Post-classical history


Uneasy Lies the Head

Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose

To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude;

And in the calmest and most stillest night

With all appliances and means to boot,

Deny it to a king? Then, happy low, lie down!

Uneasy lies the head which wears a crown.

Henry IV Part Two, Act 3, Scene 1

By Christmas 1401, Henry’s hopes of reviving the glorious kingship of Edward III had been destroyed. Only two years after his triumphant coronation, he was under pressure in almost every area of his responsibility. Bitter feelings against him were spreading as food became increasingly scarce and purveyors continued to requisition food for the royal household.1 Thomas Walsingham recorded a story about a new attempt on the king’s life. A vicious three-toothed iron implement was concealed in his bedstraw, which would have skewered him when he lay down on it.2 Such a story is almost certainly untrue.3 Nevertheless, it illustrates how unpopular Henry had become in certain quarters. Facing a three-pronged barbarous instrument of torture was not an edifying image for a pious warrior-king

Part of the reason for his declining popularity, and a fundamental reason for the lawlessness of the country, was the soaring price of corn. The harvest of 1400 had been bad; now that of 1401 failed too, so that wheat had doubled in price.4 This coincided with a dramatic drop in revenue from wool exports. These had once benefited Richard II to the tune of £47,000 per year but now barely reached £39,000.5 Thus, just as Henry had greater need to call for money from the wool merchants, they had less ability to pay. Similarly, as his purveyors came under heavier pressure to find food for men in royal service, those from whom they were taking the food had less to give. The result was that they themselves ended up contributing to the breakdown of law and order. It was a vicious circle, and one which could not be ended simply by dropping the import duties on corn until midsummer the following year, as the council suggested.

Circumstances such as these made it very difficult for Henry to act in what he would have considered a kingly way. He might have considered matters of finance beneath his dignity but he could hardly ignore the weight of loans under which the exchequer was operating. At the same time he could hardly put all royal business on hold until his finances were more securely established. This extended far beyond his need to maintain law and order. The marriage of his daughters to potentially important allies was another very expensive royal responsibility. There was a solution to this problem: the old feudal responsibility for every knight’s fee to pay an aid of twenty shillings on the marriage of the king’s eldest daughter. But levying such an aid for the first time in living memory was not likely to soothe the anger of those who had felt betrayed by the demand for taxation in the last parliament. Lords of manors would simply pass on the expense to the tenants. As Adam Usk later put it: ‘the king imposed a tax on the whole kingdom in order to marry his daughters’.6 But if Henry wanted Blanche to marry the heir of the Holy Roman Emperor, he had little choice. Besides, he knew there would be another expensive royal wedding before long. His own.

Henry’s relationship with the widow Joan of Navarre was one of the real surprises of his reign. She was the same age as him, the daughter of Charles the Bad, king of Navarre, and Joan de Valois, daughter of King John II of France. Thus she was Henry’s third cousin twice over. By her previous husband, the duke of Brittany, she had eight children. Following the duke’s death, she had acted as regent in Brittany during the minority of her eldest son. She was not just a Navarrese princess, she was an important member of the French royal family.

Such a match was bound to cause shock waves in society, on both sides of the Channel. England was on the verge of war with France, and had been since the revolution. As recently as November 1401 the council was considering the question of how ‘to counter the malice of those of France who wanted war’.7 Such was the fear that it was deemed necessary to summon a great council to discuss the matter in January. Henry accordingly kept his discussions about the marriage secret. Nevertheless, he could hardly conceal the presence of Navarrese ambassadors at his court. When his council asked what the ambassadors had come to talk about, he would say only that they would be told in due course.8

Although it is not known when Henry and Joan first met, they were probably already acquainted when Henry travelled to France for the celebrated meeting at Ardres in 1396 and the subsequent royal wedding at Calais. On that occasion he stayed almost a month in France, and had several opportunities to see her. They would have met again at the Garter feast at Windsor in April 1398, which Joan attended with her husband.9 It is likely that they met again during Henry’s exile, when his marriage to Mary of Berry was being discussed.10 No marriage at this stage was possible, of course, as the duke of Brittany was still alive. But after the old duke’s death in November 1399 it seems that the idea swiftly entered Joan’s mind, if not Henry’s too. Within three months she sent ambassadors to Henry, and on 15 February 1400 wrote him a letter which is almost intimate in its expression of good wishes:

My most dear and honoured lord and cousin,

Forasmuch as I am eager to hear of your good estate – which may our Lord make as good as your noble heart can desire, and as good as I could wish for you – I pray you, my most dear and most honoured lord and cousin, that you would tell me often of the certainty of it, for the great comfort and gladness of my heart. For whenever I am able to hear a good account of you, my heart rejoices exceedingly. And if, of your courtesy, you would like to hear the same from over here – thank you – at the time of writing my children and I are all in good health (thanks be to God, and may He grant the same to you) as Joanna de Bavelen, who is bringing these letters to you, can explain more plainly … And if anything will please you that I am able to do over here, I pray you to let me know; and I will accomplish it with a very good heart according to my power. My most dear and honoured lord and cousin, I pray the Holy Ghost that He will have you in his keeping.

