Post-classical history



The Usurper – Henry IV

a more complex Macbeth

Bruce McFarlane1

The usurper

When Henry IV lay on his deathbed, his son picked up the crown from a nearby table. The dying man opened his eyes and asked, ‘Why do you think you have any right to it? I had none myself, as you know very well.’ Enguerrand de Monstrelet, the chronicler who told the story fifty years later, accused Henry of coming to the throne by ‘strange, dishonourable means’.2 Many contemporaries shared Monstrelet’s opinion.

When Henry told parliament in 1399 that he ‘challenged’ the realm of England, he implied he was taking the crown by right of conquest as well as descent, which meant he was ready to fight off rival challenges.3 These duly came, in a series of risings driven by a wish to revenge his predecessor or inability to accept him as king. ‘Not since I was a youth can I recall such deep forebodings by well-balanced men about the grave disorders and troubles they fear will soon afflict this kingdom’, his own confessor wrote to him in 1401, an ex-Lollard who remembered the Peasants’ Revolt.4

‘Always in deep debt, always kept on the alert by the Scots and Welsh; wavering between two opposite lines of policy with regard to France; teased by the parliament, which interfered with his household and grudged him supplies; worried by the clergy and others to whom he had promised more than he could fulfil; continually alarmed by attempts on his life, disappointed in his second marriage, bereft by treason of the aid of those whom he had trusted in his youth, and dreading to be supplanted by his own son; ever in danger of becoming the sport of the court factions which he had failed to extinguish, he seems to us a man whose life was embittered by the knowledge that he had taken on himself a task for which he was unequal.’ Stubbs’s epitome will never be bettered.5

John of Gaunt’s heir

Born at Bolingbroke Castle in the Lincolnshire Wolds in 1366, it seemed Henry would one day succeed his father Gaunt as England’s richest magnate. In any case, he was enormously wealthy from his marriage in 1380 to the twelve-year-old Mary de Bohun, the younger of the Earl of Hereford’s two heiresses. His uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, had married her elder sister, forcing Mary into a nunnery in an attempt to secure the entire Bohun inheritance, but Gaunt abducted her, the marriage being consummated when she was fourteen.

The other drama of his early years took place during the Peasants’ Revolt, when he was caught in the Tower of London by a mob who wanted to lynch John of Gaunt’s son – only a kind-hearted soldier’s intervention saved the boy. Some suspected he had been deliberately left in the Tower by ruthless courtiers, to eliminate a potential rival of the young king.

Aged twenty-one, Henry led the Appellants to victory, routing de Vere’s army at Radcot Bridge, but hedged his bets by trying to save the life of Richard’s old tutor, Sir Simon Burley. He also blocked Gloucester’s attempt to seize the throne. His father Lancaster possessed a better claim than Gloucester while, despite a mutual detestation of de Vere, their dispute over the Bohun inheritance gave him reason not to trust his uncle.

The Crusader

In autumn 1390, after sailing through the Baltic and landing near Gdansk, the Earl of Derby (as Henry was then styled) joined the Teutonic Knights on the Northern Crusade in Lithuania. Travelling down the River Memel, he helped to besiege Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. The Lithuanians’ Grand Prince had converted to Christianity, but the Crusade continued, since many of his folk were still pagans who worshipped hares and snakes. Having wintered at Königsberg in East Prussia where he was entertained by the Knights’ marshal, Henry went home, en route visiting the Grand Master’s court at Marienburg.

In 1392 he returned to the Baltic. Finding there was peace between the Teutonic Knights and the Lithuanians, he went with a household fifty strong on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, 2,000 miles away. After visiting Prague and Vienna Henry sailed from Venice to the Knights of St John at Rhodes, from where he took ship to Palestine. At the Holy Sepulchre he swore an oath that one day he would go on Crusade, recover the Holy Land for Christendom and then die in the Holy City. On the way home, he visited Cyprus whose ruler, James I – titular King of Jerusalem – gave him a leopard that he took back to England.

Here, Henry kept on outwardly good terms with King Richard until the final upheaval, being made Duke of Hereford for deserting the Appellants and his part in the Earl of Arundel’s destruction. Had he been allowed to inherit his father’s patrimony, it is unlikely he would have rebelled.

