(1) Introduction: King Henry VI (1422-1461 and 1470-1471)
On 6th November 1429 in Westminster Abbey, Henry of Windsor (son and heir of King Henry V) was crowned King Henry VI of England. This royal investiture in London was only the first half of a ‘double coronation’. Two years later, on 2nd December 1431, in Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, Henry was also crowned King of France. Henry was then only four days short of his tenth birthday. About fourteen years after his French Coronation, on 23rd April 1445, Henry aspired to another Gallic royal triumph when he married Margaret of Anjou. Yet all this youthful promise was to come to nought:-
- Within thirty years of his Paris coronation, in 1461, Henry VI had lost both his English and French Crowns. The Yorkist Edward Earl of March was crowned King Edward IV of England on 4th March 1461. Almost exactly four months later, on 3rd July 1461, Prince Louis of Valois was crowned King Louis XI of France.
- Even worse was to follow. Within ten years of his English deposition, on 21st/22nd May 1471, King Henry VI was sadly done to death in the Tower of London: almost certainly on the orders of King Edward IV. Henry was then about 50 years old.
So how is King Henry VI remembered today?
- Is it that he is the youngest person ever to have succeeded to the English Crown? (Henry succeeded to the English Crown on 31st August 1422, when he was just nine months old.)
- Is it that King Henry VI is the only King of England to be recognised as King of both England and France? (31st August 1422)
- Is it that King Henry VI founded both Eton College (in 1440) and King’s College, Cambridge (in 1441)?
For me, King Henry VI’s chief claim to fame is that, as Head of the Lancastrian Monarchy in England, he presided over one of the worst governments to rule in medieval England. Furthermore, so ineffective was King Henry VI, that he helped to cause the murderous conflict that was to engulf England in the mid-fifteenth century: The Wars of the Roses!
(2) Economic Recession 1440-1480
(i) Compared with the economic boom that occurred in 12th century England, the economic situation was very bleak in the mid-fifteenth century. Historians now refer to the mid-fifteenth century as ‘The Great Slump’. This economic downturn was especially severe for certain sections of English society:-
a) The Magnates (Great Nobility), who saw their rental income fall.
b) Woollen cloth manufacturers, who experienced a decline in woollen cloth exports.
c) Workers involved in manufacture, who were increasingly under-employed (or unemployed).
As is the case with most recessions, certain sectors of society did quite well, such as agricultural labourers. John Hatcher and Mark Bailey have suggested that: “By the middle of the fifteenth century the purchasing power of a day’s labour seems to have more than doubled”.
[John Hatcher & Mark Bailey: ‘Modelling the Middle Ages’ (2001), page 48]
Yet overall, the recession was profound.
(ii) King Henry VI’s Lancastrian Government shared in this economic gloom. On 6th November 1449, a new session of Parliament met at the Dominican Friary, Ludgate, London. Immediately, the Commons petitioned Henry VI on the state of royal finances. The petition is worth quoting in full:
“The Commons assembled in this your present parliament pray you to consider; whereas your chancellor of your realm of England, your treasurer of England, and many other lords of your council, by your high command, showed and declared the state of this your realm to your said commons at your parliament l; last held at Westminster; which was, that you were in debt for £372,000, which is a great and grievous sum.”
[‘The Parliament Rolls of Medieval England 1275-1504, Volume XII’ (2012), page 107]
Worse then followed. According to the Commons Petition, royal income was only £5,000 a year, while royal expenditure was £24,000 a year. Such financial pressures on governments are not restricted to the mid-fifteenth century: they are also only too apparent in 2013! The point is, such financial problems imposed severe constraints on Henry’s Government, which in turn was a great source of instability in mid-fifteenth century England (as the Commons Petition implied). In addition, financial pressures meant that the Lancastrian Government could not properly defend Normandy against the encroaching French Forces (see my forthcoming February Blog). The question is: How far were Henry VI and his ministers responsible for the financial mess in which they found themselves in 1450?
(3) To what extent was King Henry VI’s Lancastrian Government responsible for the Government Financial Chaos in 1450?
On one level, Henry VI was simply the victim of the ‘Great Slump’. It has been estimated that English woollen cloth exports had collapsed by a third between 1440 and 1450. There had also been a decline in imports of wine in this period. This major contraction of international trade in turn meant a great reduction of crown revenue from customs duties. Royal revenue from the customs duties had been £40,000 in 1421 (towards the end of King Henry V’s reign). In contrast, King Henry VI could only count on an average annual customs revenue of £28,000 between 1446 to 1448.
