Post-classical history


Curst Melancholy

Why hast thou lost the fresh blood in thy cheeks

And given my treasures and my rights of thee

To thick-eyed musing and curst meancholy?

Henry IV Part One, Act II, Scene 3

Imagine Henry, on the deck of his ship, the day he returned to England. There he stands, looking at the chalk cliffs of the south coast as the ship rolls over the waves. Ahead of him lies the road back to London, through Canterbury and Sittingbourne. Ahead of him too lies the meeting with his family, his wife, Mary, and his four sons and a baby daughter, Blanche, named after the mother he never knew. No doubt he is looking forward to meeting his father too, and telling him about Prague, Vienna, Venice and, above all else, Jerusalem. He is brimful of confidence that the story of his travels is one worth telling everywhere. And yet there is something more in his mind. As he stands on the deck, looking at England, he knows that this is the one place in Europe where he will not be respected as a visiting prince. In England he is merely a vassal, and treated with less respect than he had received in the courts of Europe.

Henry could not but have cast his mind ahead to the reception that awaited him in his home country. The last time he had returned, from his crusade, he had been fêted as a hero. This time he had completed a journey every bit as remarkable, yet he had no way of knowing the political climate in England, with the exception of rumours he had picked up in Paris. There he had arrived just after his father’s departure with a draft agreement for a permanent peace between England and France. With his father’s apparent success, and the tale of his own adventures to tell, Henry may have expected his homecoming to be as much of an excited celebration as his last, two years earlier.

It was not. The country was uneasy. The draft treaty which John and his brother, the duke of Gloucester, had negotiated was not to the liking of the English court. Some lords were positively hostile to the idea of giving up the claim to the sovereignty of France. Elements of the commons too were deeply suspicious of the motives for peace. Even before Henry had arrived back in England a great number of men had gathered in Cheshire and Lancashire intent on killing him, his father and his uncle Gloucester. They accused them of plotting to deprive the king of England of his sovereignty for their own personal benefit, and openly declared their ambition of assassinating all three men. The rebels gathered in unlawful assemblies under the leadership of Thomas Talbot, their ranks swelled by those who saw the likelihood of mayhem and the opportunity for plunder. The earl of Arundel, equally angry at the likely turn of peace, did nothing to put down the revolt. As for the king, although he did belatedly send representatives to calm the insurgents, he was suspected of turning a blind eye.1

When Henry rode into London on 5 July 1393 he must have been worried. His own name was linked with this unpopular peace, even though he had had no part in forming the draft treaty. Moreover, he must have wondered why his father had agreed to such unpopular terms. Was this the logical and inevitable outcome of all those years of talks, patiently seeking a path between the warmongers and the mercenary captains? If so, it meant that John had come to prefer the kingship of Richard II to that of Edward III, if only for the pragmatic reason that Richard was incapable of leading an army in battle. But that was not the case. The reason why John was following the king’s bidding in seeking peace at any price was because Richard had no heir. John was putting all his efforts into supporting Richard’s ambition for peace so that Richard would acknowledge Henry as his successor. John had set himself on the narrow path of absolute loyalty, with his son’s eventual succession as his ultimate goal. He would do nothing to discourage Richard from recognising the Lancastrians as the rightful heirs to the throne.

Henry seems to have gone directly to his father on his return to England, who was marching north to confront the rebels.2 John was at Lancaster on 10 and 14 August, and it is likely that Henry was with him. Thomas Talbot admitted his misdeeds before Henry and Lord Lovell, who perhaps had gone as representatives to negotiate with him.3 Following the breakup of the revolt, John went to Beverley and Henry went south, to join his wife at Peterborough.4 A few weeks later, Mary was pregnant again. Henry remained with her there until December, when they both joined his father at Hertford, and Henry took part in the traditional Christmas tournament. Happy to be back with his family, he paid for a new suit of armour for his half-brother, Thomas Beaufort, so he also could take part in the festive joust.5 The king of France’s own jester joined them, and was rewarded by Henry with a gift of forty shillings.6 New Year’s presents were received from the king and queen, his father and stepmother, the duke and duchess of Gloucester, his mother-in-law the countess of Hereford, Thomas Mowbray, the countess of Norfolk (Mowbray’s grandmother), the bishop of Salisbury and Lady Audley.7 Those to whom Henry gave presents included his old governess, Katherine Swynford, his heralds, his loyal friend, Thomas Erpingham, Katherine Waterton (the wife of his chamberlain, Hugh Waterton), and Sir John Bussy, Speaker of the House of Commons.


