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Henry VI: saint or sinner?

A gentle and devotional life

About seventy years ago, the historian John Harvey wrote this in an essay about King Henry VI: “The life and death, and the thwarting of his noble designs are one (sic) of the sorriest tragedies of English history. He was a victim of forces outside his control, for whose existence he was not responsible, but set in motion by his grandfather’s crime and his father’s one-sided ambition. Inheriting the love of justice of his Plantagenet forefathers and the a artistic culture and melancholia of Charles VI of France, his character was in sharp contrast with that of his age, possessed in marked degree by his wife. In his charity, his love of art and his spirit he was a true Plantagenet, though a paradoxical one…. He saw the world as a place of brief sojourn in which to do good, to learn courtesy and to seek God. There was nothing political in his martyrdom; except as the shadow of a name, and the crowned and anointed husband of Margaret, he represented no threat to anybody in the world. Yet the callous and sacrilegious hand that struck him down, though it ended a gentle and devotional life on earth, ensured that Henry’s virtues and lasting benefits should be perpetually bought to the mind of oblivious posterity” [1]

 

Harvey took this version of Henry’s life and death from a tract entitled ‘A Compilation of the Meekness and Good Life of King Henry VI’, which is attributed to John Blacman and was published in 1510.[2] The tract is in fact a collection of anecdotes of Henry’s religious devotions from the recollection of one of his chaplains and other intimates of his personal life. The aim of the collection is to present Henry as a holy saint whose ‘kingdom’ was not worldly. He performed a miracle of loaves (but not fishes) for his troops and endured hunger, thirst, mocking, abuse and other hardships in his life including wounding in his side by a dagger. He foretold his own death but was not believed. And he suffered a violent death so that others might live in peace. Blacman’s depiction of Henry as an exemplar of Christian virtue, though not of this world was also the standard Tudor view echoed by Henry VII’s historian Polydore Vergil: “ King Henry was a man of mild and plain-dealing disposition who preferred peace before war, quietness before troubles, honesty before utility and leisure before business: and to be short, there was not in this world a more honest and a more holy creature. There was in him honest shamed-facedness, modesty, innocency and perfect patience taking all human chances, miseries and all afflictions in his life in good part as though he had justly by some offence deserved the same. And he ruled his own affections that he might more easily rule his own subjects; he gapped not after riches nor thirsted for honours and worldly estimation but was careful only for his souls sake; such things as tended to the salvation thereof he only esteemed for good; and that very wisely; such again as procured loss thereof he only accounted evil.[3]

 

To set against this Tudor narrative of the martyred Henry, we have his known failings as a king. Henry is mainly remembered as the king who lost the Hundred Years War and during whose rule the Wars of the Roses started. Indeed The late Bertram Wolffe thought that Henry as such an insubstantial and unsuccessful king that writing his biography was a long and dispiriting task. I do not deny that Henry was a weak and ineffective king. That judgement was made in his lifetime and has not been seriously challenged since. However, I do think that John Harvey may have an arguable point about Henry’s culpability. Was he wholly to blame for the calamities of his reign, or was he the victim of circumstances? That is the question I wish to discuss in this article; first, by setting Henry’s reign in the context of events from his accession until his mental breakdown in 1453; second, by discussing his performance in three key policy areas: maintenance of the dual monarchy, royal finances and the rule of law.

 

Divided opinions

Until the twentieth century, studies of Henry were dominated by the story of an innocent king at the mercy of greedy and violent nobles. However, modern biographies challenge that simple narrative and in doing so have broadened our understanding of the complexities of Henry’s reign. In 1981, two contrasting studies of Henry VI appeared almost simultaneously. The first was by Bertram Wolffe; whose, unforgiving verdict of King Henry goes well beyond the accusation that he was incompetent.[4] Wolffe judges Henry by what he did as revealed in the government records, and he completely rejects the notion of the mild, martyred king. In its place he describes an actively malign king, whose piety was too ostentatious to be virtuous, and whose nature was too unforgiving and vindictive to be saintly. He was also a poor judge of character, prone to interfering, and lacking in judgement and proportionality. He disregarded his royal oath and he was wilful. In essence the inconsistencies and failures of English foreign policy were due to Henry’s capricious changes of mind and his susceptibility to improper influences. Thus Wolffe rejects the whole idea that the loss of France was due to the divided opinion of the English aristocracy.[5] He does not doubt that Henry’s failures as a king left the establishment of Eton College and of King’s College Cambridge as his sole achievements.

 

Also in 1981, Ralph Griffith’s published his evaluation of Henry’s reign. It is a nuanced and detailed assessment of Henry’s performance as monarch and his qualities as a man. Griffiths recognises the military and fiscal difficulties that dogged Henry’s rule, and the factionalism of the nobility, which would have tested even a high performing and confident king. The essence of Griffiths’ evaluation of Henry is best put in his own words: “Henry VI was in reality a well-intentioned man with aspirations that were laudable enough, in an age when king’s could not rule by good intentions alone. He had an interest in the realities of government with the aim of realising those aspirations, especially in education, relations with Valois France, and the reward of friends and servants. Other of his qualities were obstacles to effective kingship. He was extravagant, credulous, over merciful and compassionate to those at fault yet fearful suspicious of those rumoured to be doing him harm. These are not the qualities of a shrewd and balanced judge of men and politics. Henry also lacked the foresight, prudence and calculation that make a king’s actions responsible ones; he showed little sagacity, subtlety or discrimination in his administrative actions and none of the political astuteness necessary to achieve an acceptable balance among his subjects competing interests — as contemporaries recognised who stressed his simplicity. Not that he was uneducated or unintelligent but he was the least experienced of English medieval kings at his succession and never shook off his youthful dependence on others in the routine and detail of affairs…With his naively defective judgement, Henry’s advisors were too often unworthy of his confidence.[6] Griffiths’ explains this last sentence later in his book. “Those contemporaries who …[observed]...Henry VI as a boy were agreed that he grew into a personable, intelligent and even precocious youth. His years as a minor between the ages of one and fifteen were naturally of considerable importance to his education as a monarch of two realms. His relatives had already created for him an atmosphere of political bitterness, even personal hatred, and after Bedford’s death, both (Humphrey duke of) Gloucester and (Henry) Beaufort (bishop of Winchester) strove to be the single most dominant influence on him as he grew older. They would be reluctant to allow him the exercise of free will as an adult king. The end result of these intense personal pressures was to accustom Henry to dependence, to being told what to do. Even after Gloucester and Beaufort had receded into the background he found other pillars on which to lean: the earl of Suffolk. Archbishop Kemp, the duke of Somerset and finally, when he was least able to fend for himself, the Queen.”[7] In Griffiths’ view, therefore, Henry is far less culpable for the disasters of his reign than those relatives and other advisors who instead of supporting the king betrayed his trust in them.

 

John Watts’ appraisal of Henry, which first appeared in 1999, is the antithesis of Wolf’s ‘active’ king.[8] He also questions Griffiths’ negative assessment of Henry’s relatives and advisors. Watts argues simpliciter that Henry was so passive that he created difficulties for the nobility, who in their own interactions tried to compensate for a king who was chronically unable to exercise royal authority, and was especially ‘incapable of giving judgements, managing the counsel of his advisors and making policy appear his own.’ This depiction of Henry as a simpleton is not a new one. In the opinion of at least one anonymous fifteenth century commentator, Henry was simple and easily led: “In the same time the realm of England was out of all good governance as it had been before, for the king was simple and led by covetous counsel and owed more than he was worth. His debts increased daily but payment there was none. All the possessions and lordships that pertained to the crown the king had given away, some to lords and some to other simple persons so that he had almost nothing left. For these misgovernances and for many others, the hearts of the people were turned away from them that had the land in governance and their blessings were turned to curses” [9]

 

Watts contends that what others describe as “‘the king’s unfair and unwise distribution of patronage and the opportunistic behaviour of his household servants’, should be judged in the context of ‘how this [patronage] was turned into power in the localities or why the nobility who might have been expected to resist the king’s agents did nothing until the 1450’s.[10] His own explanation is that: “The England of the 1440’s was governed by a very extensive network of men, including most of the old nobility; their difficulties stemmed more from lack of co-ordination and lack of authority than from partisanship.” Central to this thinking is late twentieth century research carried out by Christine Carpenter, Anthony Pollard, Helen Castor and others into the dynamics of local politics and relationships in the fifteenth century. These several studies suggest a different and more complex regional dynamic from the factional politics of the greater nobility.[11]

 

Local cooperation between landowners, merchants, farmers, artisans and labourers, coupled with the complex inter-relationships of the gentry forged by their arranged marriages, were the bonds that held English society together. The importance of these local transactions, whether they were commercial, legal, social, successional or familial, is that often they transcended the politicking of the great nobles. In view of Henry’s inability or unwillingness to govern and on the basis that ‘something had to be done’, it is argued that rather than fleecing Henry, his closest advisors were in fact trying to maintain the everyday cohesion of national and local life from collapsing into anarchy. This is an important new hypothesis; since even though the English nobility were a turbulent and quarrelsome bunch, their relationship with the king was based on mutual cooperation and benefit.[12] In the absence of a national police force or standing army, or civil service the king relied on the nobility to enforce his law, his peace and his policies through their network of local officials and law officers. In return, the king was expected to provided the national leadership that ensured “…an outward calm for the defence and surety of the realm”.[13]

 

Professor Christine Carpenter in her own leading study of this period holds the view that Henry was so deficient in kingly qualities that whilst he might be allowed to approve some insignificant grants and pardons, though not necessarily as an act of personal rule, he was hardly likely to be allowed to formulate foreign policy for the war in France, which “…was absolutely central to the domestic politics of England…It is scarcely conceivable that they would have allowed the king to dictate policy on which their very lives depended when they seem to have been able to dictate to the king on everything else that mattered.” [14] However, she does not deny the possibility that Henry’s wishes may be seen in some of his ‘over-generous grants and pardons and in the foreign policy of the 1440’s’, which may be the result of Henry’s genuine desire for peace rather than an example of his capriciousness.

 

It seems, therefore, that though modern scholars agree that Henry was in the general sense incompetent, there is less certainty about whether he was culpable for the deficiencies of his reign. In considering that question, it is important to bear in mind that Henry VI is unique among English monarchs. He was not only born to the purple, but also surrounded with the divinity of kingship from the cradle. The untimely death of his father Henry V bought baby Henry to the throne of two kingdoms before he was a year old. He is the only English king to have presided at his first parliament sitting on his mother’s lap. Consequently, his character and his performance can only be judged in a regal context and by bearing in mind that in respect of both his kingdoms he never had the benefit of growing-up under the wing of his father from whom he might have learned the art of kingship.

 

Kingship

The English had high expectations of Henry. He was, after all, the only son of a successful warrior king. They expected him to rule in the common interest and they recognised his absolute, personal and inalienable authority to do so. There was no conflict between these principles if the king was competent. Ideally, such a king was prudent and took representative advice before acting. He made sound decisions and implemented them efficiently. Sir John Fortescue in his treatise on fifteenth century governance noted with smug pride that though in theory English kings had the powers of a tyrant, they generally ruled responsibly ‘in the common weal’.

