Henry VI: the foundation for the Wars of the Roses
"Woe to thee, O land, when they king is a child!" These words from Ecclesiastes 10:16 are especially apt in describing the reign of Henry VI. From his fifteen year minority to the inept rule of the rest of his reign, Henry VI was indeed a "child", at least as far as governing ability went. The period of his minority and the time that he was the titular king were key to causing the Wars of the Roses. Had Henry been a vigorous, intelligent king, able to discern politically and gain the respect of his nobles, the Wars of the Roses would have been avoided. But his weakness in allowing government by favorites and governing foolishly on his own, if not ensured, at the very least directed his country down the bloody road of civil war.
Henry VI was born on December 6, 1421, and became king of England on September 1, 1422. Problems began almost immediately, though these problems were not seen as such at the time. First, the power of the monarch, instead of being entrusted to one man, was given to a council of magnates. Though it is likely that Henry V included a clause in his will appointing his brother, the Duke of Gloucester, regent, nobles whose powers had been curtailed by Henry V seized the opportunity to regain their lost power. They claimed the precedent of Richard II's minority (Storey, 30) to support their actions. Though the council did rule fairly on the whole, it created a problem. Later in Henry VI's reign, factions ruled the government and the monarch suffered from a lack of cohesive central authority. Nobles who had taken power were reluctant to give it back, causing a spreading out of the king's pwer. Henry's powers as monarch were not kept whole and in trust for him (Storey, 30) so that even had he been a strong king, it would have been difficult for him to control the situations that were to occur. One immediate effect of the council system was to keep the court split between Glucester and Beaufort factions. The council also, though it did usually rule fairly, had a bit of solidarity. Since it was made up of nobles, they tried to protect each others' interests, something not always for the public good.
Even after he had come of age, Henry suffered from a lack of popular support, something that invariably helps the "other side" in a civil war. He was considered a fool by the general populace, which weakened his authority. During his reign, there were many charges of seditious libel to come before the courts (Storey, 34) and they usually dealt with someone slandering the king. Common people and yeomen were calling the king a "lunatic", a child, and a fool (Storey, 35). For instance, one Sussex yeoman called the king a "natural fool" and said that "the king was no person able to rule the land" (Storey, 35). Evidently, if even the common people were slandering the king, they must have had some basis for it. The king did nothing to prove the people wrong, rarely going on progresses to smooth out his image. He stayed in the Home Counties for much of his reign, and even that did not improve his image with the people.
Among the upper classes, he proved over and over again that he was not a good king. He rarely, if ever, participated in Parliament, and often did not attend sittings of the king's council. When the council sat at Westminster, Henry usually managed to be somewhere else (Storey, 35). These actions give a picture of a king who, though solicited for his opinions, did not want to get involved in the intricacies of administration. Indeed, he is reported to have said to his confessor (when there was a knock at his chamber door), "They do so interrupt" (Storey, 36). The king did not take his position all that seriously and usually left the governing for someone else to do.
When Henry did get involved in government, it generally was to no good effect. In 1445, against the wishes of his council and without their knowlege, Henry wrote to Charles VII of France and promised to surrender Maine and Anjou (Gillingham, 57). This was a supremely foolish move, for at the time the English position in France was quite strong. It seems that Henry imagined the cession of the provinces would gain Charles' goodwill, and the two countries would make peace. Instead, Charles saw it as an act of weakness and began mobilizing for war. He invaded Normandy (Gillingham 61), and by 1450 all of Normandy had been lost to the French. This happened as a direct result of Henry's incompetence. Many nobles were outraged at the loss and grew embittered towards the king. Henry VI seemed a horrible successor to Henry V, who had been victorious against the hated French. His incompetence was obvious and fueled feelings of dissension in the kingdom. Henry also involved himself in another aspect of kingship: pardons. People would petition the king directly for pardons, saying that they had been unjustly accused. The king would usually grant these pardons. General pardons were also issued: one could receive these pardons for a fee. By pardoning all those people, the weakness of the king and his government was illuminated (Storey, 216). The lack of justice was disgusting, as murderers, rapists, and thieves were allowed their freedom. But the underlying problem, that of a lack of any way actually to punish these people, was the factor that led to the civil war. Nobles, like Richard of York, saw that the king's government was weak and that something needed to take its place. Hence the Duke of York's attempt at sezing power.
