Post-classical history

INTRODUCTION

Shakespeare has a lot to answer for. While historians today might argue about the significance of the end of Plantagenet rule in 1485, and whether terms such as the Hundred Years War and the Wars of the Roses serve any useful purpose, Shakespeare has dictated the most important cut-off date in English medieval history: 1397. Quite simply, that is the historical point at which his great cycle of history plays begins. It is therefore the start date for our collective familiarity with the leading characters from British history. The well-educated modern reader is familiar with the idea of Richard II and Henry IV as eloquent, intelligent and sophisticated individuals in a way he or she is not with their predecessors. We all know the name of John of Gaunt – ‘Time-honoured Lancaster’ as he appears in Shakespeare’s Richard II – but few people recall his father-in-law, the first duke of Lancaster, a more brilliant man in almost every way. The psychological characteristics of political figures before 1397 are known only to those who have studied them whereas, because of Shakespeare, we believe that the English royal family after 1397 was a crucible of glory and terror, and that its individual representatives changed the course of English history through their personal loves, fears, ambitions, vision and courage.

Shakespeare, however, was not a historian. His themes were exclusively living themes: the human struggle against the ‘slings and arrows’ of personal misfortune and the causes and consequences of political revolution. He was not concerned with accurate descriptions of past individuals or events. He also had little or no understanding of the social and religious differences between the early fifteenth century and his own time. We only have to remind ourselves of his failure to mention the Peasants’ Revolt to appreciate that his play about Richard II is not an attempt to provide a full picture of the king’s life. Although there are elements of Shakespeare’s fictional Henry IV which are closely related to the historical king, the result is an inevitable distortion of his personality and career. In short, the popular view of Henry IV is mainly an Elizabethan embroidery incorporating a few golden threads of historical detail. Henry IV may be a key figure in no fewer than three of the greatest history plays ever written but, as an individual, he lurks in the shadows of the popular imagination, as if still cautious of the judgement of other ages, hardly ever emerging to proclaim himself as the man he was, or openly to explain himself and his actions.

The image of Henry lurking in the shadows of the late middle ages is a good one with which to begin a study of him, for he is perhaps the most enigmatic of all the post-Conquest rulers of England. The great nineteenth-century historian William Stubbs declared that ‘there is scarcely one in the whole line of our kings of whose personality it is so difficult to get a definite idea’.1 Indeed, one of the reasons Henry was so useful to Shakespeare is his very obscurity. In the playwright’s hands he could be Bolingbroke, the ruthless commander and ambitious usurper, and yet he could also be King Henry, ‘mighty and to be feared’, yet somewhat aloof and unengaging, being too full of majesty. This is not a sign of attention to him as a man but rather to his station, as a duke or king. There is no attempt to portray the Bolingbroke/Henry IV characters as having any key trait in common. In 1596 (the year in which Henry IV Part One was written) no one had any in-depth understanding of the man’s personality. As the historian K. B. McFarlane pointed out, the Tudors in general – and Shakespeare in particular – ignored Henry, and that proved fatal to his historical reputation.2

The Tudors had a good reason to ignore Henry, as demonstrated in the career of the one man who did not ignore him. This was Dr John Hayward, a Cambridge-educated doctor of law, who in 1599 published a historical study entitled The First Part of the Life and Raigne of King Henrie IIII. It was immediately both popular and vilified.3 The first edition of a thousand copies sold out, but it came to the attention of the queen, Elizabeth I, who saw in it an attempt to compare her with Richard II and to justify her deposition. This was largely paranoia on the aged queen’s part, who is supposed to have declared in her fury ‘know ye not I am Richard II?’. Nevertheless, she sought to have the author arraigned for treason, and Hayward was accordingly locked up in the Tower of London for daring to write ‘a storie 200 yere olde’. The second edition was banned, seized and burned. With that sort of review, all prospective publishers were persuaded that The Second Part (up to 1403) was far too dangerous to print, and the third part was never written. Indeed, the whole experiment in writing about the man who deposed Richard II was seen to be so controversial that no one attempted to follow Hayward’s example until absolute monarchy was well and truly a thing of the past.