 

Much depended on the vigour and personality of the king. He was expected to devise his own foreign and domestic policies, conduct affairs of state, make peace or declare war, lead the army against enemies foreign and domestic, dispense justice, and live off his income from crown lands and feudal dues. In theory, baby Henry was expected to do all these things from the moment he ascended the throne. In practice, of course, that was impossible. Henry could neither walk nor talk, nor control his bodily functions, nor even chew his own food much less govern his realms. This practical problem was complicated by the established constitutional doctrine, which held that the person of the king and the institution of king (the Crown) were indivisible. Royal authority, therefore, rested solely in the king’s person from the very instant of his accession. No other person could exercise royal authority on behalf of the king under any circumstances; to do so, was treason.[15] In 1422, therefore, the king’s true subjects were wondering how their baby king could rule them if he was physically and intellectually incapable of exercising his authority.

 

‘The king’s tender years’

On his deathbed, Henry V entrusted the governance of England to his youngest brother Humphrey duke of Gloucester, signifying that the duke should have the principal safekeeping and defence ’of his beloved son’ (tutela et defensionem nostril carissimi filii principales).[16] These words implied that duke Humphrey was to have the powers of a regent answerable only to the king and then only after Henry reached his majority. It was a settlement that recognised the indivisibility of the person and office of king, and devolved royal authority to the regent. However, when the matter came before the lords in parliament in 1422 they disregarded Henry V’s will and rejected Gloucester’s claim to be regent[17]: they did so again in 1428.[18] Distrusting Gloucester’s motives and preferring a conciliar minority rule to his autocratic regency, the lords determined on legal advice that exceptionally during Henry’s minority the indivisible estate of the king was incomplete since it lacked will or reason, which must perforce be supplied by the lords of the King’s Council, who would exercise the king’s authority collectively, whether assembled in Parliament, in the king’s continual council or in the Great Council, until the king was able to assume his personal rule.[19] John duke of Bedford the heir presumptive was appointed to the specially created and limited position of Lord Protector and Defender of the Realm, and chief councillor to the king. Gloucester was allowed to hold that position only during Bedford’s absences abroad. Professor Watts regards this as a paradox in which the lords are both the king’s servants and his representatives, but in reality, it was a practicable solution to a practical problem. It was a settlement that prevented a non-regal autocracy, whilst enabling the realm to be governed during the king’s incapacity. It did not transfer royal authority to the lords and its legitimacy was founded squarely on the English lords’ collective responsibility. Moreover, this constitutional model stood the test of time. It was used again when Henry was incapacitated by mental illness in 1453, and also in 1483 when the child king Edward V succeeded to the throne. I am labouring these points now because of their importance in understanding the nature of Henry’s reign.

 

A minority council was therefore appointed to govern the kingdom collectively during the protectorship and throughout the king’s minority.[20] From the start, the council’s work was undermined by two long-term problems. First, a conflict of interests between the king’s relatives Gloucester and Beaufort soon became apparent. Gloucester, acting head of the council vice his absent elder brother, was overly ambitious and used his position to influence the direction of policy. Beaufort, the king’s Chancellor, was wealthy and used his wealth to promote his own policies. Their differences, which were personal as well as political, were irreconcilable. And their disgraceful behaviour did much to bring the council into disrepute. Second, many of the minority councillors exploited loopholes in the council’s financial regulations and abused their authority for their aggrandisement. There can be little doubt that Henry’s relatives and his venal councillors set a very poor example for the impressionable king. Even so, it is unlikely that Henry’s inadequacies were apparent when he was a child, since his involvement in affairs of state was notional.

 

A personable, intelligent and precocious youth

Henry’s transition from child king to adult king was a complex, and for some an arcane process. Unfortunately, a definitive appreciation of those events is hardly possible due to an academic disagreement between historians about what really happened and why. The undeniable facts that can be elucidated from the minutes and archives of government are straightforward. On the 1 October 1435, two months before his fourteenth birthday, Henry attended his first council meeting. Gloucester and Beaufort were also present since it was a strategically important gathering to appoint a new captain for the Calais garrison. Evidence of Henry’s subsequent attendances at minority council meetings and also at the less frequent but larger assemblies of his Great Council can be gleaned from the minutes of those meetings. In addition, petitions and warrants signed by the king signify that he regularly exercised his royal prerogative in matters of grace from at least the 28 July 1436, which was well before his fifteenth birthday. [21] For example, between the 7 November 1436 and the end of the month, he signed twenty-seven petitions and warrants.[22] Nor was Henry’s involvement in government restricted to matters of grace. There is evidence that he played a significant part in substantive foreign policy decisions such as the Duke of Orleans peace mission to France.[23] Despite the council’s natural concern about the liberality of Henry’s grants,[24] there was no obvious reason at this stage and on this evidence for anybody to think that Henry would not make a satisfactory king. He was young and could reasonably be expected to become more prudent as he gained experience and wisdom.

 

Following a meeting of the great Council, which lasted from the 12 to the 14 of November 1437, Henry declared the formal ending of his minority and assumption of his personal rule; he was not yet sixteen and the youngest English king since the Conquest to do so.[25] All the existing councillors were reappointed on oath to ‘counsel (Henry) well and truly and to keep his secrets, and to put forward their whole labours and diligence for his worship’.[26] Their terms and conditions of service were changed. Payment was now at the king’s discretion. The most contentious part of Henry’s declaration was the description of his future relationship with the new council, which was set out in a series of detailed ‘ordinances’ taken partly from those established for the council by Henry’s grandfather in 1406.[27] As far as I can see, the core of the declaration amounts to this: i) Henry’s prerogative on matters of grace is unfettered. ii) The council will continue to discuss ‘weighty matters’ moved before them, though no decision will be made or action taken without the king’s ‘advice’. iii) The council will continue to discuss and dispose of routine matters unless the council is divided or unable to make a judgement; in which case, the matter will be referred to the king for judgement. So much for the facts, I now turn to the debate about their meaning.

 

Professor Griffiths considers Henry’s declaration to have been no more than “…an announcement that Henry VI would take a prominent part in affairs henceforth, though without jettisoning the councillors who had served him during his youth.”[28] He dismisses the idea put forward by Watts et al that it was prompted by conciliar apprehension; neither does he accept that it was an attempt to restrain the king. It was, he argues, a material restraint on the council’s power vis-à-vis royal authority, as all matters of grace were in the king’s prerogative. “Pardons were his to give, all collations and benefits his to bestow, royal offices his to fill and anything pertaining to the Crown estates, bounty or favour were reserved to him”. [29] Moreover, though matters of weight might be discussed in council, nothing could be moved without reference to the king. Even routine matters must be referred to the king if the council were divided or unable to make a decision. Griffiths’ further suggests that the outcome was no more than Henry’s personal assumption of powers delegated to the council in 1422. The vagueness of the term ‘great weight or charge’ is an indication of Henry’s intention to intervene in anything important. Griffiths does not see this as a forceful return to personal rule or a wilful thrusting aside of wise councillors. Even less is the council attempting to preserve its authority by ‘ encircling the king with restrictions devised thirty years before’. “Henry’s declaration...[heralded]…the re-establishment, after fifteen years of conciliar government, of traditional royal rule in which the king’s councillors had an acknowledged part. Perhaps the only surprising feature was that it was published so soon in the young king’s life.”[30]

 

Bertram Wolffe’s conclusion is not materially different from that of Griffiths on this issue. Though, he is more vigorous in his assertion that, as far as could be judged in 1437, Henry possessed some kingly qualities such as physical strength, piety and ambition, and that there was a reasonable chance that wisdom and judgement would follow in due course. Henry was keen to assume the reins of power “just as soon, if not sooner than his advisors approved“.[31] Wolffe came to this conclusion after a careful and thorough analysis of the official record, minutes, petitions, warrants commissions and ‘the workings of government’, which demonstrate that Henry was not merely a cipher authorising everything and anything they put before him. In Wolffe’s opinion there were no grounds for the minority council to cling to their powers once the king determined he had come of age. The ordinances of 1437, though based on those of 1406, indicate that the council was shedding power, not increasing it. I do not think that either Wolffe or Griffiths is arguing that Henry was not an ineffectual adult king, or that his incapacity was not an important factor in the catastrophes of his reign. Their point is that these things were not necessarily obvious in 1437.

 

Professor Watts takes a completely different line.[32] For reasons I have already touched on, he argues that Henry insufficiencies were apparent before 1437. He rejects the notion that between 1435 and 1437 Henry was initiating his personal rule. The impetus for that, he argues, was coming from the council who managed his exercise of favour: “from grants made by the king and council in 1435-36 to grants made by the king alone but only during pleasure in 1436-37 and finally grants made for life from the spring of 1437 onwards.”[33] Watts adds that the council and wider nobility were worried that Henry was both unable and unwilling to rule the kingdom independently. He writes: “…if he had been behind the events of 1436, the whole tiresome process of recognition, definition and tentative restriction could have been avoided. The king would have begun to exercise his free will over the full range of royal responsibility, while counsellors, those of 1422 and others, advised him[34]

 

The emerging problems of 1437 were twofold. First, it was next to impossible to prevent individual petitioners seeking patronage from the young king, whose largess was well known. Second, the effective formulation of state foreign and justicial policy depended on active royal leadership and authority; in the absence of these two prerequisite, the effective management of the realm could only be achieved if the various factional groupings and vested interests reconciled their differences in a common approach. It was for these reasons, Watts suggests, that the council devised the 1437 declaration. “ [Since] the impetus for royal activity came from below…It was for the political community, if they could not bind the king, to define and govern the exercise of royal power.” [35]

 

The Suffolk years

The period between 1437 and 1450 saw the gradual but inexorable erosion of conciliar government and the establishment of an oligarchy based on the royal household and headed by William De La Pole earl (later duke) of Suffolk. As Steward of the King’s Household he had unrestricted access to the king and unrestrained influence over him.[36] As a result of this centralisation of government and the staff changes introduced by the council, state affairs were increasingly determined by only a small number of royal advisors, usually comprising Beaufort, Suffolk and their henchmen. Further administrative ordinances in 1444 aimed at streamlining administrative procedures and tightening the purse strings further reduced the number of royal advisors to, sometimes, not more than one or two. Finally, the deaths of Beaufort and Gloucester in 1447 consolidated Suffolk’s dominating position as the king’s chief advisor — sometimes his only advisor.[37]

 

Regardless of whether their motive was benign or malign, it is questionable whether the shift in power promoted by Suffolk’s and his affiliates was in the national interest. Even if the bulk of the English nobility acquiesced in the establishment of an oligarchy that pretended to be a monarchy, and even if the nature of the Henry’s incapacity was so desperate that ‘something had to be done’, Suffolk’s effort to prop up a non-functioning king by acting as his proxy was as reckless as it was treasonable.[38] It reduced the royal household to the status of a ‘faction’ and was the cause of such angst that it led eventually to civil war. If for whatever reason, the king lacked the will or reason to exercise his authority, then his royal estate was incomplete. In which case, the only proper course open to the lords was to resurrect the protectorship and the conciliar regime ratified by parliament in 1422.[39] Though this solution was not perfect, it had the dual benefits of legitimacy and utility. By thus broadening the government’s base and unblocking the king’s access to advice from the wider nobility there was a better prospect of consensual government during the king’s disability. Suffolk’s perseverance with the pretence that Henry was a functioning king damaged the Crown and fuelled public suspicions that he was acting in bad faith. Even professor Watts concedes that “Towards the end of the decade the court actually began to resemble the small body of household intimates and administrators depicted by its critics.”[40]

 

Of all the problems facing the English at this time, the most pressing were maintenance of the dual monarchy and Crown finances. These two problems were inextricably linked and could not be resolved separately. Moreover, an acceptable solution was more difficult to achieve owing to a conflict between the king’s peaceful ambition for his realms and the aspirations of his English subjects, for whom the conquest of France was a matter of national pride, prestige and power. Nevertheless, the key drivers that convinced Beaufort and the council (except Gloucester) of the need for peace were practical and not moral. The war was going badly for English arms. They were on the defensive everywhere. The conquest of the isle de France was no longer achievable or affordable. The burgeoning cost of defending the dual monarchy was pushing the Crown towards bankruptcy.

