King Henry VI was a man deeply unsuited to the position into which he was born. Henry became King of England on 31st August 1422 aged 9 months upon the death of his father, the glorious warrior-king Henry V. He was also heir to the French throne following his father's successes. His uncles were placed in charge of his territories during his long minority. Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester was Protector of the Realm in England, effectively ruling in Henry's name with the aid of a council. John, Duke of Bedford was made Regent of France and fought hard to maintain the infant's territories there. The French king died later that same year and his son was quickly crowned. In response, Henry was crowned King of France in Rouen.
His minority was ended in 1437 when Henry was declared to have come of age and took the reins of government. Henry emerged from his minority blinking into the dazzling light of a world for which he was ill prepared. He was pious, quiet and shy. Disliking war, bloodshed and the frivolity of court life, Henry began to favour peace with France. He was supported in this by Cardinal Beaufort and by William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk. Hungry to continue pressing English claims in France were the king's uncle Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester and his most powerful subject Richard, Duke of York.
Cardinal Beaufort and the Earl of Suffolk prevailed and were instrumental in arranging Henry's marriage to Margaret of Anjou, a niece of King Charles VII of France. The Treaty of Tours was agreed but its key provisions were kept secret from Parliament. Henry had agreed to cede Maine and Anjou and not to receive a dowry for the marriage. The wedding took place on 23rd April 1445 and the territories were lost.
At this time two factions emerged at court and it was Henry's inability to resolve this conflict that set the foundations of civil war. On one side, William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, the now elderly statesman Cardinal Beaufort and his nephew Edmund Beaufort,now 2nd Duke of Somerset following the death of his brother John, had the favour of the king and, perhaps more importantly, his forceful queen. They sought peace with France and were securing significant patronage at court. Opposing them was Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester and Richard, Duke of York. Richard was Henry's heir presumptive until the king had a child and favoured hostility with France, resenting the increasing influence of Suffolk and Somerset.
In 1447, with the support of the king and queen, Suffolk and Somerset had Gloucester charged with treason. He was arrested and died in custody, possibly of a heart attack though rumours abounded that he had been poisoned. York was despatched to Ireland where he ruled for the king, gathering much support to the House of York but in little doubt that it was effectively exile. Suffolk was forced from favour by failures, including taking the blame for the costly marriage negotiations of the king and lawlessness in East Anglia. Banished for 5 years, his boat was attacked on the way to Calais. Suffolk was executed and his body thrown overboard. Rumour quickly circulated that York's long arms had arranged the attack. Somerset was given command in France and failed so completely that by 1453 only Calais remained in English hands.
1450 had seen an uprising in Kent that had stormed London. The rising has been titled Cade's Rebellion after its leader, Jack Cade, a shadowy figure often linked to the Duke of York. Among the rebels’ demands was the return to court of the duke. The rebels stormed London and, having presented their demands, were assured that they would be met and all rebels would be pardoned. No demands were met and the rebel leaders, including Cade, were hunted down and executed. Although ultimately a failure, the rebellion shows the strength of the concerns that were growing around Henry VI's kingship and his choice of advisors. London admitted the rebels, primarily because they were sympathetic to their demands. It was also clear that the popular choice to right these perceived wrongs was Richard, Duke of York.
In early 1453, Henry VI must have felt as though he had finally got the hang of being king. The previous year, York had risen with a force of men and marched on London. Protesting his loyalty to the king, York sought only to remove his councillors, particularly Somerset. The duke's army camped outside London and was approached by the Duke of Buckingham and the Earls of Salisbury and Warwick, York's brothers-in-law and nephew respectively. It is worth noting Warwick's initial loyalty to Henry VI as a prelude to his later fame. York was in a weak negotiating position, but agreed to disband his force if Somerset was arrested. When the news of the king's acceptance of these terms arrived, York set off with a handful of retainers to meet Henry.
On arriving in the king's presence, York was greeted by the sight of Somerset at the king's side. Apparently the queen had intervened to prevent his removal. Isolated from his army, York was forced to lead the procession back into London as though he were a prisoner. He swore an oath of allegiance to Henry and promised never again to rise against the king's person with an armed force. Suitably cowed, he was released, withdrawing to Ludlow and effective exile from court once again.
To add to Henry's mounting optimism, after 7 years of marriage, his wife Margaret was pregnant. It seemed that uncertainty over the succession may be resolving itself favourably. The previous year, Henry had also made a confident about-face and opened hostilities with France, hoping to emulate his father. Still to come were the terrible losses of all territory but Calais. In November 1452, Henry created his half-brothers, Edmund and Jasper Tudor, Earls of Richmond and Pembroke respectively. Edmund swiftly married Margaret Beaufort with the king's approval. Margaret, the niece of the current Duke of Somerset, was the wealthiest heiress in England and the union cemented the Tudor brothers within the Lancastrian establishment and gave Henry fiercely loyal allies. Peace at home and war with France made for a happy kingdom.
As the middle of 1453 approached, though, Henry's confidence and his attachment to Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset were to cost him dearly. Henry spent the early months of the year touring his kingdom, settling local disputes and showing himself to his subjects. In July, he returned to Greenwich and was met by a problem. Somerset was engaged in a rapidly escalating dispute with Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. Warwick's father was the Earl of Salisbury, his aunt was Cecily Neville, wife of the Duke of York and the dispute concerned a matrimonial inheritance in Wales. Upon the death of his father-in-law, Warwick had been granted half of the Despenser inheritance of his father-in-law's last wife. Warwick had held these lands since 1450 but for reasons best known to Henry, he had placed custody of the Despenser lands into the hands of Somerset. Given Warwick's previous loyalty, he may have expected the matter to be resolved in his favour but when Council met at Sheen at the end of July, he was ordered to hand the lands over to Somerset. To compound matters, Somerset was present at Council to plead his case. Warwick was not.
Warwick seethed and dug in at Cardiff castle. Somerset set about evicting him. Henry left London, heading for Dorset to settle the matter in person. Near Salisbury, at the royal hunting lodge at Clarendon, matters took an unexpected turn. Just before leaving London, news had reached Henry of his army's defeat at Castillon which effectively lost all English territory in France apart from Calais. Messengers also brought tales of a renewed Neville-Percy feud in the north that was threatening to spill over into conflict. Perhaps the combination of all of these setbacks after riding such an unaccustomed high, added to the Valois blood that flowed in Henry's veins, the blood of the mad French king Charles VI, undid the king. At the age of 31, Henry slipped into a catatonic state. The Abbot of St Albans, John Whethamstede wrote how 'a disease and disorder of such a sort overcame the king that he lost his wits and memory for a time, and nearly all his body was so uncoordinated and out of control that he could neither walk nor hold his head up, nor easily move from where he sat'.
The consequences of a king suddenly left incapacitated were seismic. No one could be sure how long his condition would persist. In the short term Council was able to maintain government and keep Henry's condition secret, but it lacked authority without the king. There was a gaping vacuum at the very centre of power and two bitter enemies seeking to fill it.