First years

The new king was crowned at Westminster Abbey on 13 October by Archbishop Arundel. It was St Edward’s Day, to stress his sincerity in swearing the coronation oath to defend the Confessor’s laws. When Arundel anointed his head, it was swarming with lice, which some saw as an evil omen. Parliament met the next day and some of the dukes Richard had created were reduced to their old rank of earl, but did not suffer financially. However, the estates of Scrope, Bussy and Green were confiscated as most people regarded them as criminals.

At the end of 1399 a band of plotters met at Westminster Abbey, whose abbot William de Colchester remained loyal to the ex-king. They planned to kill Henry with his sons during an Epiphany tournament at Windsor and restore Richard. Not knowing where he was, they found a clerk of the chapel royal called Maudelyn, who bore a resemblance, to impersonate him. On Twelfth Night (6 January), the Earls of Huntingdon, Kent and Salisbury with 500 men-at-arms rode through the night from Kingston-upon-Thames, storming the castle at dawn. Proclaiming Richard II king again, they rushed from room to room, but failed to find their enemy – Rutland had betrayed the plot to his father, the Duke of York, and Henry had escaped with his sons a few hours before. Fleeing to the West Country, the coup’s leaders were lynched, their heads sent to London in fish-baskets ‘to gladden the king and the Londoners’.6 A Te Deum was sung at St Paul’s by Arundel, who led a procession through the City in thanksgiving.

After the ‘Epiphany Plot’ Henry’s advisers told him, ‘As long as Richard of Bordeaux stays alive, neither you nor your kingdom will be safe.’ The king said nothing, but left the room. ‘Then he visited his falconers and, taking a falcon on his glove, seemed interested only in feeding it.’7 His predecessor was dead by 17 February, starved to death at Pontefract Castle. The body was exhibited to the public at St Paul’s Cathedral, on a black cushion with all but its face wrapped in lead, before burial at King’s Langley Priory – not in the tomb Richard had prepared at Westminster. Even so, rumours persisted that the ex-king was alive in Wales or in Scotland, where until 1419 a madman with a likeness to him claimed to be Richard.

In September 1400 Henry led an expedition to cow the Scots,8 provoked by an offensive letter from Robert III addressing him as Duke of Lancaster instead of king. Its aim was to forestall a Franco-Scottish invasion, but it failed when the Scots used scorched earth tactics. Just after the king returned, Owain Glyndwr of Glyndyfrdwy in Denbighshire, a descendant of the ancient princes, quarrelled with Lord Grey of Ruthin, who was a friend of the king, sacking Ruthin before being driven off into the hills. The English dismissed the incident as a local feud, although Henry took a small force into Wales in a display of English authority.

At Christmas, the king was visited by the Emperor of the East, Manuel II Paleologus, whose empire by now consisted of little more than Constantinople. Even that was threatened by the Turks, so Manuel had embarked on a tour of western courts to beg for aid. After entertaining the emperor at Eltham (which had become the king’s favourite palace), Henry gave him £2,000 he could ill afford.

In 1401 the king took action against what Walsingham calls the ‘detestable ravings of the Lollards’9. Henceforward, by the statute de heretico comburendo, heresy became punishable with burning at the stake, while it was illegal to read the Bible in English. But only in the next reign would persecution drive the Lollards underground.

One night in 1401 a calthrop with three razor-sharp prongs (for maiming war horses) was discovered under the royal mattress, where it had been hidden in the hope Henry would impale himself through the straw. Early the next year an Augustinian prior was executed for failing to reveal a plot to kill him. In May eight Franciscan friars were hanged for conspiring to murder the king and raise men under the pretext that Richard II was still alive. Among their allies was a bastard of the Black Prince, Sir Roger Clarendon, who went to the gallows with them. During the friars’ trial, when Henry insisted, ‘I did not usurp the crown, I was elected’, one of them, Dr William Frisby, told him no election could be valid while the legitimate possessor was still alive and that if he had killed Richard, then he had forfeited any right to the kingdom.

Henry’s title was questioned all over Europe. In 1402–3 he received letters from the Duke of Orléans, who accused him of being a usurper and no true king.10 He looked far from secure. Quite apart from plots by friars and abuse by Frenchmen, he was desperately short of money. In 1401, when he asked the Commons for subsidies, they impertinently asked what had happened to Richard’s jewels.

