Post-classical history

PART 4

Lancaster and York

12

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The Holy Fool – Henry VI

God can send no greater curse on a country than a ruler of limited understanding

Philippe de Commynes1

Coma

At Clarendon in August 1453, told that his troops had been defeated in Gascony, Henry VI fell into a coma. Unable to speak, understand or walk, he needed to be fed with a spoon. When he recovered, on Christmas Day 1454, he was informed that his queen, Margaret of Anjou, had borne a son. Astonished, the king asked if the child’s father was the Holy Ghost.

Yet Henry should not be written off as a mental defective. Despite his oddity, his lovable personality inspired deep affection and loyalty among those who knew him well. ‘He was a simple man, without any crook or craft of untruth’, wrote John Blacman, a Carthusian monk and former royal chaplain. ‘When in the end he lost both the realms, England and France, which he ruled before, along with all his wealth and goods, he endured it with no broken spirit, but a calm mind.’2 Revisionist historians dismiss this as Tudor propaganda, but it has now been established that Blacman died before the Tudors came in.3 It was no accident that Henry VI was late medieval England’s most popular saint, another Edward the Confessor.4

The child king of France and England

Born at Windsor in October 1421, Henry was nine months old when he became king, England being ruled by the council with the Duke of Gloucester as titular Protector. In September 1423 he attended Parliament, peers pledging their loyalty while he ‘shrieked and cried and sprang’.5 At seven, he was given a tutor, Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, a paladin of the wars in Wales and France, who was renowned throughout Europe for his courtesy and was one of the best read Englishmen of his age. In 1429 the boy king was crowned at Westminster. England was at peace, well governed, even if Gloucester and Cardinal Beaufort vied for control of the council.

Across the Channel, the Duke of Bedford seemed firmly in control as regent. Normandy was an occupied country, with English colonists – troops who had bought confiscated land cheap, artisans given free houses in the towns – while the rest of Lancastrian France was garrisoned by English troops and run by Burgundian officials at Paris. The Parisians fought loyally for him against the Dauphinists, and in 1424 his victory at Vernueil appeared to confirm Anglo-Burgundian invincibility.

The first setback came in 1429 when Orléans, besieged by the English as the key to the Dauphinist heartland, was relieved by Joan of Arc. Worse still, she led an army through occupied territory to Rheims Cathedral (the traditional crowning place of French kings) for the dauphin’s coronation. For a time, the English were terrified, convinced that the ‘Witch of Orléans’ was using sorcery, but she was captured by Burgundians who handed her over to them. Cardinal Beaufort then took care to revive their morale by ensuring that she was tried and burned at Rouen.6

There was no longer hope of final victory, so Bedford concentrated on holding what had been conquered. It was important Henry should be seen by his French subjects as their king and, after spending six months at Rouen, he went to Paris for his coronation at Notre-Dame on 16 December 1431. The Parisians cheered his ‘joyeuse entrée’, but Beaufort, who crowned the boy, upset them by using the English Sarum rite instead of the Gallican, while they were disgusted by a parsimonious, badly cooked coronation banquet. Nor was there any lessening of heavy tax burdens.

The death of Bedford’s wife, Anne of Burgundy, in November 1432 spelled disaster. Her brother, Duke Philip, changed sides a few days after Bedford himself died in 1435, recognizing Charles VII as King of France. Henry wept on receiving a letter from Philip no longer addressed to his sovereign. Yet despite losing Paris the next year, the English hung on in the north-west, beating off a Burgundian attack on Calais. There was a vociferous war party, led by the Duke of Gloucester (a veteran of Agincourt where he had been wounded ‘in the hams’), while there were plenty of good commanders in the field – Lords Scales, Willoughby and Talbot, and the young Duke of York.

However, because of Henry’s lack of any sense of reality where money was concerned, it became increasingly difficult to finance campaigns in France. When his minority ended, he gave away nearly 200 royal manors to knights and squires of the Body, who kept the rents for life. Characteristically, he refused to accept £2,000 in gold from Cardinal Beaufort’s executors unless it went towards endowing his colleges at Eton or Cambridge. His annual revenue sank to no more than £30,000 a year when his household alone cost £24,000, and the Crown was nearly £400,000 in debt.

