Set up for Failure: Henry VI, the Reverse Conquest & the Wars of the Roses



I almost started this post with “Poor Henry VI,” but that’s debatable, isn’t it? Even today, historians question whether Henry was hapless, pious, unlucky or all three. In any event, he wasn’t a very good king, which is remarkable only because he never knew another existence. He would ascend the English throne on August 31, 1422 when his father, one of England’s most famous and beloved kings, Henry V, died in France at the age of 36. Henry was eight months old, having been born the previous winter at Windsor Castle to his mother, Katherine of Valois.

But fate wasn’t done with the infant king yet: Two months later, on October 22, 1422, his maternal grandfather, King Charles VI of France, died as well. Under the Treaty of Troyes, which had been signed by England, France and Burgundy in June 1420 – and contracted his parents into marriage – Henry also inherited the French throne, now ruling over a dual empire constructed by a father not around to execute it.

What’s remarkable about this period of time is to understand the magnitude of the political situation the men of Henry VI’s early government faced and how extraordinary it is that they were largely able to peacefully transfer its reins to the King when he came of age. It’s testament to their commitment to crown and country, particularly when compared to the minority governments of other young kings before and after Henry. In fact, it was nothing short of a stunning display of patriotism.


Now, this doesn’t mean there wasn’t political dysfunction – there was, and it would lead directly to the dynamics of the Wars of the Roses. But that dysfunction wasn’t due to one man – namely one of Henry’s uncles – attempting to take the throne for themselves, but rather differences of opinion on governance and, of course, personal ambition over who would be leading the charge.

John of Bedford

When Henry V died he left behind two younger brothers: John, Duke of Bedford and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. Both men had experience fighting in France and both men had experience serving as England’s regent while the King was away. Unfortunately for them, their brother had written his will before he could fathom he would not only die, but die before his father-in-law, the King of France. Even when faced with the reality of his death, the amendment offered to the document left a fair amount of confusion over what his true intentions were. Without getting too much in the weeds, the result was that Bedford was essentially given France to run, while Gloucester presided over England. However, Gloucester was left with a sour taste in his mouth: Bedford trumped him the moment he stepped foot in England and he wasn’t named Lord Regent. Instead, there was a regency council of men loyal to the House of Lancaster that worked in unison to protect the King, England and its dominions (i.e. their land in France) and check any one man’s power (i.e. Gloucester).

Humphrey of Gloucester

The Battle of Agincourt may be a high point in English history, but the “reverse conquest” that followed it (so named to represent the inverse of William of Normandy “conquering” England in 1066) was never tenable. The true Valois king was waiting in the wings, the majority of the French people were opposed to English rule, England’s alliances with Burgundy was both its linchpin and volatile and, last but certainly not least, it was massively expensive to afford the prolonged warfare and defense that England’s French land required.

But it was also a point of national pride. Generations of Englishmen, not to mention its kings, had been raised to believe they were the rightful claimants of the French throne – it is, after all, called the Hundreds Year War. France was the natural enemy; they were also larger and more powerful on the continent. England’s ability to defeat them, both prior to and during Henry V’s reign were huge national events in the public consciousness. Defeat was humiliation.

So, what to do? Well even before Bedford died in September 1435 he had begun advocating for England to focus on Normandy and scale back its ambitions in the rest of the country. Gloucester, still stationed in Westminster, disagreed. After Bedford’s death, his position was largely inherited by two men: Cardinal Beaufort and William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk.  The landscape also changed with the conclusion of Peace of Arras in 1435, in which Burgundy finally stepped away from their English alliance and made a formal peace with the House of Valois. By the next year Charles VII had taken Paris and England was largely confined to Normandy.

Cardinal Beaufort was a half-brother of King Henry’s grandfather, Henry IV, and thus Henry’s great-uncle. He was also patriarch of the powerful Beaufort family, a mantle that would be picked up by his nephew, Edmund, when he died in April 1447.

Cardinal Beaufort

Gloucester and the Cardinal despised each other. At one point their men nearly came to blows in the capitol, and Bedford had to be recalled from France to mediate. Both mistrusted the other’s ambition; both thought they were better suited than the other to lead the government. They disagreed over the management of their French territories and they resented each other’s influence with the King.

And influence with Henry was key, because Henry was very malleable. In 1437, the year he turned 16, Henry took over the reins of his government – nominally, at least. He was easily persuadable and often went with the last piece of advice he was given. He also, crucially, was too young to remember the glory days of his father’s reign. Unlike the generation before that had poured real blood, sweat and tears into the formation of this dual empire, Henry had been born into it. He would be the only English king ever crowned king of France at Notre Dame in Paris, a ceremony that would take place when he was 10-years-old.

Traditional scholarship of the years between Bedford’s death and the outbreak of the civil war in the 1450s has painted men like Beaufort and Suffolk as villains who took advantage of a weak king and profited from it. But fresh eyes have also argued that these men were, like the men who stepped in in the 1420s after Henry V’s premature death, essentially doing their civic duty to keep the country up and running. Yes, they profited, but arguably they would have anyway by being the King’s trusted councilors even if he had been a more robust presence within his own government.

Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York

After Bedford’s death a new man was named as the Lieutenant of France: Henry’s cousin, Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York. You can read more about his background and claim to the throne here. York, like Gloucester, favored a more aggressive strategy in France, and when Gloucester died in February 1447, it would be York who continued his political legacy at Henry’s court. York also, by the mid-1440s, despised the Beaufort family, thinking the actions in France of the Cardinal’s nephew, John Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, disastrous and cowardly. When John Beaufort died in 1444, perhaps by suicide, and his title was inherited by his younger brother, Edmund, relations between the two families weren’t eased. Indeed, Edmund was instrumental in having York recalled from Normandy in 1445 and having him replaced by none other than himself. The insult wouldn’t be forgotten.

But dynamics shifted again in 1444 when the Earl of Suffolk, made that year into the Marquess of Suffolk, helped to arrange Henry’s marriage to a niece of King Charles VII of France via his wife, Marie of Anjou. That niece was Marguerite of Anjou, whose father was the Duke of Anjou and titular King of Naples. Marguerite arrived in England in April 1445 at the age of 15 and married Henry at Titchfield Abbey. She was quick to note that it had been Suffolk who helped orchestrate her marriage, just as she was quick to note Gloucester had spoken out against it in Parliament, denigrating the alliance she symbolized and her meager dowry.

Henry VI and Marguerite of Anjou

Marguerite’s marriage was indeed symbolic, for it meant that England was playing nice with France and aiming to scale back hostilities. From the point of view of men like Suffolk and Beaufort, it was a financial necessity – an opinion not shared by men like York who were still stationed in Normandy. The marriage alliance, negotiated in Tours in 1444 by Suffolk, contained a clause that wasn’t immediately made public: England agreed to cede Maine and Anjou, lands to which Marguerite’s father laid claim. It would be an unpopular move with the English, but it was France that was playing from the position of strength during those deals. Indeed, it has even been theorized that Charles offering up his niece instead of one of his daughters as a bride was a pointed “out” for him as the relationship unfolded over the next decade.

In any event, the relationship between Henry and Marguerite was a positive one and the young couple appeared devoted to one another. This was a problem only for the men who Marguerite had decided were enemies – pointedly Gloucester, who saw his relationship with and access to his nephew cool. In 1447 Gloucester was summoned to Parliament at Bury St Edmunds where he was charged with treason on February 20th. He died in custody three days later, with many contemporaries believing someone in the King’s inner circle had had him poisoned. In reality, he likely died of a stroke. Less that two months later, his political rival, Cardinal Beaufort, also passed away. The heads of the two factions were gone and in their place sprouted Suffolk and Edmund Beaufort, Earl of Somerset versus York.

Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset

Part of York’s power was his familial relationship with Henry, as well as his position as a duke. Both Henry’s grandfather and father had been stingy with handing out titles and by the 1440s there were few dukes at Henry’s court. In an effort to elevate the King’s friends to the same status,  Suffolk and Somerset were both made dukes in 1448, while a number of other lesser peers who had proven themselves friendly and loyal to the House of Lancaster and its queen were promoted.

But as the next decade dawned there was another factor in play: Henry and Marguerite had no children. By the early 1450s, and after over five years of marriage, many questioned whether the Queen was capable of conceiving and it was open for debate who would succeed to the throne in the event Henry died. The presumed heir was York, who was descended from Edward III twice over and had an arguably better claim to the throne than Henry. However, knowing Marguerite’s antipathy and her favoritism of Somerset, some speculated that Henry would choose him over York.

Somerset’s claim was trickier, though, for he was from bastard stock. His grandfather, John of Gaunt, had married his grandmother, Katherine Swynford, but only after the birth of their children, from whom he was descended. Cardinal Beaufort had been one such child and his half-brother, Henry IV, had legally amended their legitimization by precluding them from ever claiming the throne. An amendment that could be thrown out, it was theorized, but still undermined Somerset’s position.

Then there were Henry’s Tudor half-brothers, the offspring of a covert relationship his mother, Dowager Queen Katherine, had begun in her widowhood. The two eldest sons of that union, Edmund and Jasper, were brought to court, legally made Henry’s “full” brothers, and given titles (the earldoms of Richmond and Pembroke, respectively). When Somerset’s niece, Margaret Beaufort, was given as a ward to Edmund Tudor in 1453 with the expectation of marriage, it also became a possibility that Henry would name his brothers his heirs.

But before succession could be nailed down, things got dicey for Suffolk and Somerset. Somerset’s tenure as Lieutenant of France was a disaster and Aquitaine was lost. But while he battled it out in France, Suffolk had to answer for a policy that was losing England ground both literally and figuratively back home. By the winter of 1450, Suffolk was brought before Parliament to answer for his “crimes,” including the clause in Henry and Marguerite’s marriage contract that ceded Maine and Anjou. Commons called for his execution and, in the frenzy of public fury, even the King and Queen couldn’t spare him, though they did reduce his sentencing to banishment. Once he left his England his ship was overtaken and he was murdered, his body discarded on a beach.