The weakness of the government was also caused by the strength of factions operating in the king's council. Henry was easily affected by those closest to him, and factions grew very strong. One notable faction consisted of: John de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk; William Ascough, Bishop of Salisbury; and Adam Moleyns, Bishop of Chichester. These men were known to have so much power over the king that it was usually they, and not the king, who were blamed when anything went wrong (Storey, 40). As usual, a group of favorites monopolized the king's power and finances, sometimes iterrelatedly. For example, the Duke of Suffolk was able to control the coutrts in his terriroties of Norfolk and Suffolk. Then he would take land and property from the inhabitants. When they appealed for justice, however shoddy, of the king's courts, they could get none because Suffolk controlled the justice system (Storey, 54). So the king's weakness in allowing favorites too much power contributed to the breakdown of his government.
Suffolk also used money from crown revenues to line his own pockets, As would later be seen in the Civil War against Charles I, when the crown lacked money and lands it also lacked power. This lack of power proved fatal to Charles I, and had been fatal to his predecessor as well. Without money and landed power, the king could not effectively fight those allied against him. Though the rents from the king's lands were paying £40,000 annually, the king's household was only getting about £5,000 per year (Smith, 52). The reason? Favorites, like Suffolk, would take a bit for themselves, leaving the king on the brink of insolvency. Suffolk used wardships as one way of increasing his income (Storey, 50). The wardship of Margaret Beaufort alson wa worth £1,000 per year (Storey, 50). As is obvious, these were highly lucrative items, and could have been used to supplement the king's dwindling income. Instead, they fell into the hands of corrupt favorites. The skimming of courtiers not only hurt the power base of Henry VI, it also earned him the enmity of many in the nobility, including Richard of York. He had loaned the government money in 1446 which had not been paid back even by 1450.
The king's household and the king himself were also to blame for the lack of proper finance. With an income of £5,000, the king should have been cutting back. But his household's annual expenses were in the neighborhood of £24,000 per year. The result was a debt that, by 1450, was about £372,000 (Smith, 52). Henry's extreme generosity didn't help his financial state either. He paid no attention to the cost of the patronage he doled out, and granted remissions of debt wardships, pensions, offices and estates with no thought of how much he was depleting his revenues, as well as his power. Once he even granted the stewardship of the duchy of Cornwall to Thomas Courtenay, Earl of Devon, when it was already held by William Bonville (Storey, 87).
That grant was not only an example of his financial irresponsibility but of another of his problems as well. His government was too weak to operate as a government in the middle ages should: namely, it didn't stop quarrels between the rival families in the country. Henry not only didn't stop the feud between the Courtenay and Bonville families, he exacerbated it by giving the land held by one family to the other (Storey, 87) Though "bastard feudalism" - a situation where maintenance and livery got out of hand - is often cited as cause of the Wars of the Roses, the plain fact is that it existed before and after the Lancaster/York sturggle. The key factor is the strength of the king. Under kings like Henry II and Henry V, nobles had been kept in check. This was not so under Henry VI. During his reign there were a record number of charges against nobles for "illegal maintenance" (Storey, 26). Fighting between the Bonville and Courtenay families went so far that Thomas Courtenay once laid siege to Tournay. He intended to capture and kill William Bonville, who was inside (Storey, 89) Needless to say, the king's government could do nothing about this, and it was the Duke of York who finally put a stop to the siege (Storey, 91). This not only revealed the weakness of the central government, it gave discontents a strong man to rally around as an option to Henry VI.
