welcome. I hold my life to be in no danger in your hands." The Yorkist King returned Henry to his former lodgings in the Tower and rode out to meet Margaret and her son who had landed in England on the day that Barnet was fought.
Their two armies clashed at Tewkesbury on 4th May 1471. Edward, the Lancastrian Prince of Wales, was killed either in battle or during its aftermath, there are several versions concerning how Edward met his end, one states he was cut down as he fled north in the aftermath of the Battle of Tewkesbury, another states that following the rout of the Lancastrians at Tewkesbury, a small contingent of men under the Duke of Clarence found Edward near a grove, where he was immediately beheaded on a makeshift block, despite pleas for mercy to his brother-in-law Clarence. An alternative version was given by three other sources: The Great Chronicle of London, Polydore Vergil and Edward Hall, which was the version used by Shakespeare. This records, that Edward, having survived the battle was taken captive and brought before Edward IV who was with George, Duke of Clarence; Richard, Duke of Gloucester and William, Lord Hastings. The king received the prince graciously, and asked why he had taken up arms against him. The prince replied defiantly, "I came to recover my father's heritage." The king then struck the prince across his face with his gauntlet hand and those present with the king then suddenly stabbed Prince Edward with their swords.
Queen Margaret was defeated at last by the death of the son she had fought so long and hard for. She was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Her beloved son's widow, Anne Neville, later married one of his suspected killers, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, through this marriage, Gloucester eventually obtained much of Warwick's vast estates.
Margaret's aging but ebullient father, Rene of Anjou, remained unconcerned about his daughter's fate, having recently remarried, he was preoccupied with his new young wife. Margaret was later removed to Windsor Castle, then on to Wallingford. She remained a prisoner until she was ransomed by her kinsman, Louis XI, at the Treaty of Picquigny in 1475. The embittered ex-Queen retired to her native Anjou, where she took up residence at the Chateau of Dampierre, she died there in August, 1482, aged fifty-three.
Henry VI met his death in the Tower of London, on the night of the Vigil of the Ascension, 21st -22nd May, 1471. The demise of his son at Tewkesbury had sealed his fate. While Edward of Lancaster still lived, he rendered the removal of Henry pointless.
The Yorkist version of his end, that he died of "pure melancholy and displeasure" on hearing on of his son's death was not much accepted, even at the time. His death so soon after that of his son seems unlikely to have been a coincidence.
The majority of contemporary chroniclers believed Henry had been murdered. After the passage of over five hundred years this can never be properly ascertained, Richard Duke of Gloucester was known to be present at the Tower that night, as where others.
W.J. White in his discussion in 'The Death and Burial of Henry VI, A Review of the Facts and Theories, Part I', reveals that the earliest sources recording Henry's death do not name a murderer, although they assume that there was a murder and that Edward IV must have given the order for it. The first to name Richard of Gloucester as the murderer is probably the Frenchman Philippe de Commines writing in around 1490 and John Rous in his Historia de Regibus Anglie, written around the same time. Ultimately, the responsibility for Henry's murder can only be laid at the feet of Edward IV. Edward had now exterminated the direct line of the House of Lancaster with ruthless efficiency.
Henry was buried at Chertsey. The cult of 'Holy King Henry', although actively discouraged by Edward IV, grew up after his death, when miracles were supposed to have occurred on pilgrimage to his tomb.
Henry's body was moved to St, George's Chapel, Windsor by Richard III, an act perhaps occasioned by an uneasy conscience and his overriding desire for the souls of his victims to rest in peace. An unsuccessful attempt was made by Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch, to have his half-uncle canonized.
Due to controversy over the manner of Henry's death, George V gave permission to exhume the body of King Henry VI in 1910. The skeleton was found to have been dismembered before being placed in the box and not all the bones were present. Three very worn teeth were found and the only piece of jaw present had lost its teeth before death. The bones were recorded as being those of a strong man measuring five feet nine to five feet ten inches tall. Light brown hair found matted with blood on the skull confirmed that Henry VI had died as a result of violence.
A marble tablet placed in the Wakefield Tower in his memory marks the spot where Henry VI is traditionally said to have met his untimely end. Each year, on the eve of the anniversary of his death, the ceremony of the lilies and the roses is played out, white lilies for Eton College and white roses for King's College, Cambridge are placed there in memory of their founder.