Post-classical history


Smooth Comforts False

They bring smooth comforts false, worse than true wrongs.

Henry IV Part Two, Act 1, Scene 1

On 8 June 1405, the day of Archbishop Scrope’s execution, Henry rode into York. Having conducted his business – arranging for the administration of the diocese and granting several pardons – he set out for the north. Notwithstanding that a summer storm was brewing, he wanted to attack the earl of Northumberland’s castles as soon as possible. The wind turned to a gale, the rain grew heavier, and Henry directed his companions to seek shelter at the nearby manor of Green Hammerton. Later that night, as he slept at the manor, Henry started screaming. ‘Traitors! Traitors!’ he yelled, ‘you have thrown fire over me!’ When his servants reached him they found him complaining that his skin was burning. They gave him wine and tried to soothe his fears that this was yet another assassination attempt, but with little success. He was clearly ill. According to one account, his face was covered in red pustules.

For those who were with him, the king’s sickness was shocking. For the rest of the country, coming on the very day of the archbishop’s execution, it could be nothing other than an act of divine vengeance. Within a short while it was being reported that God had smitten him with leprosy.1 The use of the emotive biblical word is anti-Lancastrian propaganda; the rumourmongers may as well have said that Henry had the ‘elderlich skin of a goat’ which the last of the prophesied six kings, the moldewarp, was supposed to have. Henry did not have leprosy (not as we understand it, anyway), as proved by an examination of his corpse in the nineteenth century.2 But only in this respect was his illness a fiction. Having been taken to more suitable accommodation at Ripon, he spent a full week convalescing. Shortly afterwards he wrote to the council reassuring them of his good health, and thanking God for it.3

This brings us to perhaps the knottiest problem in the life of Henry IV: how ill was he, and did he ever recover? Did his illnesses have significant consequences for his mental state? Was he able to travel? At what point did people start to look more to his successor as the key to future preferment? All these questions suddenly become relevant. And they all require a degree of precision in their answering. Edward III, for instance, had probably been physically weak and ‘ill’ for at least ten years before he died in 1377, but he continued to transact a significant level of royal business until the mid-1370s and even attempted to lead an expedition to France in 1372.4 As we shall see, even when Henry was undoubtedly ill, he still declared that he would lead armies against his enemies. It is thus one of those areas of biography in which we cannot ‘err on the side of caution’ for no side is safer than another. The dangers of overstating the effects of Henry’s illness are every bit as great as those of ignoring them.

The traditional way of approaching the illness of a historical individual is to act as a sort of bedside consultant across the centuries, and try to determine what was wrong with him. The idea is that by identifying the illness, we may understand what was happening to the sufferer. However, as medical historians are quick to point out, this is nigh on impossible in the case of a medieval king. All we have to go on are a few symptoms reported by chroniclers who probably never met Henry at all, let alone met him at the time of his suffering. Henry himself never publicly gave out any details about his health; it was not becoming for a king to reveal his weaknesses.5 But lack of knowledge of the symptoms is just the tip of the problem. We do not know what diseases were suffered in the early fifteenth century which are not suffered now. Some diseases (Sweating Sickness, for example) have come and gone since Henry’s time. Similarly, it is not possible to assume that all modern diseases which fit the pattern of Henry’s illness were around in fifteenth-century England. Nor can we assume that the same diseases were suffered in the same way; for example, plague in 1348 and syphilis in 1500 manifested themselves very differently from the equivalent diseases in later centuries. Even if we could say that Henry suffered from a specific illness, there is the problem that we do not know which complications attended his suffering. He could have had a skin disease and heart disease at the same time, and then suffered a stroke or heart attack, or both consecutively. Alternatively, the cause of his suffering might have been a hereditary weakness, such as the inability to produce an enzyme, leading to the gradual degradation of the body. In short, acting as Henry’s bedside consultant is a parlour game for medical antiquaries.

