Henry VI was born to be king. Nine months after his birth, Henry’s father, the Lancastrian King Henry V, had passed away from illness fighting in France on August 31, 1422. The infant Prince Henry succeeded him but was not officially crowned king until 1429. Expectations were high for the young king. Before his death, Henry V was on the cusp of a complete and total victory over France. This would have made the country subject to England. It was believed that despite Henry V’s passing, this victory could still be achieved and that his son would eventually be the ruler of both countries.
Since England was at war with France, another warrior king like Henry V was needed. A strong king had to unite the English and motivate them to continue fighting. However, Henry VI was the polar opposite of his father. Instead of being a warrior, he was more of a monk.
As an adult, Henry displayed the traits of piety, timidity, and shyness. He prioritized religious activities over actively ruling his government and delegated his political responsibilities to others. Because of his disinterest in ruling, Henry’s government became increasingly corrupt. He found himself dominated by stronger willed individuals who sought to empower themselves.
One such strong-willed individual was Henry VI’s wife, Margaret of Anjou. Married on April 23, 1445, the couple wasn’t a good match. Like her father-in-law, Margaret was the exact opposite of her husband. She was described as prideful, forceful, and power-hungry. Due to her nature, Margaret easily controlled her weak-willed husband, and he followed her commands.
By 1447, the York faction of the English royal family began to come into conflict with the ruling Lancastrians. The Yorkists weren’t happy with the inept leadership of the Lancastrians and how the Hundred Years’ War was turning against the English in France. Under the command of the competent Richard, Duke of York, the Yorkists sought to purge the Lancastrians of their corrupt members and bring stable leadership back to the country.
Despite Richard’s good intentions, Margaret neither liked nor trusted him. She felt threatened by his popularity amongst the English. Since Margaret and Henry VI were childless, Richard was viewed by many as Henry’s heir apparent. Because of this, Richard was sent to Ireland to reduce his influence at court. He’d eventually return and continue to be a threat to Margaret.
1453 wasn’t a good year for Henry VI. In France, the English had lost almost all their territory, except for a port city called Calais. Partially due to the realization that England had lost the war, Henry had a mental breakdown. Even the birth of his firstborn child and heir, Prince Edward, did nothing to rouse him from his mental stupor. It is speculated that Henry had inherited his madness from his grandfather, Charles VI of France, but to a lesser extent.
Beginning of a Civil War
When Henry VI regained his senses in early 1454, Margaret and Richard were once again at each other’s throats. Henry still had not gained a backbone. He followed his wife’s command of once again dismissing Richard from court. Fearing the vengeful Margaret’s wrath, Richard took action.
Richard raised a Yorkist army and fought against the Lancastrians at the Battle of St. Albans, beginning a civil war known as the War of the Roses. (The Lancaster branch having a red rose, while the York branch having a white one). St. Albans proved to be a Yorkist victory, and Henry was forced to accept Richard back into his court as his chief advisor. The docile Henry finally realized the severity of the growing conflict and attempted reconciliation between both parties, but it failed miserably.
Yorkists Gain the Upper Hand
By July 1460, the Lancastrians had lost another battle at Northampton to the Yorkists. Richard demanded that Henry make him his heir over his son. Being the weak man that he was, Henry readily agreed. However, Margaret didn’t. The fiery Margaret’s army met Richard’s forces at the Battle of Wakefield on December 30. This time, the Lancastrians won, and the despised Richard was slain.
Despite the main threat to Henry VI’s throne being killed, Richard’s son, Edward of York, still posed a threat. Henry and his government were so unpopular that Edward was declared King Edward IV in London to great acclaim. Henry appeared to be disinterested in the civil war, although Margaret continued to fight on for their son’s sake. The Lancastrians again lost at the Battle of Towton, forcing Henry to flee to Scotland. In 1465, Henry was betrayed and was taken prisoner by the Yorkists. All seemed bleak for the usurped king, but an unexpected opportunity would soon reveal itself.
As Edward IV began his reign, he made some choices that would alienate his most stalwart supporter: Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick. The breaking point between the two men was the humiliation Warwick suffered abroad when trying to arrange a marriage for Edward to a foreign princess. Instead, Edward gave in to his lust and secretly married a low-ranking English woman. Warwick reached out to Margaret and arranged a deal. Warwick would defect to the Lancastrians if he could rule as regent under the restored Henry VI. Henry could continue his religious observances without governing, while Warwick would rule. Margaret reluctantly agreed.
Henry VI was restored to his kingship by the Lancastrians on October 31, 1470, but the alliance with Warwick was short-lived. On April 14, 1472, Warwick was killed in battle by Yorkist forces. Desperate, Margaret led what remained of the Lancastrian army into a final battle against the Yorkists on May 4, 1471. The Battle of Tewkesbury was a devastating loss for the Lancastrians. Henry and Margaret’s son Edward was killed, Margaret’s strong will was crushed, and the hapless Henry would be killed after the battle.
Henry VI’s death was as pitiful as his life. He spent most of it being dominated by others and was content to let others rule for him. Henry’s preference for religion over politics proved to be his downfall. His ineffective reign saw the loss of all the French territory that his father had won, the beginning of an English civil war, the destruction of the Lancastrians, and the loss of his kingship to another member of his family. Henry was ill-suited to reign during such a chaotic period in English history, and he paid the ultimate price for it. The sad irony is that if he hadn’t been born to be a king, then Henry would have made an exemplary monk.
Cawthorne, N. (2012). Kings & Queens of England: From the Saxon Kings to the House of Windsor (2010 ed.). London: Arcturus.
Cheetham, A., & Fraser, A. (2000). The Wars of the Roses. London: Cassell.
Denton, C. S. (2006). Absolute power: The Real Lives of Europe’s Most Infamous Rulers (2006 ed.). London: Arcturus.