Post-classical history


Treason’s True Bed

Some guard these traitors to the block of death,

Treason’s true bed, and yielder-up of breath

Henry IV Part Two, Act IV, Scene 2

Today we are familiar with the image of an embattled political leader chairing a round of meetings with his cabinet in order to stave off opposition within parliament. In January 1404 this was unusual. Negotiations about finance clashed with the very dignity and majesty of kingship. But the last four years had taught Henry that he needed to play the political game in order to maintain the confidence of the people. Thus he decided to pre-empt the likely complaints about another request for taxation by summoning a meeting of the council to Sutton on Friday 11 January, three days before parliament was due to meet. Among other things he probably outlined the amount of money he required and the novel way in which he intended to raise it, through a form of land-based income tax. A shilling on every pound of annual income was to be levied – a rate of five per cent – with each holder of a knight’s fee being liable for £1. Those without a land estate were to be taxed at five per cent on the value of their goods and chattels. In order to get all the possible opponents on board from the start, the Speaker of the 1401 parliament, Sir Arnold Savage, who had been so harsh in his criticism of Henry’s requests for money, was also invited to attend the council meeting.

On Monday the 14th parliament assembled at Westminster. Henry’s half-brother, Henry Beaufort, delivered the opening speech. After his initial sermon, he listed the reasons for summoning the parliament. According to a newsletter preserved in Durham, the first reason he gave was that Henry had received further challenges from the duke of Orléans and the count of St Pol, which were ‘a great outrage and disgrace to our lord the king, and a shame and offence to the whole realm’. Other issues included the defence of three regions – Gascony, the south coast of England and the Scottish Marches – the government of Ireland (following the return to England of Prince Thomas), the ordinances for Wales, the reimbursement of costs incurred in the suppression of the Percy revolt, and the trial of the earl of Northumberland. Sir Arnold Savage was elected Speaker the following day.

Henry may have thought that such a long list of threats to the safety of the realm should have been sufficient to consolidate the varying interests in parliament. He was in for a shock. Savage, far from taking the king’s message to the commons, now took it upon himself again to lead them in defying royal policy. When the royal council requested a grant of money in order to meet all these needs, Savage turned against Henry. ‘The king has sufficient wealth to support and provide for all these policies, if he would be well-guided’, he declared, ‘and for this reason do not trust in having any subsidy from the commons until we know how the king’s wealth has been spent, and in what manner.’ He proceeded to demand information about grants to various ladies amounting to £50,000 per year and a single grant to Francis the Lombard of £8,000 per year, through his letters patent. Speaking directly to the king, he said, ‘you should be well advised by your high council on these aforesaid matters, because your commons have no wish to bear as much as they have previously’.

Henry must have been dismayed, and searched for a response. ‘It would be a great shame and disgrace to repeal and annul our letters patent’, he said, not very convincingly.

Savage did not back down. The matter could easily be amended, he said, without annulling the letters, by paying recipients of £100 annuities just £10. ‘And therefore you should be advised by your council to make the best ordinances that you can for the aforesaid matters, because your commons are very discontented that the goods of the realm are in such a way given to those who will never bring it honour or profit.’

Henry’s powers of argument seem to have deserted him. All he could do was express his ‘amazement that the commons were so ill-disposed towards him’.

‘It is nothing to wonder at’, Savage replied, ‘because the whole realm knows that every year you have had a tenth and a fifteenth from your lieges. In addition, they are often harassed and compelled to take part in expeditions in Wales and elsewhere without any wage, but at their own expense. Besides, your ministers and purveyors do not pay anything for the provisions taken for your use, to such an extent that one of your ministers owes various people £6,000 or more for provisions, and this is a key reason why the commons are not as well-disposed towards you as they were previously. There are also certain lords of your council who lead and advise you with a very evil intention, against the honour of your person and the profit of the realm, and of this you will be informed more fully later; and for this reason may it please you to discuss all the aforesaid matters with your wise council, and also to order your affairs in the way that your commons outline to your council, and then you will enjoy peace and quiet within your realm. And if not, we do not see how your realm will be well-governed.’1

This stunning rebuke, coming from a man he had been hoping would help him, left Henry speechless. It was a direct threat to royal government, questioning his fitness for the throne. Appalled, Henry rose and left the chamber, just as Richard II had done when his fitness to rule had been similarly attacked in 1386.

Henry, however, was a different shape of character from Richard. Rather than smoulder in ire at Eltham, waiting for a grovelling apology for the insult to his royal dignity, he sent his chancellor, Henry Beaufort, and the treasurer, Lord Roos, back to parliament to explain in more detail the reasons why he needed this grant. Savage, having attacked royal policy in the king’s presence, had no compunction about speaking his mind to the chancellor and treasurer. He demanded that the royal accounts be subjected to public scrutiny and asked again that a committee of commons should be appointed to discuss business in conjunction with the lords.

Over the course of five or six days, Henry came to terms with this new wave of parliamentary opposition, and decided to deal with the matter personally. He came back into parliament on 28 January only to hear Savage demand that the lords should voice openly their views on the state of the king and the realm. This was a tacit reference to the rumours that other lords besides the Percys were of the opinion that Henry was guilty of murder and perjury. Immediately Archbishop Arundel sternly rebuked Savage. Savage had his answer ready. ‘It would be more honourable for these lords to make clear their wills at this point than to be found disloyal afterwards.’ But Henry had recovered from his shock and was prepared to argue his case.

‘As regards my person’, said Henry, ‘it is known to the whole realm that I am the true heir of Lancaster. It is also known how I was driven out of the realm, and how I was returned to it, and how afterwards I was chosen by all the lords of the realm to be its governor and king; and for those reasons it seems to me that I have a good right.’

