Perhaps the unhappiest of the Plantagenet kings, Henry IV seized the throne from his cousin, Richard II, in 1399 – and thus inaugurated the Lancastrian dynasty which would rule England for sixty-two years. But his reign, which began with Richard’s murder, was destined to be troubled and miserable for Henry. He suffered from a painful skin disease, and famously clashed with his eldest son and heir, also called Henry (who became the great hero of Agincourt.) In the end, he ruled but fourteen years and most of those were spent in political and personal failure.
Henry IV ‘Bolingbroke’
parents – John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster (son of Edward III) and Blanche Plantagenet
date and place of birth – 30 May 1366 or 3 April 1366 at Bolingbroke Castle
wives – Mary de Bohun and Joan of Navarre
date of first marriage – sometime before February 1381
children – Edward, Henry, Thomas, John, Humphrey, Blanche, Philippa
date of second marriage – 7 February 1403
children – Edmund
years of reign – 1399-1413
date of coronation – 13 October 1399 at Westminster Abbey, London
date and place of death – 20 March 1413 at Westminster Abbey, London interred at Canterbury Cathedral
Henry was the oldest son of the supremely ambitious John of Gaunt. Gaunt had dominated his father Edward III’s government during the king’s last years, and had watched – with great jealousy – as Edward’s heir, Edward ‘the Black Prince’, had achieved military glory and renown in Europe. When his brother had died, he left behind an infant son – Richard – and both Gaunt and Edward III had promised to support the child’s claim to the throne. But it is likely that Gaunt chafed at his promise for, if the Black Prince had died without an heir, his own path to the throne would have been clear. Gaunt’s ambitions certainly affected his children, particularly his eldest surviving son and heir, Henry.
Henry was born on 30 May 1366 (or 3 April 1366) at Bolingbroke Castle, from whence came his nickname ‘Henry Bolingbroke’. He was created earl of Derby in preparation for his marriage to the great heiress Mary de Bohun, and – after his marriage – he held the titles earl of Northampton and Hereford (later titled duke of Hereford in 1397.) They married probably in late 1380/early 1381 in Sussex. Mary was the daughter and heir of Humphrey de Bohun, earl of Hereford; born around 1369, she died at the age of twenty-five after bearing seven children.
Henry barely knew his mother, Blanche, daughter of Henry, duke of Lancaster (and great-great-granddaughter of Henry III.) She died of the plague when Henry was just three, but she had been her father’s only heir and his ducal title passed to her husband, John of Gaunt. As soon as he came of age, Henry was embroiled in the sordid power struggles which marked his cousin Richard II’s reign. Richard was actually about six months younger than Henry, but had been king since his tenth birthday. His rule had not been either efficient or popular. For a long while, Henry’s father dominated the government, even as he had ruled England through his father Edward III. But Richard was susceptible to flattery, and longed to exercise authority on his own; understandably, he chafed at Gaunt’s pretensions to power, as well as the overbearing manner of other lords. He promoted his favorites – Robert de Vere, earl of Oxford, and Michael de la Pole – to important positions in government while ignoring the great hereditary lords.
Opposition mounted in the mid 1380s, centered around the powerful Robert Fitzalan, earl of Arundel. In 1386, matters came to a head; the twenty year old king appointed de Vere duke of Ireland, with full powers of regency, and de la Pole was made chancellor – both appointments made without consultation of Parliament. A few months later, John of Gaunt left England to press his claim to the throne of Castile (he had married the king of Castile’s daughter after Blanche’s death.) Gaunt had not been particularly fond of his nephew, but he had maintained the stability of Richard’s government, acting as a liaison between the disaffected lords and his nephew. But with Gaunt out of the country, Arundel – along with Richard’s uncle Thomas, duke of Gloucester (youngest of Edward III’s sons), Thomas Beauchamp, earl of Warwick, Thomas Mowbray, earl of Nottingham, and Henry Bolingbroke, Gaunt’s son – gathered troops outside London and effectively assumed control of the English government. They were called the Lords Appellant, and their extensive lands and wealth had allowed them to amass large private armies – taken together, their forces were larger than the king’s. Richard had no choice but to accept their imposition. But he refused to hand over de Vere and de la Pole for trial. They escaped to the continent, though other favorites of Richard’s were not so fortunate.
