Of the eight kings of England bearing the name ‘Henry’, only two, the hero (V) and the monster (VIII), are well known today. It is well worth getting to know the others.
Kings named Henry have ruled over several centuries of English history, from the medieval era of Henry I (r. 1100-1135) to the turbulent time of the English Reformation under Henry VIII (r. 1509-1547).
Here’s a short history of England in 8 kings named Henry.
Henry I (r. 1100 – 1135)
The fourth son of William the Conqueror, Henry I never seemed likely to become king. The deaths of two older brothers in hunting accidents (one of which Henry himself may have engineered), and the outwitting of another brother, led to him claiming both England and Normandy.
A strong ruler and capable administrator, his Coronation Charter of Liberties became a model for Magna Carta, while he put in place the foundations for what later became the English Common Law system. In his time, too, the exchequer was established as a department of government.
These institutions flourished, even in the king’s absence in Normandy, but the death of his only legitimate son, and promotion of his daughter Matilda as heir, meant his death (from the famous ‘surfeit of lampreys’) resulting in a messy civil war known as the Anarchy.
Henry II (r. 1154 – 1189)
Son of Matilda and Geoffrey of Anjou, Henry II had to fight for his birthright, achieving the throne of England at the age of 21. His marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine added that province to an ‘Angevin empire’ extending from Scotland to the Pyrenees.
As capable as his grandfather, he quickly re-established good government, and further developed the Common Law, but his implication in the martyrdom of Thomas Beckett was a turning point. Most of his later years were spent fighting sons who repeatedly rebelled against him, and he died a sad and disillusioned man, cursing those who would in turn destroy all he had achieved.
Henry III (r. 1216 – 1272)
Following the disastrous reign of King John, his son Henry III became king aged 9, with the country split by civil war, and half in the hands of the French Prince Louis. While the mighty William Marshal won back his kingdom, Henry was carefully educated, but either nature or nurture left him always eager to please, and relying on a succession of favoured courtiers for advice.
With England becoming more ‘English’, his promotion of first his wife’s, then his mother’s, French relations eventually sparked another civil war. The rebels, led by Simon de Montfort, captured Henry and his son, and the seeds of the future House of Commons were sown when de Montfort, needing additional support, summoned knights and burgesses to supplement nobility and clerics in a Parliament.
Freed at the battle of Evesham, when de Montfort was killed, Henry’s later days of peaceful rule probably provide the model for the popular view of ‘Merry England’. His most lasting achievement was as patron of church architecture, especially the rebuilding of Westminster Abbey, where he was buried.
Henry IV (r. 1399 – 1413)
The first Lancastrian king, Henry IV seized the throne from his cousin Richard II, who had banished him and taken over the substantial inheritance that should have come to Henry from his father John of Gaunt. In turn, Richard found himself imprisoned, and almost certainly murdered, at Pontefract Castle, on the orders of the new king.
The crown brought Henry nothing but trouble, however, fighting off repeated rebellions by those who had initially supported him. The execution of a rebellious archbishop was quickly followed by a mystery illness attacking the king. Debilitating and disfiguring, it was seen by many as a just punishment.
Foretold he would die in Jerusalem, in fact Henry died, aged just 46, in the Jerusalem Chamber at Westminster Abbey.
Henry V (r. 1413 – 1422)
Henry V was lucky even to reach the throne, being shot in the face and seriously wounded as a 16-year-old at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403. That luck would remain with him for much of his life. He was lucky to have the support of his three brothers, lucky that his chosen adversary, the French King Charles VI, suffered regular fits of madness, lucky that jealousy divided the French nobility, and lucky that, at Agincourt – his greatest triumph – the sodden ground bogged down the French army, making easy targets for English archers.
Henry married King Charles VI of France’s daughter, Catherine of Valois and was declared heir to the French throne.
During Henry’s reign, English became widely used in state documents for the first time, replacing French and Latin. The language thus became standardised, known as ‘The King’s English’.
Though his luck was generally assisted by meticulous planning, it ran out when Henry contracted dysentery and died while campaigning in 1422. Had he lived another two months he would have become King of France.
Henry VI (r. 1422 – 1461, 1470 – 1471)
A mere 9 months old when he became king of England, this son of Henry V inherited France as well at 11 months – at least nominally. Despite the best efforts of his uncles, France was quickly lost, the brief but effective inspiration of Joan of Arc uniting the French under a new king, Charles VII.
Once again a well-brought-up English king proved singularly ineffective. Fits of madness, presumed inherited from his French grandfather, sharpened rivalry between his own favoured Lancastrian relatives, and supporters of Richard, Duke of York, leading to open war. Defeated and deposed at Towton in 1461, Henry VI spent years on the run, before capture and imprisonment in the Tower – only to be brought out and re-instated as king when the Yorkists fell out among themselves.
The return of the Yorkist Edward IV soon after, however, saw Henry VI back in the Tower, and the death of his son in the Battle of Tewkesbury was quickly followed by his own death, likely by murder.
Henry VII (r. 1485 -1509)
Henry VII’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, was a granddaughter of an illegitimate son of John of Gaunt. His father, Edmund Tudor, was the son of the widow of Henry V. There was very little royal blood in Henry VII. Growing up, first in Wales and then in Brittany, for the first 25 years of his life, no one saw Henry as a potential king.
Then, adopted by the Lancastrian party, and aided by his mother’s new husband, Lord Stanley, at the Battle of Bosworth, suddenly he had a crown on his head, with all opponents declared traitors. His marriage to Elizabeth of York, brokered by his mother, united Lancaster and York in a new Tudor dynasty.
Aiming for peace and the encouragement of trade, he sponsored the voyages of John Cabot to the Americas, but later became embroiled in European rivalries involving France, Burgundy and Spain.
He never really recovered from the death, in 1502, of his favourite son, Arthur, who had recently married Catherine of Aragon. Her fate, as a potential bride for the king’s second son, Henry, was still undecided at his death in 1509.
Henry VIII (r. 1509 – 1547)
Never winning his father’s love, and receiving no training for his future role, Henry VIII’s exuberant personality was firmly repressed until, two months short of his eighteenth birthday, he became king of England. Marriage to Catherine of Aragon may have been his own decision, and early successes in France encouraged his involvement in European politics, but the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520 represents a high point of his reign.
Thereafter, obsession with producing a son and heir led to a permanent split with the church of Rome and multiple marriages. While never a convinced Protestant, he was happy to dissolve even the most venerable monasteries and take their wealth, and increasing paranoia meant he executed more former friends and counsellors than any king before him. At his death, even contemporary chronicles found little to say in his praise.
Teresa Cole was born in a field in Norfolk. After obtaining a degree in law, she taught that subject for many years, during which time she wrote two law books.
Reading thousand-year-old chronicles as witness statements sparked a deep interest in the people of the past, in particular those whose actions and motivations had a profound effect on their own and later times. Writing history books was a natural progression, first Henry V, The Life & Times of the Warrior King, and then three about the Normans, The Norman Conquest, After the Conquest and The Anarchy.
She also writes fiction, and, most recently, a book of comic verse, ‘Lockdown Rhymes’, as a fundraiser for a local charity during the Covid lockdowns.