Savage realised he had been neatly side-stepped. If he wished to urge the disloyalty of some lords further, he would end up speaking on their behalf, leaving himself open to accusations of treason. All he could do was to request that the champion of royal opposition, the earl of Northumberland, be brought into the parliament to plead his case, ‘and if it were found that he had trespassed in any way against the Crown, that Henry should, of his special grace, grant him a charter of pardon, and if no fault should be found in him, that it should then please him to cause him to be restored to all his lands just as he had been before’.

Northumberland had already been granted his life; Savage’s request was tantamount to letting him go unpunished for impugning Henry’s character and title and plotting rebellion. Henry immediately replied that he did not want to grant such a request before he had had a chance to consult his council on the matter. He adjourned the meeting.

It was the right move at the right time. It calmed the situation. Pardoning Northumberland was no longer the outright demand of a hostile commons, it became a matter of royal grace. Henry rode to Windsor, where the earl was being held, and told him to present a petition seeking a pardon. He also invited the earl to ride with him to London, to present his petition in parliament. There the lords heard the earl’s case, and conveniently deemed him guilty of trespass but not treason, and sentenced him to be fined. Henry gracefully forgave the earl the fine, and formally accepted his renewed allegiance. With that, there was no further questioning of Henry’s royal dignity. The figurehead of opposition was humbled before Henry. At last, three weeks after parliament had opened, the commons could now be expected to discuss the key issue, Henry’s new tax.

It was not an easy discussion. The commons wanted concessions on a scale personally humiliating to Henry. They demanded that four members of his household, including his confessor, be sacked. Henry objected that they had done nothing wrong, but right or wrong had nothing to do with it; the commons were principally interested in exploring their ability to control the king. They demanded that all foreigners be excluded from the royal household, with the exception of a very few personal assistants to Queen Joan. They demanded a limit on royal expenditure through the household, slashing its budget from £42,000 per year to £12,100.2 They demanded that Henry name his council in parliament. To all these measures Henry had to agree, in order to get his grant of taxation. When, finally, the tax was granted, the commons insisted that four war treasurers should receive the money and that they would ensure it was only used to fight Glendower and to defend the coasts and the Scottish Marches. Furthermore, all reference to this tax was to be wiped entirely from the written records of government, including even the parliament roll.

In the midst of these discussions a letter arrived, purporting to be from Richard II in Scotland. So popular had the rallying cry ‘King Richard is alive’ become that it had become expedient to put forward a living ex-king to be a focus for the dissent. The man chosen, Thomas Ward of Trumpington, was welcomed at the Scottish court. Jean Creton went to visit him there in 1402, believing at the outset that he was genuinely Richard II, only to find later that year that the man was an impostor. Nevertheless, the false Richard did not actually need to do anything in order to satisfy his supporters; he had merely to exist as a rival king in order to sap the strength of Henry’s kingship. The letters now received in parliament were sealed with Richard’s privy seal, which had been removed in 1399 by William Serle. With such letters in circulation Henry could do nothing but summon Richard’s erstwhile keeper into parliament and ask him what he thought of them. The man declared he would fight a duel with anyone who declared Richard II was alive.3 It was only superficially a solution to the problem. As Henry was well aware, his real enemy in this debate could not be harmed, being less substantial and more popular than a ghost.

The parliament of January 1404 was humiliating from beginning to end. Ironically, the commons were only further weakening Henry’s kingship by placing such fetters on his expenditure. For the new tax was very far from being sufficient to solve Henry’s problems; it probably raised no more than £10,000.4 As a consequence many annuities of loyal crown servants could not be paid, and the officers responsible for the financial administration of the kingdom were faced with ever-increasing debts. Quite what the new queen must have thought on learning that the majority of her servants had to leave the country we can only guess, but it is likely that Henry bore that shame particularly heavily, especially considering his comments to Savage about the shame in annulling the ‘grants to ladies’ in the early days of the parliament.

Was it all worth it? No doubt Henry would have said yes, it was, for the simple reason that he had survived. He had been drawn into a political situation similar to Richard II’s in 1386, and yet he had managed to avert a rising similar to that of the Lords Appellant which followed that assembly. He had stooped so far and compromised his royal dignity far more than Richard would have done. And whatever humiliations he had had to endure, he was the stronger for surviving them. He was learning new political lessons with every blow struck at him. The most telling sign of this is the list of councillors which he was forced to announce in parliament. It included the usual intimates, namely two of his half-brothers (Henry and John Beaufort), his brother-in-law Westmorland and his close friend Archbishop Arundel. But it also included Lancastrian retainers of the sort who had come in for so much criticism in the parliament of 1401, such as Hugh Waterton and John Norbury. Similarly, the Lancastrian Sir Thomas Erpingham had quietly been reappointed steward of the household the previous November. The council and household were packed with his supporters. And, most interestingly, among all these Lancastrians and old friends there was the lone critical figure of Sir Arnold Savage. Far from holding a grudge against him, Henry sought to put his critical faculties to constructive use. Where Richard would have held a grudge, and looked for a chance to execute a man who dared to speak so harshly against him, Henry sought an opportunity to accommodate the man’s skills within the government. That difference, the ability of the tree to bend and sway in the storm, was one of the key reasons why Henry survived and Richard did not.


Henry went down to Eltham for Easter (30 March) 1404, but was back at Westminster shortly afterwards. On 15 April – his thirty-seventh birthday – the French invaded Dartmouth. The following day, the duke of Burgundy, who had hitherto restrained his nephew, the duke of Orléans, from taking France into war against England, fell mortally ill. The day after that, Henry learned that a new plot was being hatched against him. Out of the frying pan of parliament and into the fires of invasion and rebellion: the spring of 1404 was shaping up to be a sequence of renewed challenges.