Only western Normandy and parts of Maine remained immune from French raids, English colonists taking refuge in towns or castles. Meanwhile, Charles VII, the despised dauphin, had matured into a formidable ruler determined to regain his lost provinces. In 1443 Henry, who loathed bloodshed and regarded it as a Christian duty to make peace with his uncle, sent the Earl of Suffolk (in practice his first minister) to Charles, seeking an end to the war. In return for a promise to surrender Maine, Suffolk secured a two-year truce and Charles’s niece as a bride for Henry. The daughter of René of Anjou, titular king of Sicily, Margaret was a beautiful, intelligent and high-spirited girl of sixteen, whom Henry married in 1445 – naïvely supposing that the marriage meant lasting peace.

Collapse in France

Most Englishmen opposed the surrender of Maine, but in 1442 Humphrey of Gloucester, the war party’s leader, had been discredited by the discovery that his duchess was trying to kill Henry with witchcraft – her warlocks having contacted ‘demons and malign spirits’ – so that he could inherit the throne. In 1447 Suffolk had Gloucester arrested on a false charge of treason, the duke dying from a stroke brought on by rage, although many people suspected murder. Meanwhile the warlike Duke of York had been replaced as Lieutenant of Lancastrian France by the more biddable Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, and made Lieutenant of Ireland to keep him out of the way.

In 1448 Maine was handed over despite the local English commanders’ reluctance and the truce extended for another two years. Intent on ending the war, the king became so pleased with Suffolk that he made him a duke.

To save money, English garrisons in Normandy were reduced. Then in May 1449 Somerset broke the truce, seizing the town of Fougères as a bargaining counter in securing the release of Henry’s friend Gilles de Bretagne, who had been imprisoned by the French. Charles VII responded by sending 30,000 troops, who captured Rouen in October, and Harfleur and Honfleur during the winter. Somerset held out at Caen but in April 1450 the last English relief force was annihilated by the new French cannon at Formigny, Caen falling in July. ‘And this same Wednesday was it told that Shirburgh [Cherbourg] is gone and we have not now a foot of land in Normandy’, John Paston was informed on 19 August.7 By late summer 1451 Gascony had gone too.

All England felt humiliated as destitute settlers flooded back across the Channel, parading through Cheapside with their bedding and begging in the City’s streets. In January 1450 Adam Moleyns, Bishop of Chichester and former privy seal, was lynched at Portsmouth for betraying Normandy. Before dying, he blamed the Duke of Suffolk. When the duke was impeached in March, Henry – whose policies were the real reason for its loss – insisted on his acquittal. Fleeing to Calais, Suffolk’s ship was boarded by sailors and he was beheaded with a rusty sword over the gunwale of a boat.

Collapse in England

In June an armed mob from Kent stormed into London, led by ‘Jack Cade’, an Irish ex-soldier who used the name Mortimer, claiming he was the Duke of York’s kinsman. They wanted to kill the king’s ministers, because of whom ‘his lands are lost, his merchandise is lost, his commons destroyed, the sea is lost, France is lost, himself so poor that he may not pay for his meat and drink’.8 Taking no notice of Henry, who rode through the streets in armour telling them to go home, they robbed, raped and stole, broke open gaols and freed criminals. The treasurer, Lord Saye and Sele, was caught and beheaded. Finally the infuriated Londoners took up arms, evicting this ‘multitude of riffraff’ after a two day battle on London Bridge.9 Cade was tricked by a false pardon, then hunted to his death.

Ignoring Somerset’s unpopularity, Henry made him his first minister. Unabashed, the duke set about recouping himself with grants of royal land for the estates he had lost across the Channel. Owed huge sums by the government, York was enraged, while he also suspected Somerset of plotting his destruction. Assembling an armed force at Blackheath, in February 1452 he charged him with losing Normandy and planning to sell Calais, demanding that he be put on trial. However, York found himself confronted by a much bigger royal army. Peers who had supported him were forced to kneel in the snow in their shirts and beg for pardon; lesser men were executed. He was replaced as Lieutenant of Ireland by the Earl of Wiltshire and made to swear at St Paul’s that he would never again take up arms.

