Henry VI - The Reign of England's Weakest King Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Henry VI - The Reign of England's Weakest King

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A photograph of a statue of Henry VI,reproduced by kind permission of the Dean and Chapter of York.
O he was gentle, mild and virtuous
– Henry VI described by Lady Anne in Richard III by William Shakespeare

Henry VI (ruled 1422-61 and 1470-71) was without doubt one of England's weakest kings. He began his reign as ruler of France and England, but ended unable to even control his own wife or have his own opinions. Under his reign, the common man lost the right to vote, England not only lost her possessions in France gained by Henry's father, Henry V, but itself became consumed by a period of chaos and later by the civil war now known as the Wars of the Roses1. Henry VI's failure as a king is in sharp contrast to the reign of his father Henry V, one of England's strongest monarchs.

Henry V

Henry V had, after the battles of Agincourt and Rouen, been successful in his campaign to reclaim France. In May 1420, he was recognised as Henricus, rex Angliae et haeres Franciae [King of England and Heir of France]. He had regained the Duchy of Normandy and ruled all France north of the river Loire. It was on 2 June, 1420 that, in marrying Lady Catherine of France, he made his greatest mistake, one he did not live to see the results of. Her father was the mad Charles VI, who believed he was made out of glass, and the inherited insanity that was dominant in his family was to infect and influence Henry V's son, who was crowned Henry VI, King of England and France, when only nine months old.

No sooner was I crept out of my cradle but I was made a king at nine months old. Was never subject long'd to be a king as I do long and wish to be a subject.
– Henry in Henry VI Part II by William Shakespeare

Henry VI was born in Windsor Castle on 6 December, 1421, while his father was besieging Meaux. It was during this siege that Henry V became ill. He died soon after of dysentery on 31 August, 1422 at his castle of Vincennes outside Paris. Two months later the mad king of France, Charles VI, also died. Henry VI, at ten months old, was now the heir to two kingdoms.

The House of Lancaster

What plain proceedings is more plain than this? Henry doth claim the crown from John of Gaunt, The fourth son; York claims it from the third. Till Lionel's issue fails, John's should not reign.
– Henry VI Part II

Henry VI was descended from the House of Lancaster, the family of the fourth son of Edward III2, John of Gaunt the Duke of Lancaster. The first son of Edward III, Edward the Black Prince, died before his father and the Black Prince's son, Richard II, was deposed and murdered by John of Gaunt's son and Henry VI's grandfather, Henry IV. The second son of Edward III, William, died young. The third son was Lionel, Duke of Clarence, whose granddaughter Anne married Edward III's fifth son Edmund, Duke of York's grandson, Richard, Earl of Cambridge, father of Richard, Duke of York. Richard, also called Richard Plantagenet, was descended from the third and fifth son of Edward III whereas Henry VI was descended from the fourth.

As a child, Henry VI's two uncles, the brothers of Henry V, were appointed to positions of power. John, Duke of Bedford, a wise and capable man, was appointed Regent in both England and France. His younger brother, the reckless Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, was Protector of the Realm of England and was expected to carry on with the war against the Dauphin of France. His tutor was Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, whose son Henry Beauchamp, later 1st Duke of Warwick, was his closest childhood friend3.

On 3 January, 1437, Henry VI's mother, Queen Catherine of Valois, died, at which point it was discovered that after the death of Henry V, she had married his squire, Owen Tudor, and had given birth to four children4. Henry was delighted to discover he had half-brothers, to whom he gave land and title, but did not get on with his stepfather, whom he twice had arrested for marrying his mother, although Owen Tudor later retired to his Welsh lands. Henry then made it illegal for a member of the royal family to marry without the monarch's permission5.

Removal of Right to Vote

In 1445, Henry VI removed the right to vote 'from those of yeoman status or below'. The vast majority of the population of England lost the right to vote and Parliament became the preserve of the rich. It would not be until the 1884 Reform Act that most men, though not all – only home owners – would regain the right to vote. All men and women, regardless of home ownership status, would not gain the right to vote until 1918.

The reason for this was that a 'very great, outrageous, and excessive Number of People' were voting. These voters were 'of the most Part People of small Substance, and of no Value.' It was believed that this would cause undesirable people, such as commoners, to be elected to Parliament, and the more people there were able to vote, the more likely that serious riots, batteries, manslaughter and chaos would erupt. Henry VI limited the vote so only men owning land worth 40 shillings or more, all the land to all be held within the same county, could vote.