Henry remained at Hertford with Mary in January 1394, delaying setting off for parliament until the end of the month.8 When he finally departed, he sent her a present of oysters, mussels and sprats.9 It was just like the last time he had left her in mid-pregnancy to attend parliament, when he had sent her a present of apples and pears. As before, the gift marked a contrast between his happy, homely life with his wife and children, and the harsh exposure of politics at Westminster. At about this time he purchased a brooch for his own use which bore the motto sanz mal penser (‘think no evil’), along with elaborate prayer books and crucifixes.10 It smacks of apprehensiveness, echoing the Garter motto, ‘honi soit qui mal y pense (shame on him who thinks it evil)’.

Parliament met on 27 January. Almost immediately, John of Gaunt and the earl of Arundel were at loggerheads. The chancellor declared that one of the reasons for the parliament was the peace of the kingdom, following the Cheshire uprising. John bitterly accused Arundel of doing nothing to control the revolt, even though the rebels’ declared intention was to kill him and Henry, and despite the fact that Arundel had been encamped in Cheshire with an army at the time. Arundel retorted with a stinging attack on John, accusing him of being too friendly with the king. The parliament roll (which offers the most precise account of the argument) omits John’s accusations against Arundel, and states that Arundel decided to unburden himself of matters on his conscience, namely that it was not to the king’s honour to spend so much time with his uncle, nor that he should wear the livery of the Lancastrians. Why did he not treat his other uncles with similar favour? Why had John benefited so much from the money for his Spanish campaign, which had ultimately achieved nothing more than the enrichment of the Lancastrians? And what right did John have to give up the king of England’s authority to the French throne?11

Richard placated the earl of Arundel. He explained it was only natural that there should be affection between nephew and uncle, and he was not aware of treating John differently from his brothers. As to the Spanish money, Richard pointed out sensibly that it was parliament’s wish that John undertake his Spanish campaign, and in France he had simply negotiated a draft agreement, as he was charged to do as an English ambassador. Nothing yet was set in stone on that matter. So there was no damage either to the king’s honour or to John’s. Arundel was forced to apologise publicly to the duke for his accusations.12

But the uneasiness did not end there. Despite his crusade and pilgrimage, Henry had been overlooked by the king when it had come to appointing receivers of petitions in parliament. In the last two parliaments at which he had been present – those of 1390 and 1391 – he had been appointed, along with the earls of Kent, Salisbury, Arundel and Warwick. In January 1394, all four of these earls were reappointed; not Henry, though. This may have been a further cause of upset for John. His son and heir was now approaching the age of twenty-seven, and had every right to be regarded as one of the most important men in the country. It was a clear slight to him that he was not. As a result, when Richard declared that he intended to lead an expedition to Ireland, the question arose as to who should be keeper of the realm in his absence overseas. Normally the next in line to the throne was appointed keeper.13 John understood that he was next in line, as his father had stipulated, but he was aware that he would have to go to Gascony. So he formally asked that Henry be appointed. In effect this was asking Richard to recognise that Henry was the heir apparent, in line with Edward III’s settlement. The twenty-year-old Roger Mortimer, earl of March, heard this and was outraged. He believed that he was the heir apparent, not Henry: the king had declared as much in 1386. Richard did not want to deal with such issues then and there, where he might provoke uproar. So he commanded both John and the young earl of March to be silent. He himself said nothing more on the subject.

For Henry, the parliament of 1394 amounted to another grinding disappointment, in which nothing of substance was resolved to his benefit. Even if his father was not politically damaged by Arundel’s stinging criticisms, Henry himself was. There was now a serious rift between the house of Lancaster and the earl of Arundel, a kinsman and a fellow Appellant. That, coupled with a property dispute, led to a further rift between Henry and the earl of Warwick.14 After all the honour foreign princes had afforded him, and after his journey to the Holy Land, it must have seemed incredible to Henry that he should be so disregarded by the king and members of the English court. Why were the earls of Arundel, Warwick and Kent appointed to be receivers of petitions, when Henry was now the best-known Englishman in wider Christendom, with the exception of his father and the king? And to whom was the king planning to entrust the realm if not to him? As for his feelings towards the earl of Arundel, it was unbecoming for that man to lecture his father on honour and loyalty. Had not John striven hard all these years to do the king’s bidding? Had he not forgiven the king for trying to murder him, and trying to undermine his authority, as well as accusing him of treachery without good reason? What more did John have to do to prove himself a loyal servant of the king?

