Henry VI, King of England

(1421–1471)
   Through his favoritism and inability to function effectively as king, Henry VI, third monarch of the house of LANCASTER, became a chief cause of the WARS OF THE ROSES.
   Born at Windsor in December 1421, the only child of Henry V (r. 1413–1422) and Catherine of Valois (d. 1437), Henry was less than a year old when he succeeded his father as king of England and his maternal grandfather, Charles VI (r. 1380–1422), as king of FRANCE. Having reopened the HUNDRED YEARS WAR, Henry V had conquered large areas of northern France and had won official recognition as heir to the French throne. However, Henry VI’s maternal uncle, CHARLES VII, rejected this settlement, and maintenance of England’s French possessions required a continuous military effort. Henry’s eldest paternal uncle, John, duke of Bedford (1389–1435), directed the English administration in France, while the king’s younger uncle, Humphrey, duke of Gloucester (1390– 1447), presided in England over a minority COUNCIL composed of experienced noble and ecclesiastical councilors. Acting in the child king’s name, though unable to make any permanent decisions affecting his Crowns, the minority administration preserved the French domain and provided generally effective government.
   Crowned at Westminster in 1429 and at Paris in 1431, Henry was declared of full age in 1437. He was eager to exercise his office and to have his will in matters that interested him, such as the royal foundations of Eton College and King’s College, Cambridge, which the king planned in minute detail and to which he diverted funds that were urgently needed elsewhere. However, he had little understanding of the workings of government, and was easily persuaded by self-interested courtiers to grant titles, lands, offices, pardons, and monetary rewards without any thought to the merits or the consequences of the request. An exceptionally pious man, Henry had no interest in leading armies and in the 1440s allowed England’s military position in France to deteriorate. He actively if ineffectively pursued a peace policy that led in 1445 to a truce with Charles VII and to his marriage with Charles’s kinswoman,MARGARET OF ANJOU. Pressed by his wife, and anxious to achieve a final settlement in France, Henry fulfilled a rash promise to surrender Maine, thereby buying much ill will in England for his chief minister, William de la POLE, duke of Suffolk. When the French overwhelmed a poorly defended Normandy in 1449–1450, public dissatisfaction with government policy fell upon Suffolk, who was driven from office. Suffolk’s fall was followed by JACK CADE’S REBELLION, which protested military failure in France and the breakdown of royal justice in England, and which gave voice to the frustration of noblemen who felt themselves excluded from royal patronage by a clique of favored courtiers. Chief among these disaffected magnates was Richard PLANTAGENET, duke of York, who was heir presumptive to the childless king. The duke’s anger grew when Henry replaced Suffolk with Edmund BEAUFORT, duke of Somerset, who had his own claim to the throne. York made several abortive attempts to force his way into the royal counsels (see Dartford Uprising) but did not succeed until 1453, when Henry suffered a serious mental breakdown that left him completely incapacitated (see Henry VI, Illness of). With Henry unable to communicate, and even unaware of the birth of his son, Prince EDWARD OF LANCASTER, PARLIAMENT appointed York protector, and the duke committed Somerset to the TOWER OF LONDON. Henry’s recovery in early 1455 ended the FIRST PROTECTORATE and effected Somerset’s release. Meanwhile, lack of an effective king had allowed noble quarrels, such as the NEVILLE-PERCY FEUD, to flourish, and these feuds began to merge into the growing national rivalry between York and Somerset.With Henry unable to play the traditional royal role of arbiter, factions developed around York and around Somerset and the queen, who entered the political fray out of fear that York’s ambition might threaten her son. Violence erupted in May 1455, when York, fearing arrest, took up arms against the COURT with his new allies, Richard NEVILLE, earl of Salisbury, and his son Richard NEVILLE, earl of Warwick.
   At the Battle of ST.ALBANS, Somerset died and York used custody of the king to establish his short-lived SECOND PROTECTORATE. Soon after, Henry suffered a relapse from which he never fully recovered. For the rest of his life, Henry was a symbol of monarchy rather than a functioning monarch; political factions fought to control his person, seeking to use custody of the king to legitimize their control of the king’s government. In 1459, after the failure of Henry’s LOVE-DAY peace effort, the queen drove York and the Nevilles from England.Warwick returned in 1460 and captured Henry at the Battle of NORTHAMPTON, thereby allowing York to lay his claim to the Crown before Parliament, an act that transformed a political dispute into a dynastic war between the houses of Lancaster and YORK. Henry made no protest, and his deposition was prevented only by the unwillingness of Parliament, which imposed a settlement— the Act of ACCORD—that disinherited Prince Edward in favor of York. Henry passively accepted this agreement, although the queen continued the war. Lancastrian victories at the Battles of WAKEFIELD in December 1460 and ST.ALBANS in February 1461 led to York’s death and Henry’s reunion with his wife and son.
   Having lost control of Henry, the Yorkists needed a king of their own, and in March 1461 they elevated York’s son to the throne as EDWARD IV. After the Battle of TOWTON on 29 March, Henry fled into SCOTLAND with his family. He spent the next four years there or, after his family left for France, in hiding in northern England, where he was captured in 1465. He remained in the TOWER OF LONDON until October 1470, when Warwick’s defection to Lancaster restored Henry to the throne (see Edward IV, Overthrow of). The READEPTION government was directed by Warwick, and Henry served merely as a means for rallying Lancastrians to the new regime. When Edward IV reentered LONDON in April 1471, he returned Henry to the Tower (see Edward IV, Restoration of). Warwick’s death at the Battle of BARNET in April and Prince Edward’s death at the Battle of TEWKESBURY in May ended any need to keep Henry alive, and the ex-king was murdered in the Tower on 21 May 1471 (see Henry VI, Murder of). See also “Compilation of the Meekness and Good Life of King Henry VI” (Blacman)
   Further Reading: Griffiths, Ralph A., The Reign of King Henry VI (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981); Storey,R. L., The End of the House of Lancaster, 2d ed. (Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK: Sutton Publishing, 1999); Watts, John, Henry VI and the Politics of Kingship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); Wolffe, Bertram, Henry VI (London: Eyre Methuen, 1981).

Encyclopedia of the Wars of the Roses. . 2001.

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