Written at Vannes, 15 February, the duchess of Brittany.11

The tone of this letter leaves no doubt that there was a genuine closeness between Henry and Joan. It goes far beyond the usual politeness between a member of the French royal family and the king of England, especially considering that it was written a few days after the English ambassadors at Calais had warned Henry that war with France was more likely than peace. But there is more here to suggest a genuine closeness. Intimacy is the sole purpose of the letter: apart from its kind thoughts, it says nothing of consequence.12 It implies – in Joan’s thanks to Henry for asking after her health – that he had already written a letter to her. And it reveals that Joan, like Henry himself, was a believer in the power of the Trinity (as shown by the reference to the Holy Ghost). They were more than just friends; they shared a spiritual outlook.

Their courtship was conducted in secret and from afar. Ambassadors conveyed their communications to each other, never putting anything in writing as sensitive as the above letter. The obstacles to their relationship were not just limited to the likelihood of war between their countries and the disapproval of the French Crown. France recognised the pope at Avignon, Benedict XIII; the English recognised the Roman pontiff, Boniface IX. In order for Henry and Joan to marry, they had to obtain a dispensation, as they were related within the degrees of consanguinity prohibited by the Church. Not until 20 March 1402 did Joan obtain a bull from Pope Benedict allowing her to marry Henry. Immediately she empowered her ambassadors, Antony and John Rhys, to arrange the ceremony. They did so with great speed. She was married to Henry by proxy just two weeks later, at Eltham, on 2 April 1402. Present to witness proceedings were Henry’s half-brother, John Beaufort, and several of his closest friends, including the archbishop of Canterbury and all three Percys, namely the earls of Northumberland and Worcester, and Hotspur.13 The form of words used on this occasion included ‘thereto I plight thee my troth’, the first recorded appearance of the well-known phrase.14

Marriage was just the beginning of the struggle. As soon as the deed was done, Henry had to explain to his kingdom why he was marrying a Frenchwoman at this particular time. The English people were astonished. For her part, Joan had to persuade the rest of the French royal family that she could marry their enemy: the man who had ousted King Charles’s son-in-law and thus deprived his daughter of the throne of England. She also had to persuade Benedict XIII to grant her permission to live among schismatics (those who supported his papal rival). But Joan was a resourceful and determined woman. Henry too had made up his mind.

These problems show that this was far from being a marriage of convenience. So it is likely that it was yet another royal love affair, like so many royal partnerships in the late middle ages.15 Yet all royal marriages have a political dimension, however emotionally and spiritually close the couple may have been. In Henry’s case this is made clear by simultaneously arranging his two daughters’ marriages as well as his own. Blanche was already betrothed to the son of the Holy Roman Emperor, and was about to set out for the Rhineland; and Philippa’s hand was the subject of discussion between Henry and the king of Denmark. These multiple negotiations indicate that Henry was looking at connections with ruling houses not just to cement alliances with other countries but in order to achieve a wider recognition of his dynasty. If he could persuade everyone else in Europe to accept him as the rightful king of England, and if he himself could marry a French duchess, how much longer could the French refuse to recognise him as king of England?With his lofty ideas of kingship sinking like a ship beneath the choppy waves of insolvency, rebellion and revolt, he needed every bit of recognition he could get.


Henry’s marriage was almost the only happy development in his life. In February 1402 he received a letter from his fourteen-year-old son Thomas, in Ireland, saying that several royal officers had deserted because he had been unable to pay them. The treasurer of England proved unable to balance the books, and was replaced by Henry’s faithful clerk, Henry Bowet (now the bishop of Bath and Wells). In March the earl of Crawford, a Scottish admiral in the pay of Louis d’Orléans (who had turned against Henry along with the rest of the French royal family), began to harass English shipping.16 In April Glendower ambushed and captured his archenemy Lord Grey of Ruthin and carried him off gleefully into the mountains, demanding an exorbitant ransom. The council advised Henry against permitting his daughter Philippa to marry King Eric of Denmark, much to Henry’s annoyance. But by far the most worrying development was the discovery of a new threat to the Lancastrian dynasty. Rumours were circulating that Richard II was still alive.

Whether the Ricardian rumours of March–June 1402 count as the third revolt against Henry’s rule is difficult to say. Certainly men were accused of attempting to overthrow Henry, and to kill him and his sons, and to reinstate Richard as king, and so there is no doubt that it constituted a serious threat.17 But the means by which they hoped to achieve these things are unclear. It is hard now to discern any coordination of the various strands of discontent, beyond the fact that many of the dissidents were friars. It is possible that there were no actual plots at all, just widespread sedition. Considering the people’s proven ability to dethrone a king, popular rumour could easily result in a real plot if left unchecked. The line between rumour and rebellion was not as clear as it had once been.