Such arguments had damaging consequences outside parliament too. With the king planning an expedition to Ireland, further taxation was required. For many people this represented a dangerous precedent: direct taxation was supposedly only levied in wartime. But this was the third instance of Richard demanding subsidies while pursuing a peace-making policy. And still he was unable to make ends meet. Many believed that the ills which had caused the Lords Appellant to take action were still with them, and yet those one-time champions of the people were now accusing each other of dishonour and selfishness. Only the younger Appellants, Henry and Thomas Mowbray, remained outside this criticism. The poet John Gower, having concluded the first draft of his great work,Confessio Amantis, in 1390 with passages praising the king, was sickened. He now deleted his lines in favour of Richard and dedicated the entire work to Henry. In return Henry gave him a Lancastrian livery collar, which the poet wore with pride until his death.15


As Henry and his father rode back from Westminster to Hertford Castle following the conclusion of the parliament, they both had reason to be disappointed.16 All John’s hard negotiations had ended in his draft treaty being rejected by parliament. Henry had simply been ignored. But perhaps the most worrying consequence of the session was the realisation that the king did not need either of them any more. Richard had defended John against Arundel’s accusations, not vice versa. And when it had come to clearing up the question of the succession, Richard had refused to recognise Henry’s claim. He no longer needed John’s help to fend off the royal uncles or the troublesome senior Appellants. John was still a dignified royal uncle and ambassador but the idea that he represented the rightful line of inheritance, as Henry had insisted in 1387, had dissolved in the turbulent waters of Richard’s personal kingship.

Unfortunately Henry’s accounts for the spring of 1394 do not survive, so it is not possible to determine where he was between March and June of that year. He may have accompanied his father and uncle Gloucester on their expedition back to Leulinghen to let the French ambassadors know the English answer to the proposed treaty. It is equally likely that he stayed at Hertford with his wife. Either way, a few days after his father set out, Henry heard the sad news that his stepmother, the duchess Constanza, was dead. She had died unexpectedly, probably after a short illness, on 24 March.17

For Henry, Constanza’s death came as a shock. Although he had lost many members of his family in his youth, nobody close to him had died in recent years. Unusually (for late medieval England), all five of Henry’s children were alive and well; his father had passed fifty years of age, and he himself was healthy and fit, to judge from his regular jousting. He had grown close to his stepmother since she had come to England and he had entered her household, at the age of four. She had never been as close to John as Henry’s mother had been; nevertheless she had won much affection from the Lancastrian entourage. She was always high on Henry’s list of New Year presents. Hearing of her death, John decided that she should be laid to rest at Leicester, in the Lancastrian collegiate church there, but that the funeral should wait until he had returned to England. He wanted to attend. In the elaborate and expensive burial arrangements he demonstrated that he too had grown much fonder of his Castilian princess than he had anticipated on her arrival in England in 1371.18

The news of the duchess’s death was thus a tragedy such as Henry had not previously known. But it was nothing compared to the next news which reached him. His own wife, Mary, was dead.19

Her death left him devastated. It was her sixth confinement, and all the previous children had been born safely. There was no reason to suspect anything different would happen this time. But Philippa, in being born, had joined her siblings in motherlessness. Henry knew all about that; he and his sisters had been in the same position twenty-five years earlier. His eldest son, Henry of Monmouth, was nearly eight: almost the same age as Henry’s elder sister had been when their mother had died. Little Blanche was just two.20

If Henry was with his father in France at the time, news of this death must have made both men regard each other with the utmost sympathy. John had been twenty-eight – only a year older than Henry now – when Blanche had died. Henry no doubt cast his mind back over his days with his wife: the musical interests they shared, their fine books, praying together, discussing matters of state together – even down to little aspects of daily life, such as the meals they shared. It comes as no surprise to read that Henry went into mourning for a whole year.21

As if these deaths were not tragedy enough, on 7 June, at Sheen, Queen Anne died. Richard too was utterly distraught. He ordered the entire palace to be destroyed. He demanded that her funeral be the most lavish ever held. The court around him held its breath, quaking at his fearful anger. Away from the court, the nation was deeply troubled. This run of royal deaths was surely ominous for the country. Walsingham referred to the period in his chronicle as ‘the Death of Ladies’. For Richard it marked a personal tragedy as great as Henry’s, for Richard had genuinely loved his wife. At her magnificent funeral on 3 August, the earl of Arundel turned up late. He then made his excuses and asked permission to leave early. Hearing this disrespectful request, the grieving king lost control of himself. He took a rod from one of his attendants and beat the earl so hard about the head that the earl bled profusely over the floor of the church. The result was confusion, fear and delay, as Arundel was arrested and dragged away to the Tower. It was nightfall before the ceremony was over.