However, on another level, there is no doubt that the Lancastrian Government made things worse for themselves, and Henry VI himself should shoulder a lot of the responsibility:-
- There is some evidence that Henry VI’s Government had got itself into a trade war with Burgundy (an independent Duchy in North Western Europe). This had led to Burgundy banning the import of English woollen cloth into Burgundy. Apparently, Henry’s Government had been feeble in its response to this prohibition. The Commons Petition in the Parliament that met at Westminster (February 1449) expressly complained that: “As yet no redress has been made, to the most intolerable harm of all the commons of this realm. . . many cloth makers, that is to say male weavers, fullers and dyers. And female combers, carders and spinners.” [‘The Parliament Rolls of Medieval England 1275-1504, Volume XII’ (2012), page 60].
- King Henry VI was excessively generous in making grants to supporters and for ‘good causes’. Right at the beginning of his rule, in 1438, one of Henry’s council clerks (in modern language, a top civil servant) had complained that Henry had pardoned a collector of customs, thereby losing the Crown £1,300. Exactly ten years later, in 1448, Henry VI expressly willed the huge yearly sum of £1,000 to go towards the building costs of King’s College, Cambridge. He even earmarked part of his own Duchy of Lancaster income to pay the £1,000. Needless to say, the money soon dried up. Such was Henry’s financial profligacy, that by 1450, his Government was reduced to mortgaging its future income to meet its current debts. The proceedings of the February 1449 Parliament also record a grant of 2,500 marks (about £1,700) to the Duke of Somerset and £1,000 to the Duke of Suffolk. [‘The Parliament Rolls of Medieval England Volume XII’, page 68] Both of these payments were to be paid from taxation revenue due to Henry VI’s Government in 1450.
(4) How did Economic Pressures contribute to the Outbreak of the Wars of the Roses?
One of the greatest 19th century philosophers of History, Karl Marx, pointed out the link between economic factors and political events. There is clearly some link between economic pressure and later political conflict. For example, no student of 20th century conflict would surely deny the links (direct or indirect) between the Wall Street Crash in the USA in 1929 and the later international conflicts in Manchuria (1931) and Abyssinia (1935).
Similarly, the ‘Great Slump’ of 1440 to 1480 was the clear backdrop to the murderous conflict between the Lancastrian and Yorkist Forces in England between 1455 and 1465. (i) Pressure on their rental incomes made the Magnates more disposed to use violence to protect their living standards. For example, a Lancastrian Force of 700 soldiers, led by Lord Egremont (son of the Earl of Northumberland) attacked a group of Yorkists at Heworth, outside York, in August 1453. This ‘battle’ was in effect the start of the Wars of the Roses; yet the real cause of the Lancastrian aggression was the fact that one member of the Yorkist group had inherited two valuable manors (one in Yorkshire, one in Lincolnshire). Both these manors had originally belonged to the powerful Earls of Northumberland. This powerful Lancastrian family evidently wanted to regain these manors, probably to compensate for their declining rental income. (See my forthcoming April Blog for details).
(ii) The total Lancastrian mismanagement of the national finances was itself politically de-stabilising. It caused uncertainty and concern amongst the general population. Such concern could easily erupt into popular unrest, as actually happened in the summer of 1450 with the major civil strife in London known as Cade’s Rebellion. One of the complaints of the rioters in Cade’s Rebellion was that: “The King himself is so beset that he may not pay for his meat and drink, and he owes more than ever any King of England ought.” [‘English Historical Documents, Volume IV’, edited by A.R. Myers, page 267]
Nor could public opinion in 1450 fail to notice that the magnates who financially benefitted at a time of national stringency were the Dukes of Somerset and Suffolk. Both these Magnates were very close to King Henry. Both these Lancastrian magnates were generally unpopular in 1450. The Duke of Suffolk was especially hated. According to the rioters in Cade’s Rebellion, he was: “the false traitor the Duke of Suffolk.” [English Historical Documents. Page 267]. Suffolk was effectively lynched by the mob in 1450. That left the Duke of Somerset to fly the Lancastrian Flag. Perhaps it was no accident that it was personal dislike of Somerset that fuelled the Duke of York’s opposition to the Lancastrian Government which was to be one of the bases of the Wars of the Roses a few years later.
In his play King Henry VI, Part II (Act V, Scene I), Shakespeare has Richard Duke of York address Henry in the following way:-
“King did I call thee? No, thou art not a king,
Nor fit to govern and rule multitudes.”
Is York’s mocking speech justified? Read the next exciting episode (February 2013) of my new ‘Wars of the Roses’ Blog, entitled: “Henry’s Howlers (2), ’Nonsense in Normandy and Mayhem in Maine.’
King Henry VI is one of four medieval kings of England who were murdered after losing their throne. Who were the other three?