Why Did the Early Years of Henry VI’s Reign Prove So Disastrous?

James Carson

4 mins

20 May 2019

On 12 November 1437 Henry VI came of age, King of England and nominally of France. But like Richard II before him, he had inherited powerful uncles, scheming nobles, and a never-ending ulcer of war in France.

The terrible Treaty

The marriage of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou is depicted in this miniature from an illustrated manuscript of ‘Vigilles de Charles VII’ by Martial d’Auvergne.

By the mid-1440s the young Henry was in desperate search of a truce with France, and also a wife. A French princess, Margaret of Anjou, came with a fine pedigree but no money or land.

The condition was the Treaty of Tours, Henry would get a wife, and breathing space, but he would have to cede Maine and Anjou to the French. His negotiators tried to keep this secret. They foresaw the rage in England that land taken with English blood on the battlefield was lost in negotiating a French princess for the king.

Public scorn was mirrored at court where Henry’s royal relatives jockeyed to dominate the weak king. William de la Pole, the Duke of Suffolk, and his royal cousins, Edmund, the Duke of Somerset, and Richard, Duke of York. Suffolk and Somerset were dominant figures in government; Richard, a powerful magnate, had held the position of the King’s Lieutenant in France.

But Richard also had potentially a stronger claim to the English throne than even Henry. He and the House of York was descended through his mother from Lionel, Duke of Clarence, who was Edward III’s second son. The Lancastrian line had come through John of Gaunt, who was Edward’s third son. Richard also had a good claim through his father, who was descended from Edward III’s fourth son.

John of Gaunt.

Dismissal and defeat

At this stage, York probably was not dreaming of stealing Henry’s crown, but Henry’s weak and vacillating rule meant that the court became a cesspit of intrigue and jockeying for influence.

Tension grew in September 1447 however, when York was dismissed from his position in France – to be replaced by Somerset – and sent to Ireland, long the graveyard of ambitious men.

Embittered York made an immediate claim for his salary and expenses – which was bad news for the cash strapped treasury. The young Margaret created further problems, siding so strongly with Suffolk and Somerset that rumours began to abound that she was romantically attached to them.

In August 1449 a frail truce in France broke down; King Charles VII invaded Normandy on three fronts. Against a woefully funded garrison, and an inexperienced leader in Somerset, French forces inexorably drove the English out of northern France. It culminated in a devastating defeat for the English at the Battle of Formigny, where four thousand English soldiers were killed.

For his role in the catastrophe, Suffolk was hauled before the House of Commons and put on trial for treason. But before he reached judgement, Henry intervened on the side of his favourite, dropping the charges of treason but banishing him on secondary charges.

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Widespread discontent

It was not a popular decision – only serving to undermine Henry’s power base. It was also in vain. Suffolk was murdered as his ship sailed in the English Channel – possibly on York’s orders.

By late Spring of 1450, the people of Kent broke into open rebellion. Led by a figure named Jack Cade, this popular uprising reflected the schism at court. Cade used an alias ‘John Mortimer’, York’s uncle, and one of the sources of his royal claim.

3,000 armed men marched to Blackheath to air their grievances. Unlike Richard II, who dealt with the earlier Peasant’s Revolt largely through negotiation, Henry woefully mismanaged the situation, alienating the protesters by resorting to violence. Cade inflicted an embarrassing defeat on the Royalists through an ambush at Sevenoaks.

Although Cade was later defeated and killed. Henry had showed himself to be weak and indecisive. It was one thing to be humiliated in France, quite another in Kent. He then compounded matters further by appointing Somerset Constable of England. The man who lost France was now to try and keep England. Sensing weakness, York returned from Ireland in September. It was time to settle his debts.

The Dukes of York and Somerset argue in front of the weak Henry VI.

The return of the Duke

He sent a series of open letters to the King expressing his loyalty, but stating he wished to punish traitors – namely Somerset and John Kemp, the Archbishop of York. In reply Henry sent instructions to arrest York, but he instead arrived in London with an armed force of four thousand men on 29 September.

He forced his way into King Henry’s presence, demanding reform and the ridding of certain advisers. Henry agreed to a compromise – there would be changes but they would be agreed by a new council which would include York. But York still did not have wide support among English nobles, and the King despised him for his vendetta against Somerset.

He was essentially exiled from the court, but by in 1452 York launched another bid for power. It seems possible that he wanted to establish himself as the heir to the childless Henry, and rid himself of Somerset, his cousin, and rival claimant. He determined to bring Somerset to trial by using force if necessary and marched to Dartford. Henry responded by moving a larger host to Blackheath.

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Outfoxed

England teetered on the edge of war. It was avoided, or postponed, by York’s loss of nerve. He feared defeat against the king’s powerful forces and suggested a rapprochement with the king as long as Somerset was arrested. The king agreed.

York rode to Blackheath, but found the hated Somerset was in the King’s tent. It was a trick, and York was now essentially a prisoner.

He was taken to Saint Paul’s Cathedral where he had to swear a solemn oath than he would not raise an armed force against the King. Civil War had been avoided. For now.

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