Henry VI was the only child of the famous warrior-king, Henry V. His father’s military victories in France, and marriage to the French king’s daughter Catherine of Valois, made Henry the legal heir to the French throne as well as the English. He became king of England before his first birthday and, for a brief while, his French title was also recognized. But political turmoil in England, the revival of French nationalism (through the heroic efforts of Joan of Arc), and the young king’s bouts of insanity, ensured his reign would be troubled and unhappy.
Henry VI was pious and often kind-hearted, but supremely unsuited for kingship. His marriage to the strong-willed and ambitious Margaret of Anjou was another cause for concern. Henry’s mental problems forced his wife to assume a dominant role in government; as a result, she was considered unwomanly and presumptuous. In the end, Henry – whose reign lasted 39 years – was one of the least effective and most tragic of the Plantagenet kings. Perhaps the sin of his grandfather’s usurpation and murder of Richard II came back to haunt him; like Richard, Henry lost his throne to a cousin and was murdered.
Henry VI inherited two kingdoms, but lacked the ability to rule even one. It was not his fault. Legend has it that his father, Henry V, wrote a warning letter to the pregnant Catherine of Valois; he told her to bear their first (and only) child at any royal residence she chose, save one – Windsor Castle.
It had long been believed that any child born at Windsor would lead a tragic life. Catherine received her husband’s missive and promptly disregarded it. Her son was born at Windsor Castle on 6 December 1421. About a year and a half earlier (on 21 May 1420), his father’s military victories against France resulted in the Treaty of Troyes. This treaty recognized Henry as heir to the French throne and regent of France and, just two weeks later, he was married to Charles VI’s daughter, Catherine of Valois. Yet roughly two years later, after the birth of his only heir, Henry V died of camp fever at the chateau of Vincennes. He was just 34 years old, already celebrated by friends and enemies alike as the bravest and most accomplished soldier of his times.
With the hero of Agincourt dead, his hard-won victories were bequeathed to an infant not yet a year old. (Also, Charles VI of France outlived Henry V by just a few weeks; he died on 21 October 1422, and his throne passed to Henry VI as well.) Henry’s mother had returned to her native France just five months after his birth; upon her husband’s death she came back to England. But if she expected to play a role in government, she was sadly mistaken.
There were too many powerful men struggling for precedence at the infant king’s court – his uncles John, Duke of Bedford, and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester; his great-uncles Thomas Beaufort, Duke of Exeter, and Henry Beaufort, bishop of Winchester; and William de la Pole, the Duke of Suffolk. For these men, the first questions they faced after Henry V’s death were obvious – who would raise the infant king? and how should England and France be ruled until he came of age? As one can imagine, there were no easy answers.
Catherine was allowed to care for her son, along with a succession of nurses and tutors, but her influence was strictly personal. The powerful lords listed above had decided to create a new constitutional device to guide Henry’s reign during his minority – a protectorate. The royal uncles were given special recognition, but they were not allowed to play king in their nephew’s place. While the duke of Bedford became regent of English holdings in France, and the duke of Gloucester was regent of England, their powers were strictly limited – and all important decisions were voted upon by a council of leading noblemen. It was inevitable that much squabbling ensued from this arrangement, but it couldn’t be helped. Public order in England and France was maintained, and – at the age of 8 – Henry was crowned king of England and then crossed the Channel to be crowned king of France. These ceremonies were largely symbolic, a recognition of his special rights as monarch, but they officially ended the protectorate.
Henry had spent his childhood under the care of Dame Alice Botiller, and other nurses. But the most important influence upon the young king was Richard Beauchamp, the earl of Warwick. Beauchamp was well-educated and fond of his young charge. They spent most of their time at Windsor Castle, though Henry traveled often to his mother’s houses (mostly in the southeast of England.) It was during these early years that a very deep piety and prudishness became rooted in his character. Since his religious training was no more strict than other monarchs, one can only assume that he was predisposed to an ascetic life. He greatly admired the Saxon king Alfred (whose exploits he read delightedly), and – like Alfred – Henry was determined to promote education and piety amongst his subjects. To that end, he founded both King’s College at Cambridge University and a college for poor children at Eton.
Henry’s own ecclesiastical feelings remained almost childlike; he never discarded an aversion to nudity, and was noticeably uncomfortable around women at court. It seemed that any degree of sensuality, or flirtation, unnerved him. One cannot condemn him for such feelings – they were natural enough in a young man of peculiarly pious sentiment. But they were unsuitable in a king. Successful medieval kings could not afford to be prudish, or overly religious. Their primary duty was to the state, and its people, and rigid morals were often the first to be sacrificed in the name of good government.
Henry’s character was shaped by more than piety, however. It soon became clear that he had inherited the mental instability of his maternal grandfather, Charles VI. The insane French king had bequeathed a legacy of madness to his grandson. Periodic bouts of insanity continued throughout Henry’s adult life, often rendering him unable to speak. However, the condition only became obvious after his marriage to Margaret of Anjou, a niece of the French queen. They wed in April 1445, despite opposition from many English lords. By that time, most of Henry V’s French conquests were gone; in July 1429, a new claimant to the French throne had declared himself Charles VII, inspired by Joan of Arc. Consequently, Henry VI had been proclaimed king of England and France, though he was still but a child. Interestingly, Henry never visited France after his coronation at Notre-Dame in Paris.
But Henry’s coronation meant little to the French. Their new king, Charles VII, led successful campaigns against their strongholds. The English lords were divided over what action to take; some wanted war, others wanted to negotiate, and still others wanted peace at any cost. Henry’s marriage to Margaret was an attempt at a truce, but it soon fell through. Before long, little remained of Henry V’s conquests and even the great duchy of Normandy fell to the French. Henry VI, who completely lacked his father’s military training and skill, saw little hope in continued conflict. He wanted a lasting peace, observed by both sides. War was miserable and hideously expensive, and it is to his credit that he recognized its drain on English resources. But – and this is an important point – even Henry would not consider abjectly surrendering his French possessions or abdicating his title as king of France. As he saw it, he was legally the king of France; of course, it had become clear that his title was not recognized by the French people, but that did not invalidate its legality. Also, Henry wanted peace in France, but without sacrificing English lands.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Henry VI" https://englishhistory.net/middle-ages/henry-vi/, January 12, 2022