The discontented were united in one respect: they believed that, if Richard II was still alive, he should be restored to the throne. By that reckoning, strangely, it did not matter if he was actually dead. Those disaffected with Henry’s kingship could take up arms in the name of Richard II and fight for his right still to be king if he was still alive. Whom they would actually crown if they were successful was a minor detail. The main objective was removing Henry, not restoring Richard.

The plot was first discovered in early May, when a priest was arrested at Ware in Hertfordshire. Before he was executed, he named many collaborators. Already the rumours about Richard’s survival had spread abroad. In April Jean Creton was sent by the French king to Scotland to discover whether the man there who claimed to be Richard was genuinely him. Although Creton quickly discovered – to his great disappointment – that the Scottish Richard was an impostor, he obviously did not circulate such information in England. On 9 May Henry issued an order to the sheriffs to take action against those who said Richard was alive. Two days later he wrote to the master of the Dominicans at Oxford warning him to keep his preachers under control. His words had little effect. A few days later, the prior of Launde was arrested and executed for treason.18 On 27 May the prior of the Dominicans at Winchester was seized, as was the rector of Horsmonden (Kent). The head of the Cambridge Dominican house was taken into custody, along with one of his brethren. They and several other clergymen were committed to the Tower on 3 June.19 A further proclamation had to be issued two days later against seditious preaching ‘in taverns and other places where people gather’.

A friar from the Franciscan house at Aylesbury (Buckinghamshire) was arrested and brought before the king.

‘You have heard that King Richard is alive, and you are glad?’ Henry asked him.

‘I am as glad as a man is glad of the life of his friend, for I am in his debt, as are all my kin, for he was our patron and promoter’, answered the friar boldly.

‘You have said openly that he lives, and so you have excited and stirred the people against me.’


‘Tell the truth as it is in your heart’, insisted Henry. ‘If you saw King Richard and me fighting on the battlefield together, with whom would you fight?’

‘In truth, with him, for I am more beholden to him.’

‘Do you wish that I and all the lords of the realm were dead?’

‘No’, replied the friar.

‘What would you do if you had the victory over me?’

‘I would make you duke of Lancaster’, replied the friar.

‘Then you are not my friend’, declared Henry angrily.20

At his trial in June, John Bernard of Offley (Hertfordshire) claimed that he had been ploughing near his home when William Balshalf of Lancaster told him that Richard was alive and well and living in Scotland, and would return to England to meet his loyal supporters near Merevale Abbey (Warwickshire) on 24 June.21 The recipient of this news promptly gathered more supporters, showing just how dangerous unsubstantiated rumours could be.

Henry continued to question the friars in person. One told him to his face that Richard would return and fight Henry ‘as it is prophesied’.22 Henry did not need to be reminded that the Prophecy of the Six Kings declared that the fifth king – Richard, the lamb – would lose his kingdom to a ‘hideous wolf’; but he would fight back and recover his lands. Unlike the friar in this case, Henry knew for certain that Richard was dead, and that the prophecy could not come true. Even so, it was plain that those who hated him would just say that he was the sixth king – the mole or ‘moldewarp’ – under whom (according to the prophecy) the kingdom would be wrenched apart in three warring factions. He could not win.

Henry kept in mind his coronation oath to rule justly for all. He took pains to stress that he did not wish to punish men for being simple or naïve. He wrote to the sheriffs commanding them to announce that the king would not punish those who repeated the rumour, only those who started it.23He was as good as his word. He pardoned one Robert Westbroom of Bury St Edmunds for circulating rumours of Richard’s survival because he had merely heard ‘such lies and innocently repeated the same’.24 John Bernard of Offley was likewise pardoned (after he had defeated Balshalf in judicial combat).25 Other men were more dangerous. Sir Roger Clarendon was the illegitimate son of the Black Prince, and thus a half-brother of Richard II. Outlawed for murder in 1398, he had never been entertained at court by Henry.26 He therefore had nothing to lose from opposing the regime, and may have been expected to take a leadership role during the hoped-for uprising. In the event, he was eliminated at an early stage. On 19 May Henry ordered him to be arrested, as well as a clerk, John Calf. Four days later, Clarendon, his esquire and valet were imprisoned in the Tower. They all protested their innocence but were found guilty of treason, and hanged.27

On 1 June, Henry held another revealing interview.28 A Franciscan had betrayed a fellow friar of Leicester, who was planning to meet ten of his companions near Oxford on Midsummer’s Eve and to go in search of Richard. One of these was an older man, Roger Frisby, a master of divinity. On investigation, two of the friars could not be found, but the remaining eight and Frisby were brought bound to London. When presented to him, Henry saw that some of them were young and illiterate. ‘These are uncouth men, without understanding’, he observed. Then, turning to Frisby, he said, ‘you ought to be a wise man. Do you say that King Richard is alive?’