The starting point for considering Henry’s medical condition historically has to be his health before this: how well he was before this new ailment struck. To this question we might reply that Henry had fought at Shrewsbury two years earlier and been very active both before and after the battle, and so we should presume he was in good health at least at that time. However, it has to be added that there are signs that he was never a well man, in the sense of being in good health for long periods of time. From as early as 1387, when he and two of his servants contracted ‘the pox’ (meaning a skin disease of some sort), he was troubled by skin problems. He had been ill on the reyse at Königsberg in 1391, and had purchased medicines in 1395, 1397 (a plaster for his back) and 1398.6 These payments, like the pox, might indicate skin complaints long before 1405. According to Adam Usk, shortly after his coronation his hair fell out, supposedly a result of lice.7 Two images of Henry from the Great Cowcher of the duchy of Lancaster, made about 1402, show him with a full head of hair and a forked beard, but his portrait effigy at Canterbury, probably made from a death mask, shows him as completely bald; only the forked beard remains. Thus Usk (who was in exile at the time) might be right in stating that he lost his hair, although his timing is probably awry and a skin disease is a more likely cause than lice. In 1403 his surgeon purchased medicines for him, and admitted to the Holy Roman Emperor the following year that Henry had been ill.8 About the same time Henry was employing an extra surgeon. In Henry’s accounts we read of so many glass urinals that it would appear that he regularly sent samples of his urine to his physician, for inspection as to colour and consistency, from which his general state of health could be determined (according to medieval ideas of medicine). In this light it is particularly interesting that he commissioned a treatise on uroscopy – the examination of urine by physicians – to be written.9 When we add the purchase of the bezoar stone to protect against poison and the repair of astrolabes to work out the positions of the stars for determining when to let blood and take medicines, what emerges is a picture of a man who was not only regularly ill but fearful of ill health. He even seems to have had problems with his teeth.10 This morbidity allows us to say with conviction that Henry paid particular attention to his physical condition, and was aware of the implications of being seen to be ill. It also means that he was used to coping with sickness. So when he was afflicted suddenly at Green Hammerton, it was not just a minor irritation which caused him to suspend his journey north and spend a week recovering at Ripon.

To go beyond this we need to concentrate not on the king’s incapacity, but on his health. This paradox may most easily be explained by referring to Henry’s mental state. Henry took part in at least fifty jousting competitions before he became king. If he rode just ten strokes in each tournament, that still amounts to at least five hundred occasions when, in full armour and mounted on a war horse, he charged straight into another object of a similar weight (the man, armour and horse combined weighing more than half a ton), with all the pressure of the charge focused on the point of the lance, at a closing speed of more than forty miles per hour. The strain on the body, including the brain, of such an impact would have been considerable, way in excess of the being-hit-by-a-twenty-pound-hammer effect which modern boxers experience. It is therefore reasonable to wonder whether he suffered from the condition which affects some boxers in retirement, known as ‘punch-drunk’. Alternatively, it has been suggested that during the storm on 8 June 1405, Henry had a stroke, for one account of his illness says he fell suddenly ill, having felt a blow during the storm.11However, if we look at the extant examples of his handwriting, we can see that his pen control in 1409 was almost as good as it had been in 1403.12Hence we may be confident that Henry’s sickness was not a brain condition resulting from his years of martial practice, nor was it a stroke which affected the writing-hand side of his body. In the summer of 1406 he was able to ride eighteen miles in a day and is described walking around the cloisters of Bardney Abbey, and these at a time when he seems to have been particularly determined to find a religious cure for his suffering. So we may rule out the idea that he suffered a severe stroke or apoplexy. His handwriting suggests that he retained his mental faculties even after the very severe attacks which left him apparently dead in 1408 and 1409. Until the last year of his life, his mind remained sharp, as is clear in his behaviour in later parliaments, especially that of 1411, and his other activities (for example, personally designing a large cannon in 1408). Therefore, whatever he was struck with in June 1405, his mind was not affected. It is unlikely that he ever fully recovered from his skin affliction, and his eventual baldness is probably to be connected with this ailment, but he remained sane. The more profound consequences of his illness would only became apparent the following year.


A week after his burning skin experience at Green Hammerton, he was back on the road, heading north. Good news spurred him on. In Wales, Glendower’s brother-in-law, John Hanmer, had been captured. The earl of Northumberland’s castles of Langley Prudhoe and Cockermouth had capitulated without a fight. Warkworth Castle initially defied Henry, even though he appeared in person before the walls, but submitted after one of his great cannon had blasted it seven times. These cannon were far advanced on the guns of the fourteenth century. They could weigh up to two tons and were specially designed to shoot very large balls of stone at high velocity into castle walls.13 Such weapons gave Henry a great advantage in tackling the strongholds of those who chose to rebel. They proved decisive again a few days later at Berwick, one of only two castles still holding out for the rebel earl. First, small cannon were used to demolish part of the walls of Berwick Castle; then a single stone from a larger cannon brought down a large portion of the Constable Tower, entirely removing a staircase and killing a man who was climbing it at the time.14 With such firepower ranged against them, the garrison despaired. By 12 July Berwick Castle was in Henry’s hands. Any men of high rank who had remained loyal to Northumberland were beheaded within the walls. Mercy was shown only to the common soldiers.