Key Figures in Henry VI's Reign

Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crown'd king
Of France and England, did [Henry V] succeed,
Whose state so many had the managing
That they lost France and made his England bleed

– Henry V, Epilogue by William Shakespeare

Some monarchs are powerful forces of nature, around whom all the events of their reign revolve. Henry VI was not one of those. Instead of being the focal point of his reign, he drifted with the ebb and flow of those surrounding him. Although Henry ruled the country, he could not even rule his own mind and would agree with the opinion of those around him.

Henry himself was a mild-mannered, easily led man. He frequently expressed a desire to live the life of a monk and is reported to have been mortified by women. In later life he suffered from madness, which took the form of either a complete collapse and withdrawal from the world around him, or depression and lethargy, with the king spending days at a time in his bedroom, mainly asleep. He was proudest of his achievements in founding Eton College and King's College, Cambridge.

During Henry's childhood, the powerful men in England spent much of their time arguing amongst themselves. The chief culprit was the extremely ambitious Henry Beaufort, an illegitimate son of John of Gaunt, half-brother of King Henry V, the Duke of Bedford and the Duke of Gloucester and uncle to Henry VI. During his life, he was Bishop of Winchester from 1404, a Cardinal from 1426 and Chancellor of England three times, in 1403-1404, 1413-1417 and 1424-1426. He was therefore one of the richest and most powerful men in England. Although Henry V had been able to keep him in place, after Henry's death he regularly conflicted with Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester on how to run affairs of state in both England and France, with open fights between his and Humphrey's supporters. Humphrey's key supporter was his protégé and cousin, Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York. Henry Beaufort's nephew John Beaufort, the Duke of Somerset and new man William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, also had influential positions supporting Henry Beaufort and wished to establish their own place in society. It was this environment of two opposed factions in England, which Henry VI did nothing to address, that would later lead to the Wars of the Roses.

Person and TitleLivedSupported6
King Henry VI1422–71Lancaster
Queen Margaret of Anjou, Queen of England1430–82Lancaster
Cardinal Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester1375–1447(Lancaster)
John of Lancaster, Duke of Bedford1389–1435(Neutral)
Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester1391–1447(York)
Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick1382–1439(Lancaster)
Henry Beauchamp, 1st Duke of Warwick, King of the Isle of Wight1425–46(Lancaster)
Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York1411–60York
William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk1396–1450Lancaster
John Beaufort, 1st Duke of Somerset1403–44Lancaster
Edmund Beaufort, 2nd Duke of Somerset1406–55Lancaster
Henry Beaufort, 3rd Duke of Somerset1436–64Lancaster
Edmund Beaufort, 4th Duke of Somerset1438–71Lancaster
John Beaufort, Marquess of Dorset1440–71Lancaster
Bloody John Clifford the Butcher, Baron of Skipton1435-61Lancaster
Jasper Tudor, Duke of Bedford1431–95Lancaster
Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury1400–60York
Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, the Kingmaker1428-71York/Lancaster
John Neville, Earl (later Marquis) Montagu1431-71York/Lancaster
Edward Plantagenet, Earl of March, later Edward IV1442-83York
Richard Plantagenet, Duke of Gloucester, later Richard III1452-85York
Richard Woodville, 1st Earl Rivers1405–69Lancaster/York
Anthony Woodville, 2nd Earl Rivers1440–83Lancaster/York
Elizabeth Woodville, later Queen of England1437–92Lancaster/York

In many ways the division that was later to result in war between the Houses of York and Lancaster was already present in the split within the House of Lancaster itself – between Bedford and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester on one side and the illegitimate branch, the Beaufort family, on the other.

War in France

At the age of eight, in November 1429, Henry was crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey. However by this time the French army led by Joan of Arc had defeated the English army at Orléans, and the bastard Charles VII7 was crowned in Rheims, in accordance with French tradition that dictated that kings of France must be crowned there. Although Henry VI arrived in Calais on St George's Day in 1430 to be crowned, his French coronation in Notre-Dame was not until 2 December, 1431 as he had been unable to reach Paris safely before then. In the meantime, funds to continue the war were running low and a key ally, the Valois Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy8, was paid vast sums for little or no help provided.

The king's forces in France did have three experienced leaders: John, Duke of Bedford, Richard, Duke of York and the formidable general John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury. Sadly Duke John died in 1435, leaving a power struggle between, on the one side, Duke Humphrey and Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, who were in favour of continuing the war in France and, on the other side, Henry Beaufort and the Dukes of Suffolk and Somerset, who were in favour of peace. Immediately on the Duke of Bedford's death, the Duke of Burgundy allied himself with France, and the English forces, without enough funds to continue the war, were forced out of Paris and then all of France except Calais.