The funerals of the duchess Constanza and the countess Mary took place in a much more sober atmosphere, at Leicester, on consecutive days at the beginning of July. Black cloth in huge quantities adorned the church of St Mary. Henry and his father attended, joining in the procession with other members of the family and the Lancastrian retainers. First, on Sunday 5 July, Constanza was buried. Mary was laid to rest in the Lady Chapel on the following day. Interestingly, Henry never commissioned an effigy of her. Although Richard commissioned two men to make images for the queen’s tomb the following April, and the work was finished by July 1397, it was not until after Henry’s death that a likeness was constructed for his wife.22 The most likely explanation is that he initially wanted a double effigy to be made for them both when he himself died, so that they would lie together (a plan changed by his accession to the throne and the necessity of him having an altogether grander place of burial).


In August 1394, seven weeks after the funerals of the Lancastrian ladies, John of Gaunt held a meeting at Pontefract Castle. The principal male representatives of the dynasty were present: Edmund, duke of York; his son, Edward, earl of Rutland; and Thomas, duke of Gloucester. It is very likely that Henry was there too. The outcome of this meeting was a letter to the king stressing that, although a person of low estate had entered the palace and uttered things to dishonour John, ‘touching the royal estate’, John had always worked for the benefit of the king and the realm.23 It seems that someone had accused him of plotting to obtain the crown for himself or his son, for this was an assembly of the male heirs of Edward III. If Henry was present at that meeting at Pontefract, then the first, second, third, fourth and sixth in line to the throne were all there, according to the entail, and if Edmund’s younger son, Richard, was also present then that would mean every potential beneficiary of Edward’s entail attended that meeting.24

As soon as the letter was despatched, John started preparing for his trip to Gascony. Shocked by French proposals that the duchy of Aquitaine should eventually be held by the dukes of Lancaster and not the more prestigious and powerful king of England, a number of Gascon lords had refused to accept John’s lordship. It now fell to him to reassert English control of the duchy. His departure left Henry once more in charge of Lancastrian affairs in England, and once more vulnerable.

At the end of September, when John set sail, Richard appointed his uncle Edmund, duke of York, keeper of the realm. It was the betrayal which both Henry and John had long been expecting. Since 1331 the keeper of the realm had been the member of the royal family foremost in the order of succession, regardless of how old or young he was. Whenever a non-royal regent had been selected in the distant past, it was either because the heir to the throne was himself abroad, under-age or in custody. Henry was none of those things. Thus for Richard to appoint Edmund was not just a prevarication – a temporary refusal to decide between the claims of March and Lancaster – it was a public refutation of the pre-eminence of the Lancastrian claim.25

Richard had timed this insult to perfection. John was sailing away, and would be gone for a year. Henry was left standing, publicly stripped of his position in the order of succession. At the same time, Thomas Talbot – the leader of the Cheshire uprising against John of Gaunt, Henry and the duke of Gloucester – was transferred from the Tower of London to the more comfortable surroundings of Windsor Castle, and quietly permitted to escape. All proceedings against him were dropped, by order of the king.26 Even though he had openly accused John of treason, and had confessed that he had roused the Cheshire men to kill three senior members of the royal family, he went unpunished. Three years later, when John specifically demanded that Talbot be brought to justice, Richard did nothing.

This raises another spectre which must have haunted Henry in the autumn of 1394. Talbot had been recruited as one of the king’s personal knights in 1392.27 Cheshire was ardently royalist, the earldom of Chester being an ancestral title of the eldest son of the king. Why would the men of Cheshire have risen up in arms against their beloved king? Explanations in the past have centred on the war providing employment for the king’s archers in Cheshire, and that their protest was against the peace, not against the king. That may be correct as far as the rebels themselves were concerned. But it does not explain why this loyal knight led the rebellion, nor why he went unpunished if he was acting against the king’s wishes, nor why one of his stated ambitions was to kill Henry. Talbot’s second-in-command during the rising was Nicholas Clifton; he was not punished either, and in 1396 he too was recruited by Richard, despite his actions in 1393 being clearly treasonable. Furthermore, when Talbot surrendered, proceedings against him were dropped after only three days.28 This does not suggest the man was acting as the leader of a local rabble but one who knew he was protected at the highest level. Despite the king’s public statements against Talbot in the parliament of 1394, it is very difficult to avoid the conclusion that Richard was protecting him, and that Talbot believed he spoke honestly for Richard in wishing that Henry was dead. This flies in the face of most historical writing about the relationship between Henry and Richard. Most scholars are of the opinion that Richard and Henry were friendly to one another in the 1390s. According to one leading writer, Henry was ‘in favour with Richard’ at this time.29 According to another, ‘Richard … now did his best to win over to his side this young and popular kinsman [Henry] … from now onwards Derby became a member of a new and differently constituted court group’.30 Such views – especially the last – are mistaken. Henry had just been dismissed by Richard as a receiver of petitions. His status as second in line to the throne had just been publicly denied. The king patently bore no ill will to two men who had called for Henry and his father to be murdered. These are hardly grounds for close friendship between men of great pride.