Henry did not waste time celebrating. As soon as Berwick had fallen he led his army along the coast road to Alnwick, twenty-seven miles to the south. He was there within two days. As soon as he appeared, the earl of Northumberland’s grandson capitulated, and marched out of the castle to surrender. Within two months of hearing of the earl of Northumberland’s plot, Henry had subdued every last fortress which had been held against him. In every respect it had been a ruthlessly efficient operation, despite his illness.

Nevertheless, two days’ rest was all Henry allowed himself at Newcastle. On 18 July he set out for the Lancastrian heartlands, to deal with the legal and bureaucratic fall-out from the rebellion. Enquiries had to be made, fines exacted and executions carried out. Many pardons had to be granted too, to those who did not deserve to die. Lands belonging to the discredited lords had to be taken into the king’s hands. Some of Mowbray’s estates went to Henry’s brother-in-law, Sir John Cornwaille. Lord Bardolph’s properties were largely given to his son John as a reward for his good service. Other lands were distributed around the royal family to help them with the shortfalls in their income following the restrictions imposed by parliament.

At the same time Henry attempted to relaunch his campaign against Glendower. This was never going to be easy: the opportune moment had passed. Had he been able to advance with two armies and ten thousand men in the immediate aftermath of the victories at Grosmont and Usk, he might have completely undermined Glendower’s position. Instead, the Yorkshire uprising had given Glendower the chance to regroup and reorganise. It had also allowed him to enlist the help of his French allies. Worst of all, it had depleted Henry’s reserves. Treasury clerks were ordered to raise advances to pay the troops for the forthcoming campaign on 20 July, while Henry was still at Durham. The money granted in 1404 had already been spent – on repaying old debts, the defence of the coasts, the defence of the Welsh castles, the aborted Welsh campaign, and financing his campaign against the earl of Northumberland. Henry was once again facing the problem of fighting a war with an empty treasury.

In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that Henry’s fifth Welsh campaign was very much like its four precursors: short and inconclusive. The principal difference was that a French force under the command of the lord of Hugueville had landed in Milford Haven in early August. Joining forces with Glendower, they had burned the towns of Haverfordwest, Tenby and Carmarthen. They then proceeded eastwards, and were within ten miles of Worcester when Henry arrived in the city. Seeing the enemy so near at hand, Henry led what forces were at his disposal out to meet them on Woodbury Hill. It was a courageous move; for eight days there was a stand-off, as the more numerous Franco-Welsh army hesitated to attack the English, and Henry did not dare risk leading his men against the Franco-Welsh without reinforcements. On the eighth day the assailants gave way, running short of supplies, and they retreated, leaving Henry free to ride to Hereford and assemble a larger force.

Henry’s 1405 campaign eventually set out from Hereford on 10 September. His purpose was, as always, to be seen by the people at the head of an army. This time he also had the specific war aim of relieving Coity Castle, in Glamorgan, which was then being besieged by the Welsh. This was quickly accomplished; the garrison was supplied with victuals and reinforced. On his return, however, Henry’s luck ran out, as it had so often in Wales, and he lost men and part of his baggage train in flash floods. Forty or fifty carts had to be abandoned to the swollen rivers and the impassable roads. By the end of the month, when Henry’s bedraggled army staggered back into Hereford, his frustration must have been immense. Having had such grand plans of crushing Glendower in May, all he had managed four months later was to relieve one castle. Despondent, he returned to Kenilworth.