Before the war in France had ended, Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, was recalled to England. He had been a capable and popular leader in the war, where he was the King's Lieutenant. Richard of York had plunged himself deeply in debt, all but ruining himself, in order to pay for the war in France on Henry VI's behalf, never receiving financial support from the king. He was considered the young king's natural heir to the throne and so was considered an enemy by the Beaufort family, who feared his popular status. Richard of York was replaced first in France by the frail and elderly Earl of Warwick, and on Warwick's death by the incompetent Duke of Somerset. One of Somerset's first acts was to attack his ally the Duke of Brittany.

Finally in 1440, Henry VI was forced to reappoint Richard of York, but this was an empty office. Richard again received no funds or men from the king and he was forced to impoverish himself in order to pay his soldiers' wages. Then he was again recalled to England and, to get him out of the way, was appointed the King's Lieutenant in Ireland in 1447.

In an attempt to form a peace treaty and truce, in 1444 at the age of 23, Henry VI was married to a French princess, the 16-year-old Margaret of Anjou. This was organised by the Duke of Suffolk, who not only arranged the marriage without a dowry, but also agreed that England would surrender Maine, one of England's chief possessions in France. The English garrison at Maine were shocked at this betrayal and refused to leave. In February 1448, Charles VII broke the truce and attacked Maine, with victory following swiftly after victory.

Finally, on 19 October, 1453, Bordeaux, the capital of Aquitaine and the last English stronghold in France except Calais, surrendered to the French army. After 116 years, the Hundred Years War was over.

Power Struggle in England

Uncles of Gloucester and of Winchester... O what a scandal is it to our crown that two such noble peers as ye should jar!
– Henry in Henry VI Part I by William Shakespeare

Meanwhile in England throughout the 1440s, the factions and divisions within the House of Lancaster continued. In 1441 Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester had the Duchess of Gloucester, Humphrey's wife, arrested for witchcraft and conspiracy against the king. She was sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1447 Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, was himself arrested for conspiracy without evidence and died soon after. It was believed that he was murdered on the orders of Queen Margaret, who was a strong supporter of Suffolk and the Beaufort family, to whom she owed her status as queen. Margaret was never popular with the common people of England, who blamed her for the loss of the war in France. She was also haughty and had grown up used to expecting the respect due her rank, when in England the people never felt she had earned their respect.

Queen Margaret began to arrest those who had supported Humphrey, and continued to try to marginalise her main rival, the Duke of York, so he could have no influence on the easily persuadable Henry VI. Records portray Henry as having grown to be a gentle man who could not make his own decisions and would agree with whoever he spoke to last. One consequence of this was that he frequently gave away crown possessions to those around him, especially the supporters of his wife, Queen Margaret9.

Rise and Fall of Suffolk

Thus Suffolk hath prevail'd... Margaret shall now be queen, and rule the King; But I will rule both her, the King and realm.
– Suffolk in Henry VI Part I by William Shakespeare

With the king an empty figurehead, in the 1440s and 50s real power began to grow in local nobles and their supporters, who could corrupt justice to suit their own needs. The most powerful of these were the Duke of Suffolk and his ally the Duke of Somerset, who both had the support of Queen Margaret. In 1444 John, the Duke of Somerset died, with his younger brother Edmund succeeding him. In the late 1440s and early 1450s, England was flooded with refugees escaping from France. Piracy was common in the Channel, and French raiding parties frequently attacked the south coast. Lords began to take matters into their own hands and began fighting amongst themselves; perhaps the most serious case was the war between the two rival powerful families who held land along the Scottish border, the Nevilles and the Percies. In 1453 this rivalry threatened to erupt into major violence.

Throughout the country, the Duke of Suffolk was considered responsible for the loss of France, the chaotic state of the realm and of the corruption of the king. In February 1450, Suffolk was accused of a vast number of crimes including high treason, conspiracy, misuse of funds, peculation10 and corruption. If found guilty of any of the main charges, the penalty would have been death, but with Queen Margaret as a supporter, Suffolk was confident he had nothing to fear from the king, the only man with the power to sentence him. In March 1450, Henry found Suffolk innocent of all major charges, found him guilty of some minor offences and banished him from the realm for five years. Suffolk left England on 1 May, 1450 but had not travelled far before his ship was intercepted and he was beheaded.

