The Last Will of Henry V & the Inheritance of an Empire


Henry V was not supposed to die on August 31, 1422. Not when he was only his 30s, not when his son was less than a year old, and not when England was establishing a dual empire inclusive of France. The death itself was a national tragedy, one which would have had a huge impact on the health and viability of his successor’s reign regardless, but it was it was his final will and last-minute codicils that first drew the battle lines against which England found itself fighting for the next 60+ years.

Henry V’s reign was short and glorious – the perfect combination to help solidify his status as one of history’s legends. Two years after ascending the throne, he led the underdog English to victory at the famous Battle of Agincourt. Two years after that, he returned to take back what England believed was hers – Normandy and Aquitaine and, perhaps, France itself, depending on who you asked and when. To Henry, his return in 1417 was nothing short of a “reverse conquest,” and a taking of what was England’s by right – divine right.

By the winter of 1419, Rouen had fallen and in June 1420, King Charles VI displaced his son by naming Henry his heir via the Treaty of Troyes. The alliance was sealed with the marriage of Henry to Charles’s youngest daughter, Katherine of Valois. The couple returned to England, had Katherine crowned, and before Henry returned to France in June 1421, Katherine was pregnant.

Henry wrote his will before he left England, as was custom for any king heading towards war. He knew full well that he would soon have a child to account for, but he clearly believed that he would live through the coming wave of his conquest, return home and outlive his aging father-in-law, Charles VI.  In fact, he wouldn’t. In December 1421, Katherine gave birth to a son, and five months after that Katherine, accompanied by Henry’s younger brother, John, Duke of Bedford, joined him in France.

By then, Henry’s health was on the decline. Dysentery swept the English army in the autumn and winter, and by the time Meaux fell in May after a long siege, Henry is believed to have caught it. News of his poor health spread enough by July that public prayers were held in his honor. One his way to meet Philip, Duke of Burgundy, a stop was forced in Corbeil. He made it to the Chateau de Vincennes, but passed away on August 31, 1422.

In his dying days, he wrote a codicil to his will written 14 months earlier. His goal was less to amend and more to clarify, and his primary concern was protecting his infant son. Henry was leaving behind two brothers, Bedford and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, both of whom supported their brother during his reign and took turns accompanying him to France and holding down the fort in England during the war. As of August 1422, Gloucester was in England and Bedford in France, by Henry’s bedside, an adjustment of position that appears to have reflected interest. Protection of the infant son was placed in Gloucester’s hands, while his upbringing and education were given to Henry’s half-uncle, Thomas Beaufort, Duke of Exeter. Two long-term members of Henry’s household, Henry, Lord FitzHugh and Sir Walter Hungerford, were to oversee his day-to-day care.

England was thus left to Gloucester, while “France” was in fact two separate entities often conflated (even by me, at times, for clarity). England held Normandy by conquest, which was thus left to Bedford to manage, but the kingdom of France was still held by Charles VI, even if only nominally. Charles, aged and suffering from mental illness, was unfit to rule, but it was considered politic to have the English ally, Philip, Duke of Burgundy, serve as regent in France. It was also better optics for the French people still acclimating to the new normal.

All of that was then undermined when Charles VI followed his son-in-law to the grave on October 7. From that point onward, Henry VI was king of England and France, and thus all regents served in his name. Bedford’s anxiety was that Burgundy wouldn’t give way for him to merge Normandy and France under one rule, but in fact Burgundy did with relative ease. It’s a debated point to what extent Burgundy resented Bedford’s behavior in 1422, and to what extent these machinations had a bearing on Burgundy’s break from England in the 1430s, but we’ll save delving further into that for another time.

Charles’s death also weighed on English affairs, for the three-part division was left off-kilter and within the grey time period where Bedford wasn’t sure of Burgundy’s actions, he saw to it that Gloucester’s influence was clipped. In other words, Gloucester was to manage England, but not autonomously. Instead, he was but a member of a protectorate council made of powerful lords of the day, and though he could lead, that authority was  eclipsed the moment Bedford’s foot hit English soil.

This last part is the most fascinating, for it was in contradiction to Henry’s will. Henry, himself, favored a French form of government, which was more authoritarian, but it was anathema to the English, even in the 15th century. Instead, Parliament ruled that a king couldn’t dictate the future of the government, which in this case helped to allay concerns over Gloucester’s temperament and youth, while ensuring Bedford’s power was greater.

It was an uneasy balancing act, but it was one that eventually worked – for a time. If the goal was to allow the infant king to grow into a man able to take control of his empire without corruption or usurpation, then it worked – Henry VI assumed his majority at the age of 15 in 1437. But the decisions of 1422 had consequences that would haunt them, for Burgundy would eventually defect, Gloucester would never forget the insult, and Bedford would prove mortal. More aptly, the consequences would haunt Henry VI.

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