As the last Lancastrian king, Henry VI of England was an easy man to like but a hard one to follow. Peaceful and pious, he was also prone to long spells of mental disassociation. The spells sometimes lasted for more than a year—an untimely quality for a king to have during the Wars of the Roses.
It looks like history will mostly remember Henry as just another “Mad Monarch,” but one doesn’t become King of England and France as a baby (and then lose it all) without a few awesome stories. There’s a surprising amount of hand-holding and would-be miracle cures. Check out of reality and into these 42 furtive facts about Henry VI, the Feeble King of England.
Inheriting the crown at nine months old, Henry remains the youngest person to become King of England. But one crown was not enough for this baby. Following the death of his maternal grandfather just a few months later on 21 October 1422, Henry also claimed the French throne (in name, at least). To this day, he is the only English monarch to also be crowned King of France. What did you accomplish while still in diapers?
Ironically, the gentle Henry VI’s father is one of the most famous warrior kings in history. This daddy, Henry V, immortalized himself in the One Hundred Years’ War against France (Shakespeare’s plays also helped). Unfortunately, the battling took its toll: while on campaign, the 36-year-old Henry V died of dysentery and left behind just one infant child, our Henry VI, to take his place.
Henry’s mother, Catherine de Valois, was only 20 years old when she was widowed. As a French princess, Catherine wasn’t trusted by the English people. She was therefore not allowed a close role in her son’s upbringing.
After his father’s death, Henry’s mother famously embarked on an affair with her Welsh household servant, Owen Tudor. Although “official” record of their marriage is very tenuous, the young King Henry proved generous towards the resulting half-brothers, Edmund and Jasper Tudor. He later granted earldoms to both of them, effectively helping them found the House of Tudor.
Henry’s marriage was considered a “loss” for the English people. In 1445, the 24-year-old Henry VI married the 16-year-old Margaret of Anjou, niece to the French King. Instead of bringing a dowry to her husband like a normal royal bride, Margaret actually cost the English money. Upon the marriage, Charles VII of France received Maine (the province in France) from England in exchange for peace. This deal was so controversial, it was actually hidden from the general population (not like they’d notice a big chunk of the country missing, right?). Unfortunately, this move enraged the dukes of Gloucester and York, paving the way for conflicts that would trigger the Wars of the Roses.
Henry’s chosen allies made him very unpopular with the people. One of the nobles in his clique, the Duke of Suffolk, was so hated that Londoners called regularly for his blood. Instead, the king met the people halfway and settled for Suffolk’s exile. Unfortunately, the duke’s ship was intercepted, and his body was found murdered on the shores of Dover. This goes to show how little the king’s will was respected by 1450.
Henry VII, the first Tudor king and Henry VI’s nephew by his half-brother Edmund, encouraged a posthumous cult around his uncle as part of anti-Yorkist propaganda. As a result, a number of miracles are attributed to Henry VI, including his “cure” of a little girl who was allegedly afflicted with a disease known as the King’s Evil (known today as scrofula). The girls’ parents refused to let her get the touch from a traitor Yorkist king, so Henry VI did the job.
In another story of Henry’s alleged “miracles,” the king saved an innocent man from hanging by placing his royal hand between the man’s windpipe and the rope. The man came back to life just as they were carrying him off for burial.
As late as the reign of Henry VIII, there were still plans to canonize Henry VI as a saint and martyr. Unfortunately, that thing called “the English break with Rome” got in the way and this canonization was permanently put on hold.
Henry once fell into a year-long catatonic state, and some people thought that it the result of shock after learning his wife was pregnant. This has clearly been debunked because Margaret was about seven months pregnant at the time he fell. Even before the advent of ultrasound, Henry would have gotten a heads up.
Others used this tale to leverage rumors that either (1) Henry had fallen ill from the shame of breaking his vows of chastity (with his own wife) or (2) Henry’s wife had strayed, and he had fallen ill from being a cuckold. The latter story worked well for the House of York…
A hat belonging to Henry was kept as a sacred artifact up until the English Reformation. It was said to cure migraines.