As a result, it is only in recent times that historians have begun to move closer to the historical Henry IV. In 1878, William Stubbs published the third and final volume of his landmark work, The Constitutional History of England. In seventy-four pages he provided his readers with an overview of Henry’s reign which was both new and positive. Unlike any previous historian, Stubbs presented Henry as ‘a great king’, albeit troubled at every stage of his reign.4 The reason for his greatness was only partly because he founded a dynasty; mainly it was because (according to Stubbs) he initiated ‘a great constitutional experiment, a premature testing of the strength of the parliamentary system’.5 Stubbs was particularly impressed by the fact that ‘there [was] much treason outside but none within the House of Commons’. This led to his conclusion that, by the time of his death, Henry IV ‘had exemplified the truth that a king acting in constitutional relations with his parliament may withstand and overcome any amount of domestic difficulty’.6

It has to be said that this is ‘greatness’ as defined by Stubbs, not as understood by Henry’s contemporaries. In the fifteenth century it was Henry’s grandfather, Edward III, who was regarded as the model for greatness: a man who took the war to France and Scotland and won, and who presided over peace at home for half a century. Henry IV was not deemed ‘great’ by his contemporaries for the simple reason that he failed to live up to this example. But even if we go along with Stubbs and accept that a man can be retrospectively ‘great’ because his constitutional ambitions come into vogue four centuries after his death, we still have a problem in that Stubbs assumed that constitutional achievements necessitate constitutional ambitions. They do not. Some of the most important parliamentary developments of the middle ages were achieved in spite of royal participation, not because of it. Indeed, as this book will show, Henry’s vision of kingship was substantially based on that of Edward III, and he approached parliament with a largely conservative agenda. The question of whether or not Henry was a great king in the fifteenth century, or subsequently, is a distraction. A man’s character may be obscured as much by the acclamation of greatness as by neglect.

Stubbs’s slightly younger contemporary Dr James Hamilton Wylie took the opposite approach to Stubbs. Rather than describing Henry’s reign in the context of the development of the constitution, Wylie looked at the administration of England in the context of the reign. The History of England under Henry the Fourth, published in four volumes between 1884 and 1898, is an astounding compendium of facts, showing very wide reading on the part of the author and containing many perspicacious judgements. It was also a pioneering work: no one had previously given so much attention to a period of just thirteen years before 1500. It includes a great deal of information about the king and many notes from his accounts prior to his accession, and remains the most complete chronology of the reign even today. However, it is first and foremost a history of England, not a biography, and so there is little or no attempt to reconcile the king’s actions, writings and reported statements, or to present a coherent portrait of the man. And there are so many highly detailed digressions that at times it is difficult to remember where we are in Dr Wylie’s narrative. Those searching for Henry’s character will struggle to find it amid the tangled and seemingly endless documentary undergrowth.

Sir James H. Ramsay’s two studies, The Genesis of Lancaster (1913) and Lancaster and York (1892), were written in the ‘constitutional’ wake of Stubbs. In these, as in Stubbs’s own work, Henry is just one of the players in the political game, not the subject. As such he is adopted into the narrative, but again with no real effort to understand his personality. Only in discussing the end of the king’s life does Ramsay try to sum him up, declaring that Henry was ‘painstaking and industrious; merciful, temperate, and domestic; a traveller, but not a soldier or a sportsman’.7 The last words are somewhat surprising considering that Henry won all three of the battles he commanded, habitually led his armies in person, went on crusade, was a famous jousting champion, and regularly engaged in hunting and falconry. Ramsay’s books are still useful for their easily accessible narrative structure, but, in terms of searching for Henry, best to move on.

If the ghost of Henry IV was hovering around in the early twentieth century, he (or it) would have despaired of finding a proper representation of his living self. The next writer to address the king, J. D. Griffith Davies, did not greatly help. After completing a popular biography on Henry V, Davies felt inspired to go back a generation and write about Henry IV. The result is an example of the sort of historical biography which gave the genre something of a bad name in the twentieth century. There is a distinct lack of attention to detail. Factual accuracy is sacrificed for an easy-to-read style. There is no examination of the sources on which crucial points of information and interpretation are based. Very few sources are directly cited, and, as for its supposed achievement of ‘painting an impartial but living picture of Henry Bolingbroke’, it fails to convince, for it does not go far enough into the man’s character, being more concerned with the rustling leaves of his ‘life and times’ rather than the roots, trunk and branches of his personality.