Richard played along with the Lords Appellant until 1389, when he declared himself of age and fit to rule England on his own. He did not engage in immediate revenge, however, for he recognized that he could only take revenge from a position of strength. So he simply dismissed many of the councilors the Lords had forced upon him, and appointed his own favorites. For roughly six years a relative calm existed in the government. During this time, Richard’s beloved wife, Anne of Bohemia, died of plague (1394); two years later, he wed Isabella, the 7 year old daughter of King Charles VI of France. The marriage to Isabella created peace between England and its traditional enemy, France, and Richard’s armies were successful in ending a rebellion in Ireland. So, in mid-1397, he finally felt capable of dealing with the Lords Appellant who had humiliated and angered him roughly a decade before. He ordered his uncle Gloucester, Arundel and Warwick arrested. Gloucester was sent to Calais where he was murdered; Arundel and Warwick were tried before parliament and found guilty of treason. Arundel was executed, but Warwick threw himself upon the king’s mercy and begged forgiveness. Richard sent him to the Isle of Man as a prisoner under control of Lord William le Scrope. In early 1398, Richard’s parliament declared Mowbray and Henry Bolingbroke guilty of treason as well (though everyone, including Richard, knew that Arundel had been the ringleader.) Parliament demanded trial by combat, but the king intervened; he exiled Mowbray for life and took his lands and income for the crown, while Henry was exiled for ten years. His lands remained his own, and he was allowed to collect their revenue from abroad. It was a comparatively light punishment.
But it was soon to become worse. Freed from the constraints of his minority rule, Richard grew into an unstable tyrant. All of the least attractive qualities of the Plantagenet temperament became focused in him – he was often arbitrarily cruel, but he was excessively kind to his favorites. He had great courage (as demonstrated during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381), but it was often misplaced. When his uncle John of Gaunt died in February 1399, Richard had the opportunity to welcome his cousin Bolingbroke back to England. Instead, paranoid and uneasy in his absolute power, he extended Henry’s banishment to life and seized all of his lands, including the great duchy of Lancaster.
This was hardly fair, and it touched upon a sacred issue in medieval life – the rights of inheritance. Property was prized above all else, and for the king to arbitrarily seize a person’s lands – particularly without the approval of Parliament – was akin to blasphemy. After all, Henry had been one of the Lords Appellant – but he had stepped down from the position just a year after they came to power, he left England to join the Teutonic Knights in Lithuania (where they fought in the war over the Polish succession.) Afterwards, he went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and stopped at most of the royal courts of Europe on his way to the holy city, and back. He was given enthusiastic receptions, and proved himself to be a skilled and enthusiastic diplomat. Perhaps his popularity and nearness to the throne angered Richard; certainly the king had no children yet, and little hope of siring any on his child queen. Henry would have been a formidable ally for Richard to cultivate, but the king could not forget the past – and when Henry’s ten-year banishment was supposed to end, Richard used the opportunity to instead force his cousin from England for life.
In February 1399, after John of Gaunt’s death, Henry had inherited the title duke of Lancaster. His own eldest son and heir, also called Henry (though I will refer to him by his nickname ‘Harry of Monmouth’ to avoid confusion), was in Richard’s custody as a sort of hostage for Henry’s good behavior. In May of 1399, Richard was forced to go to Ireland to put down a revolt, and took along Harry as a precaution. However, this did not stop Henry from seizing the moment. While Richard was in Ireland, Henry set about amassing a small army; he landed in Yorkshire on 4 July 1399, and within a matter of days, thousands had flocked to his standard. His own unpopularity, coupled with the traitorous deceit of the Percys, forced Richard to submit to Henry on 19 August at Flint Castle. The former king was sent to the Tower of London, and Henry set about convincing Parliament that he should be king.
There was one person who had a better claim to the throne, in terms of primogeniture – the eight year old Edmund Mortimer, earl of March; he was the son of Lionel, duke of Clarence, older brother of John of Gaunt. Technically, Edmund had a greater claim than Henry – but Edmund was a child, and no one in England wanted another child ruler. So Parliament agreed that Henry should succeed his cousin upon the throne, and on 29 September Richard II formally abdicated. Henry was crowned king of England on 13 October at Westminster Abbey.
(It is important to note that Henry did not immediately claim the throne upon landing in England; he simply claimed the duchy of Lancaster. He waited for Parliament to request his rule before becoming king.)
His most immediate problem was Richard II’s continued existence. It was dangerous to hold the former king in the heart of London, particularly since Henry’s own accession wasn’t as popular as he had hoped. So Richard was moved to Pontefract Castle in Yorkshire. When a number of rebellions broke out in Richard’s name, Henry had the former king murdered – possibly by starvation; he died sometime in February 1400. However, when Richard’s body was brought to London (so the populace could see the king was dead), only the head was visible upon a black velvet pillow. The body was soldered in lead. Rumors began to spread that Richard had met his death by violence, but no proof ever emerged. Henry had the body interred at Kings Langley; his own son, as Henry V, had the body moved to Westminster Abbey and buried in state.
Henry’s accession was only popular upon the surface, for he had deposed and supplanted a legitimate king and such acts are always troublesome. Also, the lords who had supported his successful march through England, did not receive the great favors they expected. After all, they considered Henry one of their own – a great lord, wealthy and powerful, but not a born king. He was king only because of their support, not by birth or divine right. So within a few months of his succession, a rebellion was led by the earls of Kent, Salisbury, and Huntingdon. Henry triumphed over the rebels, but the experience had unnerved him; it was possibly then that he ordered Richard starved to death, or otherwise killed.
