Henry VI (1421-1471) was king of England from 1422 to 1461 and in 1470-1471. He was known for his piety and charity, but his reign was marred by the rivalries of his uncles and ministers and by the loss of the achievements of his Lancastrian predecessors.
The only son of Henry V and Catherine of France, Henry was born on Dec. 6, 1421, at Windsor. At less than 9 months of age he succeeded to the throne on Sept. 1, 1422, and he was proclaimed king of both England and France. During his minority he ruled through a council consisting of his uncle, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, as protector; Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, as master; and another uncle, John, Duke of Bedford, as governor of his French possessions. Things went well at first, and at the Battle of Verneuil (August 1424) Bedford was able to check the Dauphin (later Charles VII), who had hoped to take advantage of the minority. But soon the advantage was lost as Gloucester drove the dukes of Burgundy and of Brittany to the French side.
After his coronations in London in 1429 and in Paris the following year, Henry tried to take an active part in government. He mediated in the feud between his uncles in 1434 and sided with the peace policy of Cardinal Beaufort. When Joan of Arc rallied the French, English interest in continuing the war declined for the next decade. Henry reached legal majority in 1442 and concluded a 2-year truce with France the next year.
In 1445 Henry married Margaret of Anjou, the daughter of René, Duke of Anjou and Lorraine and titular king of Sicily, Naples, and Jerusalem. She persuaded him to cede to Charles VII many of the possessions that England held in France. This resulted in her unpopularity with the English and was eventually to lead to her downfall, for she was to be imprisoned for 4 years after Henry's death. From this point on, interest in foreign matters depended mainly on their effect upon public feeling in England and the rivalries that later led to civil war. In 1448 Henry surrendered Maine in order to prolong the truce with France. To please public opinion, in 1450 Henry was forced to exile one of his ministers, John, Duke of Suffolk, who had been instrumental in the downfall of the popular Duke of Gloucester, and in the same year he faced his first major internal crisis in the rebellion of Jack Cade.
Wars of the Roses
This period saw the loss of more English holdings in France (Normandy in 1450 and Guienne by 1453) and the rise of a popular leader, Richard, Duke of York (Suffolk's father-in-law), as the head of the prowar party that had been led by Gloucester. Henry, deeply in debt, tried to calm the parties and granted a general pardon in 1452. In August 1453 he suffered temporary mental illness, and in April 1454 the Duke of York was appointed protector. Henry's only son, Edward, was born in October 1453. While the King was insane, the two rival parties for power, one side led by the Queen and the Duke of Somerset and the other by the Duke of York, started to prepare for civil war. When Henry recovered in January 1455, Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, was restored to favor, and the Duke of York was excluded from the Council. After Henry went to the north to gain support, the two sides met at the first Battle of St. Albans in May, where the King was slightly wounded, Somerset was killed, and the fighting of the Wars of the Roses commenced. (The house of York was associated with the white rose, the house of Lancaster with the red rose.)
The next year Henry again became ill, and York was made protector until the King's recovery. York was removed from office when the king's health returned but was allowed to remain on the Council. The war broke out again 4 years later, and in the Battle of Blore Heath on Sept. 23, 1459, the royal forces were defeated. On the approach of the King, however, the Yorkists fled, and 2 months later at the Parliament at Coventry the Duke of York and his followers were dishonored. But by July 1460 the Yorkists had been able to recover and gain London, and in the Battle of Northampton (July 10) Henry was taken prisoner. While the Queen fled to the north to gather allies, the Duke of York claimed the throne, and the two forces met at the Battle of Wakefield (December 30), where the Duke of York was killed. The Queen was unable to follow up the victory, even after a second battle at St. Albans (Feb. 17, 1461), where the King was rescued.
Early in March, Edward, Duke of York, declared himself King Edward IV with the support of London as Henry fled. Henry's followers continued to battle on his behalf unsuccessfully, at the Battle of Towton (March 29, 1461) and at Hexham (May 15, 1464). After hiding first with the Scots and then on the Lancashire-Yorkshire border, Henry was finally captured in 1465 and put in the Tower of London for 5 years. He was briefly restored to the throne after his release (Oct. 3, 1470) due to the support of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick ("Kingmaker"). Warwick, however, was slain at the Battle of Barnet (April 14, 1471), and Henry's son, Edward, was killed a month later at the Battle of Tewkesbury. Henry was recommitted to the Tower, where he was murdered, possibly by Edward IV's brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III). On May 22 Henry's body was placed on display at St. Paul's Cathedral and then buried with little ceremony at Chertsey Abbey.