 

Negotiations for a permanent peace treaty began under Beaufort in 1437 and dragged on until 1444, when Suffolk agreed a temporary truce, which was only secured at the cost of two major English concessions. Henry was to marry a minor French princess, Margaret daughter of Renee of Anjou, Lorraine and Bar, and titular king of Naples, Sicily and Jerusalem. From the English point of view, it was an inauspicious choice for their queen. Though Margaret was related to Charles VII, she was not an heiress and her family were not important in diplomatic terms. Besides, the attitude towards her in England was likely to be suspicious, it not downright hostile. The second — and secret — English concession was the surrender of Maine, which Suffolk is supposed to have promised to Charles verbally. Henry confirmed the promise secretly in writing in 1445, at the entreaty of his French wife. The English, when they finally heard of this concession were naturally suspicious that Margaret aided by Suffolk had put undue pressure on the king. The English army refused to cooperate and Maine was not actually ceded to the French until 1448.

 

There was a third problem, which though not quite as pressing as the other two was important and getting worse. There is evidence of clashes between local gentry and also between national magnates in the north, in the midlands, in south wales, in the west and in the Home Counties.[41] The use of private armies to resolve local grievances and disputes alienated lords and commoners alike. Their resentment was aggravated by the belief that the king’s ministers and servants condoned this anarchy. These problems were about to come to a head and would change the course of history.

 

Annus horribilis

The year I have called annus horribilis began on the 6 November 1449 with the hasty recall of Parliament. Such was the magnitude of the emergency at home and abroad that only nine weeks after the dissolution of parliament in July, another was summoned in September. The members of parliament who assembled at Westminster on the 6 November 1449 had the crisis in Normandy and misgovernment at home uppermost in their minds, and they were looking for the culprits.[42] As the king’s most influential counsellor, it was Suffolk who bore the brunt of their resentment. His fall from power was triggered by his attempt to block a complaint by Lord Cromwell against William Tailboys from going before the King’s Council.[43] The infuriated Cromwell drew the matter to the attention of the Commons who included it in a list of charges they were compiling against Suffolk. Meanwhile, during the parliamentary recess, English sailors murdered the much-hated Adam Moleyns bishop of Chichester. As he lay dying, Moleyns ‘confessed’ to Suffolk’s many misdeeds. Following this, Suffolk felt it necessary to make a statement answering Moleyns allegations and the many ‘…slanders and misconceptions running throughout the land’.

 

The Lords’ refusal to commit Suffolk for trial on the basis that there were no specific charges provided the Common with the opportunity to present a formal petition (indictment) containing eight specific articles (counts) of high treason against the duke. The most serious charge was that Suffolk conspired with Charles Valois to destroy Henry and put his own son, John De La Pole, on the English throne. The other charges amounted in general terms to examples of his treason by aiding and abetting the king’s enemies. However, after Suffolk was called to answer the charges, the king put the whole matter in abeyance. Whereupon, the Commons presented Henry with a second petition containing eighteen articles setting out the details of Suffolk’s corruption (including Cromwell’s complaint) and financial mismanagement. For which “…offences, misprisions, faithless acts and false deceits specified“ the Commons “accused and impeached” Suffolk.[44] Henry tried to delay the proceedings but was unable to stop Suffolk’s impeachment. In a desperate attempt to save his most important advisor from a traitor’s death, Henry exercised his prerogative to declare the first indictment for high treason ‘neither declared nor charged’. In other words, he was simply not prepared to accept it. On the second indictment of misprision, he exercised his prerogative for clemency by banishing Suffolk for five years. Nevertheless, Henry’s effort to save Suffolk was unavailing. On the 1 May 1450, somewhere in the English Channel off the Kent coast, Suffolk’s ship was intercepted by a small flotilla, which included the Nicholas of the Tower. The Captain and crew of the Nicholas boarded Suffolk’s ship and ignoring his royal safe-conduct tried, convicted and executed him with a rusty sword. His headless body was dumped on the shore by Dover.[45]

 

Suffolk’s death did not alleviate England’s crisis in 1450 but it did pave the way for the Commons to petition Henry for a resumption of Crown lands alienated since the beginning of his reign, and the termination of all annuities, corrodes and pensions.[46] This Act would enable Henry to resume his economic and hereditary rights to all Crown properties, offices and custom taxes he gave as patronage. It was strongly resisted and there is no record in the Parliamentary Roll that Henry assented to it. However, without Suffolk to stiffen the king’s sinews it was passed into law; albeit, with 186 individual exceptions granted by Henry, which rendered it ineffective.[47] The Commons also made supplication to the king about purveyance abuses. They were concerned that money allocated for the defence of the realm was being used to pay the royal household’s subsistence expenses: this had to stop. It was the price Henry had to pay for the life of Suffolk and for obtaining a tax subsidy from the Commons.[48]

 

Charles VII invaded Normandy in 1449 and drove the English out. The English garrison were deficient in all the basic necessities of fifteenth century siege warfare except fighting spirit.[49] The professional French army was superior in numbers, leadership, tactics, arms, equipment and organisation. This situation is all the more discreditable since the English politicians were warned in good time by the English commander, Edmund Beaufort duke of Somerset, that the French were amassing a large army on the Normandy border and that the Duchy was defenceless without a large reinforcement of men and equipment. Measures were hastily put in hand to recruit and equip a force under the command of Sir Thomas Kyriell for service in France, but it was too little too late. On the 15 April 1450 the small English field army under Kyriell’s command was overwhelmed at Formigny near Bayeux; though outnumbered, they fought hard until virtually the last man.[50] The loss of Normandy was regarded as a national disgrace by most of the king’s subjects. There was also a general feeling that the heart of government was corrupt, and doubts that royal authority was being exercised properly.

 

Anybody looking for a connection between local and national politics need look no further than the rebellion that began in Kent in May 1450, and spread through the Home Counties and beyond during the summer. Jack Cade’s rebellion was short, sharp and brutal. Inevitably, the rebels were crushed and their leader killed. However, while it lasted, the rebellion shook the Lancastrian regime to its very core. The king fled from London, his household panicked and gave-up a few defenceless scapegoats to the rebels, and four hundred royal soldiers were defeated in the Kent Weald. Cade occupied London and in a series of quasi-judicial tribunals meted out rough justice to those whom he regarded as traitors. The rebellion was supported by a broad cross section of English society from powerful landowners to rural peasants. And they had put their grievances in writing. The ‘Complaints of the Poor Commons of Kent’ and “The Articles of a Captain of Kent’ are distinguished by their intelligent articulation of local and national grievances and for their proposals for reform. The rebels’ grievances are neatly summarised: “…the king had false counsel for his laws are lost, his merchandise is lost, his commons destroyed, the sea is lost, France is lost, himself so poor that he may not have [pay for] his meat or drink…[51] It is clear that the rebels did not blame the king for this misgovernment; they, blamed his advisors.

 

Although Cade’s rebellion did not produce instant results, it was the catalyst for Richard duke of York’s intervention in English politics as a champion for reform. York did not hold a formal constitutional position within England. He was not a member of the king’s inner circle, nor did he have a natural line of communication to the king. He was, however, the king’s heir presumptive and the senior royal duke, and as such, neither the king nor his inner circle of advisors could ignore York. He served as the King’s Lieutenant in Normandy (twice) and also in Ireland, where he proved himself to be a brave soldier and an excellent administrator: in fact, the quintessential ‘good lord’. His sudden return from Ireland (where he had been sent by the king for ten years in 1447) in September 1450 still troubles scholars: was it due to private grievance or public right? Interesting though that question is, it is irrelevant for my purpose. My point is simply that York’s intervention, for whatever reason, was bound to change the whole nature of English politics, which it did. His criticisms of the government were essentially the same as those of Cade’s rebels. He did not question the king’s competence and embellished his own comments with the suggestion that Henry was the innocent victim of evil councillors. It was a situation from which York — the king’s true and loyal subject — would recue him; thus, allowing him to rule properly as he always intended. It is difficult to regard this approach as anything other than a tactic intended to prevent the imputation of treason against York. It was also an approach guaranteed to antagonize the duke of Somerset who had succeeded Suffolk as Henry’s chief advisor.

 

The hostility between York and Somerset, which had been an undercurrent in English politics from the late 1440’s, became dominant in 1451. Their mutual dislike matured into personal and intense hatred that expressed itself through the medium of opposing Lancastrian and Yorkist factions. And there was worst to come: soon Gascony would be lost, leaving Calais as the last remnant of the first English overseas empire. At home the violent disturbances and aristocratic lawlessness continued, together with real or imagined conspiracies against the king. There was and is a suspicion that York was behind these plots, for which the evidence is ambiguous to say the least. However, it is unlikely that he condoned efforts by his supporters to remove the king. He wanted to rescue Henry from the clutches of his evil advisors, not replace him. The problem with York’s simplistic approach is that it ignored the much profounder question of the king’s fitness to rule, which nobody — least of all York — was prepared to consider at this stage. More worrying from York’s perspective was the fact that whilst his power and influence waned, Somerset’s waxed. By 1452, York was politically isolated. The bulk of the unaligned lords regarded him as an incorrigible troublemaker with no constitutional legitimacy to challenge the king’s choice of advisors. The pretence that Henry was a fit to rule England persisted until he was deposed in 1461.

 

The king was ill. We know nothing about the illness except that it caused mental collapse and it was kept secret until after the birth of his heir on the 18 October 1453. Just prior to the birth, a Great Council meeting was called, from which York was excluded. Nevertheless, in Somerset’s absence on business, a group of non-aligned lords sent for York. Their decision was made on the grounds of his legitimate right to be involved in the discussion about the governance of the realm. It was their hope was that the dukes of York and Somerset would be able to work together and with the Great Council in the public interest: some hope! The mental collapse of Henry and the appointment of York as Lord protector and Defender of the Realm marks the end of this narrative. It is doubtful whether Henry ever recovered from this collapse and nobody even pretends that he was an independent functioning monarch thereafter. After Somerset’s death at St Albans in 1455, Henry was helpless and in the grip of his wife. After York’s death at Wakefield in 1460, Henry was deposed.

 

‘Chide him for faults, and do it reverently’

Personally, I doubt the historical significance of the various interpretations of Henry’s reign. Whether he was a malicious interventionist (Wolffe), a well-meaning duffer (Griffiths) or an inert simpleton (Watts et al) matters not in reality, since the outcome was the same on each case. Henry was a bad king. In fact, it is hard to imagine a man less suited to rule the kingdoms he inherited by an accident of birth. He did not look or behave like a king. Plainly he was incompetent and often disinterested in the minutiae of government. He failed to exercise royal authority properly and lacked the force of personality to uphold the king’s justice in his English kingdom. His shortcomings created a vacuum at the heart of government, which some of his overly ambitious subjects were quick to occupy and keen to exploit to the detriment of the common interest. It is unsurprising therefore that by the middle decade of his reign many of Henry’s English subjects were offended by the losses in France, oppressed for the want of royal justice at home and impoverished by the burden of taxation. These things are all matters of historical record and a blot on his rule. Nonetheless, despite his faults, Henry’s critics tend to underestimate contemporary evidence of the almost insuperable problems he faced from the moment of his accession, which would have tested even his renowned father. For all his heroic stature, Henry V’s legacy to his baby son was not a happy one.

