Who was Henry VI of England?
King Henry VI of England, at the age of nine months, became the youngest person ever to succeed the English throne, and was also the only English monarch to be crowned King of France. He was on the English throne from 1422 to 1461 and again from 1470 to 1471, and was the disputed King of France from 1422 to 1453. He was averse to violence and quickly sided with the nobles supporting peace in France, which further divided his courtiers. During his reign, England lost much of its territory in France and political instability increased in England. As his cousin Richard of the House of York gained popularity, civil war broke out in 1455, which eventually led to his imprisonment in 1465. He was briefly reinstated on the throne in 1470 following advances of forces led by Queen Margaret, but died in May 1471, a few days after his only son and heir, Edward of Westminster, died in battle.
Childhood & Early Life
Henry VI of England was born on December 6, 1421, at Windsor Castle, Berkshire, England, to King Henry V and Catherine of Valois, the daughter of Charles VI of France. He succeeded to the throne on September 1, 1422, the day after his father's death, and on October 21, became titular King of France upon his grandfather's death.
The nobles swore loyalty to him on September 28, 1423, following which his two uncles, John, Duke of Bedford, and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, were appointed Regent of France and Regent of England respectively. On November 6, 1429, at the age of seven, he was crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey, and on December 16, 1431, at the age of 10, he was crowned King of France at Notre Dame de Paris.
He was a spiritual person averse to deceit and bloodshed, who was easily dominated by a few nobles, giving rise to opposing factions within the nobility. His policy of peace in France was supported by Cardinal Beaufort and William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, while Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, and Richard, Duke of York, were against it.
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Henry VI of England was convinced by Cardinal Beaufort and the Earl of Suffolk to make peace with France through marriage to the beautiful and ambitious Margaret of Anjou, the niece of King Charles VII. Charles accepted the proposal on conditions of the Treaty of Tours in 1444, which relieved him from providing the customary dowry and also gave him the province of Maine.
On April 23, 1445, Henry and Margaret were married at Titchfield Abbey, and they later welcomed son Edward of Westminster in 1453. The cession of Maine, which was initially kept secret from the parliament, became public knowledge in 1446, causing public anger, which was particularly focused on the Earl of Suffolk.
In 1447, Henry VI charged Duke of Gloucester with treason, putting him in custody, where he died soon after, and sent Cardinal Beaufort's nephew, the new Duke of Somerset, to France to lead the war. The king was forced to exile the Earl of Suffolk, who was widely seen as a traitor, but he was murdered after his ship was intercepted in the English Channel.
He faced increasing unpopularity due to breakdown of law and order, corruption, distribution of royal land to favorite courtiers, decreasing treasury and continued loss of territory in France. Duke of Somerset, who had reopened hostilities in Normandy in 1449, ended up losing the entire province to the French by 1450, and the returning soldiers increased lawlessness in the southern counties of England.
Duke of York, who was banished to govern Ireland, found support in the Kent rebellion of Jack Cade, who was able to briefly occupy London for a few days. In 1452, York was persuaded to return and claim his rightful place on the council; however, he was again isolated by the next year as Somerset's influence was restored and the Queen became pregnant.
In 1453, following the loss of Bordeaux to the French, Henry had a mental breakdown that made him unresponsive to his surroundings, including the birth of his son, for over a year. In 1454, York gained an influential ally, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, and was named Protector of the Realm.
When Henry recovered senses in 1454, many of the nobles were supporting York for the control of government, and later even for the throne, despite Henry being older. His attempt at reconciliation of the warring nobles through 'The Love Day' in London on March 25, 1458 failed, following which civil war started between the houses of Lancaster and York.
During the Wars of the Roses, Henry was initially captured and then rescued by the Queen, had another bout of insanity, fled to Scotland with the Queen, and later took refuge in Waddington, Lancashire. He was eventually captured by Yorkist men from there and was held captive in the Tower of London by Edward of York, who became King Edward IV.
Margaret, exiled in France, eventually found support from some of Edward's disgruntled supporters, especially Earl of Warwick, who exiled Edward and restored Henry to the throne in 1470. However, his reign ended in six months as Warwick declared war on Burgundy, whose ruler helped Edward IV with army that earned a decisive victory at the Battle of Tewkesbury on May 4, 1471.
Death & Legacy
Henry VI of England was again imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he died on the night of May 21, 1471, and was buried in Chertsey Abbey. His body was moved to St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle, in 1484, and several centuries later, diggers found evidence of a violent death.
He became more popular after his death as certain miracles were attributed to the king by the anti-Yorkist cult, which was encouraged by Henry Tudor. However, his best achievement was fostering of education through the establishment of Eton College, King's College, Cambridge and All Souls College, Oxford.
The life of Henry VI of England formed the subject of a trilogy of plays by William Shakespeare in 1590, when Elizabeth I, descendant of his Lancastrian family, was the reigning Queen. The plays avoid any reference to the king's madness, and depict him as a pious and peaceful man ill-suited to the crown.