The Strange Death of Lancastrian England
When Henry IV had his final succession statute passed through Parliament he made no provision for the throne beyond his children and their offspring. Neither the Beauforts, the Yorks, or even the Hollands got so much as a line. This was quite understandable, given that he had four sons and two daughters. No one could have been expected to anticipate that those six young people would produce but two legitimate heirs between them. Of these, Blanche’s son, Rupert of Germany, died in 1426. The other was the future Henry VI, who would turn out to be (arguably) the least capable person ever to rule this country.
That Henry IV had doubts about the Beauforts (especially the eldest, who was certainly conceived in Sir Hugh Swynford’s lifetime) seems to be clear from his decision to explicitly exclude them from any rights to the succession in his exemplification of Richard II’s statute of legitimisation. But – at the time – any prospect of the Beauforts getting a sniff of the crown was remote in the extreme, and Henry’s exclusion of their claim was almost an irrelevance.
Once Henry V had dealt with the Cambridge Plot and gone on to win the Battle of Agincourt, the prospects for the Lancastrian dynasty looked rosy indeed. A few years on, with the Duke of Burgundy murdered by supporters of the Dauphin, Henry found a powerful ally in the new Burgundy (Philip the Good), and soon afterwards concluded the Treaty of Troyes with Charles VI, by which he (Henry) was declared Heir and Regent of France, and married to Charles’s daughter, Katherine of Valois. The Dauphin (future Charles VII) was disinherited.
This might be seen as the high-water point of the entire Lancastrian dynasty. What could possibly go wrong? Well, for a start, there was an awful lot of France still to conquer, and the people living there had not simply laid down their arms and accepted Henry on hearing of the Treaty. Meanwhile, Parliament, back in England, was already growing reluctant to pay for the necessary war. As they saw it, Henry had won his (not England’s) realm of France – great! Now it was now up to that realm, not England, to pay the cost of putting down the ‘rebels’ who so inconveniently still occupied the greater part of it. This probably seemed quite reasonable to the Honourable Members, with their typically English dislike of paying tax. However, assuming that the war was to be won, it was a completely unrealistic attitude to take.
Henry’s next brother in age, Thomas, Duke of Clarence was killed at the Battle of Bauge (21 March 1421). Clarence made the mistake of advancing on the enemy without his supporting archers, and the result was a costly defeat, both in terms of men killed and captured and in the boost the victory gave to French (or technically Armagnac) morale. Among those captured was the head of the Beaufort family, John, Earl of Somerset. He was to remain a captive until 1438, though it must be said he was not much missed.
So matters stood when King Henry died on 31 August, 1422, at the relatively young age of 35. Ironically, he never wore the crown of France as his father-in-law, the hapless Charles VI, contrived to outlive him.
Some authors have suggested that if Henry had lived, things might have turned out differently. I doubt it, because it wouldn’t have made the English Parliament any more generous, and that was the key factor. As Regent of France Henry was succeeded by his brother, John, Duke of Bedford, one of the most able rulers to emerge in the entire middle ages. Bedford was an efficient soldier, politician and administrator. He proved the former by commanding at the Battle of Verneuil (17 August 1424) which was in some respects a more crushing victory than Agincourt. His skill as politician and administrator prolonged the life of the English Kingdom of France, and it’s unlikely that anyone (even Henry V) could have done much better.
Bedford’s task was not made easier by his only surviving (and younger) brother, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. Gloucester was to prove something of a loose cannon throughout his remaining career. He was Protector of England (during Bedford’s (usual) absence from the country), but his official powers were limited, much to his frustration. When he was not arguing with his uncle, Bishop Henry Beaufort, he was ‘marrying’ Jacqueline, Countess of Hainault and Holland, and fighting against England’s ally, Philip of Burgundy, in an attempt to secure her inheritance. (I say ‘marrying’ because, inconveniently, the lady already possessed a living husband, and in due course the Pope declared her ‘marriage’ to Humphrey invalid. Not that matters were quite that simple.)
Humphrey went on to marry his former ‘wife’s’ lady-in-waiting, Eleanor Cobham. This was clearly a love match, not least because it seems Eleanor was his mistress before he married her. However, they were fated not to have children together, and Humphrey’s only offspring, Arthur and Antigone, were illegitimate.