The plot of Margaret, countess of Oxford, was the sixth against Henry in four years.5 In some ways it was the strangest of them all. It involved a series of local prelates and the countess inviting the duke of Orléans and the count of St Pol to invade England by a certain route in Essex the previous December, and to march on Henry in the name of King Richard.6 That had not happened, of course, but still the plot developed as the plotters involved more and more people, shifting their expectations to a projected meeting between the supposedly living Richard II and Owen Glendower at Northampton on Midsummer’s Day 1404. The first Henry seems to have known of it was on 17 April, when he despatched his loyal esquire Elmyn Leget and Sir William Coggeshall to Essex to arrest three men: John Staunton, a servant of the countess of Oxford; John Fowler, a canon of St Osyth; and John Nele, a goldsmith. At the same time he ordered a precautionary fleet to assemble at Sandwich.

By any reckoning, it was a half-baked plan. The plotters themselves seem to have been very patient in their plotting, and we have to suspect that there was a certain degree of catharsis for the countess in the whole process. She was not only the mother of Richard’s favourite, Robert de Vere, but a first cousin of the Percys. Discussing ways to bring down Henry’s government seems to have occupied her agreeably in the wake of Shrewsbury and the loss of her kin. In reality, a French invasion was never likely to rouse the people into deposing Henry; more probably it would have been seen as a threat. If the attack on Dartmouth at this time was anything to go by, the French were not welcome. A well-organised series of defensive measures forced the invaders to fight immediately on landing there. Even the women of Dartmouth joined in the resistance. The French lord of Château Neuf – a man who had been vociferously against Henry – was killed, and many prisoners taken, including the lord’s brothers. Another attack by the count of St Pol on the Isle of Wight similarly met with stiff resistance. Regardless of what the people of Essex might have thought of the idea of an invasion in the name of Richard II, the French parties to the countess’s plot had no illusions about being greeted as a relieving army on landing in southern England.

Henry himself seems to have given little time to the plot. Long before the first confessions came – Staunton made his at the end of May – he had departed for the north. He wrote to the mayor of Dartmouth from Nottingham on 25 May asking him to bring five of his prisoners for questioning about the French plans.7 Perhaps it was in this way that he learned of the secret negotiations between the French and Glendower, which resulted in a treaty sealed the following month. His enemies were massing against him, and increasingly acting in conjunction with each other. In June the Cistercian abbot of Revesby Abbey (Lincolnshire) preached a sermon claiming that there were ten thousand men in England who believed ‘King Richard is alive’.8 With East Anglia seething with treason, and the Percy castles in the north holding out against Henry (despite the earl of Northumberland’s surrender), and the enmity of the Welsh, French and Scots, Henry was under attack on all the points of the compass.

Henry’s motive for moving north had nothing to do with any of these outward pressures. By June he was aware that his resources were woefully inadequate. The January 1404 parliament had practically disempowered him. He thus retreated to his own estates, and tried to live more like a Lancastrian magnate, using the wherewithal of his own manors. By 21 June he was at his castle of Pontefract; after that he kept close to Lancastrian lands for several months, spending almost all of September, for example, at Tutbury Castle. Even this measure did not save sufficient money to alleviate the situation. It was for want of men and money that two of the most important castles in North Wales – Harlech and Aberystwyth – now fell to Glendower. Harlech had been defended by just five Englishmen and sixteen Welshmen.9 They had successfully held the immensely strong castle against Glendower and had even locked up their castellan who had been on the verge of surrendering, but in the end they opted for a peaceful surrender. Henry must have cursed; it would be very difficult to win it back again.

Henry did have one piece of good luck at this time. William Clifford, a retainer of the earl of Northumberland, brought William Serle to him in June.10 Henry could take a particular satisfaction in administering justice to the man who had personally killed his uncle. More importantly, Serle’s capture was a dramatic propaganda coup. He confessed he had stolen Richard’s signet ring in 1399, and that he had used it to seal the letters from the false Richard in Scotland. He also confessed that he knew the Scottish Richard to be an impostor.11 There was no doubt as to his sentence: he was to be drawn, hanged, disembowelled with his intestines being burnt before him, beheaded and quartered. It was the same full traitor’s death as that suffered by John Hall five years earlier, with one dramatic refinement. He was to be drawn through the streets of all the towns through which he passed on the way to London, going the long way, through East Anglia. Furthermore, he was hanged in each place and cut down while still alive, before being drawn on to the next town.12 In this way, over the next six weeks he was drawn through the streets of Pontefract, Lincoln, Norwich and many towns in Suffolk, Essex and Hertfordshire. Those ten thousand who said ‘King Richard is alive’ were now shown the man who had created the lie. This demonstration went a long way to persuading the clergy and commoners that it would be useless from now on to campaign against Henry in the name of Richard II. Combined with the betrothal of Richard’s widow, Princess Isabella of France, to her cousin Charles, son of the duke of Orléans – by which the French royal family demonstrated that they believed Richard truly to be dead – the name of Richard II was stripped of its political potency. For many years men continued to profess faith in the Scottish impostor but only on an individual basis. Never again was there a serious rebellion in the name of the murdered king.


In normal circumstances the loss of Harlech would have resulted in Henry leading a short, punitive expedition. He had led such a campaign every year of his reign to date. But this time there was no money. The cash in the hands of the war treasurers was consumed in paying for the defence of the seas and for the troops with the prince. So, when Glendower held his first ‘parliament’ at Machynlleth that summer, and had himself crowned Owen IV, prince of Wales, there was nothing Henry could do to stop him. There was no money even to pay the wages of the troops already stationed in South Wales. Predictably, Prince Owen took advantage of this English inaction. The villages around Shrewsbury were attacked. On 20 August the town of Kidwelly was captured and burned by the Welsh. Rumours reached the English court of a substantial French fleet gathering at Harfleur to support Glendower. It was becoming apparent that the January 1404 parliament had made a grave mistake in trying to improve government by financially tying the king’s hands.

