The Madness of Henry VI & His Son

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In the long list of things that made Marguerite of Anjou’s life tragic is the fact that after waiting eight years for any sign of a much-needed heir, her husband, Henry VI, would go “mad” when she was seven months pregnant, turning what should have been a time of genuine celebration into a period of incredible stress and political uncertainty.

By 1453 Henry desperately needed a son. He was a weak king, controlled by a coterie of unpopular men with varying degrees of skill, and married to a Frenchwoman who many saw as a tangible symbol of England giving up its right in France. That the marriage was fruitless certainly didn’t help matters, particularly when Henry’s closest heirs were his half-brothers, Edmund and Jasper Tudor, born from his mother’s second marriage to a Welshman in her household, or his cousin, Richard, Duke of York, who was older than him by a decade and politically opposed to nearly all of his government’s policies.

But Marguerite was no traditional queen consort and it would be this period of time which mobilized her into a woman who made no pretense about actively politicking on behalf of her family’s interests.

Whatever happiness had been felt by Henry and his court in the spring of 1453 when Marguerite’s pregnancy was announced was severely diminished by the loss of Aquitaine that summer. As of when Henry inherited England, his domains had impressively included significant swathes of Normandy and Aquitaine won by his father, Henry V, a legendary soldier and king who would die too young. However, whatever empire had been safeguarded for the younger Henry was coming apart at the seams by the mid-1430s and slowly but surely lost over the course of the 1440s and 1450s. The defeat in Aquitaine left England with only Calais, a meager token of what might have been.

The stress of the situation, as well as the boiling tempers begrudgingly held at bay from within England’s borders, apparently weighed heavily on the 31-year-old king. That August, while the court was holed up at his hunting lodge at Clarendon, he departed from dinner one night complaining of not feeling well and “went mad.” A loose term, obviously, given doctors’ rudimentary understanding of mental health in the 15th century, but the fact remained that Henry appeared comatose. He was awake, but utterly unresponsive, appearing to neither see nor hear anyone or anything around him.

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The Queen, who was due to give birth that autumn, was summoned and she, in turn, alerted her closest friend and political confidante, Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset. So, what do you do when the King has lost his senses? Who knows. It wasn’t exactly precedented. What they chose to do was smuggle Henry back to London and hide his condition from deep within his privy chambers in Westminster Palace with the help of the King’s Council. Top physicians from across the country were summoned, and when that didn’t work they called on the priests lest he be possessed by some sort of demon.

It’s difficult to diagnose Henry’s illness today for obvious reasons. Some historians and medical authorities believed he suffered from catatonic schizophrenia, while others believed it was an extreme depressive episode. Whatever it was it was likely genetic, his maternal grandfather, King Charles VI, similarly suffered bouts of “madness,” however the disease manifested itself differently. Charles’s mental breaks were episodic; they began on the shorter-end and grew longer over the years. They also started violently, with Charles falling into rages, attempting to physically harm those near him and rejecting with disgust his wife and children. He was not, however, comatose. He spoke, assumed various identities, moved about and even fathered a child. It seems likely that he suffered from a strain of schizophrenia, and that perhaps it manifested itself differently in his grandson, but it’s impossible to say with complete confidence more than 500 years later.

And because Henry wouldn’t have any living descendants there’s less evidence to examine what traits could or would have been passed down. His mother, however, did. If Katherine of Valois was indeed a carrier of this gene, then, in theory, it could very well have passed to her Tudor sons, Edmund passing it to Henry VII who passed it along to Henry VIII. However, for all that Henry VIII’s medical history has been picked apart to death, none of the Tudors appear to have suffered from a mental illness that showed itself in the same vein as their Lancastrian ancestors.

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Henry VI’s coat of arms

Which brings us to Henry VI’s son. While Council tried its best to remedy the King, Marguerite went into her birthing chamber and delivered a healthy son on October 13th. He was christened Edward, which was believed to be a nod to Edward the Confessor, not only a famous English king, but Henry’s favorite saint.

In some ways, the prince’s birth couldn’t have come at a better time. In a worst case scenario in which the King was declared unfit, he now had a male heir to take over. Yes, Edward was an infant, but so too had Henry been when he succeeded his own father. The issue would then become who would run a government in the boy’s name. But Edward’s birth was also the lit match dropped on to the dry leaves. The Duke of York had been Henry’s heir and now, after years of being politically sidelined by men he considered of lesser stature, sense and virtue, he was now being displaced from the succession. Henry’s Tudor brothers, for all that they had been declared legitimate by Parliament, were still half-Welsh and half-French and, perhaps more importantly, young and inexperienced. Somerset had royal blood, but from the wrong side of the blanket, and he was wildly unpopular.

At the center of it was the Queen, who was French, disdainful of English politics, resentful and biased. In short, there was no silver bullet option to step forward and carry the middle ground, which ideally would have been the position that Marguerite held, even if her power was nominal.