Any hope the English had of conquering Valois France went to the grave with Henry V in 1422. Any realistic hope they had of preserving Henry VI’s sovereignty over his French possessions disappeared with the death of John duke of Bedford in 1435 and the defection of Burgundy from their English alliance that same year. Militarily and diplomatically, the tide had turned irretrievably against the English while Henry VI was still a minor. Their tactics were outmoded, their army was outmatched and the cost of the war was becoming unsustainable: none of this was Henry’s fault. Nonetheless, the subsequent failure to negotiate a realistic and workable peace treaty with Charles VII did bear his hallmark. Henry’s negotiating position was unrealistic. He thought that Charles would stop fighting and allow him to retain sovereignty of his French inheritance: that was a Lancastrian ‘red line’. It was one thing for Henry to be ejected from his French inheritance by the fortunes of war but he could never concede that he was not the king of France by right. In reality, of course, Henry had no leverage over Charles who was winning the war anyway. Besides, he regarded it as a war of liberation and could not allow Henry to retain his possessions except as a vassal of the French king: that was the Valois ‘red line’.

 

The truce with Charles VII that was agreed in 1444 and then extended, was broken by the Duke of Somerset, who enraged the Duke of Brittany by attacking his territory. It is unclear whether Somerset was ‘encouraged’ by the king to do that, but it seems likely. Even if Henry was dealt a bad hand, he played it badly. His pacifist nature was unsuited to the task of defending his French realm in the face of a warlike and implacable foe, and his lack of judgement showed in the promotion of commanders whose only qualification for the task was that they were his favourites. Henry was also hampered by a lack of money to pay for the war and the normal expenses of government.

 

The Crown’s financial difficulties began soon after the battle of Agincourt. The lay and clerical subsidies granted by parliament for 1415-1416 raised £216,868. However, the overall costs of maintaining Harfleur, negotiating with the Duke of Burgundy, the naval expedition of 1416 and fitting out a flotilla for service in 1417 came to £256,885. The deficit of £40,017 was made-up from loans at commercial rates and the ransom payments of French prisoners. These figures do not include expenses incurred during the Agincourt campaign, but not yet met.[52] By the end of Henry V’s reign, the English exchequer had a deficit of £30,000 and outstanding debts of £25,000 due mainly to war costs.

 

It was Henry V’s policy after 1418 to transfer the burden of the war to Normandy. The Duchy was supposed to pay for itself and also contribute money to the general war effort. However, the first complete financial accounts for the Norman Estates shows that all but 5,000 livre (li)[53] of Norman revenue was spent on the administration and defence of the Duchy; nor did finances improve over time. In fact, they deteriorated even further during Henry VI’s minority. In 1423, for example, the accounts show that of the 90,000(li) granted to Bedford by the Norman Estates, only 29,000(li) was available for defence. Between 1419 and 1435, the Norman estates met twenty four times and made impositions totalling 3,150,000(li). Even so, this revenue fell short of costs. The idea that Normandy could be self-funding was illusory; their treasury could only just about cover its own administrative costs if they did not also have to pay for military operations. Moreover, these financial demands alienated the Normans against their English overlords and demonstrated that without an English subsidy the Duchy was, more or less, defenceless.[54]

 

Whilst there is no doubt that Henry VI’s foolish generosity did not improve Crown finances, there is convincing evidence that even had he been judicious and thrifty with the grant of patronage, his means were barely sufficient for his needs. The inherited costs of defending his French inheritance, the expansion of the royal household, the costs of his marriage and the Queens household expenses were more than the Crown could bear without tax subsidies from parliament and the convocation. Significantly, during Henry’s minority neither parliament not the convocation gave generous subsidies; furthermore, the revenue raised was unpredictable. Exemptions given to poor towns and villages reduced the amount raised, as did fraud and administrative incompetence. The alternative of individual taxation was so unpopular that it was only imposed twice (1428 and 1436). Even then, the revenue raised was erratic due to resistance, fraud and administrative incompetence. It seems that the Crown was expected to manage cash flow and income by borrowing, using the Crown Jewels as security.[55]

 

So appalled was Ralph Lord Cromwell by the state of public finances in 1433 that he presented to parliament a highly detailed and precise analysis delineating to the last farthing the Crown’s insolvency. Having just succeeded Lord Hungerford as Treasurer, Cromwell was keen to highlight the problems he had inherited and to impose some fiscal discipline on the government by, for instance, vetting all requests for expenditure and patronage. The demands placed on the royal purse during the king’s minority were many: the royal household, the Queen’s household, Calais, France, Ireland, Scotland, Aquitaine, Fronsac, grants of Henry V’s will, and prisoner expenses etc. In summary, ordinary expenditure exceeded income by £47,887. 7s. 4d farthing, to which must be added provision for the repayment of debts totalling £164,814. 11s.1d halfpenny.[56] To control debt, Parliament set an arbitrary annual limit on Crown borrowing, which could now be secured against tax revenue. These measures under Cromwell’s capable stewardship delayed the inevitable but could not prevent it. By 1449, Cromwell had moved on from the Treasury and the Lancastrian regime was bankrupt. When Parliament met again later that year, the main thrust of the Commons’ criticisms was the belief that corruption and fraud were partly responsible for the crown’s bankruptcy. Their priority now was to put Henry’s finances on a sustainable basis.[57]

 

The aristocratic violence and lawlessness, and the corruption in high places that so oppressed Henry VI’s subjects were not unique to his reign. In fact, the preservation of law and order was a recurrent problem for most, if not all, medieval English monarchs. Late medieval England had an unenviable reputation among the rest of Christendom for lawlessness. While studying the legal records for 1348, the historian L O Pike was so shocked by what he found that he described that part of Edward III’s reign as a period of widespread depravity. E G Kimball, studying the Shropshire Peace Rolls for 1400-1414 concluded that ‘serious crime was not being punished in Shropshire or for that matter anywhere in England’. There are many scholarly studies and records of late medieval crime, none of which has identified even a few consecutive years of effective law enforcement between 1290 and 1485.[58] Neither is this simply a question of policing, since such lawlessness touched on the general lack of public confidence in the integrity of royal justice and the corrupt exercise of power that pre-dated Henry VI’s reign.[59]

 

The reasons for such pervasive criminality are many and complex, and are such that I cannot hope to address them all in this essay. However, there is a combination of circumstances that are part systemic and part behavioural, which I should explore in the context of Henry VI’s reign. The failure of successive medieval kings to outlaw ‘livery and maintenance’, coupled with the collapse of royal justice encouraged the lords and gentry to take grievances into their own hands.[60] The result during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was the creation of ‘over mighty subjects’ with their affinities, which very often included organised criminal gangs of violent men with a penchant for feuding and ignoring the law of property.[61] This undesirable situation was further aggravated by the king’s reliance on local magnates and gentry to administer, dispense and enforce the king’s justice. Chief among these royal officials were the permanent county Sheriff’s who were each had judicial and administrative responsibilities for overseeing and dispensing justice in their county. They presided in the Shire Courts and also framed and selected indictments for hearing in the king’s courts. Moreover they were also responsible for selecting and empaneling jurors to sit on Grand Juries and Trial Juries in the various courts within their bailiwick. Unfortunately, owing to the system of livery and maintenance, Sheriffs were themselves more often than not in the service of a lord and, therefore, were hardly likely to be impartial judges or administrators in any cases involving their lord or members of his family and affinity.[62]

 

Aristocratic lawlessness was a problem, even for strong monarchs such as Edward I and Edward III. A parliamentary petition of 1331 complained that gangs of men were “kidnapping for ransom and killing the king’s lieges, churchmen and royal judges…” [63] Edward tackled the problem with his customary vigour, which, nevertheless brought only temporary success. By 1443 even Edward had to admit that the law of the land was not well kept; it was a problem that only got worse during the king’s absence at the wars. Although Henry VI inherited a situation that was not of his own making, it is hard to refute professor Bellamy’s assertion that the criminality was worse in the fifteenth century than it had been during the fourteenth. Crime had not actually increased but it was more pernicious during Henry’s reign. I don’t think anybody can seriously dispute that this was due primarily to Henry’s lack of kingly qualities as previously discussed

 

My final point is about Henry’s mental health during his adult years prior to 1453, when we know he had some form of mental breakdown, which lasted until 1455 at least. The precise nature of his mental collapse cannot now be known. There is no evidence that Henry suffered mental ill-health prior to 1453, but the inference that he had inherited his grandfather’s (Charles VI) ‘melancholia’ is almost irresistible. It would explain his detachment from temporal affairs and the comments about him made by some of his subjects. It is not impossible, therefore, that he suffered from a mental illness: I put it no higher[64].

[1] John Harvey – The Plantagenets (T Batsford Ltd 1948): I have quoted from the 1967 Fontana edition (p.169)

[2] M R James [Ed] – Henry the Sixth: a reprint of John Blacman’s memoirs (Cambridge 1919): Blacman was a precentor at Eton College (1445-52) and subsequently of King’s Hall Cambridge. There is no evidence that he is the unnamed author who writes in the first person, since his name does not appear in the list of Henry’s chaplains or clerks. It is possible that the tract was simply found among his papers after death.

[3] Sir Henry Ellis [Ed] – Three Books of Polydore Vergil’s English History: comprising the reigns of Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III (Camden Soc 1844) pp. 70-71

[4] Bertram Wolffe – Henry VI (Yale 2001 edition)

[5] Wolffe; pp.12-18 and passim

[6] RA Griffiths – The Reign of Henry VI (Sutton Publishing 1998 edition) pp.253-254

[7] Griffiths pp.231

[8] John Watts – Henry VI and the Politics of Kingship (Cambridge 1999)

[9] Griffiths p.2 note 5: Griffiths cites JS Davies [Ed] – An English Chronicle of the Reigns of Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V and Henry VI (Camden Soc 1856) p.79

[10] Wolffe pp. xxiv-xxv; introduction by John Watts

[11] Watts chs.5-7; Christine Carpenter – The Wars of the Roses: politics and constitution in England 1437-1509 (Cambridge 1997) passim; Christine Carpenter – Locality and Polity: a study of Warwickshire landed society 1401-1499 (Cambridge 2009; AJ Pollard – North Eastern England during the Wars of the Roses: lay society war and politics (Oxford 1990); Helen Castor- The King, the Crown, and the Duchy of Lancaster: public authority and private power (Oxford 2000).

[12] JR Lander – Government and Community 1450-1509 (Edward Arnold 1980) p.3

[13] Lander pp. 33-34; Lander is here quoting the words of Robert Stillington in 1468, when he was Lord Chancellor to Edward IV.

[14] Carpenter (WOTR) p.90

[15] Chris Givern-Wilson [General Ed] The Parliamentary Rolls Of Medieval England (Boydell 2005), Vol 10 (Anne Curry ed) PROME ibid; SB Chrimes – English Constitutional Ideas in the Fifteenth Century (Cambridge 1936) pp. 35-37; by the fifteenth century the courts had declared that the royal prerogative ‘ must be intact in the king’s person alone’ (p.35, citing VYB. SEIV, Micho.fo 118-23 [App No 48]).