Cade's Revolt

Shortly after Suffolk's headless body was dumped at Dover, the people of Kent revolted against Henry's rule. In June 1450, a man known as Jack Cade organised a rebellion complete with a detailed manifesto listing many of the corrupt practices in the realm and denouncing the state of the country. The demands included a full inquiry into Duke Humphrey's murder, the return of Crown Property given away on Suffolk's advice and a freely elected Parliament. Over 3,000 supporters followed Jack Cade to Blackheath, across the Thames from London.

In mid-June, Henry eventually met the rebels, who insisted on reform and swore allegiance to him, before leaving to return to Kent. As the rebels were leaving, Henry ordered his troops to attack them. His troops were outnumbered and the rebels included many army veterans from France, and so the Royal forces were quickly defeated. In response, Henry fled from London to Kenilworth Castle near Coventry, and London was occupied by the rebels on 2 July. Any known supporters of Suffolk were executed, but after several days of looting, the people of London rose up and after bitter street fighting, drove the rebels of Kent out of the city. Jack Cade himself died on 12 July, but the unrest spread, with another supporter of Suffolk, Bishop Aiscough who had performed the king's marriage ceremony, murdered in Wiltshire.

York's Return

From Ireland thus comes York to claim his right
And pluck the crown from feeble Henry's head:
Ring, bells, aloud; burn, bonfires, clear and bright
To entertain England's lawful king.

– Henry VI Part II by William Shakespeare

Henry issued a general pardon to all rioters who returned to their homes and Edmund, Duke of Somerset returned to England to fill Suffolk's vacant position of Constable of England, causing more unrest rather than being able to solve it. The Duke of Somerset, as a grandson of John of Gaunt and great-grandson of Edward III, was manoeuvring to become heir to the throne. In September 1450 the Duke of York returned to England from Ireland, followed by his army. Richard of York appears to have had no interest in claiming the throne at this point, but instead aimed to provide strong counsel to the king and replace the incompetent Somerset as Constable. The Duke of Somerset was able to use this position to make himself even more rich and powerful, while the Duke of York remained heavily in debt, paying off the cost of the war in France.

In October 1450 the Duke of York declared it was his intention to reform the government of England and remove the incompetent influence of people such as Edmund, Duke of Somerset. The Queen and King Henry firmly supported Somerset and an uneasy peace reigned.

This peace was shaken in September 1451. The Earl of Devon, Somerset's brother-in-law, besieged Lord Bonville in Taunton with a force of 3,000 men in a petty squabble that originated when Henry appointed Lord Bonville Royal Steward for Cornwall and then appointed the Earl of Devon Steward of the Duchy of Cornwall. Although the Duke of York intervened and restored peace, tensions throughout the country remained high.

In February 1452, the Duke of York declared complete loyalty to Henry and swore to free him from corrupt advice and influence, and gathered an army that marched on London. The larger Royal army marched to intercept and, when they met, the Duke met with the king and gave a petition of his grievances, grievances that were true and justified, many of them citing Somerset's incompetence. Henry conceded York's demands, and so the Duke of York disbanded his army, after which he was arrested and made to swear another oath of allegiance to Henry, before being released and a general pardon issued.

Henry VI – A Father?

Ah, wretched man, would I had died a maid and never seen thee, never borne thee son, seeing thou hast proved so unnatural a father.
– Queen Margaret discussing Henry VI, Henry VI Part III by William Shakespeare

In 1453, rumours that Queen Margaret was having an affair with the Duke of Somerset persisted. Also in August 1453, Henry received the news that his general John Talbot had been killed in France. Unable to cope, Henry went mad and withdrew from the surrounding world. By October the whole kingdom was slipping into chaos, not helped by Queen Margaret giving birth on 13 October to a son, Edward, who replaced Richard, Duke of York as heir to the throne. The Queen announced that the Duke of Somerset was the young baby's godfather, but many suspected that he was in fact the true father.

By Christmas 1454, Henry VI regained his sanity. When informed he had a son he famously remarked, 'He must have been fathered by the Holy Ghost, as [Henry] had no recollection of doing so', which increased the persistent rumours that the young Edward was the son of the Duke of Somerset, and not of royal blood at all.

Richard Neville

The Nevilles, through marrying the daughter of John of Gaunt, were related to the House of Lancaster and had supported Henry VI against the Duke of York. The most powerful member of the Neville family was Richard Neville, Earl Of Warwick, later known as the Kingmaker.

