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Henry VI: The well-meaning ruler whose world fell to pieces

The enthronement of Henry VI: was he weak, mad or just peace-loving?

Henry VI was the wrong king at the wrong time for England, says James Baresel

Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou
By Amy License,
Pen and Sword Books, 256pp, £19.99/$35

During my days as an undergraduate, a professor of history under whom I was studying once summarised the standards of medieval chivalry as “pagan warrior codes with a Christian veneer”. It would be hard to find a summary of any topic at once so brief and so insightful.

If, at least in theory, the society of the Middle Ages recognised the superiority of the priesthood and the religious life over the profession of arms, it was the latter which, at least for all practical purposes, continued to be treated as the highest ideal for the layman – often in ways which led to gratuitously violent practices that directly violated Catholic moral theology and canon law.

Had attitudes more in keeping with the principles of the Church truly predominated in his lifetime, it is likely that England’s King Henry VI would not have suffered usurpation and imprisonment but would have enjoyed the unremarkable and uneventful reign of a well-meaning ruler of limited abilities.

It is likely that his queen, Margaret of Anjou, would not have ended her days in exile after gaining a reputation as being ambitious, domineering and hungry for power but would have been known as a talented woman able to compensate for her husband’s shortcomings.

Amy License’s revisionist history, subtitled “A Marriage of Unequals”, reveals the truth that it was the virtues of the notably pious Henry and of his spouse which, together with the vices of some of their highest-ranking subjects, led to the Wars of the Roses and to the royal couple’s fall from power.

Domestic opposition to Henry VI was largely grounded in two related factors. One was his love of peace – a characteristic which had the potential to be literally deadly for a monarch during an age in which knights, nobles and royalty were commonly expected to pursue combat for its own sake, as a sort of high-risk sport aimed at nothing more than the demonstration of martial prowess and the establishment of one’s own dominance – the sort of pseudo-virtue glorified in literature from pagan epics to chivalric romances before its well-deserved satirising by Miguel Cervantes in Don Quixote. To those who embraced such notions of “masculinity”, a ruler who did not set out to “prove” himself in war and who was not aggressive in the pursuit of power was not to be taken seriously.

What was then recent English history provided the second factor. The king’s father, Henry V, was famous for his conquests in France. During Henry VI’s childhood those conquests had largely been reversed by the victories of St Joan of Arc and by the momentum which resulted from them. The younger Henry’s preference for a compromise peace over a war of re-conquest aimed only at pride, prestige and power incurred the ire of many within his country’s ruling class.

Efforts to arrive at an accurate historical interpretation of the reign of Henry VI are complicated by the combination of the king’s personal and psychological weaknesses with the reality that the level of opposition he faced would have been a challenge even for the strongest individuals, and that the very perception of royal weakness increased both the numbers of those willing to oppose him and the degree to which they were willing to express their opposition.

What is remarkable, at least in light of his reputation, is not that Henry VI collapsed into insanity after his political and military defeats, but that he first put up a remarkable fight. Had he lacked all strength of character, he might well have allowed himself to be reduced to a figurehead for government by his cousin Richard, Duke of York – father of the future Yorkist King Edward IV.

Unable to maintain control of his government and unwilling to allow the Duke of York to hold an effective monopoly on power, Henry VI turned to his wife for support. Previously Queen Margaret’s political “machinations” had been those necessary to defend herself against powerful figures who had taken the initiative in becoming her opponents – either because of her association with France or out of fear that the royal spouse posed a threat to their own influence over the king. But Margaret was a woman of strong character who fitted naturally into her de facto roles as chief minister and regent, and whose mother, Isabelle of Lorraine, had ruled her own husband’s territories while he was in captivity.

For the 16 years after Edward IV’s usurpation of her husband’s throne in 1455, Margaret of Anjou was the backbone of the Lancastrian cause, until it met disaster in 1571 – a year which saw the destruction of the Lancastrian army at the Battle of Tewksbury, the death of King Henry and of his heir, and the queen’s imprisonment. She was released in 1475, living in exile in France until her death 10 years later.