Henry was in a very difficult position. He could simply have sacrificed Wales, and done nothing, blaming parliament for everything. But that would have been breaking his coronation vows, and counter to everything for which he had returned in 1399. It would have done nothing to encourage his son, the prince, who was pawning his own goods in order to keep an army in the field to defend Herefordshire.13 Henry had to do something, even if it involved summoning another parliament and going through the whole damaging process again. On 26 August that was precisely what he decided to do, issuing writs on that day for parliament to assemble at Coventry in October. No lawyers were to be summoned this time, because it was said they spent too much time dealing with their own business and not enough with the more important matters of state. It has thus been known historically as the Unlearned Parliament.14 That is a misnomer; it was a more serious assembly than many others of the reign, for it was concerned exclusively with meeting the threats from France and Wales. Lawyers who wanted to present their own petitions could wait until the dangers had passed.

On 29 August Henry held a meeting of his council at Lichfield.15 The French fleet gathering at Harfleur was discussed, and letters were sent out to the leading maritime men of Devon, including John Hawley of Dartmouth, Philip Courtenay of Powderham, Peter Courtenay (the earl of Devon’s son) and Henry Pay (another notorious Devon privateer), instructing them to resist the expected armada. The council confirmed that, as Henry could not afford to raise an army to defend Wales, he should not attempt a campaign. Until parliament gave him enough money to do otherwise, he himself was to remain on his estates at Tutbury.

Meeting in such circumstances, the leaders of the commons might have been expected to acknowledge the deep flaws in their experiment in royal control and readily grant the necessary taxation. They did no such thing. A bitter dispute ensued, in which two forms of raising money were discussed at length. The first involved the confiscation of the temporalities – the secular income – of the entire Church. Needless to say, the commons were more than happy to think that the clergy could be forced to give up a proportion of their wealth to dig the nation out of a financial hole. But equally unsurprisingly the proposal gave rise to several sharp and impassioned speeches from Archbishop Arundel, who persuaded the commons at length to give up on the plan. Instead a petition was put forward whereby Henry would rebuild the ancient inheritance of the Crown, taking back into his hands everything – annuities, fees, castles and lands – that had been granted since the fortieth year of Edward III’s reign, which ended on 24 January 1367. To this Henry replied in person, in English – the first time a king is recorded as replying to a parliamentary petition in English. He thanked the commons for their proposal, and agreed to put it into practice as soon as practicable. He promised that a commission would be set up to examine which grants made since January 1367 should be confirmed and which should be revoked. He did not agree to the resumption of annuities, but with regard to lands, fees and castles, he ordered that those with grants since 1367 should present their documents for inspection to the commission by 2 February 1405.16

To the commons it seemed at last that the king was taking action to increase royal income, and on this basis they agreed to an exceptionally generous tax. This amounted to two tenths and fifteenths, as well as a renewal of the wool subsidies for two years, and a five per cent income tax on the lords with annual incomes over five hundred marks (£333 6s 8d). Three weeks later, the convocation of the clergy in the province of Canterbury agreed to a subsidy of one and a half tenths, a generous grant which no doubt reflected Archbishop Arundel’s relief at the Church not having its temporalities confiscated. By the end of November, Henry could be confident that he had the means to do what he considered to be his main responsibility as king: to defend the realm.


As Christmas 1404 approached, it seemed that the tide had turned. At last Henry had the money for the military expeditions which parliament felt were necessary and which he himself felt obliged to lead. Although the cash was in the hands of two war treasurers, Sir John Pelham and Lord Furnival, both men were Henry’s friends.17 Henry himself was happily married again, one daughter was married and the other betrothed; his elder sons were performing well in their respective duties, and his half-brothers John and Henry Beaufort were providing a sound base for his kingship among the magnates and prelates. His brother-in-law Ralph Neville, earl of Westmorland, had a firm grip on the north of England and was siring nephews and nieces for Henry by the dozen (literally). To cap it all his sister Elizabeth was pregnant with a child by her new husband, Sir John Cornwaille, Henry’s jousting friend. But the fundamental problem had not gone away. Indeed, it could be said that Henry had made a grave mistake in the parliament of October 1404. The promise he had made to the commons – to resume control of the ancient royal inheritance – was one he could not keep without alienating the recipients of these grants. These included many of the supporters on whom he relied, especially those Lancastrian retainers who held his head above water in parliament. In short, Henry had made a promise he could not keep. When political leaders start to break their promises, they very quickly destroy any trust the political classes have in them.

Nor was that the limit of Henry’s problems. As he and Joan spent Christmas 1404 at Eltham Palace, he may have been the subject of yet another assassination attempt. It is difficult to be certain of the details, but two months later Lady Constance Despenser (the widow of the earl of Gloucester killed during the Epiphany Rising) accused her brother, the duke of York, of attempting to assassinate Henry at Eltham. She claimed that the duke’s assassins were planning to scale the walls of Eltham Palace, or would ambush him on the road.18 What is not in doubt is that, shortly afterwards, the duke was complicit in a plot to seize Edmund and Roger Mortimer, the two heirs to the Mortimer claim to the throne. Henry certainly blamed him, as he imprisoned him for ten months. Thus, even if the Eltham assassination attempt was a complete fiction invented by Lady Despenser, we now come to the seventh plot against Henry in just over five years.

When Henry had come to the throne in 1399, he had wisely taken the precaution of securing the two young Mortimer boys, and placing them in royal custody at Windsor. Their claim to the throne, through Edward III’s son Lionel, was arguably superior to his own, as was that of their uncle (the Edmund Mortimer who had married Glendower’s daughter in late 1402). Although it would have been difficult to resurrect it after Henry’s accession, particularly because of their youth (they were born in 1391 and 1393 respectively), they remained the most potent dynastic rivals to Henry. In fact their potency was enhanced by their youth; they might yet turn out to be good leaders, and so their cause was worth championing. Although Henry had had Richard II starved, he was never going to have two innocent boys murdered in cold blood simply on account of their claim to the throne. But he could not afford to let them fall into the wrong hands.19 With their uncle Edmund in support of Glendower, the potential for another plot against him on behalf of the Mortimers was something of which he was acutely aware.