Richard Neville was born in 1428. In 1434, he was married to Anne11, daughter of Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick and Henry VI's childhood tutor, and sister of Henry VI's closest childhood friend, Henry de Beauchamp. Richard Neville inherited the title Earl of Warwick. By the time he was 20, Warwick was the third richest man in the country, after the King and Richard, Duke of York.

The Earl of Warwick quarrelled with Edmund, Duke of Somerset over land that Warwick had inherited but Henry had confiscated and granted to the Duke of Somerset. The Percy family sided with Somerset and 700 men attacked a Neville family wedding on 24 August 1453.

York in Command

In November 1453, with the king still mad, the Royal Council committed the Duke of Somerset to the Tower of London on unspecified charges. Queen Margaret meanwhile claimed the regency of the realm during her husband's illness.

In February 1454, York was nominated by Parliament as the King's Lieutenant and the Duke of York opened Parliament in Reading Abbey. One of his first acts was in March 1454, when he declared the young Prince Edward as Prince of Wales, Duke of Cornwall, Earl of Chester and heir to the throne. This sent a clear message that he was not after the throne, but instead was quarrelling with the unpopular Margaret and Somerset. York was then appointed Protector of England and Chief Councillor to the King. York used his new powers to tackle the problems of piracy along the south coast and to settle the unrest in the North. In 1454 the Duke of Exeter, supported by the Earl of Northumberland, Lord Egremont, claimed the throne for himself and raised an army against the king. Egremont was defeated at Stamford Bridge in 1454 and the Duke of Exeter imprisoned in Pontefract Castle.

In 1455, Henry regained power and York stepped down as Protector of England. Under Margaret's guidance, Henry reversed all of York's decisions, and dismissed Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury from the post of Chancellor. This act served to unite the powerful Neville family with the Duke of York.

In April 1455, the Duke of Somerset had regained power and summoned the Duke of York and the Earls of Salisbury and Warwick to a Parliament in Leicester, a Lancaster stronghold, where a trap had been arranged to have them arrested and executed. Instead, York, Salisbury and Warwick assembled an army of 3,000 men and sent a message to Henry stating their loyalty to the King and asking him to dismiss the Duke of Somerset and call a truce. This Henry did not do, and the result was the outbreak of the War of the Roses.

The War of the Roses

While the King was unsure of how to act, York advanced to St Albans. Instead, Henry marched to intercept York at St Albans, supported by the Duke of Somerset, Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond and Thomas, Lord Clifford. Henry assumed that the Duke of York would surrender on sight of the Royal Banner, but instead the Yorkists conclusively won the First Battle of St Albans on 22 May, 1455. The Duke of Somerset, Henry Earl of Northumberland and Thomas, Lord Clifford were killed and the king injured by an arrow in the neck.

After the battle, York and Warwick fell on their knees before Henry and sent for a surgeon to tend his wound. They then proceeded to London, showing the king courtesy and respect and on the Sunday following the battle, Henry sat on a throne in St Paul's Cathedral and symbolically was given his crown by York. Royal pardons were issued to all who had fought at St Albans and, on York's insistence, Duke Humphrey of Gloucester was pronounced innocent of all that he had been accused of. In November, York became Protector of the Realm again.

Meanwhile Queen Margaret gathered new supporters, the sons of those who had died at St Albans: Henry Beaufort, the new Duke of Somerset, John 'Bloody' Clifford, son of Thomas Clifford and Henry, third Earl of Northumberland. Despite this, her demands of royal gifts and honours from those around her angered the people of England and encouraged many to swear loyalty to the Duke of York.

In 1456, the Lancastrians acted to remove York from power and convinced Henry VI to dismiss York from service and send him to the unstable border with Scotland. This was an odd move as King James II of Scotland had declared that he considered York the true king of England.

Between 1456 and 1458, the country continued to slip into chaos. By this time it was obvious that Henry VI, with his frequent bouts of madness, was incapable of ruling, but neither York nor Margaret were willing to work together or let the other side gain power. Margaret tried to persuade Henry to abdicate in favour of her son, but as many suspected that Prince Edward was the son of the Duke of Somerset, this was not acceptable.

In April 1459, Margaret summoned the Duke of York to Coventry, a Lancastrian stronghold, shortly after gathering an army nearby in Leicester. York felt that this was a trap and so assembled an army in Ludlow Castle, while York's ally the Earl of Salisbury marched his forces from Middleham Castle to Wales to reinforce him. On the way, Salisbury's men met with a Lancastrian army at Blore Heath on 23 September. Salisbury defeated the larger army, evaded the main Lancastrian army nearby and rendezvoused with York and Warwick.

