Henry IV of England: The Usurper King

Henry IV of England
April 15, 1367 – March 20, 1413

Henry IV’s seizure of his cousin’s crown would create a new ruling precedent. Henry was born on April 15, 1367, at Bolingbroke Castle in Lincolnshire, England. Due to the customs of the time, Henry became known as Henry Bolingbroke as a reference to his birthplace. Henry’s father, John of Gaunt, was the third surviving son of King Edward III. He would become the powerful Duke of Lancaster after marrying his wife. After Edward III’s death, John would guide his nephew, Richard II, as the king was still a child.

Entering Politics

Richard II of England
Richard II of England

In 1377, Henry was granted his first title of the Earl of Derby by Richard II. He remained relatively out of politics until his father left for Spain nine years later. Shortly after John had left England, Richard began to clash with his government. Surrounded by his favorite advisors, the king demanded a substantial tax increase to fund a war with France. In return, Parliament wanted Richard to dismiss his entourage. Richard adamantly refused.

The Lord’s Appellant

Since Richard II was uncooperative, Parliament retaliated by impeaching his chancellor. Besides alienating his government, Richard had also upset his nobles. Frustrated with their king, Henry and his friend, Thomas Mowbray, formed a group called the Lords Appellant in 1388. The group’s purpose was to end the bad influence of Richard’s advisors and make him submit to their demands.

After a brief battle between the king’s forces and the Appellant’s army, the Appellants emerged victoriously. Humiliated, Richard II was forced to obey their demands. The king made a truce with France and lowered taxes, while the Appellants purged Richard’s court. Some of Richard’s advisors were dismissed, while others were killed. By May 3, 1389, Richard was once again in control of his government. He made an oath to govern better, and the Appellants believed that Richard had finally matured.

Richard’s Revenge

Over the next five years, Richard II abided by his promise. He was ruling more moderately. Despite this period of peace, Richard still harbored resentment towards the Appellants. He began emphasizing his royal authority while building up his support base. By 1397, Richard felt confident enough to strike against his oppressors.

In July 1397, Richard II had three of the five Appellants arrested. Two were executed, while the third was banished. He justified his actions by stating that their previous rebellion against him had forced him to act. Richard claimed that he only desired to stamp out the hostile elements in his kingdom and achieve a lasting peace. Meanwhile, Richard consolidated his power by gaining a lifetime revenue and delegating Parliament’s power to a committee.

In January 1398, the last two Appellants, Henry and Thomas Mowbray, had a falling out. Thomas warned Henry of a plot to destroy Henry’s inheritance by one of Richard II’s favorites. In return, Henry reported this conversation to the king. Seeing an opportunity to get rid of both men, Richard ordered a trial by combat. Before the trial could commence, Richard abruptly halted it. Instead, Henry was exiled for ten years, and Thomas was banished for life.

Henry’s Revolt

In February 1399, Henry’s father died. By birth rite, John’s dukedom should’ve been bestowed upon Henry. However, Richard II decided to claim it as his own. With a new influx of wealth, the king and his forces departed for Ireland. When Henry learned what Richard had done, he angrily decided to reclaim his stolen inheritance.

Henry initially landed in Yorkshire and began marching across England. As he progressed, Henry steadily gained more support as nobles rallied to his cause. Richard slowly made his way back to England but had very little support. Surrendering without a fight, the king was imprisoned. Henry had gained so much support that he decided to not only claim his dukedom but the crown of England too. By late September 1399, Richard reluctantly abdicated his throne and, Henry was crowned King Henry IV.

Henry IV's Coronation
Henry IV’s Coronation

Early Reign

Upon Henry IV’s ascension to the throne, the direct line of father to eldest son Plantagenet rulers ended. Instead, a cadet branch of the family, known as the house of Lancaster, took hold. As the first Lancastrian king, Henry had to justify his overthrow of Richard II. As a descendant of King Henry III, Henry argued that he was therefore a valid ruler. His reasoning wouldn’t gain universal approval though. As a result, Henry faced many rebellions during the first five years of his kingship.

Rebellions

One of the more formidable opponents to Henry IV’s rule was a Welshman named Owain Glyn Dwr. In September 1400, Owain started a rebellion. Numerous attempts were made to invade Wales, but the results were lackluster. Henry’s son, Prince Henry, would later find success in regaining control. Owain also focused on causing domestic problems for Henry in England. To this end, the Welshman allied himself with the powerful Earl of Northumberland, Henry Percy.

Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland
Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland

Henry Percy was a former lieutenant of Henry IV’s who had become disillusioned. Percy’s rebellion was a serious threat to the monarchy. However, it ended quickly with Percy’s death in July 1403 after a fierce battle. Despite Percy’s demise, Owain was still able to harass Henry by allying with the French. Scotland also attacked along England’s northern border with intermittent raids. The rebellions caused Henry to continually request money from Parliament, which led them to accuse him of financial mismanagement.

Declining Health

By 1408, Henry IV had secured his control over England and Wales. Henry Percy was dead, the Scottish King James I had been captured, and the Welsh uprising had burned out. At long last, Henry was finally able to rule uninterrupted. However, this peace had come at a high cost.

Years of fighting had taken their toll on Henry IV’s health. He had become sick and developed an illness that ravaged his skin. As his health worsen, the king learned that his son, Prince Henry, was in a power struggle with his chancellor. Both father and son already had a tense relationship. It got worse as the king’s health declined, and the prince assumed more political power. By the early 1410s, it was rumored that Prince Henry wanted to overthrow his sickly father, but this never occurred.

Conclusion

On March 20, 1413, the ailing King Henry IV died. As Henry lay dying, the old king made peace with his son and gave him his blessing. The throne that Henry had seized with relative ease had brought him nothing but trouble. He had taken the throne as a young, energetic man and had died a disfigured, worn-out one 13 years later. It seemed as if God punished Henry for his usurpation of Richard II’s rightful crown.

Despite the misfortune that the kingship had brought him, Henry IV had successfully established the Lancastrian cadet branch. At the expense of his health, Henry overcame every rebellion that he faced. He securely passed on his throne to Prince Henry, who would rule a more peaceful England as Henry V. The Lancastrians would continue to reign until Henry VI‘s death in 1471.

Sources

Cawthorne, N. (2012). Kings & Queens of England: From the Saxon Kings to the House of Windsor. London: Arcturus.

Cheetham, A. (2000). The Wars of the Roses. London: Cassell.

Henry IV. (2019, October 25). Retrieved October 22, 2019, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Henry-IV-king-of-England.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Andy Tree

I'm a European history enthusiast who seeks to share his passion with others. I hope to inform and inspire readers with my posts!

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