At the age of 16, Henry was declared of age and received full rights to rule on his own in 1437—the same year that his absent mother died. He could have used all the guidance he could get.
Henry’s knight in shining armor was his own wife, Margaret of Anjou. On 10 July 1460, the king got himself captured the Battle of Northampton by the Duke of York. Luckily, it only took his loving queen’s forces eight months to rescue him.
After his wife rescued him from captivity, Henry had entered another bout of mental instability. Given to singing and laughing, Henry kept this up as fighting continued in the background.
Not many kings lose their crown twice, but Henry VI was never ordinary. His first brush with bare hair was at the Battle of Towton. In March 1461, the Duke of York’s son, now Edward IV, defeated the Lancastrian King and took the throne.
Henry spent the first part of Edward’s reign hiding with allies in Northern England and Scotland. His wife, Queen Margaret, remained the brains of the operation and continued to lead the Lancastrian resistance.
In 1465, the king formerly known as Henry VI was recaptured by Edward IV’s forces. As a prisoner in the Tower of London, Henry passed his time by composing poetry.
Edward’s familial losses were Henry’s gain. By 1470, the Yorkist King Edward IV had fallen out with his two closest supporters, Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick and Edwards’ own brother, George, the Duke of Clarence. The king’s unpopular decision to marry for love, to Elizabeth Woodville, combined with general dissatisfaction with his tax and foreign policy decisions, were the perfect conditions for Warwick and Clarence to defect to the side of Henry VI.
According to Sir Thomas More’s History of Richard III, it was Richard III—then just the Duke of Gloucester—who delivered the killing blow to Henry VI. The only problem? Richard wasn’t even in town when the old king died. Chalk that up to more Tudor propaganda.
The retaking of Henry’s throne was engineered, as with many things, by his wife Margaret. She hammered the deal with Warwick and Edward IV’s brother, the Duke of Clarence. Should Henry and Margaret’s only son, Edward of Westminster, die without heirs, Clarence would be next in line for the throne. The deal was sealed by wedding Westminster to Warwick’s daughter, Anne Neville.
Henry retook the throne but only held onto it for six months. It’s largely accepted that Warwick and Clarence were running the show anyways. Unfortunately, this means Warwick had the power he needed to wage war with Burgundy. Following the whole “the enemy of mine enemy is my friend” thing, Burgundy promptly sided with Edward IV in 1471 and helped the Yorkist king retake the throne.
Henry’s son, Edward of Westminster, is the only English heir apparent in history to die in battle. At the age of 17, he predeceased both his parents on 4 May 1471 in the Battle of Tewkesbury. This deciding battle threw our Henry VI off the throne for good.
Upon King Edward’s return, Henry VI was imprisoned for a second time in the Tower of London. However, he was kept alive. Some speculated the Yorkists did not want to leave the Lancastrians with a more formidable leader that wasn’t prone to year-long catatonic states.
Despite their many political difficulties, Henry and his wife Queen Margaret had a tender relationship. The couple once kicked off New Year celebrations by receiving their gifts in bed, where they lay in their PJs and pillows all morning and thereby beat John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s celebrity staycation honeymoon by some centuries.
Henry never took a mistress. Maybe Henry loved no one but Margaret, but others have suggested he had a (rumored) phobia of naked bodies.
According to one chronicler, King Henry literally ran away in distress after a lord brought a gang of topless ladies to a Christmas celebration as a ribald joke. The king also couldn’t stand the sight of naked men in the medieval-typical setting of a bathhouse. To Henry’s credit, naked strangers are scary.
In his more lucid years, a young Henry greeted his bride by disguising himself as a squire and “unmasking” his royal identity to her later in a show of courtly love and pageantry.