Similarly, we may ask how often Henry was with the king? The usual way of assessing this is the proportion of royal charters which a magnate witnessed. In the years 1393–7 Henry witnessed fourteen out of forty-two royal charters.31 Not a small number, it would appear, but three of those were in early 1395 when Richard was out of the country. Three were during or just after parliaments, when Henry was at Westminster anyway. The others point to about five dates when Henry met the king, over the course of four years. Although we know that Henry visited court more often than this, the charters do not show him becoming a member of a ‘court group’, still less of him being ‘in favour’.

This use of negative evidence – the measurable absence of evidence which we might reasonably expect to exist had the friendship been genuine – can be pushed further. How many diplomatic missions was Henry appointed to in these years? None. How many royal castles was he given custody of, together with the incomes attached to them? None. How often did he attend court when parliament was not sitting? Hardly ever. Compare this with the pile of honours and favours heaped upon Henry’s younger cousin, Edward of York. Edward had been given the stewardship of Bury St Edmunds in 1390, and the keepership of the castle of Oakham, together with the forest of Rutland and the shrievalty of the same county. In 1391 he had been given the joint keepership of the forest of Bradon, had been appointed an admiral, and had been given the important captaincy of the town and castle of Calais. The following year he was empowered to negotiate a truce with France. He accompanied Richard on his Irish visit in 1394–5, was given a second earldom (Cork). On his return to England he was made a feoffee of the lands of the late queen. He was then given the keepership of Brigstock Park and sent to France to negotiate another peace treaty and to arrange the royal marriage, being permitted to secure his own marriage to a member of the French royal family at the same time. And so it went on. Every year, those in favour with Richard received lucrative grants, honours and positions of responsibility. And what did Henry receive in these years? Nothing. When Richard had wanted to open up a diplomatic channel with King Sigismund of Hungary in January 1394, the obvious person to send was Henry, who had already met Sigismund, and had received gifts from him on his travels. Instead, Richard sent his half-brother, the earl of Huntingdon. Coming in the same month as Henry’s dismissal as a receiver of petitions and Richard’s refusal to acknowledge him as his heir, this amounted to a third instance of Richard simply ignoring Henry. And what had Henry done to deserve being ignored? He had won fame, gone on crusade, sired sons, visited Jerusalem, and proved himself pre-eminent as a tournament fighter. Each of these was a significant achievement in the chivalric world of 1394 and each one marked another of Richard’s failings. Looking at the situation from Henry’s point of view, we can only see Richard’s behaviour towards him as being driven by jealousy and characterised by spite.

For these reasons, we should view the appointment of Edmund of Langley to be keeper of the realm in 1394 as the moment when Richard’s previously subtle attempts to undermine Henry became public. Far from being a favourite, Henry was denied any of the usual marks of royal dignity. Shortly before leaving for Ireland, Richard appointed ambassadors to treat with Scotland. Henry was not one of them. We cannot say that such a task was below him – it was not below the dignity of the earl of Northumberland or the bishop of Durham – but Henry was never appointed to such a position of responsibility, or any similar position for that matter. In July 1395, when the touchy question of a royal marriage with the French royal family had to be discussed, and while John of Gaunt was still in Gascony, Richard had to appoint a member of the English royal family to represent him. Henry, aged twenty-eight, would have been the ideal choice. Instead, Richard chose Edward of York. By then it was abundantly clear to Henry that the king had not forgiven him for joining the Appellants in 1387, and would never forgive him. Instead Richard wanted his uncle Edmund of York to be his heir, with the idea that Edmund’s son Edward would succeed him. All John’s hopes, as well as Henry’s own, looked like being dashed by Richard.


If Henry could draw any hope from his situation, then it was through his father’s example of how to behave when out of favour with the king. On every occasion when Richard had either accused John of treason, or tried to murder him, John had resolutely and firmly responded with a declaration of his unfailing loyalty. Indeed, he was so adamant and consistent that we can hardly doubt that he was genuinely loyal, even if his motive was increasingly to secure the succession of his son. Henry now followed his father’s example. If he had objected to Richard’s treatment of him he would only have made matters worse.

