Henry VI and the decline of Royal Authority

Portrait of Henry VI, King of England 1422-1461 and 1470-1471 (P.C. World History Encyclopaedia)

Henry V was an immensely successful king. He was instrumental in English victories on the continent, as exemplified by his campaigns through northern France between 1415 and 1422. The success of Henry V’s French wars had consolidated his rule, and his depiction as a semi-legendary king by later Tudor historiography, whilst likely exaggerated, will have had its foundation during his and his son’s lifetime. His son, Henry VI, grew up in the shadow of his father’s achievements. Henry was only eight months old when his father Henry V died on the 31st of August 1422, and for the next 16 years there was a Regency Council led nominally by John, Duke of Bedford and in practice by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester that oversaw state affairs. Once Henry began ruling in his own right, it became crushingly clear that firstly he would not be able to live up to the reign of his father, and secondly that his very ability to rule was considerably lacking. 

Henry was the first English king to not fight in battle. Although he was an avid hunter, Hugh Bicheno argues that his minority and protection from dangers by the Regency Council made Henry ‘regard warfare with distaste’. Whilst this negatively impacted his military prowess, as shall be seen, it also resulted in magnates trying to exert increasing influence on the monarch’s actions. The medieval period was one where a magnate could not possibly risk proclaiming his right to the throne, as that would be going against the will of God, for monarchs were anointed by God. As such, Richard of York, who through the matrilineal line had a claim to the throne, sought to discredit those around the King for his own gain. One such individual who received York’s displeasure was William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, a close confidante and advisor to the King. Henry VI had gone into secret negotiations with Charles VII of France on the 22nd of December 1445, when he wrote to Charles seeking peace in the form of the surrender of Maine and Anjou. This would have almost certainly been unknown to Suffolk, but nevertheless he had to take the blame when news of the negotiations reached the ears of the Body Politic. This, coupled with the mysterious death of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester in Bury St Edmunds five days after being arrested by Suffolk’s retainers in February 1447, meant that from that point onwards Suffolk was viewed with ever-increasing suspicion. 

After two years of impatiently waiting for Henry to hand over Maine and Anjou, Charles VII of France gained the upper hand. On a personal request by Henry, one of his Knights of the Garter, François de Surienne took the Breton border fortress of Fougères with the aim of forcing the Duke of Brittany to release a childhood friend of Henry’s, Gilles of Brittany. This escapade into Brittany who, whilst not allied with France, were certainly less appreciative of Henry’s rule, gave Charles the justification to acquire an anti-English alliance with Brittany and declare war on the English. The capitulation that followed was not simply an embarrassment to an England that only thirty years had routed the French so convincingly at Agincourt but was also a reflection of the vastly insufficient political and military expertise of Henry. Within a year and a day of the declaration of war on the 31st of July 1449, the entirety of Normandy, Maine and Anjou had fallen to the French. In 1445 Henry had spontaneously and unexplainedly removed the astute and experienced Richard Duke of York from the post of Captain General of France. For the following two years York was not replaced in the role, and thus it would be understandable that when Charles VII invaded in 1449-50, he was welcomed with open arms by many who viewed the English as having neglected them in that period. When Henry did eventually choose an appointment for the role in 1447, it was salt in the wound for York, who had in the meantime been sent to govern Ireland, for his replacement was Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset.

Compared to later events of Henry’s reign, such as his catatonic state in 1453 or the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses, the events of the 1440s may seem insignificant. Yet, in reality, they represent the beginnings of the decline of royal authority. Henry’s undermining of his own authority by secretly giving Charles VII English lands in France whilst simultaneously failing to inform the body politic that he had done so eventually resulted in the demise of his key advisor, the Duke of Suffolk, when it was discovered. Simultaneously, appointing Edmund Beaufort as Captain General of France only served to alienate the influential Duke of York. In summation, Henry’s deficient political acumen resulted, at least in the short term, in the collapse of English governance in France.

Henry Carless, Summer Writer

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