During the summer Somerset’s prestige rocketed when the Earl of Shrewsbury (‘Old Talbot’) recaptured Bordeaux, regaining Gascony overnight. A parliament at Reading in March 1453 agreed to everything Somerset asked for and he appeared to be in complete control. Nevertheless, he was unable to eliminate Richard, Duke of York.

York, a small, sharp-faced man, had been born in 1411, his father being the Earl of Cambridge who had plotted to kill Henry V at Southampton. Through his mother Anne Mortimer he was heir to Edward III’s second son, while the Lancastrians descended only from a third son. Inheriting the lands of York, March and Ulster, a prince of the blood, he was the greatest nobleman in England and expected to be treated as such. (His pride of birth showed in using Plantagenet as his surname, the first of his family to do so since Count Geoffrey.) During his time in Ireland, the semi-regal respect given to him as viceroy heightened his resentment at exclusion from government at home.

The man

There is no good likeness of Henry VI. We only know that he was tall, slender and handsome. Sixteenth-century copies of a lost portrait show an anxious-looking man with worried eyes, who clasps his hands nervously. A portrait in a window at King’s College Chapel gives the same impression of anxiety. Shabby clothes did not help – John Blacman tells us that he usually wore an ordinary burgess’s gown with a rolled hood and a farmer’s round-toed boots.

Awareness of his inadequacy explains why Henry relied so much on Suffolk and Somerset; yet he was very conscious of being a king and ‘diligent in dealing with the business of the realm’.10 He took special care when appointing bishops, choosing theologians instead of the usual canon lawyers, frequently men whom he had encountered as court chaplains. He also did his best to see justice was administered fairly and every year spent months on progress, hearing appeals in the provincial law courts: hundreds of documents survive with his signature, often annotated by him.11Because of his fragile dignity, once or twice he hanged men who had insulted it, although he much preferred to pardon them. He detested cruelty, ordering a traitor’s impaled quarter to be taken down and buried.

Henry did not see his marriage in terms of sexual satisfaction or begetting a much-needed heir, but as ‘a sacramental pledge of peace’.12 Even so, he respected Margaret of Anjou as ‘a woman of great wisdom’.13 Admittedly, his sexuality seems peculiar by today’s standards if not to clerics of his time. Blacman tells us approvingly that he had a horror of nudity, male or female. Riding through Bath, Henry was shocked to see men taking the waters naked, while when ‘a certain great lord’ brought a troupe of young ladies with bare bosoms to dance before him at Christmas, he was so outraged that he left the room.

As a young man, Henry had cronies, the closest being his tutor’s son, Henry Beauchamp, whom he created Duke of Warwick and loaded with gifts, but who died in 1446 at only twenty-one. (The duke had shared his piety, reading the entire psalter every day.) Another was Gilles de Bretagne, the Duke of Brittany’s brother, who also died early – strangled in his cell by French gaolers. The king was on excellent terms with members of his household.

The next world mattered most to him. His foundations at Eton and Cambridge had a spiritual purpose, the former designed as a chantry for priests to say Mass for his soul (if seventy boys were given a free education), while sixty of the seventy fellows at King’s College were to study theology – only ten would read canon law, common law, astronomy or medicine. He planned two huge complexes to which he devoted long hours, but the chapels alone were built. Even these were not completed until long after his death, and that at Eton is merely the choir of the building he had in mind.14

A mystic influenced by the Devotio Moderna – the fifteenth-century religious revival – who practised solitary prayer, Henry meditated on Christ’s sufferings and the Real Presence with an intensity that no doubt induced hallucinations. On occasions of state he wore a hair shirt. Yet his library was not restricted to works of piety and included ancient chronicles that he enjoyed reading, among them a copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. His interest in the past inspired him to campaign for Alfred the Great’s canonization.15

Apart from his breakdown in 1453 there is no recorded instance of mental collapse. As a Carthusian, Blacman was accustomed to search out qualities that suited men for his own demanding form of hermit life, one of which was sanity, and he saw Henry as sane and a natural contemplative. Understandably, the king found his calling a burden. His chamberlain, Sir Richard Tunstall, told Blacman how Henry ‘complained heavily to me [about this] in his chamber at Eltham, when I was alone there with him employed together with him upon his holy books . . . There came all at once a knock at the king’s door from a certain mighty duke of the realm, and the king said: “They do so interrupt me that by day and night I can hardly snatch a moment to be refreshed by reading.”’16

Some lines from a Latin poem by Henry, translated in the next century, convey how daunting he found his role as king.