The Bonville-Courtenay struggle was not the only one. The Percy-Neville feud was going strong as well. This feud had an even greater effect on the Wars of the Roses. In 1453, a group of a thousand Percy supporters ambushed the wedding party of Thomas Neville (Gillingham, 76). As a result of this, groups of Percy and Neville men roamed about the countryside, ravaging towns in each other's territory. The central government needed to put an end to the fighting, but it did virtually nothing. The only thing that was done was to send out letters, telling the families to stop fighting. Perhaps the king cannot be personally blamed for this; at the time he had gone completely insane and suffered from paralysis (Gillingham, 79). But the Duke of Somerset, chief favorite after the fall of Suffolk, had done nothing about the fighting either. He had also recently acquired, with the consent of the king, some estates previously held by the Nevilles. This had been the final insult for the Neville family, and the Neville had thrown their power in with York (Gillingham, 79). This insult to the Neville family was a fatal mistake for the Lancastrians. The alliance then formed was to prove most important to the York cause in the Wars of the Roses. In fact, Richard Neville, Eark if Warwick, was to be called "the Kingmaker".
Somerset's abuses of Warwick and York also led to the first battle of St. Albans, traditionally the first battle of the Wars of the Roses. When Henry VI had been insane, York had been appointed protector (Gillingham, 81), But when he regined what passed for his sanity, York was kicked out and Somerset took power again (Gillingham, 84). Somerset made up for lost time by quietly forcing the resignations of York's appointments to office, and was "plotting [the] destruction" (Gillingham, 84) of Warwick and York. This led the two powers to raise armies and fight the battle of St. Alkbans.
Even without the Earl of Warwick, Richard of York wa a formidable power. He was a classic example of the "overmighty" subject. With estates in Ulster, Wales, the Marches, Yorkshire, the Midlands, and the Home Counties, he had an income of £7,000 per year at a time when the king's income was £8,000 at best (Gillingham, 65). The king had made a big mistake in allowing York to be so powerful, but he did something else wrong. He allowed the council and his wife to alienate one of the most powerful in the realm. Though Richard had been granted, in 1440, the post of lieutenant-general and governor of France and NOrmandy for five years, John Beaufort was given the title of lieutenant and captain general of France and Gascony for seven years in 1443 (Gillingham, 66). Richard was not only upstaged by Beaufort, he was also denied money for his troops for the rest of his term. When his term ended, he was given the lieutenancy of Ireland, traditinally a way to get one's political rivals out of the way (Gillingham, 66). And, as previously stated, his loans to the government of £26,000 were not paid back in full. Actually, he was given "bad tallies" as payback for the loan - £21,000 worth of them. Tallies were rights to some form of revenue given to a person in payment of a debt. To be given bad tallies was to be given the rights to a source of revenue that had already been given away, and hence did not exist anymore (Gillingham, 67). These abuses made York an enemy of the king and a rallying point for people out of favor at court. With that support, York was later able to raise his army and begin the Wars of the Roses.
Through personal incompetence and rule by factions Henry VI laid the foundations for the Wars of the Roses. Had he been a strong king, one able to rule his nobles, fighting in the countryside would not have ended with families siding for and against the king. Had Henry understood politics, he would not have agreed to ceding Anjou and Maine. If he had known how to govern, he would not have revealed the weakness of his government by handing out pardons to every hard-luck story he heard. In short, had Henry VI even an inkling of how to rule, the Wars of the Roses would not have happened.
Gillingham, John The Wars of the Roses, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1981.
This essay earned a grade A.
It has many strengths: the student argued for a clear thesis, and supported all the contentions with precise facts and dates. There was a lot of information about Henry VI and his reign, and its relevance to the main question was never in doubt. Exact citations in the text showed from which books particular facts had been taken. The essay was clearly written in simple, direct English; and well-presented without spelling errors or grammatical slips. The prose was lively and the occasional anecdote (such as Henry's revelaing comment to his confessor) helped give interest to the text.
If the essay had a fault, it was that rival explanations were never considered (even if only to be dismissed). Some historians have argued that the Wars of the Roses had longer term causes than merely the personal defects of Henry VI and it would have been worth analyzing and considering these.
Nevertheless, this was a solid effort, and well worth an A grade.