Despite its shortcomings, Davies’ book does contain an important idea which causes us to think again about Henry IV, and perhaps put a smile on the face of the dead king’s ghost. If Henry V had ascended the throne in 1399 and Henry IV in 1413, would things have turned out differently? Although Davies fails to argue his own view on this, just raising the question implies that he believed the two men might have been of comparable abilities, and only significantly differed from one another with regard to their circumstances. In this Davies echoes a line in Stubbs’s evocation of Henry IVs greatness: ‘Henry IV, striving lawfully, had made his own house strong; Henry V leading the forces with which his father had striven, made England the first power in Europe.’8 If Henry IV secured the stable monarchy and administrative system which Henry V inherited in 1413, and saw off nearly all the opposition which otherwise his son would have had to face, does he not also deserve a portion of the credit for the successes of his son’s reign? In addition, while we have traditionally judged Henry IV by the consequences of his actions in relieving Richard II of the throne in 1399, we have not considered the alternatives. What would have happened if he had not usurped the throne? This is not just ‘virtual history’ or a piece of speculation; it was very much the situation which Henry himself faced in 1399. Richard was thirty-two at the time; he might have lived and governed erratically and tyrannically for another twenty or thirty years. The potential danger to the nation as well as to the Lancastrian ducal family was obvious. Moreover, if Henry IV had not taken the throne, Henry V would have had to take on the mantle of the ‘usurper’, presumably when he came of age, in 1407, after eight more years of Richard’s rule. Then he too would have faced the dynastic and political opposition which his father had had to overcome, including the Ricardian faction in the aftermath of the coup, the Welsh, the Scots and the French. So, in raising this question, Griffith Davies gave weight to Stubbs’s view of Henry as a great king, not on the basis of nineteenth-century constitutional romanticism but in terms of a royal duke’s duty to God, to his family, to his vows of knighthood and to his fellow Englishmen.

By 1961, when E. F. Jacob published his substantial volume The Fifteenth Century in the Oxford History of England series, the orthodox view of Henry was that he had received little credit for what had been a demanding struggle against overwhelming odds. Some of Jacob’s statements on the progress of Henry’s life were open to criticism; for example, his view that the king was ‘neurotic’ towards the end. But his verdict was that Henry had reigned ‘gloriously’, as the chronicler Walsingham states, and that for this he had to thank his Lancastrian ‘administrative training ground and his own magnificent endurance’. It was a fair judgement, and one which still stands. The successor volume in the New Oxford History of England series, by G. L. Harriss, gives Henry the credit for acting with ‘energy and decisiveness’ against Richard II and against later rebellions in Wales and the north, and explains his compromises with parliament as the result of bankruptcy and political manoeuvres to bolster his authority. The authors of Henry’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography similarly state that, superficially, his reign appears to be difficult to count a success, but ‘once placed firmly in the context of his own reign, Henry IV can be seen as a considerable figure, a humane and cultivated ruler, politically skilled but by no means invariably unprincipled’. After fifty years’ consensus, the scholarly verdict on Henry IV as a king seems to be in: overall a successful ruler, despite some major drawbacks and disappointments, whose priority to the end of his life was securing his dynasty, in which he was quietly triumphant.

But what of him as a man? What of his character? This question echoes away into the darkness, and no answer comes. Astonishingly, Henry IV is the least biographied English king to have been crowned since the Conquest.9 The only monograph wholly devoted to him by a writer familiar with the relevant primary sources is J. L. Kirby’s Henry IV of England, published in 1970. This is not a biography. Biography means a study of a life and there is no life in Kirby’s book. Of its 247 pages of text (excluding the ten-page introduction), only fifty deal with Henry’s existence up to August 1399. In other words, just twenty per cent of the book is given over to the first seventy per cent of his life, including his inheritance, childhood and half his adulthood. The remainder is a discussion of the politics of his reign. Kirby shows no understanding of Henry’s development from a child into a man and then a king. Yet to ignore the early part of Henry’s life and to concentrate on the last fourteen years is dangerously misleading, if only for the reason that Henry was not born or bred to be a king. Moreover, Kirby shows no feeling for some key events in Henry’s life. In describing the tragic deaths of the summer of 1394, he says simply ‘Anne of Bohemia, Richard’s queen, died on 7 June and Mary Bohun, Henry’s wife, a few weeks later’.10 That is all. Heavens above! The coldness is like an experimental scientist noting the deaths of two rodents in a laboratory cage. What about Henry’s devotion to his wife, and his shock at the sudden loss of his supportive partner? Even though the evidence is minimal, we cannot assume his feelings were equally slight. Similarly, in describing Henry’s decision to invade England in 1399, Kirby does not consider for a moment how much this must have weighed on Henry’s mind. There is no suggestion of worry or optimism. There is no discussion even of the cultural context for fearing the removal of a legitimate monarch. Henry just did it, as if he was following a script from which he could not deviate and which guaranteed him success. Kirby’s work remains useful as a political guidebook to the reign, but it is little more than that.