The remainder of 1405 was a relatively inactive time for Henry. Perhaps his skin disease was still a problem, preventing him from travelling easily. In terms of bureaucratic business, of course, he was anything but inactive. He continued to receive petitions and sent out hundreds of letters.15 But there were no more military activities that year. After a month at Kenilworth Castle with his family, he slowly returned to London, staying at the Tower until about 22 November, when he shifted to the Palace of Westminster, ready to attend the betrothal of his eleven-year-old daughter Philippa to the king of Denmark.16 He was still at Westminster on 7 December, when the council agreed to free the duke of York and restore all his estates to him (after almost a year in prison), but shortly afterwards he departed for Hertford. From there he wrote to the council on the 11th stating that they needed to fund the fleet which had been assembled to take him to Gascony, and promising that he or some other suitable person would go there soon. But as he well knew, the money to undertake such an expedition was not available. Ten days later he returned to London and issued writs for a new parliament. Immediately he departed to spend Christmas at Eltham, and to spend a few days with his queen, his sons, and his friends Thomas Langley and the earl of Westmorland before preparing to face his next battle with the commons.


The ‘Long Parliament’ which met on 1 March 1406 at Westminster was, as its name suggests, the longest single parliament of the middle ages. For historians it is also one of the most important and problematic. Usually it is portrayed as a classic Rex vs commonscontest, in which both sides badly bruised the other, and Henry came off worst, his royal power subjected to the supervision of a council and his income drastically diminished. Recently it has been suggested that parliament was not trying to limit Henry’s authority but to safeguard it at a time when he was very ill, and perhaps likely to die.17 What is not in doubt is that Henry’s power as a king was severely curtailed. So extreme were the limitations placed upon him that we have to ask what caused them: were they implemented for his benefit or in spite of him?

The argument that the restrictions on royal authority were done to benefit Henry and safeguard his regime stems from the fact that more than half of the representatives of the counties in the commons were Lancastrian supporters. If parliament was functioning as ‘a Lancastrian forum’, so the argument goes, how come it was so determined to diminish the power of a Lancastrian king? Given that during the course of the parliament Henry wrote to the council saying he was not well enough to attend, there seems to be a good case for seeing parliament’s attempts to regulate royal authority as a means of coping with a head of state who was seriously ill and absent for much of the time. This is all the more so as measures were taken during the parliament to clarify the succession, further suggesting an expectation that the king would die. But significant problems remain. Even though more than half of the county members were Lancastrian retainers, these men were hugely outnumbered by the members of the boroughs, over whom the king had much less control.18 Nor can we ignore the complete lack of evidence connecting the most severe limitations on royal authority and the king’s physical incapacity.19 Had he been mentally unwell, we could understand why severe checks were placed upon his actions, but there is no evidence of any mental instability – quite the opposite – though he does seem to have experienced some form of depression.

The first session of the parliament began on 1 March with the customary speech from the chancellor, Thomas Langley. Langley gave the reasons for summoning the parliament as the need to counter the Welsh rebels, and to provide for the defence of Gascony, Calais, Ireland and the Scottish marches. No reference was made to the king’s health. The following day, the twenty-eight-year-old Lancastrian retainer Sir John Tiptoft was elected Speaker. Routine business followed for several days. On 23 March the criticisms of the king’s government started, with demands from the Speaker for ordinances for the defence of the seas, Wales and Gascony. The first of these was set in motion straightaway, but the criticisms seem to have intensified. On 3 April the commons reiterated their demands for the expulsion of various foreigners in the queen’s household. They were also forced to apologise for ‘speaking of the royal person of our lord the king other than they should have’, on which account the king was angry. Henry excused them, and accepted their apology, but the damage was done. He adjourned parliament the same day.

On the political front, Henry now experienced an amazing piece of luck. On 22 March the eleven-year-old James Stewart, son and heir of the king of Scotland, had been captured in a boat off the coast of Norfolk. Two weeks later, the boy’s father, King Robert III, died. That meant the new king of Scotland was in Henry’s custody at the Tower (along with Glendower’s son). Not surprisingly, Scottish politics fell into disarray.

On the personal front, however, Henry’s luck dissolved, for his health collapsed. After the end of the first session, he took the royal barge down the river to Eltham, where he celebrated Easter (11 April).20 Two days later he made a grant to his physician, Louis Recoches.21 He stayed at Eltham as long as possible before leaving for the Garter festivities, only embarking at Greenwich on the 22nd.22 His bargemen transported him as far as Kingston upon Thames, where he stayed the night, being conveyed the rest of the way to Windsor the next day, St George’s Day itself.23 At Windsor his health rapidly deteriorated. On 28 April, two days after parliament was meant to have resumed sitting, he wrote to the council from a lodge in the park, saying that a sudden illness had attacked his leg, and his doctors had advised him not to travel by horse, in order ‘to avoid the grave peril’. He added that he hoped to be at Staines by the evening and to travel by water to London, arriving in three or four days. Later that same day he wrote saying that his leg was now so bad that he could not travel at all. He directed parliament to discuss the safety of Gascony and to make arrangements for conducting his daughter Philippa to Denmark, as he had agreed she should be married there in early May.24

