October 2021 will mark the 550th anniversary of one of the most bizarre, yet relatively unknown, events in human history: the restoration of Henry VI upon the throne of England. Henry, it must be said, was a king of records. Unfortunately for him, as the son of the great Henry V – Shakespeare’s heroic warrior and victor at Agincourt – everyone expected the young king to follow in his father’s footsteps. The results were instead far from similar, and it became apparent that Henry was as fit for government as a fish is for the desert. Indeed, history will remember Henry VI as the sole monarch who got deposed twice. He did hold another record, that of being the only King of England to be crowned King of France, yet he succeeded in making that record redundant by losing France too!
Generations of historians have studied the failure of Henry VI’s reign. Some refer to him as an ‘imbecile’, an ‘inane’ king, or an ‘idiot’. In other words, a crowned cabbage could have done less damage to English society than Henry VI. Henry was severely ill and this reveals a lot about medieval government – the king’s frequent problems could in fact halt the entire administrative structure. The results were such that the kingdom was taken over by factionalism and the country slowly descended into the chaos we now call the Wars of the Roses. Far from being a simple Shakespearean clash between the Houses of York and Lancaster, the wars actually were the result of a real breakdown in central government.
It appears Henry inherited this illness from his maternal grandfather Charles VI of France. Contemporaries made fun of Charles, remarking that the king would bark like a dog or not move for fear of shattering, as he thought he was made of glass. The results of this genetic crossing of the Channel were, however, very profound. Henry’s inability to perform the essential functions of kingship meant that his government witnessed an isolation of England’s allies, pushing them into new alliances with the French. This ultimately led to the English defeat in the Hundred Years War by 1453. His hapless behaviour created a vacuum for powerful factions to compete and struggle, ultimately unleashing into the Wars of the Roses. In the process Henry would lose France once, whilst in England he was deposed, then reinstated, and then killed. As if the story was not already tragic enough, everyone in England knew that Henry was useless as King. The Milanese ambassador wrote that England would be ‘settled and quiet’ once Henry was removed, whilst a rebel manifesto argued that because of the king’s inaptitude ‘his merchandise is lost, his common people are destroyed, the sea is lost, France is lost’! My personal favourite was from a man accused of insulting the king in a small village in Sussex, who allegedly exclaimed that the ‘King is a natural fool’. Hysterically tragic, but true.