The man

In Stubbs’s view, ‘There is scarcely one in the whole line of our kings of whose personality it is so difficult to get a definite idea.’11 This remains true today because of inadequate sources. But some of Stubbs’s insights are convincing – ‘suspicious, coldblooded and politic, undecided in action, cautious and jealous in private and public relations and, if not personally cruel, willing to sanction and profit by the cruelty of others’.12 McFarlane adds, ‘Henry, in fact, was that comparatively rare combination, the man of action who was also an intellectual.’13

When young, he was an impressive little man, tough, elegant, urbane and handsome, with a forked beard. Describing the malady that afflicted him in mid-life, John Capgrave – the Augustinian prior of Lynn, who may have seen him there – says he lost the ‘beauty of his face’, suggesting previous good looks.14 The effigy on his tomb at Canterbury Cathedral shows a bloated countenance, indicating self-indulgence rather than disease. He had a friendly manner if a sardonic wit. In no way a xenophobe like his uncle Gloucester, when in exile at Paris during 1398–9 he attended theological disputes in the university lecture halls and made an excellent impression on Charles VI, who wanted him to marry a Valois princess.

We know little about Mary Bohun, his first wife, apart from her bearing four sons who lived to manhood and two daughters. The sons were Henry, Prince of Wales, Thomas, Duke of Clarence, John, Duke of Bedford and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. Mary died in 1394, giving birth to her second daughter. Her successor, whom Henry married in 1403, was Joan of Navarre, the widowed Duchess of Brittany – four years younger than himself, with nine children by her first husband, an amiable lady later accused of witchcraft. Sadly, it was ‘an alliance which gave him neither strength abroad nor comfort at home’.15

There was a merciless streak. On campaign in Wales, realizing that a Welsh gentleman was deliberately leading the army the wrong way, Henry had him hanged, drawn and quartered on the spot. Even so, he possessed a kindly side. In 1400 he awarded Matthew Flint, tooth-drawer of London and obviously good at his job, a perpetual allowance of 6d a day to draw the teeth, without payment, of anybody who could not afford an extraction.

He did not have favourites, but got on admirably with his four sons, entrusting them with responsibility from an early age. He was also on good terms with his three Beaufort half-brothers (Gaunt’s children by Katherine Swynford, who had been legitimized by Richard II), furthering their careers, if introducing legislation that barred them from succeeding to the throne. He had trusted henchmen, servants of the duchy of Lancaster who became his ministers and household officials. If he listened to anybody, it was to Archbishop Arundel.

Henry loved hunting and hawking, while he was a tiltyard champion into middle age. Indoors, he was the most literate monarch since his namesake Henry II. Not only did the cupboards built for his library at Eltham hold the Polychronicon (Ralph Higden’s universal history) and John Gower’sConfessio Amantis, which was dedicated to him, but a book with a commentary in Greek if he needed help to construe it. He read and wrote English, French and Latin, unlike Edward III, who had been barely able to scrawl a few words. (On a state paper of 23 October 1403 he noted ‘necessitas non habet legem’ – necessity knows no law.16) He invited Christine de Pizan, one of the first women to write in defence of her sex, to live at his court, but she preferred to stay in Paris. He possessed a highly developed taste in music, owning the first known recorder in England, which he himself played, as well as a harp and a metal-stringed cither (half-lute, half-mandolin). He had some knowledge of polyphony, composing sacred music. He built little, however, apart from a massive gatehouse at Lancaster Castle.

In religion, Henry was deeply pious, with a cult of St Thomas of Canterbury perhaps instilled by Arundel – unusually for a Plantagenet king, he was buried in Thomas’s cathedral. He also venerated another ‘St Thomas’, his maternal ancestor, the Earl of Lancaster, who had been executed by Edward II, presenting St George’s Chapel with a set of vestments that depicted the earl’s ‘martyrdom’. When an invalid, he never tired of visiting shrines, in hope of a cure.

The Percy challenge

Henry’s coup owed a lot to the Percy family. In recompense, Henry, Earl of Northumberland, had been made Constable of England and Lord of Man, while his son Harry Hotspur became justiciar of north Wales. Northumberland’s brother, Thomas Percy, Earl of Worcester was appointed steward of the royal household, lieutenant in south Wales and Prince Henry’s governor. The two earls also administered the vast Welsh estates of the young Earl of March.