It is unlikely that Henry reached London until 4 May. When he did arrive, he stayed at the hostel of Thomas Langley, at Dowgate (at the bottom of what is known today as Dowgate Hill), and not at Westminster. From Dowgate he could easily travel the short distance to Westminster by boat, and at the same time keep his distance from the parliament. There is no doubt that this was due to his continuing illness. In his letter to the council he describes the ailment as ‘une grande accesse’, which relates to a sudden illness in general, a fit or an ague (intermittent fever), correlating with his inability to ride a horse, and reminding us of his burning skin complaint of the previous summer.25 Given Henry’s long stay at Kenilworth after the Welsh campaign of 1405, and his continued presence near the river after his return to London, it is likely that his skin problem had never entirely gone away.26 The references to his ‘uncurable’ skin disease in the chronicles (albeit misinterpreted as leprosy) further support the idea that this was an ongoing illness. So too does the reference to ‘his physicians’ (in the plural). The royal household ordinances made provision for just one physician and one surgeon.27 All this paints a picture of Henry quietly fighting both his own body as well as his enemies.

Henry attended the second session of parliament on at least nine occasions.28 The rest of the time he stayed at Thomas Langley’s house. He communicated with his council through letters sealed with his privy seal, and did little in person. On the days when he attended parliament he seems to have stayed a short while and then returned to Dowgate. The pattern is so unlike his usual behaviour that we can only conclude that his illness had become his preoccupation. Indeed, his physical illness and the increased stress of running the government in such circumstances together seem to have led to a sudden crisis of confidence. On 22 May he appeared in parliament and directed that a bill he had drawn up should be read out on his behalf. In it he asked to be relieved of certain aspects of government ‘because he alone would not be able fully to devote his attentions to the same as much as he would like’.29 His bill went on to name his council, hoping that thereby ‘he might be further relieved in his royal person of the aforesaid concerns’. Most significantly, the council was given the power to endorse or refuse bills issued by the king’s officers, acting almost as a collective regent. On 7 June, Henry attended parliament to hear the magnates and prelates acknowledge his son Henry as the heir apparent, with his male heirs succeeding after him. In the context of his illness and the fact that the prince had already been recognised as heir apparent (in the first parliament of his reign), the reason would appear to have been Henry’s own anticipation that he might not live to see his fortieth birthday.

The initiative in this second session of parliament clearly lay with the king, or, rather, the king’s illness and stress. The measures of 22 May were not a parliamentary solution to the king’s problem but his own suggestion, as recorded on the roll. He still had not received the grant of taxation for which he had originally summoned parliament, even though three months had passed. In that time he had heard the commons speak of their wish that he should deliver them good government, and had heard them speak disparagingly of him personally. He had largely resigned his authority, putting the government into the hands of the council. If the 22 May bill had been an attempt to appease the commons, Henry’s agreement should have been sufficient to unlock the taxation he required. But the commons were still not satisfied. All they granted was an extra shilling in the pound on the duty on foreign merchants’ goods for the defence of the realm. According to an oblique reference in one chronicle, they were angry that, despite their large grant of taxation in the October 1404 parliament, Henry had failed to take back all the royal grants made since 1367.30 On 19 June, Sir John Tiptoft delivered the commons’ demand that they should be permitted to audit the accounts of the two war treasurers appointed in October 1404. This is the occasion when Henry is said to have tersely replied, ‘kings are not wont to render account’. Nevertheless, the commons insisted that he allow them to appoint a committee of enquiry. Henry had to give in. With no taxation forthcoming, he adjourned the parliament until 13 October.