In February 1405 the Mortimer boys were still at Windsor, in the care of Lady Despenser. With her assistance, a locksmith made duplicate copies of the keys to their chamber. At midnight, on or about 13 February, one Richard Milton took the duplicate keys and led them from the chamber in which they were sleeping.20 He was joined by Lady Despenser, her eight-year-old son, Richard, and an esquire called Morgan. Together they fled into the night, riding westwards for Abingdon and then South Wales, where her tenants were already in arms.

That night the king had been at Kennington, twenty-three miles away from Windsor. The disappearance of the Mortimer boys was discovered early in the morning of the 14th. The king set off immediately, sending his half-brother John Beaufort and a small group of men ahead to ride through the night. He reached Windsor that same evening. The following morning, before he left the castle, he dictated a letter to his secretary with news for the council:

At six o’clock this morning the king’s half-brother and others who rode before the king met a man who said that Lady Despenser and the March children have fled by Abingdon. The king’s men are going after them, but if they can escape they will take the road to Glamorgan and Cardiff. They have with them an esquire called Morgan, who according to his wife, is going to Flanders and France as part of the plot. If he is in London, try to capture him; also send to all the ports to prevent him getting a passage. Written in haste on Sunday morning at Windsor Castle.21

Henry himself added the words at the bottom of the page, ‘we pray you to think of the sea’, and signed it with his initials, ‘HR’. So rapid had been his reaction since learning of the Mortimers’ escape at Kennington that he had abandoned almost all his household, even his signet ring. It was the only time in his entire reign that he acted without his personal seal.

Henry was lucky. His advance party was able to ride ahead along the Cardiff road at breakneck speed and catch up with Lady Despenser and her young charges. They caught sight of them in a wood near Cheltenham and launched themselves into an attack. Several of Lady Despenser’s men were killed and the rest fled. Lady Despenser herself was arrested, and the precious Mortimer boys were taken back into custody. Lady Despenser was sent to Westminster immediately, where she accused her brother of treason before the royal council. She challenged him to a duel, hoping that someone would fight for her. One William Maidstone offered to do so, but the duke was not given the chance to respond. Instead he was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower.22 As for the locksmith who had made the keys, he was made an example to others. First his hand was cut off, and then his head.


Although Henry did not realise it at the time, the escape of the Mortimer boys was potentially more dangerous than the mere escape of rival heirs to the throne. Two weeks after the failure of the plot to seize the Mortimers, their uncle negotiated an agreement with Owen Glendower and the earl of Northumberland. This was straightforward in one respect: each man promised to defend the others and to give them warning of any impending dangers. But then it added, ‘if it appears to the three lords with the passage of time that they are indeed the persons of whom the prophet speaks, between whom the government of Great Britain ought to be divided and partitioned, then they will strive … to ensure that this is effected’.23

There is no doubt what this means. The Prophecy of the Six Kings states that the sixth king after John (i.e. Henry IV) would be the last. He would be a ‘moldewarp’ (a mole) and he would have a rough skin like a goat. Early in his reign,

a dragon shall rise up in the north which shall be full fierce, and shall move war against the moldewarp, and shall give him battle upon a stone. This dragon shall gather again into his company a wolf that shall come out of the west, that shall begin war against the moldewarp on his side, and so shall the dragon and he bind their tails together. Then shall come a lion out of Ireland that shall fall in company with them, and then shall England tremble … the moldewarp shall flee for dread, and the dragon, the lion and the wolf shall drive him away … and the land shall be partitioned in three parts: to the wolf, to the dragon and to the lion, and so it shall be for evermore.24

Clearly, the earl of Northumberland saw himself as the dragon from the north, Glendower as the wolf from the west and Edmund Mortimer the lion out of Ireland. Edmund was the grandson of Lionel, Edward III’s third son and for several years governor of Ireland, and the Mortimer family were among the largest English landowners in Ireland. If they could drive away Henry, the land would be theirs to divide between them. They even made an arrangement as to where the borders were to run. Northumberland was to have twelve northern counties, Glendower all of Wales and a fair portion of the Midlands (the area bounded by the rivers Severn, Trent and Mersey). Edmund Mortimer was to have the rest of England.25 Edmund’s own claim to any form of kingship was, of course, subsidiary to that of his nephews; and it is unlikely a man who was a mere knight by birth could ever have been accepted as a king of southern England, especially when he himself was not the heir. His nephew, on the other hand, had a genuine claim to the throne and was an earl twice over, being the earl of March and Ulster. It goes to show how important the recapture of the elder Mortimer boy was in February 1405. If he had escaped, the ground would have been clear for the Glendower-led rising to have been accompanied with a revolt in southern England in the young earl’s name and a Percy-led revolt in the north. The last of these was already in the planning; the Mortimers’ claim on the south was the one piece of the jigsaw missing.

For Glendower, this agreement (known as ‘the Tripartite Indenture’) was a means to an end, a bargaining chip. Much of the English land he supposedly coveted in this agreement had been threatened or actually destroyed by his forces, especially parts of Herefordshire and Shropshire. He could always give up his claim to these at a later stage, if such a negotiated settlement with the Mortimers was required. His principal interest remained Wales, and there he seemed stronger than ever. Two of the four Welsh bishops – St Asaph and Bangor – now joined his cause. He planned to hold his second parliament that August at the mighty Harlech Castle, a fitting surrounding to his emerging court, to which representatives from France and Scotland were again invited.