Who meaneth to remove the rock

Out of the slimy mud,

Shall mire himself, and hardly scape

The swelling of the flood.17

Civil war

England was unsettled by the ‘Great Slump’ of 1440–80, a dearth of gold and silver coin due to a shortage of bullion.18 Farm produce sold for less, with even a fall in rabbit prices, while cloth merchants found difficulty selling their goods abroad. There was hardship everywhere, worsening with the loss of Norman and Gascon trade (the cost of wine soaring in the taverns) and from bad relations with Burgundy and the Hansa ports. In some areas violence and cowed juries were endemic since bastard feudalism – paying retainers (annuities) to local gentry – meant that every magnate had his own ‘affinity’ or private army.

On 17 July 1453 French cannon wiped out Old Talbot’s troops at Castillon, which meant that Gascony was lost for ever. Henry’s mind gave way at the news, afflicted by a mysterious malady probably inherited from his grandfather Charles VI. (Lasting too long to have been schizophrenia, it sounds as if it had more to do with amnesia than depression.) In March 1454 the council appointed York as Protector, whereupon he sent Somerset to the Tower.

Most magnates distrusted York, but he had supporters. Besides the Duke of Norfolk, the Earl of Devon and Lord Cromwell, they included his Neville kinsmen, the Earls of Salisbury (brother-in-law) and Warwick (nephew), who had their own feud with Somerset. He rewarded the Nevilles by imprisoning their enemies in the north country, Lord Egremont and the Duke of Exeter, and making Salisbury chancellor. The sworn foe of Henry’s ministers and courtiers, York planned to cut the royal household drastically, taking back lands the king had granted away from the Crown. Other plans included improved defences for Calais and the Scottish border, with measures to prevent the flight of bullion, all of which were welcomed by the London business community.19

‘Blessed be God, the king is well amended, and hath been since Christmas Day’, the Pastons were informed early in January 1455. ‘And he saith he is in charity with all the world.’20 Somerset became first minister again, in no forgiving frame of mind, with spies everywhere who were said to be disguised as friars or sailors. When York and his friends learned they would not be summoned to a council of the realm at Leicester they feared the worst. Their letters to the king receiving no answer, they marched on London (where York was popular) to plead their case at the head of 3,500 armed men.

Henry and Somerset, with the Duke of Buckingham and the Earls of Devonshire, Northumberland, Pembroke and Wiltshire, had left London for Leicester on 21 May, escorted by their households who numbered about 2,000. Few bothered to bring armour. When they rode into the main street of St Albans towards 9.00 am the next day, York’s followers blockaded each end and, after the king refused to surrender Somerset, killed seventy-five of the royal party, including Somerset, Northumberland and Lord Clifford who were targeted. Henry was wounded in the shoulder by an arrow before sheltering in a tanner’s cottage. York lost only two dozen men.

The ‘battle’ of St Albans left several young noblemen with kindred to avenge. The vendetta gradually expanded into a nationwide faction fight involving the entire ruling class, since the magnates could not avoid taking sides and dragged in their ‘affinities’. What made civil war inevitable was the queen’s suspicion that York was aiming at the throne. Described by a contemporary as ‘a great and strong laboured woman, for she spareth no pain to sue her things to an intent and conclusion’,21 Margaret replaced Somerset as leader of the court party. Anticipating armed confrontation, she made Henry move the court to the Midlands to Kenilworth Castle (the ‘Queen’s Bower), Chester Castle or the cathedral priory at Coventry, from where she could call on support from duchy of Lancaster tenants.