It’s unclear when exactly the rumors started, or why, but within weeks, if not days, of his birth, gossip spread that Edward wasn’t Henry’s son, but rather the bastard love child of Marguerite and Somerset. We can’t with certainty from where they came, but an incredibly safe bet would be from York and his supporters who favored slandering their political opponents by branding their mothers whores. And in this case, the King wasn’t exactly in a position to defend his queen.

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York’s coat of arms

The motivation is clear: This was York’s opportunity for political power. The veracity of the story was unimportant, for if you could get the public to believe it then the logical conclusion, in light of Henry’s mental faculties, was that he should be deposed in favor of his “true” heir, York. And even if the strategy fell short, it discredited Marguerite and Somerset, paving the way for York to assume power as the Regent ruling on Edward’s behalf.

But then there was the Queen herself, who rarely, if ever, needed Henry to act for her. She made a bid for power, ordering Somerset to summon a greater council of the lords, but when he did he carefully chose to omit York and his friends. The move backfired, Somerset was forced to call for York and whatever goodwill Marguerite had (which wasn’t much due to her gender, her nationality and her unpopularity) was spent. York capitalized on the moment, arguing that Edward couldn’t be named Henry’s heir until the King acknowledged him as his son. Bolstered by the rumors spreading through the city that Edward was a bastard, not to mention Henry’s state, the move went a long way in leaving just enough room for doubt that the question as to whether Marguerite had strayed would continue to haunt her for the rest of her life, not to mention affect her legacy.

But York was also smart and ensured that it appeared he was taking the high road. Instead he leveraged his cousin by marriage, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, to act as his surrogate, articulating the direct claim that the prince was illegitimate and that the King would never acknowledge him. That insult eviscerated whatever shred of the rivalry had still been professional, ensuring Marguerite’s hatred of York, Warwick and their party was staunchly personal from there on out.

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Marguerite of Anjou

In January 1454 Marguerite would make one last, desperate attempt to rouse Henry by going with Humphrey Stafford, Duke of Buckingham (the closest thing there was to a bipartisan member of the Council) to Windsor to present her son. Both made an attempt to “wake” him via the physical presence of the baby, but each failed. For the next month Marguerite and York fastidiously lobbied, to varying degrees of transparency, for the regency. When Parliament was finally summoned on February 14th, several lords abstained from attending, not wanting to cast their for or against either queen or opposition. Edward was quickly proclaimed Henry’s heir; lords that attempted to raise the question of his paternity were shut down and each member was bade to swear their loyalty to him. York did so with visible reservation, so much so that further legislation to protect Henry’s position was introduced by Marguerite’s supporters.

The compromise was that on March 15th Edward was formally named Prince of Wales, while on the 27th York was named Regent. Whatever victory Marguerite gained by safeguarding her son’s birthright was undercut by the immediacy of her situation. York filled the government with his friends and family, Somerset was thrown into the Tower (which York had been trying to do for years) and Marguerite was forced to leave London for Windsor on the insulting premise that her true place was with her husband and child.

Was York an effective governor? He was, as galling as it may have been. Henry wasn’t a very good king and Marguerite, for all that she was sympathetic, was never in tune with England’s style of governing or its people. But for her the following months were anxiety-ridden, never sure if or when York would seek to solidify his authority permanently and dispose of her and her family. For eight long months Lancastrian rule was undone until, finally, on Christmas Day 1454, Henry woke up.

Within weeks the King had been restored to Westminster, at the head of his government, Marguerite by his side. Edward was officially acknowledged as his child, though, rather unhelpfully, according to one report, Henry declared that the child must be the son of the Holy Spirit, doing nothing to stanch the swirling innuendo.  Even so, Somerset was released from prison and York and his followers were cast aside by a king and queen equal parts relieved, horrified and (at least on Marguerite’s part) bitterly resentful.

However, while the crisis might have passed, what it foretold was the coming outbreak of a civil war that had been threatening to rear its head for years. As I’ve discussed in an earlier post, I think it was this period of time that made York’s eventual grab for the throne inevitable, whether it was the reality of actually holding the monarch’s authority or the complete whitewashing of his work after his removal from office.

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Edward of Lancaster

There was one final footnote to all of this, however. Early in 1454, as York was vying for the regency, he brought with him to Parliament for the first time his eldest son, Edward, Earl of March. The boy, not yet 12 at the time, would eventually ascend the throne as King Edward IV and establish the House of York, seeing through to completion his father’s ambition. What he took away from watching the political showdown is unknown, as is what he thought of his father actively going up against the King and Queen. Regardless, there is a certain amount of irony that Edward of York made his political debut just as the inheritance of Edward of Lancaster was first on the table, and that it would be the former who followed as King Edward, taking the latter’s name and place in the succession.

For more, see From Normandy to Windsor.

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