Bedford’s own marriage, to Anne of Burgundy, was arranged for reasons of state, but nevertheless it proved a successful one at a personal level. Unfortunately, it also remained childless. This may help to explain why Bedford was so quick to marry Jacquetta of Luxembourg after Anne’s death. It is sometimes suggested that the swift remarriage angered Anne’s brother, the Duke of Burgundy, but if so it was only in the way of one more straw on the camel’s back. Philip’s attachment to the English alliance had been waning for some time. He was able to see the way the wind was blowing. Bedford’s death (14 September 1435) made matters still worse and left the English leadership in some disarray, but the Congress of Arras was already in progress at the time. Although the English were invited to take part, the terms offered to them were totally unacceptable. Burgundy, on the other hand, was accommodated and was happy to make a separate peace with Charles VII. From that moment on the English Kingdom of France was doomed (if it was not already) and the remarkable thing is not that it ultimately fell, but that it struggled on until 1453.
Objectively, the English probably ought to have accepted the Arras peace, however harsh, as it would have left them something of their conquests. However, this is to ignore the political situation in England. Hardliners such as Gloucester essentially regarded the acceptance of anything short of the terms of the Treaty of Troyes as bordering on treason. This was a totally unrealistic view to hold, in view of the improvement of the French position in both political and military terms, but questions of personal and national honour were in play, and common sense was banished from the equation.
Henry VI began his personal rule at the age of 16 in 1437. While the depth of his incompetence was not yet apparent, even the most able of rulers would have faced a daunting task. The kingdom was next door to bankruptcy and quite unable adequately to finance the cost of fighting the ongoing war in France. The reinforcements sent abroad gradually grew smaller in number, and it was increasingly difficult to find commanders of a suitable rank who were willing to participate. While the war had, in the past, been profitable for some private individuals – if not for the nation – anyone with any sense could calculate that the opportunities for profit were shrinking by the day, while on the other hand there was a much increased prospect of being captured and having to pay ransom oneself. In other words, the war was an increasingly bad investment.
As for the Lancastrian dynasty, it now comprised, as far as males were concerned, Henry VI and his Uncle Humphrey. It scarcely helped that these two were completely at odds as to how to settle the war, the King being for peace at almost any price, while Gloucester was of the ‘one last heave’ school, and believed that a suitably large English army (preferably led by himself) would smash the French in another Agincourt and enable the English to impose their own terms. (It was actually an academic argument, as Parliament was not willing to finance the cost of such an expedition, and it’s questionable whether enough men could have been put together even had the taxes been forthcoming.)
The Duchess of Gloucester’s ill-advised attempts to find via astrology and/or magic whether she was to bear a child, and for how long Henry VI would live were a perfect gift to Gloucester’s political opponents. Her fall from grace (which involved not only penitential parades through London but life imprisonment for the unfortunate woman) had consequences for her husband, whose remaining political influence was virtually destroyed overnight. Since they were forcibly divorced, Gloucester could, in theory, have married again but in practice he did not. So when he died on 23 February 1447, the sole remaining legitimate male member of the Lancastrian family was Henry VI himself. (Unless you count the Beauforts, and as far as legitimate accession to the throne or the Duchy of Lancaster is concerned, you really shouldn’t.)
By this time, Henry had secured a sort of peace (no more than a short truce bought at the cost of great concessions) and as part of the bargain had married Margaret of Anjou. Though in due course this union produced a son, Edward, it would appear that the deeply-religious King found married life something of a chore. There is no real reason to assume that Prince Edward was not fathered by Henry, but there were rumours around that he was not. Rumours were of course a commonplace of medieval England. (They were often slanderous, and are only taken seriously by historians when they are negative and concern Richard III.)
The Lancastrian dynasty, which within living memory had seem rock solid and beyond challenge, was now on its last legs. The loss of Lancastrian France was inevitable, given the crown’s lack of resources. However, there were many in England all too ready to blame the disaster on the shortcomings of the King and his advisers. Henry’s limited political skills, his tendency to put complete trust in certain favoured counsellors to the exclusion of his powerful cousin, York, and the rising influence of Queen Margaret all added to a toxic political mixture. Of course, in addition to all this, the King was increasingly troubled by mental health problems that at times left him catatonic for months on end. These attacks gave York a couple of opportunities to rule as Protector, but the usual way of things was that as soon as the King recovered he went back to his reliance on Queen Margaret and whichever Somerset was currently alive.
Despite his dismal record as a ruler, very few people seem to have disliked Henry VI personally, and that is one reason why he survived in power as long as he did. Indeed, it might be argued that even York and his allies did all they could to keep Henry on his throne. It was only after the Battle of Wakefield and the death of York himself that the Yorkist faction decided they had no choice but make a clean sweep.