Frisby gave a straight reply. ‘I do not say he is alive, but I say that if he is alive, he is the true king of England.’

‘He resigned’, retorted Henry.

‘He resigned against his will, in prison, which is against the law.’

‘He resigned with good will’, Henry insisted.

But Frisby remained firm. ‘He would not have resigned had he been free, and a resignation in prison is not free.’

‘He was deposed’, said Henry.

‘When he was king, he was taken by force and put into prison, and despoiled of his realm, and you have usurped the crown.’

Henry must have been startled at Frisby’s effrontery, but still he continued the debate. ‘I have not usurped the crown, I was chosen by election.’

‘The election is nothing, if the true and lawful possessor be alive’, said Frisby. Then he added the words guaranteed to anger the king. ‘And if he be dead, then he is dead by you, and if that be so, you have lost all right and title that you might have had to the crown.’

Shocked, Henry roared back, ‘By my head, I shall have your head!’

‘You never loved the Church’, declared Frisby as Henry’s men set hands on him, ‘but always slandered it before you were king and now you shall destroy it.’

‘You lie’, Henry replied, as his men dragged the priest away to the confines of the Tower.

‘We shall never cease to hear this clamour of King Richard until the friars are destroyed’, said a knight at Henry’s shoulder as the master was removed.

Henry seems to have agreed. When the master of the Franciscans came before him to plead mercy for those of his order, and assured Henry that he had directed his brethren not to speak ill of the king, Henry did not trust him. Referring to the eight friars – who were repeatedly tried until a jury could be found to condemn them – he replied in memorably chilling words: ‘They will not be chastised by thee, and therefore they will be chastised by me.’29


Glendower had been greatly heartened by the capture of Lord Grey of Ruthin. In June he led a strike into the heart of the Mortimer lordship of Maelienydd. On 22 June 1402 at Bryn Glas, a hill near Pilleth, he defeated an army led by Sir Edmund Mortimer, uncle of the earl of March.30 After the battle the Welsh women had gone to the dead bodies of the English and cut off their genitals, stuffing them into the dead men’s mouths, and they cut off their noses and shoved them up their anuses.31 Even worse (in the eyes of Henry’s contemporaries), the corpses were not given a Christian burial. Henry had little choice but to do what he had already done twice: to take an English army and impose his authority where it mattered most, in Wales itself.

To his credit, he did not delay. On 25 June he wrote to the council telling them of Mortimer’s capture and his determination to lead an army in person. The same day he issued an order summoning forces to assemble at Lichfield. Five days later he wrote another letter announcing the defeat of four hundred Scotsmen by George Dunbar and Hotspur at Nesbit Moor, but requiring that the council attend to the threat of twelve thousand Scotsmen now massing on the border, near Carlisle. By 5 July he was at Lichfield, coordinating preparations. He ordered Hereford, Ludlow and Chester castles to be fully provisioned, and Leominster to be fortified. In the course of planning he seemed to have decided to enhance his campaign and to invade with three armies, his largest offensive yet.

The plan was for the three armies to set out on 27 August and spend two weeks ravaging Wales.32 One was to muster at Chester (led by the sixteen-year-old prince of Wales), one at Hereford (led by the earl of Stafford) and one at Shrewsbury (led by Henry in person). Henry did all he could to ensure that this campaign would end the Welsh revolt. He toured the Midlands rapidly, issuing orders and trying personally to direct as many things as he could.33 No arms were to be transported into Wales, under pain of death. Command of the Southern Marches – from Wigmore – was entrusted to the earl of Stafford. The Marches north of Wigmore were placed in the keeping of the earl of Arundel, and the towns most vulnerable to a Welsh attack, such as Welshpool and Ludlow, were properly defended.

It was said that Henry had more than one hundred thousand men under orders that September.34 Although contemporaries were very poor at assessing such large numbers, this exaggeration in proportion to their usual figures suggests that it was far larger than any army hitherto seen in the region. The village of Llanrwst was destroyed by Henry’s forces. Yet still he failed to bring Glendower to heel. In fact, Henry’s third campaign was less successful than both of his earlier ones. As before, when the English approached, the Welsh disappeared into the mountains. It was rumoured that Glendower had a magical stone, coughed up by a raven, that allowed him to become invisible. The reality was that the Welsh forces had the advantage of knowing the terrain, and were able to withdraw and disband long before the English scouts could find them. The local men and women fled, unwilling to be pressed into serving as guides for the English. One William Withiford, who did serve, was murdered by Glendower as soon as the English withdrew. Still the campaign might have served as a demonstration of English force, like Henry’s earlier marches, had not the weather intervened. On 7 September torrential rain began to lash down, threatening to sweep the army away. The winds were so strong that men despaired of their lives. Henry himself, sheltering in his tent one night, was almost killed as the whole structure, poles and all, was blown down on top of him. Walsingham commented that, if he had not been sleeping in his armour, he would have been crushed. Several days of rain and gales disheartened the men and made further military progress impossible. Henry had also to bear in mind that he had summoned a parliament to meet at Westminster on 30 September, and his presence there was essential, for he desperately needed more money. So, when the two weeks of the campaign were up, the English returned to England, to dry their wet clothes and bathe their armour-chafed arms and legs.