As Glendower’s boldness grew, so too did Henry’s resolve. It is interesting to see these two leaders battling independently for their respective causes. As individuals they had much in common. Neither man was born to rule, yet both had glorious ancestries and were connected to prophecies of greatness. Both were intelligent and had a much higher standard of education than most of their contemporaries. Both were spiritually devout and yet prepared to manipulate the Church to suit their political aims.26 Both were fervent nationalists and believed force should be used to advance the nationalist cause. Both courted foreign approval for their novel forms of government, and both were the subject of assassination attempts.27 But, most strikingly, both were incredibly resilient, able to weather defeat and opposition and to come back, time and time again, pressing for the higher goal. They each had their difficulties, the waves of good and bad luck, popular appeal, widespread criticism and distrust, but their determination was similarly absolute. Now, as Glendower raised the bar of resistance, Henry leaped to the challenge. And this time he had the funds to take an army into Wales and hammer the Welsh harder than ever.

Directly after the recapture of the Mortimer boys, Henry had returned to Westminster. From there he went to Berkhamsted, where he received a letter from his eldest son, dated 11 March 1405, announcing that he had that day defeated a force of eight thousand Welsh rebels who had burned part of the town of Grosmont.28 Exultant, Henry went to St Albans and announced to a great council his intention to ride against the Welsh the following month. Provision was made for reinforcing the castles in Wales with two thousand men. Plans were made for a double attack on Wales, with the prince leading an army of five hundred men-at-arms and three thousand archers into North Wales while Henry led a similar army into South Wales.29 It was reminiscent of the three-pronged attack planned against Glendower in 1402, and designed to end the Welsh rebellion once and for all.

As soon as the 1405 Garter feast had been held at Windsor, Henry rushed towards the mustering point, reaching Worcester on 3 May. There he waited a week, before moving on to Hereford. News was coming in from all over his dominions. The troublesome count of St Pol had attacked the English-held town of Marck, near Calais, with several thousand French, Genoese and Flemish troops on 12 May. The small garrison abandoned the town and retreated into the castle, which the count then proceeded to besiege. At Calais, the English saw the chance of a quick expedition to relieve the garrison. On 15 March, Sir Richard Aston took a force of seven hundred men, including two hundred archers, against the assailants, backed up with twelve cartloads of arrows.30 Once again, English archery proved devastating; fifteen French knights were killed, nine hundred prisoners were taken, and the count of St Pol fled to Saint-Omer without his armour.31 When Henry heard the news of the relief of Marck, he declared it a miracle and ordered all the bishops in England to give thanks for the victory.32

The news followed hard on the heels of a Welsh attack, also in early May, on Usk Castle. The assault was led in person by Glendower’s son, Gruffydd.33 The castle, defended by its captain Sir John Greyndour and Lord Grey of Codnor, had recently been strengthened with more royal soldiers. They not only beat off the attack but made a sortie, pursuing the Welsh through Monkswood, killing many and capturing more at Pwll Melyn. So bitter was the hatred of the Welsh at this juncture – two years after the town of Usk had been burned by Glendower’s forces – that three hundred Welsh prisoners were beheaded. But the real victory lay in the symbolic defeat of Glendower’s family. His son and heir Gruffydd was captured and sent in chains to Henry. On the battlefield, among the dead, the English found a body that resembled Glendower himself. It turned out to be his brother, Tudor, but nevertheless the Great Magician who had once been so elusive, and who had caused Englishmen to believe he could make himself invisible, had lost his son and his brother. Even if he claimed to be prince of Wales, his dynasty was hanging by a thread. Only one son, Maredudd, now remained at his side.


As has already been seen, Henry had high expectations of his sons. Considering he himself had been jousting in public at the age of fourteen, it is perhaps not surprising that he should have regarded them as competent for military command at the same age. At fourteen, the prince had been entrusted with an army in North Wales; Thomas had been sent to Ireland at the same age. Since then both boys had proved their worth; the eldest had led a battalion at the battle of Shrewsbury and defeated the rebels at Grosmont, and Thomas had shown himself to be similarly courageous. In May 1405 Henry made Thomas an admiral, although he was not yet seventeen, and directed him to lead a naval attack on the French coast. Henry’s third son, John, had also been fourteen when his father had made him constable of England and appointed him Warden of the East March. In the wake of the Percy revolt, this had been a heavy responsibility. Now, two years on, John too was about to repay his father’s confidence.

While Henry was at Hereford planning his Welsh campaign he received a letter from the council. They acknowledged a letter he had sent on 8 May from Worcester, and answered most of the points he mentioned, providing money for various forces. They also mentioned that Henry’s son John had relayed some important intelligence. Lord Bardolph had recently left Westminster, unexpectedly, and John had learned that he had secretly made his way into the north. Lord Bardolph was a close ally of the earl of Northumberland. John had the presence of mind to inform the council immediately of this news, and the council in turn at once informed Henry, sending him a thousand marks in case prompt action was required.

Henry realised the danger of leading the campaign into Wales while the earl of Northumberland and Lord Bardolph were conspiring. The intelligence he received from his son confirmed a number of suspicions. It followed an attempt by the earl of Northumberland to ambush Westmorland.34 In the wake of this attempt, Henry had sent Sir Robert Waterton to the earl at Warkworth, to interrogate him. Northumberland had responded in a high-handed fashion, imprisoning Waterton. News of Lord Bardolph’s secret trip finally confirmed to Henry that trouble was brewing in the north. They were waiting for him to ride into Wales so they could take advantage of his absence to proclaim the renewal of their rebellion.