However, they were angry at Henry rewarding Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland (who had married his half-sister Joan Beaufort) with lands promised to the Percys. Worse still, when Northumberland routed the Scots at Homildon Hill in 1402 and took five Scottish earls prisoner, the king refused to let them be ransomed, depriving Northumberland of large sums of money even though Henry owed him £40,000. Northumberland grew even angrier after Henry forbade him to help his son-in-law Sir Edmund Mortimer, who had been captured by the Welsh, since Sir Edmund was uncle of the Earl of March, Richard II’s heir. When Hotspur suggested ransoming Mortimer, he was struck by the king, who shouted ‘Traitor!’

Because of their Welsh involvement in Wales, the Percys had contacts with Owain Glyndwr, who had proclaimed himself Prince of Wales in September 1400. Owain was no mere hill chieftain but a sophisticated aristocrat. Besides speaking French, Latin and English, he had studied at the Inns of Court in London, fought under the late Earl of Arundel’s command and known Richard II’s court. Nevertheless, as heir of the Princes of Powys, he kept alive the old Welsh ways, employing bards and harpers at his castle of Sycherth and, familiar with his native land’s literature, believed in prophecies foretelling the expulsion of the English. He was not only a born guerrilla leader, but a consummate diplomat who knew how to exploit Percy dissatisfaction.

Early in 1403 the king made the other ‘Prince of Wales’, his sixteen-year-old son Henry, Lieutenant of the Welsh Marches (local commander-in-chief), with headquarters at Chester. By then it looked as though Owain was winning. ‘And for God’s love, my liege lord, thinketh on yourself and your estate or by my troth all is lost, else but ye come yourself with haste’, the Archdeacon of Hereford wrote frantically to the king on 8 July. ‘And all on Friday last Caermarthen town is taken and burnt and the castle yolden by Richard Wigmore, and the castle Emlyn is yolden, and slain of town of Caermarthen more than fifty persons.’17

Edmund Mortimer changed sides, marrying Owain’s daughter Catrin. (An ‘inferior match’, sniffed the monk Walsingham.)18 He then won over his sister’s husband, Harry Hotspur, whose father Northumberland gave Henry a last, veiled warning, demanding full payment of the £40,000 he was owed. He signed his letter ‘Matatyas’ – by which he meant he had been a father to the king in helping him topple Richard, just as Judas Maccabeus’s father Matathias had helped Judas against the tyrant Antiochus.19

The Percys renounced their allegiance, claiming they had supported Henry’s right to be Duke of Lancaster, but not his right to the throne. Marching south with several hundred retainers, Hotspur recruited many of King Richard’s Cheshire archers, and was joined by his uncle, the Earl of Worcester. Their plan was to capture the prince, who was at Shrewsbury, join forces with Owain and replace Henry IV with the Earl of March.

On his way north to fight the Scots, the king reacted quickly, reaching Shrewsbury first with 14,000 men. Undismayed, on 21 July Hotspur drew up his army of 10,000 in order of battle on a low hillside 3 miles from Shrewsbury. Fearing Glyndwr or Northumberland might arrive at any moment, the king offered terms that Hotspur was inclined to accept, but Worcester told Henry, ‘You are not the rightful king and we don’t trust you.’

The battle began at noon, the first time English armies went into action against each other with the longbow. Flight after flight of arrows shot downhill by the Cheshire men nearly decided the outcome at the start, 4,000 royal troops bolting. Hotspur’s men-at-arms charged at the king, killing most of his Knights of the Body, but failed to find him – he had dressed two of his household in royal surcoats, who paid with their lives, while he himself took refuge among his billmen. His right wing fled after its commander Lord Stafford fell dead and on the left the Prince of Wales was wounded in the face by an arrow. Hotspur’s men shouted, ‘Henry Percy is king!’

Then an unknown archer sent an arrow through Hotspur. As soon as the king heard, he raised the cry ‘Henry Percy is dead!’ and the enemy ran, pursued for 3 miles. In all about 2,000 men were killed or wounded. The Earl of Worcester was captured, to be summarily hanged and quartered. Although Hotspur’s corpse had been buried, it was dug up, salted and put on show in the Shrewsbury pillory, before his head and quarters were sent off for display in the north country.