It was a dismal moment, coming on top of so many other disappointments. But as Henry rode back to London to attend parliament, he heard great news from the north. The Scots had attacked, as he had expected, and had met an English army in battle at Homildon Hill on 14 September. The English commanders that day had been the earl of Northumberland, Hotspur and the Scottish earl of March (George Dunbar). The English archers had done their worst, and volley after volley of arrows had ripped apart the Scottish army. The remainder either fled, were captured or slaughtered by hand. Among the prisoners were eighty Scottish lords and knights, including the earl of Douglas and Lord Murdoch Stewart, son of the duke of Albany. In addition, thirty French knights had been fighting with the Scots, and were captured or killed. Last but by no means least, among the prisoners was Sir Adam Forrester, the Scottish negotiator who had tricked Henry into leaving Scotland in 1400, an act of duplicity which the king had not forgotten.35Henry ordered that no prisoners should be ransomed without his permission but should instead be brought to him at Westminster.


When Henry’s third parliament gathered on 30 September, it was without his uncle, Edmund, duke of York. Edmund had died, at the age of sixty-two, on 1 August. He had not been close to Henry during Richard’s reign, but he seems to have reassessed his position after Richard murdered his brother in 1397. From then on he seems to have been increasingly sympathetic to Henry, eventually playing a major role in undermining resistance in 1399. As the most senior of all the magnates, he had subsequently provided an important stabilising element in the establishment of Henry’s regime. Thus there was a political as well as a personal loss for Henry, who had few close friends among the higher nobility.

The chancellor opened proceedings on 2 October. He reminded people of how God had sent Henry for the salvation and recovery of the realm, and how He had miraculously delivered their Scottish enemies to them as prisoners. He spoke about the schism in the Church and how the Holy Roman Emperor himself had written to Henry ‘as to the most powerful king in the world’ to heal the discord between Rome and Avignon. He outlined the challenges facing the government in respect of the Scottish war, the rebellion in Wales, the conflicts in Ireland, and the safe-keeping of Calais and Gascony. Henry was left facing the irony of being compared to ‘the most powerful king in the world’ on the one hand and having all his strategic shortcomings listed on the other.

Henry’s problems largely stemmed – as before – from his financial situation. The treasury was empty and the loans he had taken out recently were larger than ever. With this in mind he deputed officers to explain to the commons how much taxation he required. The commons warily replied with a request that they might consult a committee of lords. Henry agreed, equally warily stating that he did not intend to set a precedent. The committee he named included his most trusted friends: the archbishop of Canterbury, the bishops of London, Lincoln and St David’s, the earls of Somerset, Westmorland, Worcester and Northumberland, and the lords Roos, Berkeley, Bergavenny and Lovell. It is not difficult to gauge his priorities: on the one hand he desperately needed cash but, on the other, he could not afford to grant too many liberties.

The only good news Henry had to celebrate was the arrival of the Scottish prisoners. On 20 October the earl of Northumberland led Lord Murdoch Stewart and the other captives, including Adam Forrester, into the White Chamber, where Henry was enthroned. At the door to the chamber they were forced to kneel. Halfway across the room they were forced to kneel again. They had to kneel a third time as they approached the king. With Forrester cowering before him, Henry could afford to remind the Scotsman of the trick he had played on him two years earlier. In the course of the conversation Forrester suggested that Henry might now arrange a final peace. Henry responded calmly that ‘the last time he had been in Scotland, the said Sir Adam, by many white lies and subtle promises, had suddenly caused him to leave’. If he had known Forrester then as well as he knew him now, he declared, ‘he would not have left Scotland so readily’. He left Forrester and the other Scotsmen sweating on their knees for a few moments more. Then he told them that he would spare their lives, and invited them all to dinner. He had not forgotten the benefits of mercy.

