In my spare time I have been reading Henry IV by Chris Given-Wilson. It’s a massive book, full of information, probably the most complete work on Henry since Wylie’s four-volume effort in the 19th Century. Frankly, I’m finding it hard going. Not because it’s a bad book (it isn’t) or because Given-Wilson is a bad writer or a poor historian (the very opposite is true) but because, quite frankly, I find Henry a deeply unsympathetic character, and the more I learn about him the less I like him.
One of the interesting snippets I have picked up from this book is that in the 1390s Henry spent over £400 in legal fees chasing up various land claims that he thought he was entitled to pursue. OK, £400 does not sound much in 2020, maybe a Solicitor’s hourly rate; but in the 1390s 1000 marks (about £667) was the basic annual income qualification for an earldom. An ordinary person would consider themselves well paid on 6d a day (2.5p modern money) or 3 shillings (15p) a (six day) week. A woman working in agriculture was often only paid a third of that. And no one was paid for the numerous religious holidays – for the ordinary person, they were time off without pay. So a good annual income was maybe £4 or £5 at best. Many would have received far less. So £400 was a heck of a lot of money.
Now, you may say, and it’s true, that pursuing legal claims for land (often dubious) was pretty much a national sport for the nobility and gentry of the late middle ages. Look at the Pastons, for example. They were always chasing up some claim or other, or someone was chasing them.
But the Pastons, in the 15th Century, were barely established as gentlefolk. They had recent ancestors who had been actual bondmen. So it’s not surprising their grip on their property was tenuous, and that they had to scrap for every penny. Similarly, it’s not hard to understand some impoverished baron trying to expand his holdings a bit – the value of land was not what it had been before the Black Death and tenants – and even labourers – had that little more edge than they had had previously.
Henry of Bolingbroke, by contrast, was heir to what was undeniably the greatest inheritance ever brought together under one roof. What’s more, he had married a very wealthy heiress. OK, he had had to share the de Bohun inheritance with Uncle Gloucester (how sad!) and his mother-in-law was still alive and inconsiderately drawing her dower, but the lordship of Brecon alone was worth £1,500 a year!
So, to be blunt, Henry was a greedy so-and-so. He was suing his Uncle Gloucester and the Earl of Warwick, and various other people, because he was not satisfied with his enormous slice of the pie.
Here’s the rub – his father, John of Gaunt, was no better, despite being incomparably the richest private individual in England. (By several streets.) Through the 1390s he persuaded Richard II to confer further sweeteners on him. For example, the duchy of Lancaster was given its special status on an hereditary basis, instead of for life. Then there was the little matter of the grant of the Duchy of Aquitaine. (This latter was in part entangled in the very complex peace negotiations with France, but did Gaunt really need another great duchy?)
Richard II was rapidly running out of things to give – England’s resources were strictly limited – but there really is no indication that the Lancaster family would ever have been satisfied.
Some people will say – “Ah, but Richard II was a lousy king.” Well, for a start, he was rather more effective than is often realised. A lot of the negative stuff is pure Lancastrian propaganda, much of it invented after Richard’s deposition. (How familiar!) The reality is though that even a sovereign with the talents of Elizabeth I and Henry II rolled together would have struggled to succeed with a cuckoo in the nest as large as the Lancasters were. Remember the problems Warwick gave Edward IV? Compared to John of Gaunt – and even more to Bolingbroke post-inheritance – Warwick was a mere country squire.
Richard II had to do something about the Henry Problem. If his chosen solution failed, it was because it was, in fact, too generous, too mild, too humane. When their positions were abruptly reversed, Henry made no such mistake. Objectively, one of them was sure to be the death of the other, it was just a matter of time.
That being the case (and the same would have been true had matters gone the other way) there was set up in English politics a turbulence that was always going to cause problems sooner or later. To a point, the impact was seen straightaway. Henry IV’s reign was extremely troubled because many of his subjects simply did not see his kingship as valid. He was not, after all, Richard II’s right heir, and he had obtained his position by illegitimate force. It took him until at least 1405 (maybe 1408) to resolve matters and secure his crown. It was done by painful attrition, and with a bit of luck along the way. But it only really postponed the issue for a generation.
Henry V did his best (at the very start of his reign) to conciliate his father’s remaining enemies – such as were still alive plus their heirs – and to a very large extent this succeeded. He was further helped by his remarkable successes in France, the more or less complete inability of his obvious dynastic rival, the Earl of March, and by the fact that the third Duke of York was still a little boy.
However, it only took the failure of Henry VI’s kingship to bring the dynastic issue back on the table, and then set the whole structure of Lancastrian kingship tumbling down. Could it have been avoided? Probably not, except in a magical world where Henry VI is much more effective as a ruler and finds the cheat button that releases unlimited resources to enable the French war to be won. In the real world, there was not a chance.