Fortunately for Henry IV, and for us, K. B. McFarlane had a far more rounded vision of the king’s personality. His six chapters on Henry in the first part of Lancastrian Kings and Lollard Knights are the nearest thing to a biography yet to be published. These chapters were originally devised as a series of six lectures which McFarlane delivered at Oxford in the 1930s and rewrote in the 1940s, and which G. L. Harriss edited for publication in 1972. In McFarlane at last we have an intelligent yet humane writer who engages with the man and his problems, and who tries to understand what forces shaped him. He understood that history is the study of living men and women, not merely names in desiccated documents, and that those men and women were individuals. As he himself stated, ‘while it is a part of the historian’s business to analyse the great impersonal forces at work in society, he must take account of the human instruments, those who held power, through which those forces had in part to find expression’.11

One of the most significant aspects of McFarlane’s lectures on Henry IV is his understanding of the greater possibilities of a biographical approach as opposed to ‘sterile antiquarianism’ (as he himself called it). Consider the question of Henry’s rivalry with Richard II. There is no evidence of any hostility between the two men until 1386, when they were both nineteen. However, should we presume therefore that they were amicable up to this time? An evidence-based methodology suggests we should, or that we should at least keep an open mind. But McFarlane approached the subject of Henry’s youth on the understanding that simple repetition of the evidence (or lack of it) is not enough, and that to understand the relationship between Henry and Richard one has to go beyond the direct evidence and look for hints that they may have distrusted one another long before 1386.12 In this way McFarlane started to tackle the difficult questions about Henry’s personality: questions which up to then had been dismissed as unfathomable depths.

Erudite, well informed and well written as McFarlane’s account most certainly is, it still falls short of what we would like to see in a historical biography. Obviously it is too brief and incomplete. It is also too objective, in the sense that it is inextricably linked to a philosophy of history as a judgemental process – seeing Henry in the context of his peers – as opposed to a sympathetic one (seeing his peers through Henry’s eyes). There is therefore little attention to emotional development. Also it is significant that McFarlane’s Henry IV lectures lack a conclusion. In Lancastrian Kings, it is Henry V's achievements which appear to be the conclusion. This, of course, was not McFarlane’s intention, for he wrote the lectures on Henry IV and Henry V for different audiences; but even so, one suspects that McFarlane did look back on Henry IV through the distorting lens of Henry V's reign. He was in awe of the younger Henry, declaring that he was ‘the greatest man that ever ruled England’.13 He does not qualify this statement, even though he must have been well aware that Henry V's road to glory was far easier than his father’s narrow path of mere survival. Like a race between two sprinters, one of whom attempts the 100 metres hurdles in Wellington boots while the other covers the ioo metres flat in more suitable footwear: if the flat runner is consistently faster than the hurdler, we ought not to be surprised. As a result, McFarlane’s book does not reward the reader who picks it up to find out about Henry IV, for despite all the king’s efforts in the face of adversity, he does not receive commensurate praise.

Since McFarlane, books about Henry IV have been very few and far between. Two small-press studies appeared in 1986 and 1994, but neither is ground-breaking.14 The only major contributions are a political study of the reign, Heresy and Politics in the Reign of Henry IV: the Burning of John Badby by Peter McNiven (1987) and a volume of essays, Henry IV: the Establishment of the Regime, 1399–1406, edited by Gwilym Dodd and Douglas Biggs (2003). The former is, as its title suggests, primarily concerned with the relationship between the political and religious forces of the time. The latter includes a number of important pieces of research but, being a series of contributions to an academic conference, cannot provide the integrated personal story which we look for in a biography. The scholarly overview of the reign suitable for a wide audience is still lacking. It was thought for a long time that A. L. Brown would provide this, and in 1995 it was noted that it was nearing completion.15 He fell ill, however, before it was finished. It looks as though we must wait a little while yet for the specialist academic overview of the reign of Henry IV.16

Nevertheless, research on the period continues to be produced in quantity. Attention to the tyranny of Richard II and the revolution of 1399 has been especially intense. The revolt of the earls in 1400, the Welsh rebellion, the Percy revolt and Henry’s parliamentary and financial predicaments have all been subject to detailed scrutiny. However, despite the weight of academic research, the focus is rarely biographical. Except for isolated areas of interest, such as Henry’s health, the attention is not on Henry himself but on the political, financial and constitutional aspects of his reign. Even his relationships with his children are examined for political – rather than personal – reasons. Stubbs’s constitutional romanticism may have fallen by the wayside, but his view that the most important historical questions of the period are abstract ones concerning the relationship between the monarchy, parliament and the exercise of political authority continues to provide the framework for early fifteenth-century scholarship to this day.