Again the king issued a full pardon to everyone involved, but the main Lancastrian army, reportedly 25,000 men, marched to Ludlow, from which the Dukes of York, Salisbury and Warwick, and Richard of York's son Edward, Earl of March escaped. York fled to Ireland, where he was popular with the Irish court and people alike. The others fled to Calais where they raised a new army which in June 1460 landed in Kent. In July, the Yorkists were cheered as they passed through London, heading north. The Lancastrian army in Coventry moved south to Northampton where the two armies met on 10 July, resulting in a Yorkist victory. King Henry was discovered in his tent; he was captured and taken to London. York called Parliament in Henry's name on 7 October, but on 11 October Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, marched through London wearing not his own coat of arms, but the coat of arms of England. Richard was now proclaiming himself king.

Parliament was stunned by this turn of events. When Richard stated his valid claim, saying that he was the rightful heir as he was descended from a more senior line of the Plantagenet family than Henry, Parliament asked Henry to dispute this claim. Henry could not, and asked the House of Lords to refute the claim. The only reason they could find to dispute Richard's claim to the throne was that all Acts of Parliament passed since Henry IV deposed Richard II in 1399 would be declared invalid. On 21 October, a compromise was proposed – Henry would stay king, but with Richard, Duke of York, not Prince Edward, as his heir. This was accepted by Henry and York.

Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain

Queen Margaret refused to accept this and promised to give Berwick-on-Tweed to Scotland in exchange for money to gather an army. In November 1460, Queen Margaret's supporters in Yorkshire, especially Clifford in Skipton Castle were harassing Richard's lands at Conisbrough and Sandal. Richard marched north to Sandal Castle outside Wakefield with a small army of around 5,000 men to combat this. A larger Lancastrian army of at least 15,000 men was nine miles away at Pontefract. Richard was expecting 8,000 men under the command of his ally Ralph Neville, 2nd Earl of Westmorland, meaning that the Yorkist army would total around 13,000. Richard felt confident he could defeat the larger Lancastrian army. On 30 December, 1460, a foraging party from Sandal Castle came under attack from the Lancastrian army led by 'Bloody' Clifford. York saw the approach of Ralph Neville's force and believed that the Lancastrian force would be trapped between two fronts. He led a mounted charge down the hill from Sandal Castle to the south of the Lancastrian army. Ralph Neville, however, had changed allegiance and attacked Richard's troops from behind.

Outnumbered roughly 23,000 to 5,000, the battle's result was inevitable. Richard, Duke of York died fighting. His head was chopped off and taken to York, where it was put on display wearing a paper crown. Lord Clifford also executed Richard's 16-year-old son Edmund, Earl of Rutland, despite his having surrendered. Clifford murdered him, saying Thy father slew mine so shall I slay thee. It was from this act that Clifford gained the name 'Bloody' Clifford the Butcher, as chivalry dictated that women, children and non-combatant prisoners would be held for ransom and not slain. The Duke of Salisbury also was killed and, like the Duke of York and the Earl of Rutland, had his head mounted on a pole in York.

War of the Roses: The Next Generation

Meanwhile Richard's eldest son Edward, Earl of March assembled an army and defeated an experienced Lancastrian army in Wales at Mortimer's Cross on 3 February, 1461. The main Lancastrian and Scottish army marched on London, meeting a Yorkist army led by the Earl of Warwick at St Albans on 17 February. This, the second battle of St Albans, was won by the Lancastrians under the brilliant tactician Andrew Trollope. Although Warwick escaped, Henry was recaptured by Queen Margaret - he was found sitting in his tent with two minor Yorkist lords who had accompanied the King and had been promised safe conduct by him. Despite this, the 7-year-old Prince Edward ignored the King, his mother's husband, and ordered their decapitation, an order which was promptly carried out. While the Lancastrians celebrated their victory and pillaged and plundered St Albans, Edward, Earl of March entered London and on 4 March, 1461 was popularly proclaimed King Edward IV12.

Margaret retreated to the north and was pursued by Edward IV, with their armies meeting at Towton. The Yorkist army won; Margaret, Henry, Prince Edward and the Duke of Somerset fled to Scotland and Lancastrians 'Bloody' Clifford and Sir Andrew Trollope were killed. Edward IV and Warwick entered York and had their fathers' heads taken down and replaced with those of Clifford and other Lancastrian lords.

