When Henry V died in 1422, he was succeeded by his 9 month-old son. Henry VI is the youngest monarch ever to ascend to the throne of England or Britain, and this would not be the last record he set during his troubled reign.
Henry V’s victories in France had led to the Treaty of Troyes in 1420, which made him regent of France and his dynasty heirs to the throne. Within weeks of Henry’s death from dysentery, Charles VI of France died too, making the infant Henry VI, technically at least, King of England and France.
Pressing this legal right would prove one of the most tangled problems of the medieval period and would ultimately lead to civil war in England.
The next unique moment in Henry VI’s reign came on 16 December 1431. England’s efforts in France were suffering as Joan of Arc appeared in early 1429 to revitalize the French cause. On 18 June, English forces suffered a crushing defeat at the Battle of Patay, which became the equivalent of Agincourt in reverse.
The following month, on 17 July, the son of Charles VI was crowned Charles VII of France at Reims Cathedral despite the Treaty of Troyes having dispossessed him. The head of the English government in France, Henry VI’s uncle John, the Duke of Bedford sent word to England that they ought to bring Henry VI to France for a coronation that would strengthen their cause.
There were already doubts in England about whether the French throne would be seen as superior to the English, and the council quickly raised concerns about Henry being crowned in France when he had not yet had a coronation in England.
The First Coronation
Henry was still just 7 years old when he underwent the solemn ceremony of coronation at Westminster Abbey on 6 November 1429. It was decided to provide reassurance to England by giving his investiture there priority, but the ceremony was significantly altered.
Elements of the French ritual were incorporated to emphasise what was now a unified monarchy. The Prior of Westminster carried a rod, the Abbot bore the king’s sceptre, and the Earl of Warwick escorted the little boy, also accompanied by 22 newly-created Knights of the Bath.
They climbed a specially erected scaffold, from the four corners of which the Archbishop of Canterbury called out:
‘Sirs, here cometh Harry, King Harry V’s son, humbly to God and Holy Church, asking for the crown of this realm by right and descent of heritage.’
Asking them if they approved, he was rewarded with a resounding chorus of ‘Ye! Ye!’.
The 7 year-old king was required to lie prostrate on the floor before the altar as bishops prayed over him. Stripped to his shirt, the boy was then anointed with holy oil by the Archbishop on his chest, back, head, across his shoulders, on both elbows and then his palms.
Redressed in a scarlet gown edged with ermine, Henry was given the rod and sceptre, followed by the sword of state and the sword of Holy Church, and then St Edward’s Crown was lowered to his head. Henry was then stripped of these symbols and garments to be dressed as a bishop ready for mass.
It is hard to imagine the effect of this on a small child, but Henry would be likened to a priest when he grew up. Perhaps this is in part why. The lavish coronation feast followed at Westminster Hall.
Preparations for another coronation
Preparations began almost immediately for a repeat of the ceremony in France. The king’s great-uncle Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester, was sent across the Channel ‘so that the French might be pacified against the king’s coming’. It was to prove a huge undertaking.
It was St George’s Day, 23 April 1430 before the little king arrived on the shores of France. He was accompanied by a vast entourage including every nobleman of England. They remained at Calais until July when they moved to Rouen.
French coronations traditionally took place at Reims Cathedral, but that was now in the hands of Charles VII and his supporters. It was finally accepted that Paris would have to do instead.
The Second Coronation
Henry arrived at Saint-Denis in the Paris suburbs to spend two nights at the mausoleum of the French kings. He was 9 years old when he made the short journey to the centre of Paris on 4 December 1431 with a glittering array of English nobles.
The road was lined with pageantry and displays to celebrate the boy-king’s arrival. St Denis, the patron saint of France, featured alongside England’s St George. One spectacle was a large image of Henry sitting enthroned, wearing two crowns and holding the arms of both England and France.
At Notre Dame on 16 December, the coronation ceremony was repeated. To the aggravation of the Bishop of Paris, the Bishop of Winchester was permitted to oversee the monumental moment.
A coronation feast followed, as it had done in England, though the Parisians grumbled that the visit failed to generate the trade and income to recompense them for the lavish displays that had welcomed the English.
A unique king
Henry VI remains the only person in history to be crowned King of England and France in both countries. English and British monarchs would maintain a claim to the throne of France until 1802 but would never again touch the prize they coveted.
Henry would go on to favour peace with France, but undoing his coronation as a boy proved an impossible stumbling block. By 1453, England had lost the Hundred Years War and all lands in France apart from Calais. The problems this dragged back to England, with unpaid soldiers and little work, caused a breakdown in law and order that eventually spiralled into the Wars of the Roses.
Henry was driven from the throne by the Yorkist Edward IV in 1461. Briefly restored in 1470, he lost his crown again in 1471, the only English king to be deposed, restored, and deposed once more. Henry VI set several unique records, but few of them were good ones.