One Scottish prisoner, the earl of Douglas, was noticeable by his absence. He had been wounded in five places and had lost an eye at Homildon Hill, but he did not die of his injuries, and was fit enough to fight another battle within the year, so it was probably not his physical health which kept him away from Westminster. The most likely explanation for the earl’s absence lies in Hotspur’s attitude towards Henry. Hotspur was increasingly resentful towards the king for not reimbursing him his expenses upon demand. His letters had assumed an increasingly arrogant tone over the last eighteen months, and the lucrative offices which Henry had given him and his family had not soothed his temper. Most of all, his brother-in-law, Sir Edmund Mortimer, had been a prisoner in the mountains of Wales for the last six months, and Henry had not even tried to ransom him. Henry had agreed to help raise the ransom for Lord Grey of Ruthin, but not Mortimer. Perhaps he suspected that Mortimer might have given himself up too easily into the clutches of the Welshman. Either way, it did not bode well for the restoration of good relations with Hotspur.

The parliament of 1402 was not nearly so bruising as that of 1401. All the same, some hard questions were raised about finance. The commons asked where Richard’s great treasure had gone: John Ikelington, Richard II’s clerk and the custodian of £44,000 of the hoard, was examined and acquitted. The money, it turned out, had all been given to the Percy family to defend the Scottish border. Another tough question was why Henry had appointed his personal friend, Henry Bowet, as treasurer. Was this not a return to his personal style of government, exercised through personal friends, about which parliament had warned him the previous year? Henry managed to resist a demand to examine his officers, but was forced to sack Bowet and replace him with a more experienced man.36Guy Mone, bishop of St David’s and Richard II’s treasurer in 1398, was given the unenviable task of righting the royal finances. Only after this, and after agreeing to a large number of petitions against the Welsh, against the friars and against the foreign priories, was the tax granted on the last day of the parliament (25 November 1402).


In late August, while he had been dashing around the Midlands, preparing to lead his three armies into Wales, Henry had received a letter from his estranged friend, Louis, duke of Orléans, the brother of the French king. It was stupefying.

I, Louis … am writing to tell you that, with the aid of God and the blessed Trinity, in the desire which I have to gain renown, which you in like manner should feel, considering idleness the bane of lords of high birth who do not employ themselves in arms … I propose that we should meet at an appointed place, each of us accompanied by one hundred knights and esquires … there to fight each other until one of us surrenders, and the victorious man may do with his prisoners as he pleases … I propose (after hearing your intentions) to be at my town of Angoulême, accompanied by the aforesaid number of knights and esquires. Now, if your courage be such as I think it is, for the fulfilment of this deed of arms, you may come to Bordeaux, when we may depute properly qualified persons to fix on a spot for the combat …37

Not surprisingly, Henry did not immediately respond. After all, what was Louis thinking of, challenging a king to a duel? But – as with his interrogations of the friars – Henry was unable to ignore a good argument; he was determined to have the final word. And where a point of honour was concerned, Henry knew that it had to be the one whose honour was impugned who answered the challenge. Ten days after parliament broke up, he sent a reply:

We write to inform you that we have seen your letter, containing a request to perform a deed of arms, and from the expressions contained therein, we understand that it is addressed to us, which has caused us no small surprise for the following reasons. First, on account of the truce … in which you yourself are a party. Second, on account of the alliance that was made between us at Paris, which you swore to uphold in the presence of our well-beloved knights and esquires, Sir Thomas Erpingham, Sir Thomas Rempston and John Norbury, to whom you gave letters, sealed with your great seal, reciting this treaty of alliance …

Since you have seen fit, without any cause, to act contrary to this treaty … we therefore inform you that we have annulled the letter of alliance received from you, and henceforth throw aside all love and affection towards you, for it seems to us that no prince, lord, knight or any person whatsoever ought to demand a combat from him with whom a treaty of friendship exists. In reply to your letter, we add that considering the very high rank in which it has pleased God to place us, we are not bound to answer any such demands unless made by persons of equal rank with ourselves. With regard to what you say, that we ought to accept your proposal to avoid idleness, it is true that we are not as often employed in arms and honourable exploits as our noble predecessors have been; but all-powerful God may, when he pleases, make us follow their steps, and we, through the indulgence of his grace, have not been so idle but have used our time to defend our honour …38

He finished off with a threat to invade the French-occupied parts of Gascony, at a time and place of his own choosing, and he urged Louis to be more circumspect in his letters in the future. Politicking though these letters are, they reveal another dimension of Henry’s perseverance: an adamant streak that prevented him from letting go of any question of his kingly status. No Welsh rebels were allowed to go unchecked, no friars were allowed to get away with sedition, and certainly no French prince could be permitted to deny him his title. He was a king, and that very fact had become the most important thing in his life. If anyone doubted it, he would answer them personally, defending his character and his royal status to the last.

Louis was of a similar proud disposition, and scorned Henry’s reply in his next letter. He described it as ‘a New Year’s gift’ and added:

In regard to your ignorance, or pretended ignorance, whether my letter could have been addressed to you, your name was on it, such as you received at the font, and by which you were always called by your parents when they were alive. I did not give you your new titles because I do not approve of the manner in which you attained them …39

And his justification for going against his own treaty of peace – a copy of which Henry had sent him – was that he ‘never conceived it possible you could have done against your king what it is well known you have done’.