More warfare followed, led by the able Welsh prince Owain Glyn Dwr (called Owen Glendower by the English.) Henry managed to crush Glyn Dwr’s initial revolt, but the prince was not caught and a protracted war began. The Welsh understandably supported Glyn Dwr but, surprisingly, so did a number of English barons. They were led by the powerful marcher lords, the Mortimers – they rightly believed their heir, Edmund earl of March, was the rightful king of England, and not Henry. Young Edmund’s uncle eventually wed Glyn Dwr’s daughter, and the Percys soon joined the Mortimers in their rebellion. The Percys were led by Henry Percy, earl of Northumberland, and his vainglorious son, also named Henry but known as Hotspur. Hotspur had led successful raids against the Scots, and felt that Henry had neglected to properly award him. He was also married to the young earl of March’s sister. So, in 1403, the powerful Percys joined with the Mortimers and Glyn Dwr. Henry moved quickly, and met Hotspur on the battlefield before Mortimer’s forces could arrive. On 21 July 1403, the king won the battle of Shrewsbury; Hotspur and his uncle were executed, though the earl of Northumberland was spared.
Mortimer was still free, however, and the earl of Northumberland – though his life had been spared – was more determined than ever to overthrow the king. They involve Thomas Mowbray, Earl Marshal of England, and Richard Scrope, archbishop of York, in their plot. Once again, Henry defeated the rebels – and exacted swift vengeance. Though Northumberland escaped to Scotland, he died bitter and broken in 1408. The archbishop was executed, and Edmund Mortimer eventually died during the siege of Harlech – thus depriving the Welsh rebellion of one of its principal leaders.
So around 1408 Henry felt reasonably secure upon his throne. Even the notoriously troublesome Scots weren’t a problem – in 1406, James – heir to the throne – had been captured by the English on his way to France for safe-keeping. He was kept in England for about 17 years, and though he was a hostage he was comfortable and traveled with Henry’s court. Also, Charles VI’s insanity had caused a civil war in France and they did not trouble England.
But the diminishment of those traditional threats did not augur complete peace for Henry. His heir, Harry of Monmouth, had fought against the English and Welsh rebels and emerged as a charismatic and capable leader. He chafed under his father’s tutelage and wanted more power. As Henry’s own physical condition deteriorated, even some of his own councilors argued he should abdicate in favor of his son. Rumors soon began that the young prince, in his mid-20s, would seize the throne by force but this did not happen. Why? Because Henry IV died on 20 March 1413, so no filial disobedience was necessary.
Henry’s second wife, Joan, was the daughter of Charles II, king of Navarre and widow of the duke of Brittany. There were rumors that she had first caught Henry’s eye when he was traveling through Europe in exile. When her own husband died, and she heard of Henry’s accession, she sought a papal dispensation – and sent a messenger to England to tell Henry they could wed. Henry must have liked boldness in a woman, for he accepted Joan’s ‘proposal’ and they wed in 1402. They had no surviving children, and Henry V apparently did not care for his stepmother – he had her imprisoned for witchcraft soon after his coronation.
Interestingly, despite the fact that Richard II’s body was given a public viewing in London in 1400, rumors persisted that he still lived. A young man named Thomas hung about the Scottish court claiming to be Richard, and trying to gain support for his cause. By the terms of a treaty, he was eventually handed over to Henry IV for punishment. His end was especially gruesome – he was sent on a tour of England, with stops in several large cities. At each city, he was hanged until he lost consciousness and then cut down. Eventually, his neck became so stretched and mutilated that the punishment could not continue. He was then drawn and quartered.
Also, though contemporaries believe Henry suffered from leprosy – either contracted during his travels in the east, or as divine vengeance over Richard II’s murder – he probably suffered from a severe form of eczema, a stress-related skin disorder. It’s certainly true that his brief reign was rarely peaceful or calm.
It is worth remembering as well the reasons Richard lost his throne, or – to put it another way – the reasons the great barons turned against the king and supported Henry IV:
– people still remembered the example of King Edward II who had been forced to abdicate, and was later murdered, all in the name of fair government
– Edward III’s losing war in France required him to rely heavily upon baronial support; in return, they exercised increasing power in government (and they were loathe to give up those powers)
– the decade of Richard II’s minority rule had also allowed the barons to exercise authority and, once again, they loathed to give it up when the king came of age
Faced with such circumstances, it is unlikely anyone could have ruled easily and well during the first years of the fifteenth century. Certainly Henry IV had a difficult time of it, much like Richard II.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Henry IV – Biography of the English King" https://englishhistory.net/middle-ages/henry-iv/, January 12, 2022