[16] PROME Vol 10 p.6; citing P Strong and F Strong – ‘The Last Will and Codicils of Henry V, (EHR, 96 [1981] 99) et al.

[17] PROME Vol 10 pp. 3 and 23-24; ‘it was not the English custom’, they said

[18] PROME Vol 10, pp. 347-348, items 24-27

[19] PROME ibid; Chrimes p.37

[20] JF Baldwin – The King’s Council in England during the Middle Ages (Oxford 1913) p.169; Henry VI’s first minority council comprised a representative body of twenty-one men, all of whom had served as councillors to his late father. The original list is as follows: the duke of Bedford (protector), the duke of Gloucester (protector in Bedford’s absence), the archbishop of Canterbury, the bishop of Durham (Chancellor), William Kinewelmersh (Treasurer), John Stafford (Keeper of the Privy Seal), the bishops of London, Winchester, Norwich and Worcester, the duke of Exeter, the earls of March, Warwick, Northumberland, Westmorland and the Earl Marshall, Lord Fitzhugh (Chamberlain), Ralph Cromwell, Walter Hungerford, John Tiptoft and Walter Beauchamp, knights. In the absence of any specific instructions from parliament, the council defined its own terms of reference, which were intended to safeguard their superiority under the king by nullifying the autocratic ambitions of Bedford and Gloucester (p.172).

[21] Wolffe pp.87-88; Griffiths pp. 275-278 and Watts pp.127-131: Henry’s first recorded grant of patronage was to his uncle Cardinal Beaufort at Canterbury in July 1436. The king was in Kent to witness the embarkation of English reinforcements for the Calais garrison.

[22] Wolffe p.188: see also Watts p.130, Griffiths p.275 and Baldwin p.184. Baldwin notes: “already in1435-36 the king’s personal intervention in the matter of favours may be observed, as in his own boyish hand the royal signature appears upon various bills ‘R.H. nous avons graunte’.”

[23] Wolffe p.90: in the autumn of 1437, the council was divided on whether the king should pay Orleans’ expenses for his peace mission to France. They were worried that it might be construed as a concession and encourage Charles Valois to make further demands. The matter was put to Henry for a decision. He decided to pay the duke’s expenses from taxation.

[24] Baldwin; ibid

[25] Henry III was eighteen when he assumed his personal rule. Edward III was twenty before he shook off Mortimer’s yoke. The more problematic Richard was twenty-two before he ended his minority.

[26] Baldwin; ibid: the eighteen councillors were as follows: the duke of Gloucester, Cardinal Beaufort, the archbishops of Canterbury and York, the bishops of Lincoln and St David’s, the earls of Huntingdon, Stafford, Salisbury, Northumberland, Suffolk and Devon, Lord Hungerford, Lord Tiptoft, the bishop of Bath (Chancellor), Lord Cromwell (Treasurer), William Lindwood (Keeper of the Privy Seal), William Phillip (Chamberlain), John Stourton (knight of the household) and Robert Rolleston (Keeper of the Wardrobe)

[27] PROME Vol 8 pp.321, 323 and 337-67: contains a useful analysis and details of the 1406 ordinances. They appear to have little relevance to the circumstances of 1437, since in 1406 a concerned parliament was seeking to restrain the king’s autocratic tendencies by increasing the council’s powers: arguably, that was not the case in 1437.

[28] Griffiths p.276

[29] Griffiths pp.274-278: see also Wolffe pp.87-92

[30] Griffiths p.277

[31] Wolffe p.92

[32] Watts chps. 4-7; see also Carpenter chps.1- 5, passim, which makes many of the same points

[33] Watts p.30, notes 27-30

[34] Watts p.132: this is a reference to Suffolk’s successful attempt to secure his personal hegemony of the council and of the royal household.

[35] Watts p.133

[36] Baldwin pp.190-191″ Suffolk did not frequently show himself in council but with excessive disregard of his enemies carried his policy with the king independently of colleagues.

[37] Griffiths pp. 284-286; Baldwin ibid; the Council Ordinances of 1444 were only intended to improve the government’s administrative efficiency. However, Henry’s more unscrupulous officials used the ordinances to consolidate the move of government from the council to the household.

[38] Watts chps 5 & 6, pp.181-254; contains detailed and complex arguments in defence of Suffolk’s actions. Put briefly, Watts’ argues that Suffolk’s service to the king forced him to exercise royal authority because the king was incapable of doing so. The real problem he suggests was not venal counselors but a useless king. Such a narrative suggests that England was governed by a group of aristocrats who abandoned the rule of law in favour of the edict ‘might is right’. The image of these royal officials and court favourites disposing of power, wealth and privilege among themselves in order to maintain a privileged status quo and regardless of the rights of others, whether noble or commoners is unedifying to say the least. It brought royal justice into disrepute and was the cause of the social unrest that erupted with catastrophic consequences in the summer of 1450. Watts’ detailed analysis of the working of government and interesting tables and statistics on attendances are meant to support his contention that between 1435 and 1445 Suffolk was acting with the tacit consent of almost all of the English nobility. That may be so, but it doesn’t make Suffolk’s ‘rule’ legitimate nor does it explain why Watts seems to think that such criminal behaviour was in the national interest. By ‘the later 1440’s, even Watt’s acknowledges the lords’ support for Suffolk’s policy was falling away and in any event was ‘insufficiently visible to the rest of political society’.

[39] That is exactly what happened in the 1454 and 1455 when Henry’s metal health collapsed. One wonders whether Henry was of sound mind earlier than this. Did he inherit his maternal grandfather’s ‘melancholia’?

[40] Watts P.240

[41] Griffiths Chapter 20, p.562-609, contains a detailed analysis of the lawlessness and aristocratic violence during Henry’s reign; see also Wolffe pp.106-125; IMW Harvey – Jack Cade’s Rebellion of 1450 (Oxford 1991) Chp.2; and RL Storey – The end of the House of Lancaster (Sutton 1999 2nd Edition) passim for further extensive details of lawlessness

[42] PROME Vol 12, PP 72,73 & 159

[43] Roger Virgoe – William Tailboys and Lord Cromwell: crime and punishment in Lancastrian England (Bulletin of John Ryland’s Library 55, 1972-71973) pp. 459-482; the first charges brought against Suffolk were that he plotted with William Tailboys to murder Lord Cromwell on the 28 November 1449 at Westminster. Even though the incident might have been exaggerated, the fact that this offence was included in Parliament’s second petition for Suffolk’s impeachment is an indication of its seriousness.

[44] PROME Vol 12, pp. 75,76, 93-105 & 154-156 appendix1, article1; this is easily the most comprehensive account of Suffolk’s impeachment with the detailed petitions and and proof, and Suffolk’s own response. See also EF Jacob – The Fifteenth Century (Oxford 1987) pp. 492-495 for an excellent summary of these events.

[45] James Gairdner (ed) – The Paston Letters 1422-1509 (Cambridge Library edition 2010) six volumes, Vol 2 pp.146-147. This letter from William Lomer to John Paston is dated the 5 May; it contains a vivid and detailed account of Suffolk’s death at the hands of the hands of the Captain and crew of HMS Nicholas at Tower. This being a royal ship, it is inconceivable that they acted independently. It is impossible for obvious reasons that they either the king or the queen were behind this murder. However, the Duke of York is a suspect; though there is no evidence.

[46] PROME ibid

[47] PROME ibid; Wolffe p.230; Harvey p.189.

[48] PROME p.78

[49] Alfred H Burne – The Agincourt War (Greenhill Books 1991 edition) chp18 pp. 306-330: contains a useful summary of this campaign with a common sense assessment of numbers and tactics etc. Colonel Burne would, he wrote, gladly have passed over the loss of Normandy in silence since it was such a discreditable period in English history, for which he blamed Suffolk whom he described as ‘shuffling’, even ‘shifty’.

[50] Burne pp. 318-322

[51] Harvey ibid

[52] Jacob pp.202-220, & 255; Jacob provides a useful analysis, with tables, of the monetary grants made to Henry V from 1415 until the end of his reign. This information is extrapolated from the English and Norman exchequer records of the time and includes the detailed costs of in defending and administering Normandy.

[53] Livre: ‘old French currency equivalent to a pound of silver.’ (SOED)

[54] Jacob ibid

[55] Griffiths pp. 376-394 contains a detailed analysis of the crown’s financial problems and the measures taken to overcome them. Griffiths also provides useful tables of taxation trends and prominent Crown creditors.

[56] PROME Vol 11 pp.69, 70 and 102-113; Cromwell’s lengthy schedule is in the form of a petition to the king, which provides a fascinating and detailed description of the Crown’s estate and sources of income in 1433, together with its expenditure and indebtedness. See also Griffiths pp.107-122 for a instructive discussion of these financial problems and some very useful tables of taxation, loans etc. during the minority. It is clear from the evidence and Griffiths’ analysis that parliament underestimated the cost of the war and overestimated the ability of the French territories to pay for it. One consequence of borrowing was that any imbalance between unpaid debts and taxation would inevitably lead to bankruptcy. Significantly, in 1433 the Crown’s indebtedness was two-and-a-half times greater than its annual revenues.

[57] PROME Vol 12, p.77

[58] John Bellamy – Crime and Public Order in England in the Late Middle Ages (Routledge 1973) pp.4-6 citing LO Pike – A History of Crime in England (London 1873-73) i p.297; EG Kimball – The Shropshire Peace Rolls 1400-1414 (Shrewsbury 1959) p.45; RH Hilton – A Medieval Society (London 1966) p.258, who from an analysis of the Assize Rolls for the reign of Edward I formed the opinion that the sanctions of common law were ineffective in curbing violence and corruption; GO Sayles (Ed) – Select Cases in the Court of King’s Bench, Edward II (Selden Society,74 1955) p.iii. See also PROME 1275-1504 all volumes, which contain hundreds of petitions attesting to the lawlessness and corruption of the Middle Ages. Finally, there is also a mass of unpublished material in the National Archives as described in Bellamy’s bibliography (pp. 205-206). “Every verdict seems unfavourable” (Bellamy p.4).

[59] Bellamy passim

[60] Livery and maintenance was the practice whereby individual lords recruited large numbers of retainers who were personally loyal to them and wore their livery. These men were expected to respond to calls for military and other services in return for their lord’s protection (‘maintain their part’) in litigation and/or any other disputes they were involved in, and their preferment on matters of patronage Prime examples of these over-mighty subjects during Henry VI’s reign were the dukes of York and Somerset, and the earls of Suffolk and Warwick. Livery and maintenance continued to plague the monarchy until Henry VII outlawed it.

[61] Bellamy pp.1-36 and 69-88

[62] A Harding – The Law Courts of Medieval England (Geo Allen and Unwin 1973) pp.51-53; see also Bellamy passim; from the twelfth century, civil and criminal cases in the country were dealt with under the general eyre. This was an itinerant system of justice introduced by Henry II, whereby professional judges and legal administrator’s from the curia regis (the King’s Court) accompanied the king during his progress around the kingdom and paid prolonged visits to individual counties. Their jurisdiction was wide-ranging and superior to that of the Hundred and Shire courts. The king’s judges were entitled to hear all pleas presented to them and not just those from a special group. Furthermore, their hearings were very thorough by medieval standards. More particularly, these judges were authorised to investigate any and all excesses, misdeeds, taking of bribes and other dishonest practices of sheriff’s and bailiffs, and to review the work of previous eyres. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the demands placed on the general eyre were too great for the limited number of professional judges available and the system fell into abeyance during the thirteenth century. It was a pity as the misconduct of the sheriffs’ was no longer monitored and corrected.