Parliament was summoned by the duke of York to meet at Westminster at the end of January 1395. With so many lords in Ireland with the king, or in Gascony with John, only thirty-seven peers were summoned, about two-thirds of the total.32 Henry was restored to his place among the lords appointed to receive petitions, but few were presented. Nor were any statutes enrolled. The only important business of the parliament was granting yet another subsidy to cover the king’s expenses in Ireland and discussing a curious document which appeared one day nailed to the door of Westminster Abbey. This was the famous Twelve Conclusions of the Lollards, the followers of the church reformer John Wycliffe. The document, written in English, put forward ten statements of faith. Among these were the idea that faith, hope and charity were driven out of the church through the possession of worldly wealth by the clergy; that priestly celibacy encouraged unnatural levels of lust, and should not be imposed; that nuns’ vows of celibacy led pregnant nuns to kill their children at birth; that modern priesthood bore little or no resemblance to that espoused by Christ; that confession led to arrogance among the clergy; that transubstantiation was a lie; and that all warfare was against the teaching of the New Testament. Although later generations of Englishmen shared several of these views, they were shocking in 1395, and to present them in this fashion was even more disturbing. The lords and prelates present at the parliament gathered together in two groups on 13 February and sealed two letters to the king asking him to return to England to attend to the threat to the church posed by these heresies. Henry was among those who set his seal to the letter from the lords, his first recorded action against heretics.33

When parliament broke up two days later, Henry lingered in London. With his wife dead and his father in Gascony, there was little reason to return to Hertford, and probably a great deal of heartache in revisiting Peterborough, where he had spent so much time with his wife. Instead he spent his time at court with his uncle the duke of York and listening to music and poetry.34 Four of the six musicians who had accompanied him on his pilgrimage were still in his household, and three others had joined them, so that now his retained performers included four pipers, a trumpeter and two ‘minstrels’.35 As for poetry, Geoffrey Chaucer had joined Henry, temporarily at least. Like other members of Henry’s household, Chaucer received a furred robe for Christmas 1395, and a present of £10 from Henry’s own hands.36 It is not hard to picture the wizened poet, a sparkle in his eye, engaging the wistful Henry with his Canterbury Tales, alluding to the ‘parfit’ and ‘gentil’ soldier of Christ who had fought in Prussia, Lithuania, Russia, Granada, Algezir and other such places.

Six weeks later, at the beginning of April, Henry left London. Tracing his movements is not easy; his accounts give very few direct references to his whereabouts. Instead we have to build up a picture of where he was by payments which correspond with his lifestyle. For example, as saddles were repaired for him at Leicester, we may presume that he had passed that way, if only briefly. Likewise, when he was paying the expenses of his London bargemen, it is likely that he was travelling up and down the Thames. However, even these payments do not give us sufficient information. In order to get a more complete picture, we need to consider payments such as those for his ‘cotton’. The section of his accounts entitled Necessaria includes many miscellaneous payments, including several for quantities of cotton together with disposable glass urinals. That Henry used cotton as toilet paper is suggested by the Boke of Nurture written by John Russell, servant to one of Henry’s sons, who states that the chamber attendant should make sure that ‘there be blanket [undyed woollen cloth], cotyn or lynyn to wipe the nethur ende’ for the lord in the privy.37 Cotton, however, was expensive – at 4½d or 5d per pound too expensive for common men to use for wiping the ‘nether end’ – so where we find payments for ‘cotton for the lords stool’, or ‘cotton and urinals’, it indicates that Henry was present (or expected soon to arrive) at the places where the cotton was bought. It means that we end up tracing the movements of the future king in the most undignified way – like an animal, by his droppings – but biographers must sometimes stoop to such levels.

From London, Henry went to Gloucester, where he was in early April. He did not stay long, for he was at Tutbury (eight miles south-west of Derby), on Maundy Thursday, when he distributed alms and clothes to the poor, and washed their feet with his own hands, marking the religious feast which was also his birthday.38 He seems then to have gone north to Pontefract (where cotton was unavailable; he had to make do with wool) and returned south to Leicester, where his two older sons were staying. The eldest, Henry, had in fact been ill in March, and Henry had sent an express messenger from London to see him, probably carrying medicines.39 Taking leave of his sons, he returned to London via Higham Ferrers and St Albans, arriving at the end of May. On the anniversary of Queen Anne’s death, he gave a cloth of gold at Westminster, and on the anniversary of his own wife’s death he sent as many of her gowns as accorded with her age at death – twenty-four – to Leicester, where she was buried.40

