1902 Encyclopedia > Henry VI, King of England

Henry VI, King of England
(1421-1471)




HENRY VI. (1421 -1471), king of England, only son of Henry V. and Catherine of France, was born on December 6, 1421, and was therefore only eight months old at his father's death. He can hardly be said ever to have reigned, for his long minority passed into another kind of tutelage, during which the influence of his wife and favourites pre-pared the way for civil war. Ten years of anarchy culminated in his dethronement, and ten years more of wandering and imprisonment fill the interval between that event and his death. The chief interest of the first thirty years of his life lies in watching the decay of English power in France; that of the last twenty is to be found in the civil wars which resulted from the misgovernment of the preceding period. Although the English had lost some ground towards the end of Henry V.'s reign, their position, when the duke of Bedford undertook the task of continuing his brother's work, was very favourable. They held the north

and centre of France, while Burgundy held the eastern dis-tricts. The alliance with Duke Philip was strengthened by a marriage between his sister Anne and the duke of Bedford. The Scotch king, James L, was released from captivity, in order that England might be relieved from danger on that side. Thus strengthened, Bedford was able to apply himself vigorously to the conquest of France, towards which the battle of Verneuil (1424) was an important step. But the English cause had already received its first great blow in the marriage of the duke of Gloucester with Jacqueline of Hainault, which destroyed the good understanding between Burgundy and England. Bedford for the time managed to stave off the quarrel, and after renewing his union with Burgundy, laid siege to Orleans, the key of southern France. The capture of the town seemed certain, when the appearance of Joan of Arc turned the scale. The relief of Orleans (1429) was followed by other French successes, and by"the coronation of Charles VII. at Rheims. The capture of Joan did little for England, for the spirit she had inspired survived her loss, and her death (May 1431) only nerved the French to fresh efforts. It was in vain that Bedford had Henry crowned at Paris (December 17, 1431). The young king remained in France nearly two years (April 1430 to February 1432), but his presence did not turn the tide of French success. On the side of England the supply of men and money was falling short, while on that of France a new type of commanders was coming to the front, who were not inclined to repeat the disastrous blunders of Crécy and Agincourt. The death of Bedford's wife (November 1432) broke the link that bound Burgundy to England, and negotiations for peace were set on foot. These culminated in a great congress at Arras (July 1435), but the demands of the two countries were found incompatible, and the war was renewed. Bedford's death (September 14, 1435) finally destroyed all hope of recovery in France. Burgundy at once made peace with Charles VII., and the English commanders who succeeded Bedford were constantly defeated. Paris was retaken, Normandy overrun. Repeated efforts on the part of England led only to further exhaustion. Meanwhile negotiations for peace had been continued at intervals, and led in 1444 to a truce, during which Henry was married (April 22, 1445) to Margaret, daughter of René of Anjou. It was hoped that this marriage, together with the cession of Anjou and Maine, would lead to a permanent peace, and save Normandy and Guienne. But though Anjou and Maine were actually surrendered in 1448, the truce was broken next year, and before the end of 1450 the whole of Normandy was lost. In 1451 Guienne was reconquered by the French, and in 1453 Calais alone remained to England. The war was practically at an end.