*

This lack of biographical attention is extraordinary and it is difficult to explain why no one has concentrated on the character of a man who was the first of only four Englishmen since the Conquest to break into the sacred circle of legitimate royal succession (Edward IV, Richard III and Henry VII being the others).17 He might be enigmatic but that is no reason to ignore him; quite the opposite. It is even more surprising, however, when we reflect that scholars habitually point to Richard II’s personality as being the key to his downfall, and have made great efforts to understand him as a man, while not considering what it was about Henry’s character which provided the antithesis to this failure. Of course, most scholars have noted Henry’s knightly virtues, his intelligence, wit and politeness; but there has not been a single personality-based study of Henry to compare with the many for Richard II. Henry’s character has been seen as incidental to his political career whereas Richard II’s has been seen as the key to his.

Such a lack of a biographical perspective is one of the reasons for this book. Another reason is that Henry is the obvious next subject in this series of biographies which collectively tell the political history of later medieval England. Following on from The Greatest Traitor: the Life of Sir Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March, Ruler of England 1327–1330 and its successor, The Perfect King: the Life of Edward III, Father of the English Nation, this book continues to trace the thread of political power in England. Through this longer temporal framework, it is possible to show how Henry’s life connects with both his Lancastrian ancestry and long-term political developments. For instance, the previous two volumes illustrate in greater detail than is possible here the examples of both the Lancastrian rebel Thomas of Lancaster – executed in the reign of Edward II – and the hugely successful first duke of Lancaster, Edward III’s most brilliant commander and best friend (he and Edward III both being Henry’s grandfathers). Similarly, the earlier books describe the deposition of Edward II, and the awareness in the royal family of his secret survival after his supposed death. These two events have particular resonance in this book, the first in the process whereby Henry IV oversaw the deposition of Richard II and the second in the rumours that first Thomas of Woodstock and then Richard II were kept alive after their deaths.

A third reason to write about Henry IV is to explore what may be termed ‘the limits of medieval biography’. There was for many years a general perception that biography was too populist a medium for serious consideration. ‘It is despised by the hard and practised by the soft in one discipline after another’, wrote a correspondent in the Times Higher Educational Supplement in 1987.18 Sixty years earlier K. B. McFarlane had declared that ‘the historian cannot honestly write biographical history; his province is rather the growth of social organisations, of civilisation, of ideas’. One could talk about a king’s reign, or the interactions between a king and his people, but biography itself was seen in a negative light on account of its sympathetic (as opposed to objective) approach, or, as other critics have said, because biographical authors ‘opt for narrative rather than analysis’.19 Thus, for most of the twentieth century, academic historians tended to write history books about individuals, not biographies, and justified this on the grounds of the intellectual superiority of the objective, analytical approach. At the same time, there was a widespread belief in literary circles that a ‘proper’ biography could not be written for a character living before 1500, as personal letters do not normally survive to attest to what the subject thought or felt. This view was seized on by the anti-biographical academics and used as a justification for why it was essential to avoid the biographical medium when writing about medieval political figures: the whole exercise was impossible, they said, ‘for the sources to permit such a study have not survived’.20 For decades no one exposed the weaknesses of this view. It depends on a double assumption: that there is (1) a definite thing called ‘a biography’, with an established form which a writer could not modify, requiring certain types of primary sources as a sine qua non, and (2) that there is a distinction to be made between those whose personal letters are available in large quantities (who are suitable subjects for biography) and all the other people who have walked the planet (who are not). This is surprising, for these assumptions are and were obviously wrong. It is even more surprising when we reflect that, throughout the twentieth century, diversity and experimentation were being encouraged in other forms of serious literature (poetry and fiction, for example) but not biography.

Slowly, things began to change. Historians writing about individuals began to realise that, in order to analyse the past, first one must understand it, and in trying to understand it, issues of character have to be viewed with a degree of sympathy, not complete detachment. For example, in order to understand Roger Mortimer’s actions against Edward II in 1322–6, it is necessary to understand his earlier loyalties, disappointments, military experiences and political awareness from his own point of view. An analogy with architecture may be made: however much we may hold to the view that it is the external, objective view of an architectural masterpiece which matters most, we cannot properly appreciate a building’s merits unless we also see it from within. Similarly, the hoary idol of ‘biography’ began to crack, with dramatic innovations from writers such as Ann Wroe (whosePilate is about a reputation rather than a man, and whose Perkin has as its central theme the idea that a man might not know who he actually is) and Peter Ackroyd (whose The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde is written as an autobiography, and whose London: the Biography stretches our understandings of ‘biography’ to include the ‘life’ of a city).