This was the crux of the matter. Few Frenchmen could understand why Henry had removed Richard from the throne, and even fewer approved of it. As they probably believed that Henry had violently killed Richard through the offices of ‘Sir Piers Exton’, there was an extra shock associated with this story, similar to that felt in England when it emerged that Richard had had his own uncle murdered. Thus Louis would have felt deeply embarrassed by the fact that he had promised to support Henry, and had agreed a treaty with him. So he felt obliged to defend his honour, and the only way he could do that was by challenging Henry to combat. That Henry would probably make mincemeat of Louis in the lists was neither here nor there; kings did not accept challenges, so it went without saying that there would be no duel. Louis was seeking to defend his dignity just by issuing the challenge. Henry should simply have ignored it.

But Henry could not ignore it. He sent another, even longer letter back to the duke, stating that ‘we ought not to reply to your request [for the duel] nor to your accusations … however, as you attack our honour, we send you this letter …’. He turned Louis’ pretended eagerness for combat in his first letter into the hot-headedness of youth, which then he claimed had taken ‘a frivolous turn’. But the most interesting lines in all this sword-rattling concerned Richard’s death. Henry wrote:

In regard to that passage in your letter, where you speak of the decease of our very dear cousin and lord, on whose soul God have mercy, adding ‘God knows how it happened, and by whom caused’, we do not know what you mean by this; but if you mean, or dare to say, that his death was caused by our order or consent, that is a lie, and will be a lie every time you say it, and this we are ready to prove, through the grace of God, in personal combat, if you be willing and have the courage to dare it … As to your saying that … ‘at the time you made the alliance with us, you never imagined that we should have acted against our very dear lord and cousin, as is publicly known to have been done by us’ we reply we have done nothing against him but what we would have dared to do before God and the whole world … By the honour of God, of our Lady, and of my lord St George, when you say [that Henry had less regard for Richard’s life than the French royal family] you lie falsely and wickedly, for we hold his blood dearer to us than the blood of those on your side … and if you say that his blood was not dear to us in his lifetime, we tell you that you lie … This is known to God to whom we appeal, offering our body to combat against yours, in our defence as a loyal prince should do, if you be willing or dare to prove it.40

In these letters, Henry seems to have been genuinely and deeply moved to defend himself. The matter of dethroning Richard is dealt with simply and confidently: he had done nothing which he need be ashamed of ‘before God and the whole world’. But the accusation that he had murdered Richard clearly troubled him. He could not have protested his innocence more fervently. This is fascinating, for, as we have seen, Henry did issue an order for Richard to be killed or deprived of sustenance. Was his denial anything more than perjury, deceit and blasphemy?

On the face of it the answer to this is no. Yet that inflexible negative implies a character totally contrary to the serious, spiritual, conscientious Henry we know from other sources. So it is hardly satisfactory in a biography simply to say he was lying and leave it at that. Let us consider the lie from his point of view.

Henry’s letter denying his involvement was very probably worded in conjunction with members of his council, in which forum it was necessary to maintain that Richard had starved himself to death. Nevertheless, Henry’s appeals to God and the Virgin suggest that he had convinced himself that the death had been predicated by matters beyond his control. The explanation for this is a question of fault. For example, Froissart records that Henry had promised to preserve Richard’s life unless he took part in a plot against him. Henry may thus have believed that Richard’s death was an inevitable consequence of the Epiphany Rising, and thus the fault of those who had sought his (Henry’s) own death. This is illustrated when we consider the references in this last letter to ‘his [Richard’s] blood’ for this would include Richard’s half-brother and nephew. They had also been killed, but not by Henry. It had been the people of Cirencester and Pleshey who had destroyed Thomas and John Holland. Likewise, it had not been Henry but a judge who had sentenced Richard’s illegitimate half-brother, Sir Roger Clarendon. This is how Henry could have convinced himself that he was innocent of the murder in the eyes of God. Others had ‘executed’ him, his death being a consequence of the plot to free him. Thus Henry was able to deny his guilt by refusing to accept personal responsibility for what had been a political act carried out for the security of the kingdom. Politicians in all ages have felt similarly inclined to draw a line between public expediency and personal conscience.


Henry spent Christmas 1402 at Windsor, preparing to go to Southampton to meet his bride. The formal arrangements had taken a long time to sort out. The Navarrese themselves had presented no difficulty; Charles III of Navarre referred to Henry as ‘our most dear brother’ before the end of the year. But the French put up a stiff resistance. This included not only the French royal family but Joan’s Breton vassals, who were opposed to the marriage. The Bretons sought the intervention of the duke of Burgundy. The royal duke went to see Joan at Nantes in October 1402. She would have to surrender control of Brittany, he told her, and custody of her male children. To marry Henry, Joan would have to give up her sons (the youngest of whom was just seven), her friends, her title and her home for the past sixteen years. It cannot have been an easy decision.