Three weeks later, Northumberland submitted, kneeling before the king at York and claiming he had known nothing of his son’s plans. Placed under house arrest, he lost his office of constable and was made to hand over his strongholds. He was soon freed and given back his castles, as the best man to defend the North against the Scots.

A Welsh Wales?

Owain Glyndwr remained on the offensive, helped by the French, who supplied cannon; Aberystwyth, Caerleon, Caerphilly, Cardiff, Harlech, Newport and Usk were all taken by the ‘Welch doggis’ (Friar Capgrave’s term) in 1404. Charles VI signed an alliance with ‘Owynis, dei gratia princeps Walliae’ against ‘Henry of Lancaster’, sending Owain a gold helmet of a sort worn by sovereigns. Poorly armed, mainly archers and knifemen, the Welsh did not have it all their own way, as their opponents were led by Prince Henry, who was already a brilliant commander. However, he had too few troops and Owain made steady progress, avoiding battles, capturing strongholds. Harlech Castle became his residence while he set up his administrative headquarters at Aberystwyth, appointing a chancellor. In 1404 he was crowned Prince of Wales at Machynlleth, where he held a parliament attended by bishops and abbots.

Meanwhile, the old Countess of Oxford, Robert de Vere’s mother, decided that Richard II must still be alive. In spring 1404 she wrote to the Duke of Orléans, asking him to land in Essex, join Owain at Northampton and proclaim Richard king again. If ridiculous, it was the sixth attempt to topple Henry since he had come to the throne.

The king was given another fright in mid-February 1405 when Lady Despenser, governess of the little Earl of March and his brother, fled from Windsor with her charges, using specially cut keys to escape under cover of darkness. She planned to join their uncle who, with Owain, would proclaim March as king. (She had her own score to settle with Henry, her husband having been lynched after the Epiphany Plot.) Riding through the night, the king caught them at Cheltenham. Lady Despenser then accused her brother, the Duke of York, of plotting to kill the king – a piece of spiteful imagination. Even so, when the duke denied it her squire offered to prove it in trial by battle, and although the combat did not take place, York spent several weeks in the Tower.

Henry soon learned why Lady Despenser had chosen that particular moment to try and take March to Wales. Towards the end of February the envoys of Owain, Northumberland and Sir Edmund Mortimer had signed an agreement at Bangor. Owain would rule Wales with the border counties, the earl would take the north country and the eastern Midlands, and Mortimer would have southern England. The document quoted a prophecy from the Brut of England, that ‘a dragon shall rise up in the north which shall be full fierce and shall move war against the moldewarp [a magic mole] . . . [and] this dragon shall gather again into his company a wolf that shall come out of the west that shall begin war against the moldewarp on his side . . . Then shall come a lion out of Ireland that shall fall in company with them, and then shall England tremble.’ The dragon (Northumberland), the wolf (Owain) and the lion (Mortimer) would expel the moldewarp (Henry) and divide England between them.20

But early in May 1405 a large Welsh force was beaten near Usk, Owain’s brother Tudur being killed while his son Gruffydd and his chancellor Dr Yonge were captured – 300 other Welsh prisoners were summarily beheaded on the spot. Just as the king was about to follow up the victory, he heard of danger in the north.

Archbishop Scrope’s rebellion

Despite welcoming him in 1399, many north country folk besides the Percys had turned against Henry.21 Aided by the Earl of Norfolk (Nottingham’s son), at the end of May 1405 Archbishop Scrope of York gathered 8,000 armed men at the northern capital, in protest against ill treatment of the clergy and excessive taxation, and demanding a free parliament at London. In reality he was preparing to support his cousin Northumberland, who was about to rebel. Inflammatory placards were posted all over York.

Before Northumberland could arrive, the Earl of Westmorland faced down the rebels at Skipton Moor outside the city, arresting the two leaders under a false parley, after which their followers went home. Northumberland fled in despair. When Henry reached York, despite Archbishop Arundel’s protests and the resignation of the Lord Chief Justice, he condemned to death Scrope as well as Norfolk, parading them through the streets of York – the archbishop being made to ride a mule facing its tail.

The primate, Thomas Arundel, fainted at the news, while men prayed at the tomb of ‘St Richard of York’ in the minster, where miracles were said to be worked. On the evening of the execution, Henry was smitten by ‘leprosy’, screaming that traitors were throwing fire at him while his face and hands were covered by big red pustules – looking ‘ever fouler and fouler’ according to Capgrave.22 Whether venereal, tubercular or an embolism, the disease has not been identified. He soon made a temporary recovery.