Henry was worshiped as a martyr by people in the north of England, and Henry VII had his remains reburied at St. George's Chapel, Windsor, giving up an attempt to have Henry VI canonized as being too costly. Henry VI was the first monarch to establish the royal motto Dieu et Mon Droit, and as a patron of learning he founded Eton (1440) and King's College, Cambridge (1441), as well as suggesting to his queen the foundation of Queen's College, Cambridge (1448).
Further Reading on Henry VI
There is no standard biography of Henry VI, although much of the source material is in print. Detailed studies of the period include Sir Charles W. C. Oman, Warwick the Kingmaker (1891); Cora L. Scofield, The Life and Reign of Edward the Fourth (1923); and Jack R. Lander, The Wars of the Roses (1966). General histories of the period are Alec Reginald Myers, England in the Later Middle Ages (1952), and Ernest Fraser Jacob, The Fifteenth Century, 1399-1485 (1961).
Additional Biography Sources
Alexander, Peter, Shakespeare's Henry VI and Richard III, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1975; Philadelphia: R. West, 1977.
Alexander, Peter, Shakespeare's Henry VI and Richard II, New York, Octagon Books, 1973; Folcroft, Pa. Folcroft Library Editions, 1973.
Barton, John, The Wars of the Roses: adapted for the Royal Shakespeare Company from William Shakespeare's Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, 3 and Richard II, London, British Broadcasting Corporation, 1970.
Crown, Mr. (John), Henry the Sixth, the first part, 168, London, Cornmarket P., 1969.
Crown, Mr. (John), The misery of civil war, 168, London, Cornmarket P., 1969.
Dicks, Samuel E., Medieval and Renaissance studies: Henry VI and the daughters of Armagnac; a problem in medieval diploma, Emporia, Kansas State Teachers College, Graduate Division, 1967.
Dombrowa, Regina., Strukturen in Shakespeares King Henry the Sixth, Amsterdam: B.R. Grèuner, 1985. Doran, Madeleine, Henry VI, parts II and III: their relation to the Contention and the True tragedy, Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1977; Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1978.
Gaw, Allison, The origin and development of 1 Henry VI: in relation to Shakespeare, Marlowe, Peele, and Greene, Philadelphia: R. West, 1978 c1926; Folcroft, Pa. Folcroft Library Editions, 1974 c1926.
Goy-Blanquet, Dominique., Le roi mis áa nu: l'histoire d'Henri VI, de Hall áa Shakespeare, Paris: Didier âerudition, 1986.
Griffiths, Ralph Alan., The reign of King Henry VI: the exercise of royal authority, 1422-1461, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.
Henke, James T., The Ego-King: an archetype approach to Elizabethan political thought and Shakespeare's Henry VI plays, Salzburg: Inst. f. Engl. Sprache u. Literatur, Univ. Salzburg, 1977.
Hinchcliffe, Judith, King Henry VI, parts 1, 2, and 3: an annotated bibliography, New York: Garland Pub., 1984.
Kleine, Peter., Zur Figurencharakteristik in Shakespeares "HenryVI": e. Vergleich mit d. Quellen unter Berèucksichtigung d. Textèuberlieferung u. d. Konzeption moderner Historik, Mèunchen: Minerva-Publikation, 1980.
Long, Freda Margaret., The coveted cro, London, Hale, 1966.
Mescal, John, Henry VI, London: Catholic Truth Society, 1980.
Plaidy, Jean, Red rose of Anjou, New York: Putnam, 1983, 1982;London: Hale, 1982.
Ricks, Don M., Shakespeare's emergent form; a study of the structures of the Henry VI play, Logan, Utah State University Press, 1968.
Riggs, David, Shakespeare's heroical histories; Henry VI and its literary traditio, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1971.
Ruvigny et Raineval, Melville Henry Massue, marquis de, The blood royal of Britain: being a roll of the living descendants of Edward IV and Henry VII, Kings of England, and James III, King of Scotland, Baltimore: Genealogical Pub. Co., 1994.
Saltmarsh, John, King Henry VI and the royal foundations: a commemorative oration delivered at Eton Colleg, Cambridge, Printed for the Provost and Fellows of Eton College and King's College Cambridge, 1972.
Tull, George Francis., Henry of Windsor, the scholarly King: a public lecture given in Caxton Hall, Westminster on 27th January 196, Tonbridge (Kent), Henry VI Society 1969.
Watts, John Lovett., Henry VI and the politics of kingship, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Wolffe, B. P. (Bertram Percy), Henry VI, London: Eyre Methuen, 1981, 1980.