Henry VI of England’s “official” death took place on 21 May 1471 by the cause of “melancholy.” Reportedly, he learned of his son’s death and fell into a devasting and irreparable grief. However, it was also widely rumored that the king was murdered on Edward IV’s orders. He was 49 years old.
According to his skeleton, Henry stood at five feet and nine inches. That’s fairly tall for a medieval man.
Contrary to his legacy as a witless king, Henry left a lasting legacy on English education. During his life, the king was heavily invested in the development of universities. He founded famous institutions such as Eton College, King’s College in Cambridge, and All Souls College in Oxford. To this day, the Provosts of Eton and King’s honor his life by laying white flowers (Yorkist emblems) at the place where he was allegedly murdered while kneeled in prayer.
William Shakespeare wrote a trilogy of plays documenting Henry’s life. We know these plays collectively as Henry VI. However, the Bard makes zero reference to Henry’s struggles with mental illness. Instead, Henry is more portrayed as too easily influenced by his wife and too concerned with the Bible to be a practical ruler.
Henry didn’t have much in common with his warrior father, but they at least shared an investment in architecture. Henry VI completed his father’s work in the foundation of the famed Syon Abbey.
According to one chronicle, Henry VI predicted that his nephew, Henry Tudor, would inherit the throne when the future king was just a young boy. Presented with the child at court, Henry VI apparently looked at him for a long time and then told all the courtiers, “This truly, this is he unto whom both we and our adversaries must yield and give over the dominion.” Maybe he was being nice to the little kid, but what a lucky guess.
In the early 16th century, Henry’s shrine was a hugely popular stop for pilgrimage. According to one story, a man cursed “Saint Henry,” only to go blind soon after. He only regained his sight after taking a pilgrimage back to the shrine and making amends with the dead king.
Henry VII found it just too expensive to have his uncle officially canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church. To save money, the Tudor king simply had Henry VI reverently buried and enshrined at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor.
Henry’s reign marked the humiliating loss of England’s territories in France. Most notably, England lost the Duchy of Aquitaine in 1451—a legendary holding that had been in England since the days of Henry II. With the final loss of Bordeaux (after a brief retaking) in 1453, the puny city of Calais was England’s only holding in France.
Upon learning about the loss of Bordeaux, England’s last important holding in France, Henry VI had a full mental breakdown. He remained unresponsive—basically catatonic—for more than a year.
During his year-long mental breakdown in late 1453, Henry welcomed his only child, Edward of Westminster. Unfortunately, not even the birth of an heir could snap the king out of his zombie-like state.
It’s been speculated Henry suffered from schizophrenia. Certainly, he had the genetic disposition for it; his mother’s father, Charles VI of France, spent the last thirty years of his life with periodic bouts of instability and hallucinations. However, others have noted that Charles manifested very distinct symptoms from Henry, so no one can say for sure.
By Christmas 1452, Henry finally came out of his mental breakdown. Unfortunately, he woke to the worst possible news: his relatives had enough of the bad governance and humiliating loss of French territory. Nobles began to back the Duke of York’s claim to the throne, taking the government and then setting sights on the crown itself. Thus began the “Cousins War,” or what is better known as the Wars of the Roses.
In the early days of the Wars of the Roses, Henry opted for “Love” over “War.” In fact, he declared 25 March 1548 to be “Loveday.” For real. The celebrations forced the combatants from both sides of the war—the Yorkists and the Lancastrians—to literally hold hands and walk in pilgrimage with each other to St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Naturally, the handholding didn’t last more than a day; all parties promptly (and I bet rather awkwardly) returned to the business of trying to overthrow their kin pretty fast. If every civil conflict could be solved with TLC, the world would be a better place…
When Henry VI retook the throne in 1470, it’s said he had to be led by the hand through London like a child. At this point, he was still too unstable to rule on his own.
Centuries after his death, Henry’s corpse was dug up. His light hair was covered in blood and he had damage to his skull. This strongly suggests his death was perhaps less “melancholic” and more “murder-y.”
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