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

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Henry V was not supposed to die on August 31, 1422. Not when he was only his 30s, not when his son was 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.

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When a Beaufort Married a Stewart

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Long before England and Scotland were “united” under the rule of James Stuart, and even before the more famous match of James IV and Margaret Tudor, there was another alliance between these two countries that provided an important dynastic link…though not necessarily in a helpful way. In 1424, James I of Scotland married Joan Beaufort, a non-royal Englishwoman, but one whose family was critical to physically restoring her husband to his throne. The union, while successful, did little to help diplomatic ties with England.

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When Marguerite of Anjou Arrived in England

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Marguerite of Anjou is, in my opinion, one of the most interesting queen consorts in England’s history. Her marriage, however, started as a glorified insurance policy for her uncle, Charles VII, and resulted in one of the most controversial and dramatic public careers a woman in 15th century Europe ever held. We’ve covered Marguerite on this site a few times, from rumors of her infidelity to her political maneuvers when her husband “went mad” to her mysterious childhood prior to joining French court as a teenager, to name but a few. Today we’re going to get into how it was that she became Henry VI’s wife and the very direct way in which that led to the later civil war that toppled them from their thrones.

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

 

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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.

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The English Duchess Convicted of Witchcraft

On January 19, 1442, Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester was convicted of treason for conspiring against the king, Henry VI. Specifically, she was charged with witchcraft and for consorting with astrologers and fortune-tellers to predict when King Henry would die. Not at all coincidentally, Eleanor stood to benefit from Henry’s death since her husband, his uncle, was the heir apparent.

The charges, which were likely embellished by the political enemies of her husband, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, nevertheless prompted him to swiftly divorce her when they came to light in the summer of 1441. After her conviction, Eleanor was forced to do penance by walking through the streets of London and then imprisoned.

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Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester and his wife, Eleanor Cobham

She began her captivity at Chester Castle in Cheshire, before moving to Kenilworth Castle the following year and then to the Isle of Man in 1446. She finally ended up at Beaumaris Castle in Anglesey, Wales in 1449, where she died three years later on July 7, 1452.

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Beaumaris Castle today

As unlikely as Eleanor’s fate may seem given that she was a royal duchess by marriage, the fact that she even ended up in that exalted role is even less likely given her origins. Eleanor was born in Kent around 1400 to Reynold, 3rd Baron Cobham and Eleanor Culpeper, a perfectly respectable English family. Nothing is known about her childhood or how she became attached to the royal court, but in 1422 she gained a place in the household of Jacqueline of Hainaut, Duchess of Brabant.

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