In London we have a few further insights into Henry’s surroundings. Black mourning curtains and two hundred curtain rings were purchased for his bed, which thus appears to have been a four-poster.41 Two books of his, which had been damaged, were rebound. He paid 33s 4d for ‘four tapetis,called carpets’. Rose water from Damascus – sometimes mixed with wine – was purchased for him, and a pewter bottle was bought specially to take the said rose water to Hertford Castle, to which he seems to have withdrawn for a few days. Interestingly, we read also of a ‘stool of iron in store for the lord’s chamber’ being mended and newly covered (probably in velvet) at a cost of 7s 6d. Its meaning and high value become clear when we read in the next entry of a payment for a new brass basin to put in it, and three pounds of cotton bought at the same time. This is the earliest known entry to a portable close-stool, of the type which became very popular among the upper classes a century later.42

Richard returned from Ireland in May 1395 and went to Leeds Castle in Kent. He summoned Henry to a royal council at Eltham on 22 July. Henry accordingly took his barge from the city down the Thames.43 At Eltham he met the ageing chronicler Jean Froissart, who had returned to England to present a book of his poems to the king. The purpose of the council meeting, however, was serious. The lords of Gascony had objected to the king granting Gascony to John of Gaunt. It was an unalienable inheritance of the king of England, they claimed. Their view was supported by the legal opinions voiced at that time, that Edward III had guaranteed that Bordeaux would never be granted to any but the eldest son of the king of England. Thomas, duke of Gloucester, broke from this consensus and insisted that John’s two Gascon representatives should speak. They declined. Silence fell. The bishops present decided that the matter should be referred to the two royal dukes. Thomas declared that it would be a ‘strong measure’ for the king to revoke his grant, which had been made with the unanimous assent of the council. Henry dutifully supported his father’s interest, saying ‘good uncle, you have spoken well and justly explained the matter, and I support what you have said’. Froissart adds that three-quarters of the council there gathered was against them. So Thomas and Henry left the king’s chamber, went into the hall and demanded food, and sat down to eat by themselves.44

Henry did not stay with the king much longer. Even before the council meeting he had once more been very obviously ignored as a potential leader of the embassy to France. He was still at Eltham on 26 July but left shortly afterwards. He seems to have travelled to Hertford, Coventry and Nuneaton, and only in September appeared again at court, witnessing royal charters on the 11th, 22nd and 26th.45 His purpose in attending Richard at that time was at least in part his own business: to secure for his son part of his mother’s inheritance.46 Having done so, he wandered off again, the lack of coordination in his household being notable by a payment to a servant sent from London with two horses and new clothes to ‘look for Henry at Salisbury, then at Kingston [Lacy] in Dorset’ before finding him at Plympton in Devon.47 On 16 October he was at Plymouth.48 It seems Henry had travelled down to the West Country port through which he could expect his father to return. He remained there for some weeks. At the end of October he was still at Exeter. Not until the end of November did he return to London.49

It is difficult to avoid connecting this wandering with a certain lack of direction in Henry’s personal life. It is of course entirely possible that he visited these places – as far north as Pontefract and as far west as Plympton – on official business. He was, after all, head of the family in his father’s absence. But it is equally possible that this travelling represents a wish to be away from court, and away from places reminiscent of his life with Mary. Although Henry attended the annual tournament at Hertford to celebrate Christmas, this period of uncertainty seems only to have come properly to an end when he heard that his father was returning by land, and hurried to the south-east to welcome him.50 On or just before 1 January 1396 father and son were reunited at Canterbury, and no doubt unburdened each other of their respective woes. For John there was the double disappointment of being both unsuccessful in Gascony and failing in health. For Henry there was the double disappointment of grief and being ignored by his cousin. Music, reading and jousting in themselves were not enough.


When John met the king in early 1396, he saw for himself why Henry had avoided court for much of the last year. Despite the fact that he (John) made a special visit to see Richard at King’s Langley, there was no great welcome. The king did not take the Lancastrian livery collar and put it around his own neck as he had done before. His reception was cold, and obviously so to all present. Walsingham noted that it was ‘without love’ that the king acknowledged his uncle’s return.51 John left court immediately, and went to Lincoln, where Katherine Swynford was staying. There he did the unthinkable. He proposed to her, his mistress, a commoner. In February they married.52

The romantic shimmer which distorts our view of the age of chivalry has inclined many people to see this as the zenith of a great romance: that despite their social inequality, John threw everything aside to marry the love of his life. Although he certainly loved Katherine, this is a misrepresentation of the facts.53 Katherine was now approaching fifty – old for a woman in medieval England – and she was not even the ‘love of his life’; in his will he requested to be buried with his first wife, Henry’s mother. Nor can we say he married her so that she would be well treated after his death; she was never likely to end up destitute and cast aside – Henry would always take care of his mother’s maidservant and his own nanny. Rather we should bear in mind that a medieval marriage was above all else a political union, not a romantic one, and that it was impossible for John to marry Katherine without creating uproar, and making life exceedingly difficult for her. As a duke’s mistress, Katherine was acceptable in society. As a duchess, she was not. Two noblewomen who were particularly hostile to her after her marriage were Eleanor Bohun – Henry’s sister-in-law – and the countess of Arundel. They declared that their hearts would burst with grief if they had to acknowledge Katherine’s precedence.54 This was not just selfish pride; it was pride in their fathers’ and ancestors’ brave achievements. Their families had won their titles and lands through loyal service in battle, and these women perpetuated the memory of their families in their own high status. For them to see their ancestors’ honour relegated below that of a foreign-born commoner was contrary to their view of the whole of society.

The real reason for the marriage – and the reason why it is important in a biography of Henry – is the effect it would have on the inheritance of the house of Lancaster. By marrying Katherine, John could make his sons by her legitimate. This not only enabled them to advance to higher status on their own account, it also put them in a position to inherit the Lancastrian estates if Henry died or was outlawed. Even more importantly, Edward III’s entail settled the throne on John’s legitimate sons. If Henry died or was killed – by a man like Thomas Talbot – John’s other children would have no claim. The Lancastrian claim to the throne would depend wholly on Henry’s young sons, the eldest of whom (Henry of Monmouth) was not yet eight. He would be no match for the duke of York, nor his heir, the earl of Rutland.

In keeping with past policy, Richard ignored Henry when he appointed ambassadors to treat with France in early 1396. Again, it was the earl of Rutland who led that embassy, supported by Thomas Mowbray, earl of Nottingham. Rutland’s success in agreeing a twenty-eight-year truce and arranging a royal marriage between Richard (now twenty-nine years old) and the eight-year-old princess Isabella de Valois meant that the king increasingly regarded John of Gaunt as a great but ageing magnate, of little or no further political use to him. Rutland now lived permanently at court. Likewise Mowbray and Richard’s violent half-brother, John Holland, earl of Huntingdon, were in almost constant attendance on the king. Henry was entirely superfluous to Richard’s social and political requirements.

It is not clear where Henry was for much of 1396. His father was with the king at Windsor on 1 May 1396, when the three royal uncles promised to return the French princess to her father in case of Richard’s death. The following month John secured a charter of liberties for his duchy.55 But Henry did not witness the royal charters granted on 8 July and 24 September, even though John was present on both occasions.56 It seems that Henry did not spend that summer living with his father.57 He seems to have attended court only once between September 1395 and November 1396 (on 25 July).58 Thus, it would appear that while his father followed Richard’s court, and laboured to win back the king’s approval in the summer of 1396, Henry kept himself out of sight.

Wherever he was, Henry was preparing for war. Not a war in England but on the Continent. King Sigismund of Hungary had proclaimed a crusade against the Ottoman Empire, whose sultan, Bayezid, was threatening ‘to feed his horses on the altar of St Peter’s Basilica’ in Rome. This was an insult to all of Christendom. John of Burgundy was appointed to lead a French army to help the Hungarians. Among his companions were Boucicaut, Renaud de Roye and Jean de Saimpy: the three champions against whom Henry had jousted at St Inglevert in 1390. The temptation for Henry to join this expedition must have been great; he would probably have undertaken any challenge to get him out of England and back in arms, out on the open road, where people of consequence respected him. But his desire to go on the Nicopolis Crusade was stifled, which was lucky, for it ended in a catastrophic disaster.59

With this ambition thwarted, Henry seems to have turned his thoughts instead to the count of Ostrevant’s campaign in Friesland. In June the count sent a squire, Fier-a-Bras de Vertain, to England to seek out Henry and ask him whether he would take part. Henry was both flattered and keen, and asked his father for permission to go. John was inclined to agree, but before he did so he asked the duke of Guelderland (who was then visiting the English court) for advice. The duke replied that the expedition would be highly dangerous, for the land was not easily conquered and the territory marshy and surrounded by the sea, and full of bogs and islands which only the Frieslanders knew well. Moreover, the natives were so lacking in honour that they paid no respect to any lord they captured in battle but executed them all. The duke told John that he himself had been asked to go on the campaign but would never set foot in that country. Now he strongly urged John to prevent Henry from doing so. Immediately John sent a messenger to Henry telling him to give up all thought of going to Friesland. Henry probably came to court to see his father to discuss this matter at the end of July.60 But John was adamant.

Henry did not go to Friesland.

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