[63] Bellamy p.6; PROME Vol 4, pp. 164 and 166

[64] Wolffe pp.152-153; Griffiths pp. 715-718; Watts pp.301-325 passim and Storey p136 note 13

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TREASON 2 – The Parliament Of Devils, 1459

Introduction

This is the second of two articles I have written about treason. In the first article, I wrote about the Merciless Parliament of 1388 at which eighteen of king Richard II’s closest advisors and friends were tried by parliament and condemned as traitors, against the king’s wishes. In this article I am writing about the ‘Parliament of Devils’ (1459) at which twenty-nine of the kings subjects were attainted and condemned as traitors at the king’s command. Although both parliaments took place against a background of agitation for political reform, there is  an important difference between them. In 1388 there was an identifiable judicial process to determine guilt before sentence was passed; whereas in 1459, the Yorkists were condemned as traitors without any previous judicial procedure.  The judgement of the parliamentary lords had been replaced by the act of attainder.

 

Parliament had been the venue and the tribunal for hearing state trials since the reign of Edward I. In cases of high treason it was necessary to try the accused and obtain the judicial judgement of parliament as the kings high court. However, the deposition of Richard II changed all that. From the beginning of the fifteenth century, the judicial procedure all but disappeared.

 

The Attainder

An act of attainder is a pronouncement of sentence without a judicial determination of guilt. Although attainders have political connotations and were frequently, if not exclusively, used for political ends, the concept is not political in origin. The attainder has its provenance in the common law doctrine of ‘notoriety’. For example, the offence of levying war against the king would be considered notorious if many people had seen it in a battle. In such a case, notoriety acted as an instant conviction.[1] However, by the second half of the fourteenth century, notoriety no longer acted as an instant conviction. It was now considered to be the crown’s indictment, setting out the basis for a prosecution. By the turn of the fifteenth century, the use of notoriety had ceased altogether; the procedure having further changed into the act of attainder.[2] It was the Treason Act of 1351 that drove this process by changing the legal framework. In particular, it had given parliament the power to declare non-statutory offences as treason. That is what happened in 1388, where the grounds for conviction were basically ‘notoriety’. Parliament used its power to ‘declare’ treason as a prelude to a trial and the seizure of the traitors’ estates. Even though this was an unintentional consequence of the act, it set a precedent for others to follow

 

The sophistication and use of attainders developed by degrees during the first half of the fifteenth century. The act of attainder made against the rebel Jack Cade after his death is a landmark since it was felt necessary to extinguish his civil rights after his death. His offences of ‘imagining the king’s death’ and ‘traitorously levying men’ were not declared treason in 1451; it was simply asserted that they were treason. In 1453, this breach of procedure was remedied by a formal declaration in parliament.

 

The attainder of the deceased duke of Suffolk was another important case since it was bought by the lords and then by the commons, and resisted on both occasions by the king. Originally, the lord’s attempted to commit Suffolk for misprision in public office. However, this was defeated because the charges were too vague. The commons took on the case by bringing specific allegations of treason, which the king refused to accept on the basis that “treason was neither declared nor charged”.[3] Eventually, the king was forced to accept Suffolk’s impeachment on charges of misprision, but he used his prerogative to save Suffolk’s life. Notwithstanding Suffolk’s subsequent murder at sea, parliament further petitioned for a declaration of treason and forfeiture on the grounds that he had failed to make sufficient response to the impeachment. Although the king refused the petition, he took note of parliament’s formula and showed his own willingness to adapt and use it in 1459. From that date we see a distinct change in the nature and process of attainder. The context for that change was the disaffection caused by the king’s government during the 1450’s.

 

Context

When the duke York and the earls of Warwick and Salisbury fought the king’s army at St Albans in 1455 they committed treason. Only victory saved them from the consequences of their actions that day.   However, the battle left a legacy of bitterness and hatred between the queen, the sons of the Lancastrian lords killed in the battle, and the duke York and his faction. It was a vendetta that neither Lancastrian nor Yorkist ideology was capable of settling for sixteen years.

 

Six months after St Albans the king had a mental breakdown. Owing to Henry’s incapacity, York was appointed Lord Protector. It was a short appointment as the king recovered his wits within three months. York resigned his position and retired to his northern stronghold. Meanwhile, Queen Margaret took the king, the court and the government administration to Coventry in the Lancastrian heartland. Given the enmity between the queen and York, the task of restoring effective government and preserving a workable balance of power fell on the unaligned nobility. They did their best to preserve loyalty to the king’s royal authority, whilst compromising wherever they could in the interests of unity. However, this became increasingly difficult as the queen’s grip on the king tightened[4]. Gradually, the feeling grew that the queen’s governance, no matter how partisan, was preferable to re-fighting St Alban’s: or worse.

 

Queen Margaret saw York as a threat to the throne, and an incorrigible rebel and traitor whom she was determined to crush. Eschewing any attempt to heal the wounds created by the rift, she prompted the Lancastrian regime to take an increasingly aggressive stance against York and his supporters. The loss of the protectorship had left York politically isolated, a situation that deteriorated further during 1456-57. First, the queen replaced the Chancellor, the Treasurer and the Lord Privy Seal with her own men. Next, she moved quickly to re-assert royal authority in South Wales at York’s expense. By 1458, York’s exclusion from mainstream English politics was almost complete. His standing as the senior royal duke and second in line to the throne was unsustainable unless he could curb the queen’s power. In March 1458, Henry returned to Westminster from Coventry, ostensibly to address the dissention and division in the realm. Unfortunately, his attempt to arbitrate the differences between Yorkists and Lancastrians  was biased. It succeeded only in making matters worse. The subsequent ‘loveday’ at which York and Margaret walked from St Paul’s hand-in-hand was a futile sham. The queen was determined to destroy the Yorkists and they were determined to confront the king with their grievances

 

On the 24 June 1459, the king held a great council at Coventry. York, Warwick and Salisbury were summoned but did not attend.[5] Such was their mistrust that they would not attend in the absence proper guarantees of their safety. This mutual mistrust was at the heart of the country’s problem leading to war[6]. When the Council did meet, the three Yorkists were indicted for their absence at the instigation of the queen; however, the implication that they had committed treason is obvious.

 

Queen Margaret had been preparing for outright war in the king’s name for some time. By September 1459 the preparations were almost complete. The king was at Kenilworth with the main body of his army.[7] The queen was recruiting in Cheshire with the Prince of Wales. The military advantage was undoubtedly with the king’s forces. They were strong in numbers and concentrated in a central position; whereas, their opponents were weak in numbers and widely dispersed. York was at Ludlow on the Welsh Marches. Salisbury was two hundred miles away at Middleham in the Yorkshire Dales. Warwick was even further away across the English Channel in Calais. In theory at any rate, the royal army was well placed to manoeuvre on interior lines and defeat the Yorkists in detail. Sensing their peril, the Yorkist arranged to unite their retinues in the west midlands[8] and to put their case directly to the king from a position of relative security, if not strength.[9]

 

Blore heath and Ludford Bridge

The earl of Warwick landed at Kent in September. He was in a hurry with no time for recruiting sympathetic Kentishmen. Consequently he entered London on the 20 September with only ‘a few hundred’ professional soldiers from the Calais garrison.[10] The next day he left for Warwick and a rendezvous with his father and uncle[11]. Meanwhile; the earl of Salisbury with about five thousand men was on his way from Middleham. York was at Ludlow, nearest to the rendezvous. It is possible that Warwick’s march was ‘shadowed’ by the duke of Somerset’s retinue coming from the southwest and he (Warwick) was ‘forced north of the town and onto Ludlow’ having narrowly avoided a clash of arms with Somerset in the streets of Colehill near Coventry.[12] It may be, as Johnson insinuates, that Somerset was afraid to engage Warwick’s veterans[13].

 

While Warwick was in London, or soon after, Salisbury’s contingent was approaching Nottingham.[14] Warned of his approach, the king re-deployed his army to cover the Trent crossing, thereby, forcing Salisbury to change course westward towards Ludlow.  The proximity of the king’s army and the enforced change of direction had put Salisbury in a tight spot since he was now between the queen/Prince of Wales with the Cheshire levies in front, and the main body of the royal army to his left rear. On the 23 September, Salisbury’s scouts spotted a large Lancastrian force marching to towards them.[15] The queen had detached Lord Audley with ten thousand men to block the Yorkist’s  path. Salisbury tried to negotiate a peaceful way out of his  difficulty but was unsuccessful. Battle was joined at 1pm and lasted for four hours. It was bitterly fought: however, many of Audley’s troops were green and no match for Salisbury’s northerners, hardened by years of skirmishing on the Anglo-Scottish border. Audley was tricked into leaving his strong defensive position to attack the Yorkists. He mounted two cavalry assaults and one infantry assault, all of which were repulsed. In the last infantry melee, Audley was cut down and the battle lost. Two thousand Lancastrians died in the battle and the close  pursuit. Despite his victory, Salisbury was still in danger of being trapped; the king was closing in behind and the Prince of Wales’ remaining levies were nearby. Instead of pressing on to Ludlow immediately, Salisbury dallied on the battlefield. Luckily, the king’s tardiness enabled the Yorkists to slip away under cover of their artillery, which was fired by a lone friar.[16]

 

Although there was no fighting or politicking for the next fortnight, it would wrong to suggest, as Johnson does, that nothing much was happening. Both side were manoeuvring for an advantage. We can follow the royal army’s southward movements from the king’s itinerary for this period.[17] After combining his forces near Market Drayton (probably on the 25 or 26 September), the king marched it south towards Worcester via Walsall and Coleshill. According to the Parliamentary Roll this was arduous campaigning for Henry. He spent thirty days ‘in the field “…not resting two nights in the same place, except on Sundays’, and sometimes ‘resting in a bare field two nights in a row…in the cold season of the year[18].

 

For their part, the Yorkists lords joined forces at Ludlow as soon as possible after Blore Heath: possibly on the 26 or 27 September. What they did next is certain. Their first joint action was to march the army from Ludlow to ‘the neighbourhood of Worcester’. Why they did this, is not so certain. They may have intended to block the king’s  advance southward, which threatened their communication with the Southeast, where the most of their sympathisers were. Professor Goodman speculates that they took up a blocking position between Kidderminster and Worcester. [19]  However, as soon as the king appeared at the head of his army and ’in guise of war’ (with his banner displayed), the three lords withdrew to Worcester. It wasn’t simply that they were outnumbered; the Yorkists were loath to fight the king’s army, as that would be treason. As if to emphasise their dilemma of whether to fight or not, York and his Neville relatives swore an oath of fellowship in Worcester Cathedral that — saving only their allegiance to the king — they would come to each other’s aid in time of need. They also took the opportunity to further reaffirm their loyalty and to compose an indenture of their grievances. The indenture was sent to the king through Garter King-At-Arms. Whether, the king saw the indenture we cannot say; however, his next action was unequivocal. He ordered the royal army to resume its advance on Worcester

 

York had no choice now but to retreat southwards.[20] He still baulked at fighting the king and it was necessary to maintain some distances between the two armies. However, York’s decision to cross the river Severn at Ledbury was the defining moment in this campaign since it meant abandoning any hope of escape to the south and the acceptance that he may have to fight for his life. The increasingly fragile Yorkist morale may have forced him to take refuge in the more defensible terrain around Ludlow and the Welsh border. If he had to fight the king then it would be on ground of his own choosing. By the 9 October the Yorkists were at Ludlow and the king was at Leominster, a few miles away. The next day, the Yorkist wrote an open letter to the king protesting their innocence and setting out their case in detail[21] It was a last desperate plea to reason, but it was useless. By now, the fighting spirit in York’s army was non-existent. The king had offered pardon to those who surrendered to his grace within six days; nobody wanted to fight the king. It was the defection of Andrew Trollope who commanded the Calais garrison troops together with most, if not all, of his men (and with valuable intelligence about York’s battle plan) that decided the outcome at Ludford Bridge. York and Rutland fled to Ireland, Warwick, Salisbury and March fled to Calais. Their soldiers and the remainder of York’s family were left to the mercy of the king and queen.

