On 21 May 1471, King Henry VI of England died. Henry holds several significant records. He is the youngest monarch to ascend the throne of England, becoming king at the age of 9 months after the death of his father, Henry V, in 1422. Henry then ruled for 39 years, which is not a record, but is a significant tenure for a medieval monarch. He is also the only person in history to have been crowned King of England and King of France in both countries.
Henry was also the first king since the Conquest to be deposed and restored, meaning a new word had to be invented for the phenomenon: Readeption. Although he was restored in 1470, he was deposed again in 1471 by Edward IV, and his death marked the end of the dynastic dispute between Lancaster and York that makes up part of the Wars of the Roses.
So, how and why did Henry meet his end in 1471?
A young king
Henry VI became king on 1 September 1422 following the death of his father, Henry V, from illness while on campaign in France. Henry VI had only been born nine months earlier on 6 December 1421 at Windsor Castle. There was going to be a long minority period before Henry would be able to rule himself, and minorities were usually problematic.
Henry grew into a man interested in peace, but at war with France. His court was divided into those who favoured peace, and those who wanted to pursue Henry V’s policy of war. These divisions would be the forerunner to the Wars of the Roses that divided England in the second half of the 15th century.
Breakdown and deposition
By 1450, Henry’s mismanagement of government was becoming a problem. In 1449, the annual cost of Henry’s household was £24,000. That had risen from £13,000 in 1433, while his revenues had halved to £5,000 a year by 1449. Henry was generous to a fault and gave away so much land and so many offices that he made himself poor. His court developed a reputation for not paying that made it hard to get goods delivered. In 1452, parliament recorded the royal debts at an astonishing £372,000, which equates to about £170 million in today’s money.
In 1453, while on the way to try and resolve one of the local feuds that were erupting around England, Henry arrived at the royal hunting lodge at Clarendon in Wiltshire. There, he had a complete collapse. Precisely what afflicted Henry is unclear. His maternal grandfather Charles VI of France had mental health issues, but was usually manic, and sometimes believed he was made of glass and would shatter. Henry became catatonic. He could not move, talk or feed himself. This breakdown led to York being offered the Protectorate. Henry recovered on Christmas Day 1454 and dismissed York, undoing much of his work to rebalance royal finances.
This intensified the factional feuding at Henry’s court and led to violence at the First Battle of St Albans on 22 May 1455. In 1459, after the Battle of Ludford Bridge, York and his allies were attainted; declared traitors in parliament and stripped of all their lands and titles. In 1460, York returned from exile and claimed Henry’s crown. The Act of Accord settled that Henry would remain king for the rest of his life, but York and his heirs would succeed him.
York was killed at the Battle of Wakefield on 30 December 1460, and his oldest son Edward accepted the crown when it was offered to him on 4 March 1461. Henry was deposed.
Edward IV, the first Yorkist king, seemed secure enough throughout the 1460s, but he was falling out with his cousin and former mentor Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, the man remembered by history as the Kingmaker. Warwick rebelled against Edward, initially planning to put Edward’s younger brother George, Duke of Clarence on the throne. When that failed, Warwick made an alliance with Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI’s queen, to restore the House of Lancaster.
When Warwick landed in England from France, Edward was driven into exile in October 1470, only to return in early 1471. Warwick was defeated and killed at the Battle of Barnet on 14 April 1471. At the Battle of Tewkesbury on 4 May 1471, Henry’s only child Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales, was killed, aged 17. On 21 May, Edward IV and the victorious Yorkists returned to London. The following morning, it was announced that Henry VI had died during the night.
The death of Henry VI
Precisely how Henry VI died is not conclusively known, but stories have surrounded that night in May 1471 for centuries. The one most often discounted is the official account that appears in a source known as The Arrivall of King Edward IV. Written by a contemporary eyewitness to Edward’s campaigning and return to the throne in 1471, it reflects the Yorkist view and is therefore frequently propagandist.
The Arrivall states Henry died “of pure displeasure, and melancholy” at the news of his son’s death, his wife’s arrest and the collapse of his cause. This source is usually dismissed out of hand on the basis of its bias and the convenient timing. However, it should be remembered that Henry was 49, and had been in poor mental and physical health for at least eighteen years by this point. Whilst it can not be dismissed out of hand, it remains an unlikely explanation.
Robert Fabyan, a London draper, wrote a chronicle in 1516 which claimed that “of the death of this prince diverse tales were told: but the most common fame went, that he was sticked with a dagger, by the hands of the duke of Glouceter.” The Duke of Gloucester was Richard, the youngest brother of Edward IV, and the future Richard III. As with all stories about Richard III written after his death at Bosworth, this source needs to be treated with as much caution as The Arrivall.
A more contemporary source is Warkworth’s Chronicle, which states that “the same night that King Edward came to London, King Henry, being inward in prison in the Tower of London, was put to death, the 21 day of May, on the Tuesday night, betwixt 11 and 12 of the clock, being then at the Tower the Duke of Gloucester, brother to King Edward, and many other.” It is this reference to Richard being at the Tower during that night that has been used to assert that he was the killer of Henry VI.
While it is possible that Richard, both as Constable of England and brother to the king, might have been tasked with doing away with Henry, it is far from proven. The truth is that we simply don’t know what really happened in the Tower of London on the night of 21 May 1471. If Henry was put to death, though, it was surely on the orders of Edward IV, and if anyone is to take blame for a murder, it must be him.
Henry’s story is a tragic one of a man deeply unsuited to the role into which he was born. Deeply pious and a patron of learning, founding Eton College among other institutions, Henry was disinterested in war, but failed to control the factions that had emerged during his minority, ultimately causing the kingdom to slip into the bitter conflict known as the Wars of the Roses. The Lancastrian dynasty died with Henry on 21 May 1471.