Nevertheless Joan departed from Nantes on 26 December, accompanied by her two young daughters (Blanche and Margaret). Henry had sent his half-brothers, John and Henry Beaufort (the earl of Somerset and the bishop of Lincoln respectively), and the earl of Worcester to accompany her on the voyage. She boarded on 13 January and spent the next five days being thrown about on wintry seas. The rough weather meant that the ships had to put in at Falmouth on 19 January 1403.41

Three days later, Henry was at Farnham in Surrey, probably still unaware that Joan had landed.42 But as soon as he heard, he gave orders to head westwards. Joan was taken slowly from Falmouth via Bodmin to Okehampton, twenty-two miles from Exeter, where she was on 27 January.43 By the 28th Henry was at Clarendon Palace, in Wiltshire, fifty miles from Exeter. With Joan travelling slowly from the west, and Henry rapidly from the east, they were on course to meet near Exeter. On the 30th they were entertained in that city, amid much celebration, together at last.

From Exeter the royal party made its way via Bridport and Salisbury to Winchester Cathedral, where they were married on 7 February by Henry’s half-brother, Bishop Beaufort. The old bishop of Winchester, William Wykeham, was too ill to preside (he died the following year), but it may have been as a special favour to him – foremost of the prelates in lending Henry money – that Henry chose his church for the wedding. The newly rebuilt nave was truly splendid. The king’s younger sons, John and Humphrey, were in attendance, as was most of the English aristocracy, and a lavish feast was held, costing £522 12s.44 The menu for this survives, showing that Henry and his bride were treated to roast cygnets, ‘capons of high grease’, venison, griskins, rabbits, bitterns, stuffed pullets, partridges, kid (as in young goat), woodcock, plover, quails, snipe, fieldfares, cream of almonds, pears in syrup, custards, fritters and subtleties decorated with crowns and eagles. One of the highlights was a cake in the shape of crowned panthers, each panther having flames issuing from his mouth and ears. Henry’s wedding present to Joan was a fantastic jewelled collar costing £385, ‘with the motto Soveignez and the letter “S”, ten amulets garnished with nine pearls, twelve large diamonds, eight rubies, eight sapphires, with a great clasp in the shape of a triangle with a great ruby set in the same and garnished with four great pearls’.45 Following the wedding, the royal party returned to London, and were received by the citizens on Blackheath. They processed into the city, to Cheapside, and from there to Westminster, where the queen was crowned on 26 February, with more feasting and jousting. Following the festivities, Henry took Joan to Eltham, and toured Kent, returning to his favourite palace, Eltham, for Easter.

Henry had at last found in his new wife the sort of companionship he had lost with Mary’s death, nearly nine years before. In the early years of his reign we find occasional references to his pastimes – sword-fighting and hunting, and even an idiot or fool – but otherwise his time was heavily employed in the relentless business of state.46 There was precious little time for enjoyment, and only a handful of trusted old friends with whom to spend it. Now he had a constant, intelligent and trustworthy companion. She was passionate and determinedly loyal.47 She was also a woman with whom Henry could discuss business. Joan had, after all, managed the affairs of the duchy of Brittany. The following year Henry granted her a tower at Westminster in which to maintain an office. The business she took on included holding councils, handling and auditing accounts, and keeping charters and similar documents.48 She was clearly a hands-on sort of woman, more inclined to administrative duties than needlework. In that, too, she seems to have been a good match for the king.

Unfortunately her arrival did not end Henry’s seemingly endless run of ill fortune. Joan herself cost the public purse an extra ten thousand marks (£6,666 13s 8d) per year from the day of her marriage, adding to Henry’s financial problems. The marriage of young Blanche to Count Rupert’s son was even more expensive, the dowry amounting to twenty thousand marks, half of which was due immediately.49 The exchequer was under greater pressure than ever, and not even the experienced Guy Mone was able to make the royal accounts balance. In February, Henry sacked Bishop Stafford and appointed Henry Beaufort chancellor of England. Glendower’s operations started again, and the prince of Wales – now formally appointed King’s Lieutenant in Wales – was forced to begin a campaign against him in North Wales, which cost more money. Then on 10 May Henry’s kind stepmother, Katherine Swynford, died. It cannot have been an easy honeymoon.

But all Henry’s problems to date were as mere whispers compared to what happened next. In July 1403 Henry heard that the whole Percy family – including the earls of Northumberland and Worcester, and Hotspur – had taken up arms against him. They had joined forces with Glendower and his prisoner, their kinsman Sir Edmund Mortimer.

Henry had a civil war on his hands.

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