On 23 May Henry rode to Worcester, to call off the Welsh campaign. On the 26th he began a rapid journey north, hoping to surprise any wouldbe rebels as they gathered. On the 28th he was at Derby, from where he wrote to the council, stating that he expected they had heard by now that the earls of Northumberland and Norfolk, and Lord Bardolph, had raised an army against him.35 He urged the council to bring men to meet him at Pontefract for the safe-keeping of the realm. Then he rode on to Nottingham, receiving regular updates as the situation developed. He heard that Northumberland had ordered his castles to be defended against the king. The earl of Westmorland and John of Lancaster, the king’s son, were marching together to confront a rebel army gathered at Topcliffe. And at York, Richard Scrope, the archbishop of York, had led an armed mass of citizens on to Shipton Moor, six miles from the city.

Archbishop Scrope’s armed mass demonstration followed so soon after Northumberland’s seizure of Waterton that it appears impossible it was mere coincidence. Too many men joined in the rising at almost the same time for it to have been a series of separate conspiracies which all just happened to be in full swing on 26 May 1405.36 Nevertheless, there were many different agendas, and many different forms of protest. What seems to have happened is that, after the earl of Northumberland’s rising began to take shape, the northern gentry assembled at Topcliffe, Allerton and Cleveland, led by Sir John Fauconberg, Sir Ralph Hastings, Sir John fitz Randolph and Sir John Colville.37 At the same time or very shortly afterwards, Archbishop Scrope, Thomas Mowbray, earl of Norfolk, Sir William Plumpton, Sir Robert Lamplugh and Sir Robert Persay sought to bring the city of York and its environs out in sympathy, raising a manifesto which their supporters pinned to church doors and city gates, and in the streets and alleys. The clergy were stirred by the archbishop’s sermons against clerical taxation.38 The merchants and people of the city were only too pleased to follow the archbishop’s lead in complaining against taxes. When it became clear that Northumberland, Lord Bardolph and Sir William Clifford had risen in arms against Henry, the archbishop’s word ignited an explosion of pent-up anger within the city. Eight or nine thousand men followed him and the earl of Norfolk out on to Shipton Moor.39

Coming so soon after the sealing of the Tripartite Indenture, there can be little doubt that the earl of Northumberland’s ambition was to drive Henry from the realm. The gentry who raised their standards at Topcliffe sought to correct faults in the government of the kingdom and to remove certain individuals who were advising the king. The archbishop’s demands were similar: a general reform of the government, the reversal of clerical taxation and the reorganisation of government expenditure for the purposes of resisting foreign enemies and to protect trade. His manifesto added that if these reforms were carried out, the rebels in Wales would lay down their arms and submit to English rule.40 While this seems preposterous, it perhaps reflects Northumberland’s hope that, somehow, the combination of forces would drive Henry from the kingdom, according to the old prophecy, and bring peace to all Britain.

The Yorkshire Rising was doomed from the outset. The various leaders seem to have operated on the basis that numbers alone would lead to success. There was no real strategy. Perhaps the failure lay in the very first act of the rebellion, the failure to seize Westmorland. Had that move succeeded, the gentry might have been able to move south with greater force, under Northumberland’s leadership, linking up with the citizens of York. As it was, Westmorland and John of Lancaster were at liberty to drive the earl of Northumberland and Lord Bardolph north to Berwick, and then to disperse the army gathered at Topcliffe. Following those successes, the king’s brother-in-law and son rode for York, where they met the archbishop and the earl of Norfolk. They pitched camp a little way off, and persuaded the archbishop and the earl to leave their citizen army in order to discuss their grievances. At the meeting Westmorland pretended to be most convivial, drinking with the archbishop and earl and assuring them that they had now done their part in raising these matters about the government of the realm.41 He gave them assurances that he would put their complaints forward for discussion by the king. As he spoke, the armed citizens were being persuaded to return to the city. Archbishop Scrope and the earl of Norfolk were then discreetly arrested. By the end of the month, Westmorland and John had destroyed the entire rising.

Henry had sent reinforcements during the disturbances but had himself stayed clear of the trouble, at Nottingham.42 After the arrest of Scrope, Mowbray and Plumpton, he moved north via Doncaster to Pontefract, where Westmorland brought the three arrested men. Henry took them to Bishopthorpe, the archbishop’s castle, three miles south of York. The news he heard of their wrongdoings only confirmed the fate he had in mind. They complained of poor government: as far as Henry was concerned, displays like theirs were the cause of his government’s failings. At the very moment he had been about to lead a double attack to end the Welsh revolt, their disturbance had forced him to call off the expedition, wasting large amounts of money in the process. Nor was this the first time; regularly the archbishop had persuaded the northern province not to grant money for the defence of the realm. Since 1401, they had granted only half the taxation of their brother clergy in the south. When the archbishop of York sought an interview with the king, he was refused. Instead Henry sent his half-brother, Thomas Beaufort, to take away Scrope’s crozier. It was an ominous sign.

Archbishop Arundel knew Henry well and realised what the likely outcome would be. As soon as he heard that his fellow archbishop had been arrested for treason, he set off from London, hoping to catch Henry before he could sentence the archbishop. On the way he learned that Henry was intending to teach the northerners a lesson by executing their rebellious archbishop at his own castle.43 Arundel pushed on, riding day and night. On 6 June, as Henry and his prisoners arrived at Bishopthorpe, the fifty-one-year-old Arundel was still some way south. It was not until late the following night that he rode into the courtyard of the castle, and asked to see the king. He was told Henry was in his chamber. Arundel, believing that he was the only man who could persuade Henry not to take the drastic action of executing the archbishop, burst in and pleaded with Henry for Archbishop Scrope’s life. What would people think if he, Henry, were to kill an archbishop? Look what people said about the last King Henry who had killed an archbishop, Thomas Becket! Could he really be willing to bring such disaster upon himself? He was widely rumoured to have killed his cousin, an anointed king; was he now going to compound his sins by killing a religious leader? He told Henry in no uncertain terms that, as archbishop of Canterbury and the king’s spiritual father, and the ‘second man in the realm’ after the king, he should leave any sentencing of the archbishop to the pope. Either that or let the man be judged in parliament.44

Henry listened to his old friend, but he did not agree with him. He had been down each of these roads before. He had let judgement on the bishop of Carlisle pass to the pope after the Epiphany Rising. There had been a long delay and eventually the man had been acquitted. He had let judgement on the earl of Northumberland pass to parliament the previous year. They had celebrated his opposition to Henry and had irresponsibly let him keep his castles and lands. Such a decision was one of the reasons he was facing this plot now and not fighting Glendower. The time had come to show absolute resolve, to show that the stability of the realm was more important than respect to a man of the cloth who was prepared to commit acts of treason in the name of God.