The crisis of the reign

England already thought devilish forces were working against Henry IV: when his army was routed by bad weather in Wales in 1401, people had attributed it to ‘the evil arts of Franciscan friars’ who had ‘forged links with demons’.23 They also suspected Glyndwr of being a warlock who called up evil spirits. After Scrope’s killing, they decided that God had turned against the king. His forces went on losing ground in Wales, where a French force landed in 1405. The next year, Owain was joined by Northumberland and Lord Bardolf. By 1406 Wales was virtually independent, Bordeaux and Calais were threatened, English shipping went in peril of French or Castilian privateers and there were raids on the south coast.

The ‘long parliament’ that met in March 1406 sat for 130 days, with a first all-night sitting by the Commons. It was highly critical of the king, grumbling that he was squandering his revenue, and failing to protect the sea route to Gascony and the south coast. But at the end of April Henry fell ill again and in June he nearly died. His illness affected relations with parliament. In establishing his regime he had spent too much on rewarding those who served him to ensure their loyalty, and ‘put political necessity before sound finances’.24 Admittedly, there had been no other choice if he hoped to survive. By 1406, however, it was possible to strike a balance.

Before parliament dissolved at the end of the year, the Commons forced Henry to accept thirty-one articles. The most radical obliged him to spend two days a week with his council (purged of members whom the Commons disliked), on business and dealing with petitions, while the council would control his expenditure, particularly on the royal household. Yet far from seizing control, the Commons were rallying to the support of a broken man, whose son was too young to fill his place. Their reaction has been described as ‘medieval constitutionalism at its best’.25

During the late summer and early autumn Henry went from shrine to shrine in a litter, seeking relics that might heal him. They included the cup of St Edmund at Bury St Edmunds, Becket’s comb at Thetford, the famous collections at St Albans and Walsingham and King Oswald’s bones at Bardney Abbey, a few miles from Lincoln. At Bardney he kissed the relics, after which he spent an afternoon reading in the monks’ library.26 The pilgrimage was combined with a visit to Lynn, to say goodbye to his twelve-year-old daughter Philippa, who was leaving for Denmark to marry King Eric VII.

If he never recovered his health, Henry survived the crisis years of his reign; for in 1406 the strategic situation of the English in Wales began to improve when the French went home. Prince Henry demoralized Owain’s men with such atrocities as drowning prisoners, while the castles in English hands deliberately disrupted trade and food supplies to create famine. Troops from Ireland overran Anglesey, so that Welsh troops who took refuge in Snowdonia starved. One by one, Owain’s strongholds fell. His defeat became obvious when Harlech surrendered in February 1409 – Sir Edmund Mortimer dying during the siege. When proclamations were posted on the doors of St Paul’s announcing that King Richard was about to reclaim his kingdom, no one took any notice.


Early in 1408, accompanied by his friend Lord Bardolf, Northumberland invaded northern England in Richard II’s name, but their tiny army, which consisted of Percy retainers and a few Scots, was defeated by the Sheriff of Yorkshire, Sir Thomas Rokeby, at Bramham Moor near Tadcaster on 19 February, during a snowstorm. Northumberland fell in battle while Bardolf died of his wounds, the old earl’s head being stuck on a pike and displayed on London Bridge – admired for its handsome face and silver hair.27

Not only did Bramham Moor end the Percy threat, but the Welsh lost their sole remaining allies. Owain’s last raids were beaten off in 1410, after which he vanished into his woods and caves. Moreover, the murder of the Duke of Orléans by the Duke of Burgundy the next year began a feud that fatally divided, into Armagnacs and Burgundians, a France already weakened by the insanity of Charles VI (who believed he was made of glass and might shatter).

A broken man

On the third anniversary of Scrope’s execution in 1408, Henry suffered so severe a stroke that he was thought to be dead, becoming a chronic invalid who had difficulty walking. Adam of Usk says he was tormented by ‘festering of the flesh [ulcers?], dehydration of the eyes and rupturing of internal organs’.28 Sometimes he could not speak. He made his will in January 1409 (in English), and when he speaks of ‘my sinful soul which has never been worthy to be man but through [God’s] mercy and grace, which life I have misspent’, he is saying that he is being punished for murdering a king and an archbishop.29

When unable to attend council meetings, his place was taken by his friend Archbishop Arundel. However, at the end of 1409 the archbishop was ousted as chancellor, and Prince Henry dominated the council, assisted by his Beaufort cousins, including the formidable Bishop Beaufort of Winchester, who replaced Arundel. The prince and his circle ran the country until late 1411. Responding to an appeal for help against the Armagnacs, they sent a small expedition to France to help the Burgundians.


Henry’s health improved. When Bishop Beaufort or the prince suggested he relinquish the throne, he called a parliament for November 1411 and sent six knights of the prince’s household to the Tower, announcing he would have no ‘novelties’ – a coded reference to abdication. Before the end of the year, Arundel was reinstated as chancellor, while the prince’s place on the council was taken by his brother Thomas. To frighten him, Henry warned the prince that after his death Thomas might dispute the succession.30

Early in 1412 Armagnac agents arrived in London and, for military assistance against the Burgundians, offered Henry Aquitaine ‘just as his ancestors had held it’. When he heard, he stood up excitedly. ‘Don’t you see how God almighty is looking after us?’, he told Arundel, rubbing his hands. ‘This is wonderful, the day we’ve been longing for! Let’s go to France and get back all our ancient lands.’31 He wanted to lead an army in person. Knowing a man so frail could not possibly take the field, his subjects nonetheless admired his pluck. But Prince Henry opposed any alliance with the Armagnacs. He was justified when they and the Burgundians were reconciled, and a small force under Thomas secured nothing except huge bribes to go home.

When Prince Henry arrived in London with an army of retainers, he protested at his exclusion from the council. Withdrawing to Coventry, he issued an open letter on 17 June. First, he made a lame excuse for not leading the expedition to France, claiming the king had given him too few troops. Then he denounced ‘certain children of iniquity, agents of dissension, fomenters of dissension, architects of disagreement, sowers of anger and instigators of strife’, who ‘with serpentine cunning are hoping to alter the succession [to the throne] . . . and suggest we are bloodthirstily longing for the crown of England and planning a violent, abominable crime by rising up against our father’. God alone knew the sheer depth of his devotion to his parent, how much he loved him, how nobody could possibly be more loyal. This extraordinary document circulated throughout the kingdom.32

It looks as if the prince thought he might be set aside in favour of Thomas. At the end of the month he again went to Westminster, kneeling before the king in his private chamber, insisting he had never intended to seize the crown. Then he drew his dagger, giving it to his father whom he asked to kill him. In tears, Henry threw the knife away and embraced his son. A fortnight later, however, the king created Thomas Duke of Clarence as a warning to the prince. At the same time Henry made Thomas Lieutenant of Gascony and gave him command of a new expedition to France.

In September Prince Henry complained to his father that he had been falsely accused of embezzling the Calais garrison’s wages, and demanded that his accusers should face trial. The king agreed, on condition that the trial was by parliament. Nothing more was heard of the matter.

A parliament had been called for early in 1413, but on 21 February Henry fainted while praying at Edward the Confessor’s shrine in Westminster Abbey and was put to bed in the abbot’s lodging at the west end of the abbey. Regaining consciousness, he asked where he was and, informed he was in the abbey’s Jerusalem Chamber, replied, ‘I know I shall die in this chamber, according to the prophecy told of me, that I should die in the Holy Land.’33

Henry remained there until his death on 20 March. His confessor John Till asked him to show repentance for killing Richard II and Archbishop Scrope, and for usurping the throne, but he answered that he had received papal absolution, while his sons ‘would not permit the throne to go out of our lineage’.34 After the customary funeral ceremonies that went on for two months, he was interred in the Trinity chapel at Canterbury Cathedral, as near to Becket’s shrine as possible.


Neglected by Shakespeare, even if he named two plays after him, Henry IV occupies little space in the national myth. Nor does modern research bear out Stubbs’s anachronistic view of him as our first constitutional monarch. Yet he was far from ineffective. Despite a questionable title and a crippling lack of money, not only did he finally tame the Welsh, but he saved England from partition. He also established his branch of the Plantagenet dynasty so firmly on the throne that it was strong enough to revive the Hundred Years War.

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