Its conclusion coincides with the period when the two parties that divided England were just about to appeal to arms. The civil war was in great measure the result of the defeats abroad, as those defeats themselves were in part the consequence of discord at home. Quarrels between the chief members of the reigning house were the origin of its weakness; financial embarrassment, a divided foreign policy, and a feeble administration brought disgrace on the king and his advisers ; family feuds and a long tale of mutual injuries added bitterness to political differences. Eventually an outburst of popular discontent kindled the train so long prepared, and the champion of order and good government began a struggle in which the original objects were soon lost sight of, and which ended only with the death of the king whose innocent imbecility had caused the disorder. To check the rivalry of Henry's uncle, the duke of Gloucester, and his great-uncle, Cardinal Beaufort, was beyond the power of the council. Bedford alone could appease the quarrel, and Bedford's presence in England meant disaster in France. The quarrel between them and their adherents was complicated by the existence of the Lollards, and the question of peace or war. In both matters Gloucester, as persecutor of the Lollards and head of the war-party, appears to have taken the more popular side. The coronation of the young king at Westminster (November 6, 1429) put a formal end to the regency of Bedford and Gloucester, but not to the intrigues of the latter. The House of Commons was unable to interfere with any effect; the Lords were mostly engaged on one side or the other. The death of Bedford removed the only guarantee of peace, and Gloucester attacked Beaufort with more virulence than ever after his brother's death. In the midst of these troubles Henry VI. came of age (1442). Had he been a great statesman, he would have found an almost hopeless task before him. But, unfit as he felt him-self to be, he naturally shrunk from politics, and was much more intent on completing his foundations at Eton and Cambridge than on healing the disorders of his country. The work of government was left mainly in the hands of Cardinal Beaufort and the earl of Suffolk, who did their best to secure peace with France. On the other side the dukes of Gloucester and York headed the opposition, and took up the cry of reform, with the object of infusing vigour into the government at home and abroad. Suffolk, however, won a great victory in the truce with France (1444) ; and through the young queen Margaret, whose marriage was chiefly due to his exertions, he obtained com-plete influence over the king. The suspicious death of Gloucester (1447), followed in six weeks by the death of his rival Beaufort, together with the appointment of York to the governorship of Ireland, left Suffolk master of the situation. But such a position could not be long main-tained in the face of the odium which always attaches to a favourite, and the complete failure of his foreign policy brought about his fall (1450). The king in vain attempted to save him, and by so doing shared his unpopularity, while the partial concessions he made to the demands of the rebels under Jack Cade only postponed the inevitable out-break. The duke of York now made himself the mouth-piece of popular discontent. When the final loss of France had exhausted the country's patience, and the birth of an heir to the throne had destroyed his hope of the succession, he took advantage of Henry's mental derangement to claim the protectorate (1453). It was granted him early next year, but in 1455 the king recovered his senses, and York was deprived of power. Unable to endure this he marched on London, and on May 22, 1455, the Wars of the Boses began in the battle of St Albans. The effect of the battle was to bring the queen to the front as the leader of the royalists, and to make the quarrel between her and York irreconcilable. During the four years of uneasy quiet which followed the first collision, Henry tried hard to keep the peace. But all his efforts were vain. When the struggle broke out anew, and the Yorkists won the battle of North-ampton, he was forced to consent to an arrangement by which his son was excluded from the succession and YTork recognized as heir to the kingdom (1460). The settlement was of short duration. YTork himself lost his life at Wake-field, but his son seized the crown and was acknowledged king (March 4, 1461). The battle of Towton brought the struggle to an end for ten years, and the capture of Henry in 1465 seemed to secure Edward IV. on the throne. Five years later a sudden revolution hurled him from it, and restored the wretched prisoner for a while to liberty, but the battle of Barnet destroyed his hopes again. He had time to know that his son had died at Tewkesbury, that his wife was a prisoner, and that his cause was finally lost, before death released him from captivity on May 21, 1471. Gentle, pure, and generous, full of good intentions, enthusiastic in the cause of religion and learning, he was utterly without the qualities which were indispensable to a mediaeval king, and he paid the penalty of incapacity in a miserable death and in the destruction of his house. But this very incapacity was an element of the utmost import-ance in the history of his time. The weakness of his character made him the puppet of contending factions, and his well-meant but misguided efforts to govern England as a constitutional king led only to anarchy and the temporary downfall of the constitution.

Original Authorities for the above three reigns [Henry IV, V and VI].—Thomas of Wal-singham, Hist. Anglieana, and Ypodigma Ncustrios; Annates Henrici Quarti ; Oontinuatio Eulogii Historiarum; Chronique de Waurin; Annals of StAlban's Abbey, by John of Amundesham and John Whethamstede; Boyal and Historical Letters (Henry IV.); Capgrave's Chronicle of England, and Liber de Illuslribus Henricis; Memorials of Henry V. (Redman, &e.); Letters, &c., illustrative of the reign of Henry VI.; Political Poems. All the above are pub-lished in the Rolls series. Also, Henrici V. Beg. Angl. Gesta (Eng. Hist. Soc.); lives of Henry V., by T. Livius Forojuliensis and Thomas Elmham (ed. Hearne); English Chronicle of the reigns of Henry IV., &c., and Letters of Margaret of Anjou, &e. (both in Camd. Soe.); Chronicles of Hardyng, Otterbourne, Adam of Usk, Fabyan, Hall; the Paston Letters (ed. Gairdner); Original Letters illustrative of Eng. Hist. (ed. Ellis); Rolls of Parliament; Proceed-ings, &c, of the Privy Council (ed. Nicolas).

Modern Authorities.—Besides those already given above, Nicolas's History of the Battle of Agincourt; Gairdner's Preface to the Paston Letters. (G. W. P.)







Search the Encyclopedia:



About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Sitemaps
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us



© 2005-14 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries