All you thought you knew about the Wars of the Roses, but didn’t… Episode One: Henry VI: the mad king?

A few weeks ago, I had a bit of a rant on Facebook about the common myths which persist about many aspects of the Wars of the Roses period. I vowed to do something about it, so to start with, I’m looking at Henry VI himself.

There are two commonly held beliefs about Henry VI: either he was a simpleton or he was mad – not a great choice really… and of course, neither charge is actually supported by the evidence.

Myth #1: Henry VI was a simpleton; he was just plain stupid.

Like most myths of history, this claim is so often repeated that it seems to be regarded by many as truth, despite the fact that there’s no real evidence of it at all.

Henry was not a fool. There is enough evidence, however, to suggest that he was naïve.
For example, he put far too much trust in several of the powerful and ambitious men around him at court – men like Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset. But let’s bear in mind that Henry spent the whole of his long royal minority surrounded by noble advisers. He had grown up accepting advice and the habit, for a young man who was not particularly assertive, was probably quite difficult to break.

Was Somerset, or his rival for influence at court, Richard, Duke of York, especially greedy or corrupt? No, not really by the standards of the time, but they did have their own personal agendas – along with every other nobleman, lord or gentleman in the land!

A strong-willed king, who understood such men, might have managed them rather better. Henry was undoubtedly a poor manager of men.

King_Henry_VI

Henry VI, courtesy of wikipedia

Henry VI, courtesy of wikipedia

Henry was more concerned with spiritual matters than political ones – but that doesn’t make him a fool. His piety and his concern for men’s souls is somehow easily dismissed in our very secular age, but such matters were very important to all in the later middle ages and certainly not a sign of folly.
Is it so hard to believe that Henry was simply a peace loving man in an age that valued more martial virtues?

Their king was so different from his warlike father, Henry V, that his subjects felt undermined and confused by his approach. He wanted to bring to an end the long French wars with a peace agreement. In that respect, he was out of step with the majority of his subjects for whom a successful conclusion of the war meant a military victory. Jack Cade’s Rebellion in 1450 showed the anger and distrust stirred up by Henry’s government but the rebel targets were his councillors not the king himself.

Judge him by what he did: for example, Henry wrote a letter to the French king suggesting peace and offering him some English-held lands in France. That was certainly unwise since such lands were currently held by Henry’s own subjects. Giving them up was not likely to be popular. So he was naïve, but – and here’s why he was no fool – he kept the letter secret.

Why? Because he understood how alarmed his leading subjects would be if they knew about his offer. If he understood that, then he had more about him than your average simpleton.
Naïve then maybe, but not an idiot.

Myth #2: Henry VI was ‘mad’.

Now madness is a very general term and the public perception of madness is therefore quite broad and vague. Consequently, using the word at all is unhelpful in trying to describe or understand anyone.

So what basis is there for this claim? There’s no question that from 1453 – a year traumatic enough for the average king – Henry VI succumbed to bouts of mental illness. Schizophrenia has been suggested – amongst other diagnoses. The first of these rendered him incapable of speech or recognition of those around him.

This was not a ‘mad’ king flinging out commands such as “Off with his head!” or something! It was simply as if the throne was vacant.

This first occurrence was the most significant because no-one was prepared for it and it led to the emergence of the Duke of York as the de-facto political leader of the country. In 1453 York saw himself as rightly restored to a position of great influence. But even York’s closest supporters only ever saw him as a caretaker – whether for the ailing King Henry, or for his very young son, Edward, when he ultimately came of age.

When the King recovered his capacity in December 1454, York’s role as protector was once more unnecessary and his supremacy at court waned. This was not a result of ‘madness’ on the king’s part but further evidence of his inability to manage political factions. Thus it resulted in the victory of one faction – that of the Duke of Somerset – over another.

In the turbulent years which followed, it suited the Yorkists to blacken Henry’s name by emphasising his incapacity to rule: either by promoting the idea of his stupidity or his madness. Either of these slurs might help to undermine public confidence.

Yet, even after the Yorkists had taken up arms against the king and seized the throne in 1461, most of the nobility still sided with Henry VI, their anointed king. A king who inspired such loyalty had clearly earned a great deal of support from many of those closest to him. If he had truly been an imbecile or a mad man, I cannot believe he would have retained such genuine goodwill.

Two key elements of Henry VI’s kingship were:

  1. he was unable to control his leading subjects
  2. he aspired to resolve problems by peaceful means.

These two factors combined to make him an ineffectual king but neither of these factors made him mad or stupid. It’s high time we stopped perpetuating these myths.

Next up, I shall examine the myth of Warwick, the so-called ‘Kingmaker’.

[N.B. This post first appeared in August 2017 on the English Historical Fiction Authors’ Blog.]

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This entry was posted in History, Medieval History, Plantagenets, Wars of the Roses and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to All you thought you knew about the Wars of the Roses, but didn’t… Episode One: Henry VI: the mad king?

  1. Vicki Larson says:

    I am fascinated by all things Tudor. I’ve been backtracking the lineage, Elisabeth I, Henry VIII, Henry VII and now reading about Henry VI.

  2. Derek Birks says:

    I think many of us have made the same journey, Vicki!

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