Edward IV Ruling Britain, Henry in Exile

Edward was crowned on 28 June, 1461 at the age of 19. Meanwhile Margaret travelled to France. There she promised Louis XI, the new king of France, to give him Calais in exchange for troops. She was given 300 mercenaries, all of whom promptly drowned or were captured when their ship was wrecked on 25 October, 1462 on the journey to Northumberland. Margaret escaped to Scotland unharmed. King Edward headed north with his army, but was struck with measles and confined to Durham over Christmas. Nevertheless, his army besieged several Lancastrian strongholds in the North. In the spring of 1463, Margaret led her forces, including a Scottish army, into the North of England, but despite several skirmishes and sieges, little was achieved.

Henry was hiding in Scotland and Northern England and was discovered in July 1465. He was captured by the Earl of Warwick and taken to the Tower, where he stayed in reasonable comfort for five years, no longer known as King Henry VI but instead simply referred to as Henry of Windsor. Margaret and Prince Edward, meanwhile, were living in France.

War with Warwick

I was the chief that raised him to the crown
And I'll be chief to bring him down.
...Not that I pity Henry's misery
But seek revenge of Edward's mockery.

– Warwick in Henry VI Part III by William Shakespeare

In 1467, Edward IV alienated his brother George, Duke of Clarence, the heir to the throne, and Warwick. Warwick, an ambitious man wishing to be the real power behind the throne, desired a king he could dominate and control, just as Margaret had dominated and controlled Henry, and realised that Edward would never be a puppet. Warwick felt Clarence would be the perfect replacement king.

Warwick and Clarence united with Lancastrians and rose against Edward. Edward shrewdly surrendered to the Archbishop of York, George Neville, and the protection of the church. Warwick was now unable to kill him, yet unsure what to do next. Edward, meanwhile, promised that Warwick's nephew, George Neville, would marry Lady Elizabeth in exchange for Edward's freedom and restoring Lord Percy to the Earldom of Northumberland, which would be exchanged for a rank of Marquis. With a Percy restored in the North, the Neville family's power was checked, and George Neville, as Edward's son-in-law, would be a potential heir to the throne, although this marriage never actually took place.

In Spring 1470, Warwick and Clarence secretly raised an army and organised a rebellion to distract the king. The plot failed, and on 14 April, Edward issued a proclamation declaring Warwick and Clarence traitors. They fled to France, but Warwick was now tiring of Clarence, and decided to see if he could put Margaret's son, Prince Edward, on the throne instead, if Edward married his daughter Anne. Margaret consented to the marriage and Warwick promised to help King Louis of France capture Burgundy in exchange for military aid against England.

In 1470, the Duke of Somerset led an army back to England that included Jasper Tudor and Warwick. King Edward's army was commanded by Marquis Montagu, brother of Warwick, but he defected to his brother's side. King Edward and some loyal men, including his brother Richard, were forced to flee to Burgundy, while Edward's pregnant wife, Queen Elizabeth, claimed sanctuary in Westminster. Warwick and Clarence freed Henry VI from the Tower and he was recrowned at St Paul's Cathedral on 13 October 1470, although all the king's men wore the bear and staff emblem of Warwick, now the King's Lieutenant. Warwick began to move his men into positions of power while Queen Elizabeth gave birth to a son, Edward, in Westminster. England now had two crowned kings, Henry VI and Edward IV, two heirs in Edward of Lancaster and Edward of Westminster, not to mention Clarence, who Warwick declared to be Richard Plantagenet's oldest legitimate son, claiming that King Edward was the son of an affair.

Once more we sit on England's Royal Throne.
– Edward IV in Henry VI Part III by William Shakespeare

In late 1470, Warwick began to raise an army to help Louis of France invade Burgundy, while in December Louis sent his army to attack Flanders. This act prompted Duke Charles of Burgundy to supply Edward with money to raise an army to reclaim England. By March 1471, Edward's army was in England, Warwick was outnumbered and awaited the force of his ally, Edward's brother Clarence. Edward's youngest brother Richard persuaded Clarence to ally with Edward. Edward was re-crowned in London and he met with King Henry VI, who said 'Cousin Edward, I am right glad to see you. I hold my life in no danger from your hands.'