Henry fell ill in November 1455 (although not from insanity), York securing a second protectorate, which ended when the king recovered in February. Henry’s wish for peace showed in a declaration that the late Duke of Gloucester had been loyal and no traitor (contrary to the court party’s insistence) and in the Earl of Warwick’s appointment as Captain of Calais. He defused a quarrel between Warwick and the new Duke of Somerset during a council at Coventry in 1456, and the next year he accepted York’s oath never to resort to arms, if warning him he would not be pardoned again.

‘King Henry stood consistently for conciliation, mediation, compromise, reconciliation and arbitration, repeatedly seeking to settle the differences between York and Somerset and then between York and Somerset’s heirs’, a modern historian comments. ‘He had a remarkable capacity to forgive and to start again.’22 His approach was epitomized by the ‘loveday of St Paul’s’ in March 1458. (A loveday meant celebrating the end of a quarrel.) At his invitation, accompanied by huge escorts, the magnates of England came to London, where the government promised to repay York and the Nevilles the sums they were owed, and Warwick was appointed lord high admiral. In response, they agreed to have requiems said for those killed at St Albans. Both factions attended a Mass of reconciliation at the cathedral, arm in arm, the Duke of York leading the queen by the hand.

But in the autumn Warwick was attacked at Westminster by the royal household, having to hack his way through to the Thames and escape on a barge. Instead of apologizing, the queen ordered his arrest, whereupon he fled to Calais. She then decided to destroy York’s party by attainder, at a parliament to be held in Coventry in autumn 1459.

The Yorkist peers’ only hope was to go to Kenilworth and force Henry to drop the proceedings. Salisbury marched south with 5,000 men to join York in Shropshire, defeating at Blore Heath a force sent by Margaret to intercept him and killing its commander, while Warwick sailed back from Calais with 600 veteran troops. In October the Yorkists occupied Worcester. When a royal army advanced to meet them, they prepared to fight at Ludford Bridge, but lost their nerve and fled during the night, York taking refuge in Dublin, Salisbury and Warwick at Calais.

The ‘Parliament of Devils’ (as Yorkists called it) met in November 1459. York was attainted for being behind Cade’s revolt, for rebelling in 1452, for St Albans, for breaking oaths sworn at Coventry in 1457 and on the loveday, for Blore Heath and for Ludford Bridge. His followers were attainted with him by a majority of peers, who took an oath to defend the Prince of Wales’s right to the throne. Henry knew that this ended any hope of peace, but could not overlook York questioning his son’s legitimacy.

In exile York and the ‘lords of Calais’ ran a smear campaign, claiming Henry was simple minded and run by evil advisers – he had given away so much to them that nothing was left for him to live on. The whole country was ‘out of all good governance’.23 They also alleged that Margaret’s son was a bastard, and accused her of poisoning the Earl of Devon.

In June 1460, bringing with him the Calais garrison and York’s seventeen-year-old heir Edward, Earl of March, Warwick landed at Sandwich. Warmly welcomed at London despite resistance from royal troops at the Tower, he marched to the Midlands to confront the king and 5,000 supporters, who were waiting on the bank of the River Nore near Northampton, behind a deep ditch defended by cannon. Not only did the Yorkists outnumber them, but rain spoilt their gunpowder and their right wing changed sides. It was all over in half an hour, Warwick’s men targeting the enemy’s leaders – the Duke of Buckingham being cut down with an axe outside the royal tent. Henry was taken to London, where Warwick and Salisbury ruled in his name. When York arrived from Ireland in September he claimed the throne as heir of the Earls of March, telling the House of Lords, ‘though right for a time rest and be put to silence, yet it rotteth not nor shall it perish’.24 The lords rejected his request for Henry to be deposed, but agreed to an ‘Accord’ by which he would become king on Henry’s death.