 

From a military point of view it was a miserable campaign, notable only for the fact that neither side achieved their objective. Despite their numerical superiority and central position, the king’s army failed to defeat the Yorkists in detail, or to prevent the concentration of their retinues. Worse still, they allowed the Yorkist leaders to escape abroad. For their part, the Yorkists failed to convince the king — or anybody else — of their loyalty and good intentions, and were forced to flee ignominiously. However, from professor Bellamy’s point of view ’this pattern of events is of more than antiquarian interest’, since it explains the legal aspects of war. According to the international usages of war, the presence of a king at the forefront of his army with his banner displayed is tantamount to a declaration of war[22]. The Lancastrian keenness to get the monk-like Henry into harness, mounted on a warhorse at the front of his army, with the royal banner displayed was probably inspired by their knowledge of the law. Once these things were in place on the battlefield any attempt by the Yorkists to engage the royal army in battle would be treason (levying war against the king). It would enable the Yorkists’ possessions to be forfeit to the crown without the need for legal process. The sentence of attainder and forfeiture would extend to the Yorkists’ heirs in perpetuity. York’s refusal to stand and fight at Worcester and at Tewkesbury may also have been prompted by his knowledge of the law; it was consistent with his personal position throughout the 1450’s.

 

The Parliament of Devils

Parliament was summoned to meet at Coventry on the 20 November in anticipation of completing the annihilation of the House of York and the Yorkist cause. Queen Margaret must have thought that after three years of military and political preparations, her plans were about to bear fruit. York and his confederates were within her grasp; their capture or death in battle would ensure Lancastrian hegemony. Even though her enemies had escaped to fight another day, there was still much to play for. The parliamentary attainder of the Yorkists and the forfeiture of their estates would bring unprecedented wealth and power into the royal coffers, which could be exploited for the king’s benefit.[23]

 

The Coventry Parliament was packed with loyal Lancastrians to ensure royal success.[24] Nothing had been left to chance. The petition for attainder, which was presented to the king, was a carefully worded document in two parts. In all probability, it was drafted by the king’s own lawyers.[25] The first part contained an indictment of Yorkist disloyalty dating back to the beginning of the decade. First, York was accused of stirring Jack Cade to defy the king’s will and to incite rebellion in the realm, and of accroaching royal authority (1450). Second, York was forsworn; he broke his most solemn oath of loyalty and obedience to the king sworn at St Paul’s in 1452. Third, York conspired with the earls of Warwick and Salisbury to levy war on the king at St Albans and despite the king’s clemency he persisted with his wrongdoings. Fourth, the earl of Salisbury with several (named) confederates levied war on the king at Blore Heath. Finally, York and his (named) confederates levied war on the king at Ludford (1459).[26]

 

On the face of it, the government’s case seems a good one, which Johnson thinks has never been successfully refuted[27]. In truth, the facts are largely against York; he did break his oath of 1452 and he did fight a battle against the king’s army at St Alban’s. It is unlikely that he was behind Cade’s rebellion, but he exploited it to further his own political agenda. Furthermore, his constant criticism of the Henry’s advisors and of their appointment was a direct challenge to the royal prerogative, which possibly amounted to accroachment. Even so, the crown’s case was very far from being irresistible. First, the decision to proceed against the Yorkists by way of parliamentary attainder rather than using the king’s other proscriptive powers, suggests that the government had doubts about the strength of their case. It is a common misconception that the king needed a parliamentary attainder in order to seize the rebels’ possession. As professor Bellamy points out “ It was not the act [of attainder] that supplied the crown with its rights to the rebels’ possessions but the ancient royal prerogative which operated in time of open war.”[28] Bellamy is referring to the king’s power to convict the rebels in a state trial ‘on the king’s record’. That is to say, on the king’s testimony, without the need for corroborative evidence. Under this power, forfeiture would follow as part of the court judgement. The fact that the government did not follow this process raises questions about whether in law, a state of open war existed in 1459. The king was not present at Blore Heath, nor was the royal army engaged in battle at Worcester, Shrewsbury or Ludford. Moreover, the courts of justice remained open during September and October (In the past, the closing of the courts was taken as a sign of open war.). The Yorkist persistent declarations of their loyalty to the king were also problematic, since they struck a cord with those (and there were many) who were sympathetic to the York’s call for political reform but nonetheless demurred at using armed force against the king. These doubts raised the possibility in Lancastrian minds that at some point in the future any judgement obtained ‘by the kings record’ may be challenged, with concomitant wrangling and litigation over the disposal of forfeited estates. This risk would be avoided by a parliamentary declaration of treason and an act of attainder. This particular attainder was actually a clever legal document, which was not open to legal challenge and provided comprehensive provisions for the forfeiture of the Yorkists’ estates.

 

Another indication of Lancastrian anxiety is found in a contemporary manuscript entitled Somnium vigilantis.[29] The Somnium is a highly stylized narrative of a fictitious court case at which a Yorkist and a Lancastrian argue about justice and mercy. It was written prior to the Coventry parliament by a Lancastrian sympathiser and is partisan. And yet, it provides an insight into the issues exercising the minds of the good and the great at this time. The Yorkist is characterised as arrogant and boorish, bursting into court and demanding clemency. The Lancastrian, who is ‘courteous and just’, allows him a hearing. The Yorkists’ defence is put forward on several grounds. First, mercy is a necessary attribute in a king. That is true and probably explains why there is a subtext of justice and mercy in the Parliamentary Roll account of proceedings and why Henry saw fir to preserve his prerogative to deal with the rebels mercifully, as he saw fit. Second, the realm needed the nobility. I presume that this point is allied to the Yorkist’s third point, that the cause of reform was honourable. These two points together could be construed as arguing the necessity for nobility as a check to a tyrannical monarch. Of course, in the fifteenth century such a view was political dissent. Fourth, there were no specific charges against the Yorkists. This is a good point and may have been legally embarrassing for the crown: but it was not a case winner. Fifth, in view of the threat of a foreign invasion, this was not a good time to destroy those nobles favoured by the people to defend them. These grounds do scant justice to the actual Yorkist position and, predictably, the Lancastrian representative has no trouble crushing them to his own satisfaction. However, the amount of time and ink expended by the author in arguing that the cause of reform, whilst honourable, was an inadequate defence to insurrection suggests Lancastrian nervousness about the strength of their case.

 

Although the Yorkists were unable to defend the charges against them in parliament, their defence is well known to posterity, having been argued in extant correspondence, bills and indentures produced by them over the course of a decade. The bill published by Warwick on his way over from Calais and the open letter sent by the Yorkists to the king on the 10 October were simply the latest iterations of Yorkist complaints that hadn’t changed in substance since 1450 and which were always carefully drafted to avoid any imputation of treason.[30] Their defence was simple and had the benefit of consistency. The problems of the realm were caused by the king’s evil councillors and not by the king. He was innocent, and was being prevented from ruling, as he would have wished, by these same evil councillors. Ultimately, the Yorkists were compelled to act in the way they did by the intransigence and aggression of the king’s evil councillors. Kendall’s implication that the Yorkists approach had not changed since 1455 does scant justice to the longevity of their argument, which, in fact hadn’t actually changed since 1450. Kendall’s other point, that the repetition of the same narrow pattern of factional armed protest was not enthusing the general population to flock to the Yorkists’ banner, is more substantial.[31] As John Watts has pointed out, it was not that York and the Nevilles lacked imagination so much as the fact that the old arguments still seemed valid.[32] The dispute had not changed in nine years. York continued to blame the ministers and not the king, and the government continued to regard any discussion of its performance as treason. Furthermore, the queen could no more exercise royal authority on behalf of an ineffective king than could York during two protectorships. The underlying problem that the king in his innocence was unfit to rule, was rising to the surface with dangerous consequences for everyone. It would be irrational for York to suppose that he could change the outcome by using the same argument and the same method of protest, He must eventually realise that his problem was insoluble while Henry remained on the throne.

 

The second part of the attainder contained the provision for forfeiture of the Yorkists’ estates. It was the nub of the document, which in the words of York’s biographer “… bought all of York’s property into the king’s hands”.[33] That is not to mention all the property belonging to the earls of March, Warwick, Salisbury and Rutland, and all the property belonging to the twenty-four other Yorkists who were attainted, all of which fell into the king’s hands. This included property held in fee simple (which was usual) and property held in fee tail (which was unusual).[34] The severity of the forfeiture is an indication of the government’s determination to destroy the Yorkists and their cause. Insofar as the king was merciful, he extended his prerogative to Lord Powis, Walter Devereux and Sir Henry Radford by rejecting the claim for their lands and pardoning them. He also refused a request to attaint Thomas, Lord Stanley for his betrayal at Blore Heath.[35] However, he had no intention of pardoning York or the four earls. They had not submitted to the king’s grace and their destruction was to be permanent.

 

Little was granted away in fee simple or in fee tail; neither were many leasehold grants made and then only for short periods. The vast bulk of the forfeited estates were put in the charge of royal stewards who were given lifetime appointments and expected to produce a high income for the royal coffers (That is a clear indication of the permanence of the arrangements.). The estates of York and the Nevilles were absorbed into the royal demesne along with, in a few cases, their existing servants. Generally, established administration procedures were respected; although, some rationalization was necessary. For example, the estates of York and Salisbury in Essex and Suffolk were put in the charge of a single royal steward.[36] Despite the care of these arrangements the changes of ownership did not always go smoothly. There was some natural resentment of the new Lancastrian overlords, and the stewards did not all receive a warm welcome when they arrived at the forfeited estates. Johnson believes that, generally, the arrangements for the takeover were honourable; the ducal estate was not dismembered and in theory could be resurrected in the future. Moreover, whilst a pardon for York was unthinkable, Duchess Cicely did receive a maintenance grant from the king for her and her younger children. It was unfortunate for the royal party that the effectiveness of these arrangements was undermined by the fact that the Yorkist leaders were at large and expected to return to England.

 

Epilogue  

The events of the summer and autumn of 1459 changed the course of English history. The Yorkist notion that the king was an innocent victim of his evil councillors was no longer tenable. Regardless of whether he was prevented from reforming the government or was simply unwilling to do so, Henry’s incapacity was obvious; he was unfit to rule. With the benefit of hindsight we can see that this was probably the moment when the duke of York became convinced that he must claim the throne to survive and to bring good governance to the realm. It was a course of action that involved the deposition of an anointed king and the disinheritance of his heir[37]. A protest for political reform was about to become a dynastic civil war.