Warwick and his brother Montagu marched south, and met Edward's army at Barnet on 13 April, 1471, where both Montagu and Warwick were killed. Margaret and Prince Edward of Lancaster and his bride Anne Neville returned to England with an army to rendezvous with Warwick, before learning of his defeat. Somerset chose to lead them to Wales to join with Jasper Tudor. Edward pursued them, racing to intercept them before they reached Wales. The two forces met at Tewkesbury on 4 May. Prince Edward of Lancaster was killed, Somerset was captured, put on trial by Richard of Gloucester and executed, and three days later Queen Margaret and Lady Anne Neville were captured. King Edward and his brothers George, Duke of Clarence and Richard of Gloucester re-entered London on 21 May. That night, King Henry VI died in the Tower, almost certainly murdered.

King Edward IV had finally triumphed over his enemies, and avenged the death of his father, Richard of York. King Henry VI was dead, and was buried in St George's Chapel, Windsor, near where Edward IV would later be buried.

Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York.
– Richard III by William Shakespeare

Shakespeare's Henry VI

King Henry VI appears in five of William Shakespeare's plays:

  • Henry V – King Henry VI is briefly mentioned in the concluding epilogue.
  • Henry VI Part I – also known as The First Part Of Henry The Sixth – This concerns the loss of France.
  • Henry VI Part II – also known as The First Part Of The Contention of the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster with the Death of the Good Duke Humphrey – This concerns the events of 1445-1455 including the power struggle between York, Gloucester, Suffolk and Somerset. A key scene for King Henry VI is Act 2 Scene 5, where he is portrayed as a saintly, well-intentioned but foolish man.
  • Henry VI Part III – also known as The True Tragedy of Richard, Duke of York and the Death of Good King Henry the Sixth, with the whole Contention between the two Houses Lancaster and York. This concerns the events of 1456-71
  • Richard III – Although Henry VI is well and truly dead when this play is set, this does not stop his corpse from appearing in Act 1 Scene II, the love scene between Richard and Anne Neville, and he also appears as a ghost in Act 5 Scene V.

These portrayals are not historically accurate. Among the many inaccuracies are that Joan of Arc is portrayed as a witch who fought in a battle in 1451, twenty years after she died; the Dukes of Somerset are understandably merged into one character to avoid confusion; Warwick is portrayed as being in France, not Reading, when he discovers Edward's marriage; and Richard III takes an active role fighting in both the Battle of St Albans and the Battle of Wakefield although in real life he was only three and eight when these took place.

The photograph of the statue of Henry VI is reproduced by kind permission of the Dean and Chapter of York.

1This name was first used by Sir Walter Scott, the famous Scottish novelist and poet (1771–1832).2Edward III of Windsor (1327-1377).3Henry VI later crowned Henry Beauchamp King of the Isle of Wight in 1444 so that he would be his equal. Henry de Beauchamp died in 1446.4These included Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, father of the later Henry VII.5This law is still in force today. In 1536, Henry VIII made it Treason to marry, become engaged to or 'deflower' a member of the Royal Family without written permission from the King. Although this act was repealed by Edward VI, this did not stop Elizabeth I from enforcing it by imprisoning in the Tower those who married her distant relatives without permission. The Royal Marriages Act 1772, still in force today, prevents any member of the Royal Family or descendant of King George II from marrying without the reigning monarch's permission, or if denied, the permission of the Houses of Parliament. The Queen gave her consent to the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton on 9 February, 2011.6The round brackets show what sides the key figures who died before the Wars of the Roses started were nominally on, even though at the time the division was not between the House of York and House of Lancaster, but between the legitimate and illegitimate branches of the House of Lancaster itself which later was adopted by the remaining House of Lancaster on one side and the House of York on the other.7In common with most of his royal relatives, Charles VII would also go mad. In 1461 he starved himself to death rather than risk eating food in case it was poisoned.8Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy's father, Duke John the Fearless, was murdered on the orders of the Dauphin. It was to avenge his father rather than support of England which motivated his support of Henry VI.9Indeed Parliament was later forced to pass several Acts of Resumption returning Crown property, and all future gifts from Henry VI then had to have the approval of the Royal Council and Keeper of the Privy Seal.10Peculation is similar to embezzlement, but usually applies to people entrusted with public funds.11At the time of the marriage, Anne was only nine and Richard was six. Anne's half-sister, Eleanor Beauchamp, was the wife of Edmund, 2nd Duke of Somerset. The Duke of Somerset never forgave Richard and Anne for inheriting all the Warwick estate which he coveted.12Edward IV was the seventh king of England named Edward.

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