For the historical biographer, the potential benefits of the sympathetic approach to history are obvious. On the one hand we may retain a firm grip on the source material and on the other we may build a coherent picture of a man’s life and character based on his actions, his priorities, his political decisions and alliances, and his defiance of (or compliance with) contemporary mores. This in turn leads us to ask why a biography based on a man’s actions should not be every bit as ‘biographical’ as a life based on his letters? Indeed, we delude ourselves if we think that letters prove a man’s feelings, or necessarily convey an accurate impression of his inner life. Men and women may misrepresent themselves and their feelings in their letters for any number of reasons, consciously and subconsciously, perhaps due to momentary depression or elation, or even due to their inability to express themselves. In a long summer of happiness, one may take a moment just to write down a single line of regret or bitterness, and what is left of that summer a hundred years later? But although men and women often deceive in what they write, it is rare that they deceive in what they do. A payment for a musical instrument for the lord’s personal use is good evidence of a fondness for music; orders for the design of a library to house the king’s books is good evidence of a high value placed on literature. The resetting of a medicinal stone to protect the wearer against poison when he is in fear of his life is no less telling. Given enough evidence of his decision-making, one may present a picture of a medieval leader which is as close, or nearly as close, to his actual character as a contemporary biography of a living monarch or prime minister.

It is now, in the present century, that the opportunities afforded by this new form of historical biography are becoming apparent. In the summer of 2003 a whole string of leading medievalists attended a conference at the University of Exeter on ‘The Limits of Medieval Biography’. Almost all echoed the conclusion of the keynote speaker: that biography was not only one of the most important approaches to the past, it might actually be the most important, for ‘only through biography could one argue why this had happened, or that had not happened’.21

As soon as one accepts this way of seeing past lives, Henry emerges as a prime subject for study. He personally changed the government of the country, and thereby he personally persuaded the country both to shrug off its allegiance to Richard and to accept him as its king. This goes way beyond the mere changing of the head on which the crown sits. It marks the advent of a totally different form of kingship, for it proves the final failing of one form of rule (Richard II’s experiment in autocratic monarchy) and the beginning of another (a return to participatory government). It also demands answers to some very serious questions. What was it about Henry that made him a preferable choice to the divinely anointed Richard? What was it about him which allowed him to sanction the introduction of the most repressive heresy laws? What was it that equipped him to weather the years of revolution and protest which followed? What was it that made him think he could rule more wisely than his son at the end of his life? When we start to consider these questions, the view of history as a slow socio-economic development is revealed to be just the rocky landscape of the past, as if seen through powerful x-ray glasses that eradicate the presence of every single individual in that landscape, with the loss of every emotion, every bit of pride and every cry of suffering. Take off the x-ray glasses and one is left in no doubt that the ‘revolution’ which Henry instigated in 1399 was one of the most important events in English history. Its legacy – the question of whether revolution itself can be justified, and, if so, might it be sanctioned by God – was the single most important political concern with which Shakespeare and his contemporaries had to wrestle two hundred years later. We might even go so far to say it remains to this day the ultimate political question: to whom does one owe the greater loyalty, those superiors whom one serves or those dependants for whom one is responsible? Understanding Henry’s circumstances and personality helps us to see how the previously accepted order of society (which assumed that one should always remain loyal to one’s superiors) could be questioned and found lacking. It helps us to understand the civil wars of the period as well as the Welsh and French conflicts, finance, parliament and sedition. What would have happened if Henry had lost the battle of Shrewsbury? Would we have had a Mortimer on the throne, the reluctant King Edmund? But Henry did not lose at Shrewsbury. So, historically, his survival matters, just as it mattered at the time.

Here, then, is the life of a man whose character profoundly affected the history of the English nation. It may not have been the most glorious reign, but one should not judge the man by the achievements of his reign alone. Unlike all his Plantagenet predecessors, it was an achievement for him simply to become king. Thus his life was certainly not without its moments of glory. He was the man who forced the door shut on the tyranny of Richard II and unlocked the one by which the Lancastrians – most famously Henry V – burst gloriously on to the scene. That he should have been a ‘usurper’ too (in Shakespeare’s eyes at least) has provided us ever since with something of an enigma. It is time to confront that enigma, and to try to understand the man behind it.

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