Marguerite of Anjou

When Somerset returned home later that year, York called for him to be charged with treason for mishandling France, but Marguerite refused. Instead, with Suffolk gone, Somerset became the most powerful magnate at court, growing incredibly close with the Queen as they essentially governed England in Henry’s name.

A few weeks after the Tudor brothers were made peers Marguerite would announce her first pregnancy, shocking the court and possibly dismaying York and the men loyal to him who hoped that he and his family would eventually assume the throne. But that August, when the Queen was seven months pregnant, Henry suffered a mental breakdown while at his hunting lodge at Clarendon. It’s possible it was prompted by further losses in France, for by that summer England was down to holding only Calais, a shocking and humiliating turn of events for the English in a relatively small amount of time. It’s also possible the illness was the result of a genetic disease, his maternal grandfather, Charles VI, had been known as “Mad King Charles.”

A comatose Henry would be smuggled back to Westminster while Somerset, Marguerite and a handful of their inner circle debated what to do, hoping he would recover. On October 13, 1453 Marguerite gave birth to a much-needed son, christened Edward.

News of the King’s health public, Marguerite reemerged from her birthing chamber ready to battle it out with York over who should be named Regent. York won the round and shuttled her off to Windsor Castle to care for her husband and son, and, more importantly, stay out of his way. By this time, Marguerite had long-suspected that York wanted to take the throne for himself. Her fears weren’t alleviated by him naming Edward Prince of Wales and were, in fact, worsened by his arrest of Somerset and the filling of government positions with men loyal to him and not the King. York, for his part, appeared to doubt the Prince was Henry’s son and rumors circulated through England that Marguerite and Somerset were lovers and Edward their child.

Relief came on Christmas Day 1454 when Henry “woke up,” and was able to resume his kingship. He appeared in Westminster in January 1455, thanked York for his service and dismissed him. He acknowledged Edward as his son and, with Marguerite at his side, rolled back what work York had done, reinstated Somerset and got rid of York’s allies from court. York and his party had reached a point of no return. That May saw the first organized military combat at the First Battle of St. Albans, during which the Yorkists defeated the Lancastrians. Somerset would be killed, his title and place of prominence replaced by his eldest son, Henry Beaufort, who blamed York for his father’s death.

Prince Edward of Wales

And while both parties would try to walk back the aggression of 1455 in the immediate aftermath, war seemed inevitable and those that had tried to remain neutral were forced to pick sides. For her part, Marguerite’s position was solidified by the birth of her son – from here on out she would be fighting not on behalf of her husband’s position, but to protect the inheritance of Prince Edward. She was uninterested in compromising with a man she viewed as nothing short of a traitor and backed by a king unable to competently run a government. York, meanwhile, was sick of being ousted from power, disgusted by what he viewed as corruption and, as his later actions would show, well-aware that many viewed his claim to the throne as superior to that of Henry.

What came next was the Wars of the Roses.

Henry VI

But did Henry ever stand a chance? And was he truly an ineffective king compared with York’s policies? By the 1450s it’s certainly hard to defend the bullheadedness of Lancaster, but the peace policy promoted by its leading minister in the late 1430s and 1440s wasn’t necessarily wrong. England lacked the money and, frankly, the spirit to keep up a war on the same scale that they had been doing for 20+ years at that point. Their ability to maintain their hold on their French territories was questionable at best – it’s difficult not to see the merit in finding a peaceful compromise that would have allowed them to keep a foot in the door, at least for a time. This is not to say that Suffolk and the Beauforts executed their policies well, but the objective behind them was sound.

I don’t believe York was the ticking time bomb that the Queen and her favorites did, but I do believe they turned him into one. This is particularly true of Somerset, and the personal vendetta that he and York had with each other was politically devastating for England. For that matter, if there’s ever a good example of why the monarchy is now asked to be politically neutral, the reigns of Henry and Marguerite are a good case study. Had Marguerite striven to stay above the fray and not allow her dislike of Gloucester and then York to color their ability to play their part as the King’s kin, her queenship might have unfolded very differently.

As for Henry, he would have made a better scholar than a king. He lacked the temperament and judgment to be an effective leader and, in conjunction with the hand of cards he was dealt in domestic and international relations, civil war was all but inevitable. The piety that he became known for would be politicized and trumped up in the 16th century during the reigns of the Tudors, descendants of his half-brother, Edmund. The first Tudor king, Henry VII, would be viewed as the heir to Lancaster and, as such, history was rewritten to reflect that the House of York had brutally usurped the throne and murdered the rightful monarch.

Elevating Henry to the status of saint, even if only in public opinion supported Henry VII’s agenda, but it was certainly not based in fact and he wasn’t worthy of canonization. He was a man born to be king without the qualities that necessitated it and the vacuum of power left by his own fumbling abilities launched a civil war that would last half a century.

For more, see From Normandy to Windsor

One thought on “Set up for Failure: Henry VI, the Reverse Conquest & the Wars of the Roses

  1. Pingback: The Mother of Too Many Sons: Philippa of Hainaut – Rebecca Starr Brown

Leave a Reply