We can guess how the king felt about York’s claim from what he said later, when a prisoner at the Tower. ‘My father was king of England and wore the crown of England in peace for the whole of his reign. And his father, my grandfather, was king of the same realm. And I, as a child in the cradle, was peaceably and without any protest crowned and approved as king by the whole realm, and wore the crown for forty years, and every one of my lords did me royal homage and swore to be true to me.’25

As it was, many great magnates stayed loyal to him, refusing to accept the Accord and joining the queen at Hull with their retainers, so that soon she had a large army. Early in December, the Duke of York and Salisbury went north to disperse it, but were routed near Wakefield, the duke being killed, while Salisbury was taken prisoner and executed. Their heads were stuck over the gates of York, the duke’s crowned with a paper crown. Margaret’s army, 12,000 strong, then marched south to rescue the king, pillaging towns en route and doing grave harm to Henry’s cause.

On 17 February, trying to intercept them at St Albans, Warwick’s smaller force was attacked from behind at dawn, fleeing after heavy casualties, although the earl escaped. Henry, whom they had brought with them, was found sitting under an oak tree, smiling at their discomfiture. However, terrified of ‘Northern men’, London refused to admit the royal army and Margaret dared not antagonize the Londoners by forcing her way in. After a few days, the royal couple and their troops retreated to York.

Unless the Yorkists replaced Henry VI, they faced extermination.26 On 28 February 1461 Warwick rode into the City with York’s son Edward, Earl of March, who had just defeated a royal army on the Welsh border. Declared king on 4 March, ‘Edward IV’ issued a proclamation denouncing Henry’s rule, listing the complaints made by Jack Cade. Wild rumours circulated – from Brussels Prospero di Camulio reported, ‘They say here that the queen of England, after the king abdicated in favour of his son, gave him poison.’27

Towton

On 29 March, at Towton in Yorkshire, Edward attacked the royal army, which was led by the Duke of Somerset – son of the man killed at St Albans in 1455. It was Palm Sunday, and Henry spent the day in prayer at York. In a blizzard, nearly 40,000 men fought the bloodiest battle in English history, the royalists shouting, ‘King Henry! King Henry!’ (That so many fought to the death for him shows how strongly they believed in his cause.) During the afternoon the combat turned in favour of the Yorkists when the Duke of Norfolk’s troops arrived, but Henry’s army did not break until the evening. Then it was annihilated, most of its leaders dying on the battlefield, in the pursuit or on the headman’s block.

While their enemies stormed into York from the south, Henry and Margaret galloped out from the north into the snowy dark with wardrobes and money-bags strapped to packhorses. They found shelter in Scotland, first at Linlithgow Palace and then at the Dominican friary in Edinburgh. Henry ordered Berwick to surrender to the Scots, while small Lancastrian garrisons occupied the castles of Alnwick, Bamburgh and Dunstanburgh.

In October 1463 he returned to England, installing himself at Bamburgh to reign over a tiny area of Northumberland. He never saw his wife and son again – Margaret had gone to France to obtain help from Louis XI, offering him Calais. In May 1464 the last Lancastrian army was defeated at Hexham and Henry, who during the battle had been in Bywell Castle nearby, was almost caught, leaving behind his cap of state. He evaded capture for over a year with the help of his carver, Sir Richard Tunstall, hiding in Lancashire and Westmorland, but in June 1465, was betrayed by a monk and captured while fording the Ribble at Bungerly Hippingstones. His sole companions were a squire and two clergymen, one of whom was a former Dean of Windsor.

Taken south, Henry was led through the City, wearing an old straw hat, his feet tied beneath his horse’s belly, before disappearing into the Tower of London. In no danger while his son remained alive, he was allowed to receive visitors. One tried to behead him with a dagger, inflicting so grave a wound that he thought he had killed him and ran off. Characteristically, when Henry regained the throne he forgave the man.28 He retreated into his world of mysticism and visions, probably happier than he had been for years.

The ‘Readeption’

In 1466 the bones of Thomas of Lancaster at Pontefract were rumoured to be sweating blood again, for Edward IV had grown unpopular. In France Queen Margaret schemed implacably and in England there were numerous Lancastrian plots. Then the Earl of Warwick turned against Edward, who fled abroad. Having allied with Margaret and betrothed his younger daughter Anne to Henry’s son, on 6 October 1470 Warwick announced that Henry VI had reascended the throne in the ‘Readeption’. As the Cambridge don Dr Warkworth puts it, ‘all his lovers were full glad, and the more part of [the] people’.29 At the Tower, the earl found him ‘not worshipfully arrayed as a prince, and not so cleanly kept as should [be]seem such a prince: they had him out and new arrayed him and did to him great reverence, and brought him to the palace of Westminster, and so he was restored to the crown’.

A week later, he was recrowned at St Paul’s, since ‘an overwhelming majority of the politically active wanted him back’.30 As if Towton had never happened, new coins were struck bearing his name, while in November he presided over a parliament attended by thirty-four peers, to whom Warwick’s brother Archbishop George Neville preached a sermon on the text ‘Turn, O backsliding children’. Warwick was made Lieutenant of the Realm with full powers. Henry asserted himself only in appointing Sir Richard Tunstall, the companion of his wanderings, as Lord Chamberlain. The one significant gesture he made during the Readeption was to prophesy that Henry Tudor would wear the crown, and even this is questionable.31 Apart from opening parliament, he rarely appeared in public, spending his time quietly in the Bishop of London’s palace at Fulham.

In March 1471, Edward IV landed in Yorkshire, gathered an army and proclaimed himself king. Henry, who rode through the streets of London with Archbishop Neville leading him by the hand, cut a forlorn figure as he tried to persuade its citizens to fight for him. Outmanoeuvring Warwick, Edward marched into the capital on 11 April. Henry found himself a prisoner again – the Readeption was over. Two days later, Edward marched out, taking his rival with him, and on 14 April destroyed Warwick’s army at Barnet, the earl being killed. On 4 May he annihilated the last Lancastrian army at Tewkesbury.

A Yorkist account says blandly that Henry died from melancholy at the news of Tewkesbury. But, writing a decade later, Warkworth records, ‘the same night that King Edward came [back] to London, King Harry being inward in prison in the Tower of London was put to death, the 21st May, on a Tuesday night between eleven and twelve of the clock, being then at the Tower the duke of Gloucester, brother to King Edward, and many other’.32 (When his skeleton was examined in 1910, the hair was found matted with blood, which suggests a blow to the head.) Put on display at St Paul’s, in an open coffin so all might see his face, his corpse was rumoured to have bled on the cathedral pavement, a sign of sanctity.

Poor key-cold figure of a holy King!

Pale ashes of the house of Lancaster!33

After a discreet funeral at Blackfriars, the coffin was taken by barge up the Thames for obscure burial at Chertsey Abbey.

Retrospect – ‘King Henry the Saint’

Henry VI’s inadequacy was a major cause of the Wars of the Roses, yet no king who lost his throne has ever been so popular. After his murder many of his subjects venerated him as a martyr, and by 1473 prayers were being said before his image on a stone screen in York Minster that portrayed the kings of England. In 1479 Edward had it removed, besides trying vainly to prevent pilgrims from flocking to Henry’s grave at Chertsey.

Richard III reburied him in St George’s Chapel, where his tomb attracted no fewer pilgrims than Becket’s at Canterbury. He was credited with many miracles, generally of healing – the most spectacular were bringing back to life a plague victim who was being sewn into her shroud, and preventing the rope from hanging a man falsely accused of theft. In churches and cathedrals throughout the land, he was commemorated with images on rood screens, in stained glass windows and paintings, with fervent hymns and prayers composed in his honour. As Stubbs puts it, he ‘left a mark on the hearts of Englishmen that was not soon effaced . . . the king who had perished for the sins of his fathers and of the nation’.34 Before the break with Rome, as heirs of the Lancastrians the Tudors hoped to have him canonized, planning to rebury his remains in their new chapel at Westminster. Even after the rupture, the banner of ‘King Henry the Saint’ was carried at Henry VIII’s funeral.

Catholics continued to venerate him. In 1713 Alexander Pope referred to the ‘Martyr–King’ in his poem Windsor Forest, while during the 1920s there was an unsuccessful campaign to secure his canonization.35 Later, he became one of Evelyn Waugh’s favourite saints.

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