Henry, of course, did not say these things directly to his friend. Instead he said ‘I cannot [agree], on account of the masses’. He urged his friend to go to bed, as he was tired after his long ride. In the morning they would have breakfast together and discuss the matter further. Nothing would be done without Arundel’s advice, he said. Exhausted, Arundel retired for the night, but not before he had summoned a notary to the chamber and had him record exactly what the king had said to him. The two men then bade each other good night. But Henry did not go to bed. As soon as the archbishop had left he ordered a court to be summoned. He called together the earl of Arundel (nephew of the archbishop) and his own half-brother, Thomas Beaufort, and several lawyers. They tried the archbishop, the earl of Norfolk and Sir William Plumpton that same night, and found all three of them guilty of treason. As Thomas Arundel went down to breakfast next morning, he did not know that the prisoners were being sentenced elsewhere in the castle. About midday, all three were led out to a field nearby and beheaded.


The execution of an archbishop stunned all of Christendom, not just England, and it demands that we stare hard at Henry, who was solely responsible. No one else can be apportioned a part of the blame. Henry had taken the archbishop to his own castle deliberately, and had forcibly removed his crozier before his trial. When Justice William Gascoigne declined to pass the sentence of death on an archbishop, Henry set about finding a lawyer who would, even though Gascoigne was a man in whom he had ‘a special confidence’.45 So why did Henry kill the archbishop? And what does it say about Henry himself, the only Englishman ever to authorise the killing of an archbishop as well as a king?

It is necessary to look at this question from various points of view. Take Archbishop Arundel’s position, for example. As we have seen, he was still one of Henry’s staunchest supporters, and widely known to be his close friend and adviser. Arundel’s close association with the first king to order the death of an archbishop since Henry II killed Becket made him look a fool. The alternative was that Arundel could be seen to be complicit in the death. Hence Arundel could only see the death as deeply damaging to himself, and a slap in the face for his friendship over all the years. It is hardly surprising that he collapsed shortly after being told about the execution.46

The public were similarly shocked. Killing an archbishop deeply damaged the king’s popularity. Whether justifiable or not, it was evidence of a disregard for holy office which was simply un-Christian. Unsurprisingly, it was not long before men were reporting miracles at the tomb of Archbishop Scrope. Those disposed to give Henry the benefit of the doubt could only say that he had snapped under pressure, that his temper had momentarily given way. Even his supporters would probably have said that he had committed a grave mistake. Any rebels who wished to use a dead man’s name for a rallying cry against the king now had an alternative to ‘King Richard is alive’. They could cry with far greater conviction ‘Archbishop Scrope is dead’. He was a second Thomas Becket, murdered by the king for daring to question royal policy. This last aspect – the martyrdom of Archbishop Scrope as a spokesman against royal tyranny – would have been the most worrying aspect of the whole episode in the eyes of Henry’s secular supporters.

But what about Henry himself? What was going through his mind in the early hours of 8 June 1405? Herein lies an opportunity to view him at his most exposed: reacting violently, under great pressure. And the more we concentrate on him at that moment, the more it appears that there is a character here who is determined – desperate, yes, but acting in full awareness of what he was doing. This is the crucial point: Henry refused the advice of the men he most trusted. In addition, he planned the killing before the sentence was delivered, as can be seen in the way he fobbed off Archbishop Arundel. He clearly believed that he knew better than anyone else – better than the lawyers and the prelates – what was good for him and England. It shows incredible self-confidence after at least eight attempts to dethrone or kill him and uncounted numbers of protests against his rule, both in and outside parliament. Any normal person by this stage would have wanted to take a back seat and let others take the responsibility, but not Henry. He went all the way, and killed an archbishop, at the very moment it was guaranteed to make him exceedingly unpopular.

For this reason we may be sure that, contrary to what many people thought at the time, the killing of Archbishop Scrope was not a mistake. This is not to say it was the right thing to do, just that Henry knew the likely consequences and did what he personally felt was right. The bitterness he felt towards Scrope set the context, especially his anger at the timing of the revolt to coincide with his great Welsh campaign. But the real reason why Scrope’s execution stunned people was because of his religious high office, not Henry’s antipathy. Henry had no respect for high office, be it religious or secular. Richard II had been a divinely anointed king and that had not saved him. Besides, it was a kingly thing to do, to execute a traitor who occupied high office. Peasants might murder an archbishop, as they had done during the Peasants’ Revolt, but only kings could authorise an archbishop’s execution. The killing of Archbishop Scrope thus sent a political message throughout the kingdom. No matter who you were, whether archbishop or earl, you could be killed in order to preserve order.

The man who had come to the throne vowing to be merciful had been forced once again to display ruthless force, to demonstrate to his people that they could not presume upon his mercy. Ever since the Epiphany Rising, Henry had been learning this lesson. It would appear that he now fully understood how naïve this promise had been. The experience of government had changed him. His promise to rule with the advice of the great men of the realm had similarly turned sour: any leader who felt ignored could accuse him of breaking his word. Henry seems now to have decided that what England needed was not a compromised, listening, merciful king who consulted his advisers on every important matter of state, but a man of spiritual confidence and political determination. He would not be taken for granted any more. From now on, when necessary, he would rule with an iron fist.

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