 

The Parliament of Devils also had a constitutional importance in its own right. It provided a template for the destruction of the king’s political enemies that upset the balance of power between the king and the three estates of parliament. Since the twelfth century, the cohesion of the English lords had been a relatively effective counter to any royal tendency towards tyranny. Nevertheless, the lords had not themselves succeeded in transforming the government into an oligarchy, though they had tried to do so. And the commons were incapable of creating a democracy; although neither the king nor the lords could ignore them. In the words of professor Bellamy: “The late medieval law of treason was both a cause and a result of this balance and when it was tampered with there was a serious danger to constitutional government.” [38]

 

Acts of attainder were a method for popular participation in the ‘legal’ process. The lords or the commons could sponsor them, or the king could introduce them. Those bills put forward by the lords and by the commons were not always successful (e.g. the impeachment of Suffolk, 1450) those introduced by the king were never unsuccessful. The Parliament of Devils confirmed that royal power was paramount. The attainted Yorkists’ protest that they had not been allowed to answer the charges against them was unique. There is no evidence that either the lords or the commons opposed a bill of attainder by the king. From 1459, the attainder process was dominated by the royal prerogative: “It was openly acknowledged as a much surer way of getting a conviction for treason than by [the] common law and for this reason was used as often as possible. It is a form of treason in which the magnates and people play no part except when they were the victims.”[39]

[1] JG Bellamy –The Law of Treason in England in the Later Middle Ages (Cambridge 1970) pp.177-179.

[2] Bellamy p.180

[3] Bellamy p.187; see also James Gairdner (Editor) -The Paston Letters 1422-1509 (Constable 1900) Vol 2, p.99 and EF Jacob – The Fifteenth Century 1399-1485 (Oxford1987) p.493

[4] JS Davies (Editor) – An English Chronicle of the Reigns of Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V and Henry VI (Camden LXIV 1856) p.79 http://quod.lib.umich.edu/c/cme/acv5981.0001.001  Bertram Wolffe – Henry VI (Yale 2001 edition) pp.302-318. Wolffe disputes the conventional view that Henry was a saint-like innocent in the hands of his vengeful queen and her Lancastrian ‘gallants’. Facets of his character identified by Wolffe are: unforgiving, vindictive credulous, divisive, vacillating but stubborn and lacking political acumen. He argues that Henry was simply a bad king, who knew what he was doing: “if he was manipulated by the queen…he was manipulated willingly” (318). For a contrary opinion see RA Griffiths – The Reign of Henry VI (Sutton 1980): “ The [Yorkist] lords accurately divined that whatever his personal inclinations were…[Henry] was powerless in the hands of the queen and her advisors and it was they who were pursuing the vendetta against York and his Neville allies.” (819).

[5] Alison Hanham – John Benet’s Chronicle 1399-1462: an English translation (Palgrave Macmillan 2016) p.44: according to Benet, in addition to the absent Yorkist lords, the archbishop of Canterbury, the bishops of Ely and of Exeter, the earl of Arundel, Lord Bourchier and others failed to attend. All were indicted ‘ as a result of the advice of the queen’.

[6] Wolffe, p.317; Griffiths p.817

[7] Anthony Goodman – The Wars of the Roses: military activity and English society 1452-97 (Routledge and Kegan Paul 1981) pp.30, 237 note 57. Goodman cites Dr Colin Richmond (The Nobility and the Wars of the Roses 1459-61; Nottingham Medieval Studies, 21 [1977]). The following were rewarded for their service against the Yorkists: the dukes of Buckingham and Exeter, the earls of Arundel, Devon, Northumberland, Shrewsbury and Wiltshire, Viscount Beaumont and ‘at least ten barons of parliament’. In addition, the king had Somerset’s retinue arriving from the south-west, plus the remainder of Northumberland’s northern contingent (Thomas Percy, Lord Egremont and the earl of Westmorland). The queen was recruiting troops in Cheshire and Lancashire with the Prince of Wales (nominally commanded by the infant Prince but actually commanded by the queen.).

[8] PA Johnson – Duke Richard of York 1411-1460 (Oxford 1991 edition) p.186 and Goodman p.26.

[9] Wollfe pp.316-319; Griffiths p. 817 and Johnson p.188

[10] Griffiths (pp. 817, 847 note 275) puts the figure as ‘variously 300-500 men’; Johnson (p186) says he had a significant force’. It is difficult to know what Johnson means by ‘significant’ but with the benefit of hindsight we can see that Warwick’s retinue was probably counted in three figures. However, their significance may have been their military quality and not their numbers. Goodman (p.26) credits Warwick with ‘a few hundred men’.

[11] Goodman (p26). This is plausible; nevertheless, it is only conjecture.

[12] ‘Gregory’s Chronicle: 1451-1460’, in The Historical Collections of A Citizen of London in the Fifteenth Century, ed. James Gairdner (London, 1876), pp. 196-210. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/camden-record-soc/vol17/pp196-210 [accessed 19 March 2016].

[13] Johnson p.187 and Goodman p.236 note 35. Goodman finds it difficult to account for Warwick’s presence in Coleshill. He might have been acting independently against the king as Goodman suggests; though, it seems unlikely since he was weak in numbers and in the midst of the king’s army. It is also possible (I put it no higher) that he was looking for the quickest way out of a trap, with the intention of making his way across country to Ludlow. By now he would have realised the impossibility of the Yorkists’ meeting at Warwick.

[14] Goodman p.236, note 40, provides a useful summary of the contemporary estimates of Salisbury’s numbers, which I need not repeat. I personally think he had between 3000 and 5000 men, with an artillery train. His contingent was probably the most effective fighting force at the Yorkists disposal.

[15] Goodman p.236, note 40 lists the various chronicle estimates of the comparative size of the respective armies. Suffice to say that Salisbury was outnumbered, perhaps by 2:1

[16] Gregory’s Chronicle, ibid: see also David Smurthwaite – The complete Guide to the Battlefields of Britain (Michael Joseph Ltd 1984) p.101.

[17] Wolffe, p.371: Wolffe’s biography has been much criticised; however, the royal itinerary he has constructed from the kings signet correspondence, household accounts, privy seal documents and royal warrants was invaluable in helping me to understand these events.

[18] Chris Given-Wilson (Gen Ed) – The Parliamentary Rolls of Medieval England (Boydell Press 2005): Rosemary Horrox (Ed) Volume 12 p.459

[19] English Chronicle pp.80-81; Benet p.44 and Goodman p.29: for a different interpretation see Trevor Royle- The Wars of the Roses (Abacus 2010) pp. 242-243. Royle reverses the roles: he suggests that it was the king who intercepted the Yorkists on their march to London. Once York saw the king’s army in position and the way blocked, he retreated to Worcester. It is not an impossible scenario, but it is unlikely. I can think of no good reason why York would march his army north towards the king’s host, if he was actually trying to escape to the southeast. Goodman’s analysis seems far more plausible to me.

[20] Johnson p.188 thinks it is ‘odd’ that York retreated to Ludlow via Tewkesbury since it implied he was trying to escape to the south, a manoeuvre that Henry successfully blocked. My interpretation of Yorks reasoning is slightly different. First, Henry was obviously not in close pursuit of York; we have no record of skirmishing between the forces; moreover, Henry’s whole command had been ‘sluggish’. His failure to concentrate his forces quickly had allowed Salisbury to escape the trap at Blore Heath. Second, York may well have been trying to escape southwards, but changed his mind in light of his army’s fragile morale (The Yorkist soldiers were wary of fighting their anointed king and the offer of a pardon was tempting.). Ludlow offered a good position if the Yorkists had to fight.

[21] English Chronicle pp. 81,82; this sets out Yorks letter in full, which I would not repeat here, as the Chronicle is freely available on line for anybody interested to read.

[22] Bellamy p.201

[23] Griffiths pp. 825-826 It was never a realistic prospect that this wealth would be used to support the public exchequer or frittered away on injudicious grants to royal friends. Given royal impecuniosity this vast wealth was more likely to find its way into the king’s purse.

[24] Griffiths p.823; “ Among the 169 members whose identity is reasonably certain (out of 260), one has to search long and hard to find a single servant of either York or Neville”. In Griffiths’ opinion the election was engineered in favour of known loyalists (an opinion echoed by Bellamy (p.147). Nevertheless, Rosemary Horrox doesn’t believe it was an aggressively partisan assembly. She ‘deduces this from the care taken to justify the severe measures taken’ (PROME p.448).

[25] See Bellamy at p.197 and Griffiths at p.824; the authorities disagree as to who precisely drafted the act of attainder.

[26] Even though, York and the other leaders fled, the Yorkists ‘fired their guns at the king’.

[27] Johnson p. 189

[28] Bellamy p.204

[29] Johnson p.190; PROME p.450 both citing JP Gilson – A defence of the proscription of Yorkists in 1459 (H.E.R 26, 1911)

[30] Margaret Kekewich and others (Eds) – The Politics of 15th Century England: John Vale’s Book (Sutton Publishing and the Richard III & Yorkist History Trust 1995) P.27. The Articles if the earl of Warwick on his way from Calais to Ludlow, 1459 (British Library Manuscript Additional 48031A ff. 137-138) is published for the first time at pp. 208-209. See also, Gregory’s Chronicle, ibid: Johnson p.188, and Griffiths p. 817

[31] Paul Murray Kendall – Warwick the Kingmaker (George Allen & Unwin 1957) p.53

[32] Kekewich and others;ibid

[33] Johnson p.192

[34] The SOED, 5th edition (2005); Fee simple’ is defined as the ‘Tenure of a heritable estate in land etc. forever and without restriction to any particular class of heirs. Fee tail is defined as ‘Tenure of a heritable estate entailed or restricted to some particular class of heirs of the person to whom it is granted’.

[35]. The king ordered Thomas Lord Stanley with his northern retinue to join the queen/Prince of Wales’ levies in Cheshire; but Stanley, who was in secret correspondence with Salisbury, prevaricated and did not arrive in time to fight at Blore Heath. His northern troopers were sorely missed by the green Lancastrians and it is clear that feeling against Stanley ran high in royal circles. However, in typical fashion he managed to rehabilitate himself with the king so that he was not included in the attainder. The king refused to grant a separate petition for Stanley’s attainder; probably, because his support in the northwest was essential after York escaped to Ireland. William Stanley who fought with Salisbury at Blore Heath was attainted. The Stanley’s did  not just ‘sit on the fence’; they  straddled both sides of it.

[36] Almost all of this section is taken from Griffiths (p.826) and Johnson (pp.192-194).

[37] My opinion about York’s intention is conjecture; though his subsequent attempt to claim the throne suggests it is plausible. Unfortunately, as the events of 1460 were to show, York had misjudged the mood of the country. Even though there was dissatisfaction with the government’s performance, there was  little  appetite for Henry’s deposition.

[38] Bellamy p.206

[39] Bellamy p.212

 

The Madness of Henry VI …

… but precisely what form did it take? It was clearly different in effect from that of Charles VI, his grandfather. Charles was reportedly violent on occasion and sometimes believed himself to be made of glass but Henry was more withdrawn. Both doubted the paternity of their children, although the sheer number of Charles’ offspring, including two English Queens Consort, make such doubts less reasonable in his case.

The two most influential Henry VI biographies nowadays are by Ralph Griffiths and by Bertram Wolffe, who included a whole chapter on Henry’s mental health. What would a professional in that field make of the available evidence? Henry’s physical remains are of no available as his brain no longer exists. By contrast, Richard III’s long residence in Leicester’s Greyfriars led to his skin, flesh and organs decomposing, leaving his skeleton to attest clearly and precisely to his scoliosis.

Richard III grew up during Henry VI’s first reign and his time as “King in exile”. It should be much easier to diagnose Henry given the increased awareness of mental health issues today.

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