As the members of parliament returned to their homes to oversee the harvest, Henry set about preparing to accompany his daughter, Philippa, to Lynn, from where she would sail to Denmark. Although she should have been there two months earlier, he did not rush. However, it is very interesting that he did not sail to King’s Lynn; he went by road. Had his legs been as sore as they were in April, when the short trip from Windsor to Staines was beyond him, he would not have been able to undertake such a journey. As it was, he not only undertook it, he rode or was carried at nearly the same speed as he had travelled when fully fit.31

Yet something was profoundly wrong with Henry. On the way to King’s Lynn he made a sudden trip to Walsingham, where there were two holy wells capable of effecting miraculous cures. Very shortly afterwards, having said goodbye to his daughter for the last time, he swiftly travelled to Bardney Abbey, near Lincoln, where he locked himself away in the abbey library. Not only that, he actually kissed the relics kept in the church there, to receive their full healing power.32 Bardney Abbey held the tomb of St Oswald, a northern Christian king killed in battle whose bones had effected many cures. In the library Henry could have read about St Oswald’s shrine curing children of fevers, and driving devils out of frenzied men, and even bringing men back from the point of death.33After this trip Henry returned south: he made no move towards Wales, even though Lord Bardolph and the earl of Northumberland were known to be consorting in arms with Glendower. The clergy had agreed to a grant in Henry’s favour, and a substantial loan had been raised too, but Henry himself seems to have lost the will to fight.

The evidence suggests that in 1406 Henry was coming to terms with the fact that he would never be well again. All his life he had been very active, a jouster, a crusader, a soldier and a man who liked to take charge of things personally. Now his entire world had been thrown apart by his illness. If we are right in interpreting this as having been ongoing and worsening since 1405, a temporary abatement in the symptoms (allowing him to ride) would not necessarily have led to restored confidence and vigour. It was the future which mattered, and the future looked bleak. Never would he do what his grandfather and uncle had done, and ride at the head of an army into France. Never would he defeat Glendower on the battlefield. And it was all due to an illness, God’s will and divine punishment. With the deaths of Richard II and an archbishop on his conscience, Henry may well have feared that he deserved such affliction. As we shall see, the language of his last will (written just over two years later) strongly repeats how sinful he was, and how he had misspent his life, at a time when such sentiments were anything but orthodox. It would thus seem that almost every aspect of his life was in turmoil – his identity as a man of action, his outlook on government and his relationship with God – and he had little to look forward to but pain, death and damnation.

This defeatism was very much in evidence when he returned to parliament in October. He was late in arriving. When he did turn up, news came of an attack by the duke of Burgundy on Calais, and it would appear that Henry postponed parliament to allow his council to deal with that threat.34When they reassembled on 18 November, the commons immediately launched a bitter series of criticisms of the king. They accused him of trying to divert the money intended for the defence of the seas into the exchequer. The Speaker asked him to force the lords to explain how ‘evil governance’ had been allowed to prevail. The lords and commons were both adamant that he should change his settlement of the Crown to allow daughters to inherit the throne. The discussions grew more and more bitter. The commons were deeply unhappy at the thought that Henry was proposing to resign power to a council composed of his friends and relations, over whom they had even less control than they did over the king. Henry was asked to reappoint his council, and he did so on 27 November, in an almost unchanged format.35 That was not good enough. Over the following days the commons forced him to sack the faithful Hugh Waterton, as well as Sir John Cheyne and Sir Arnold Savage. They also sacked Henry’s old friend Richard Kingston as treasurer of the household and brought in Tiptoft to replace him. And they started to rewrite the clauses governing Henry’s resignation of his administrative duties. What they proposed was so radical that Henry lost his temper and threatened them with a trial of strength. But strength was the one thing he no longer had, and he was left isolated, weak and unable to resist their will.

The ‘Thirty-One Articles’, to which he eventually agreed, was not his own solution to the problem of his illness but that of parliament. Henry would have to devote two days a week (Wednesdays and Fridays) to seeing his council and receiving petitions. He was to intervene in no quarrels, even those of his own household, but was to submit them to the arbitration of the council. The council was to take over the administration of Henry’s household, chamber and wardrobe offices. He was not allowed to make gifts to anyone. He was given just £6,000 to cover his household expenses (half the drastically reduced allowance stipulated in the January 1404 parliament). He was not to intervene in any disputes which could be dealt with by the common law. The queen was to pay a sum out of her allowance for the time she spent with the king in his household. Henry was to be subjected to the sort of supervision given to Richard II as a ten-year-old boy. And all he could do was to assent, for the sake of obtaining the essential tax. On 22 December the commons agreed to a single tenth and fifteenth. An Act was passed against religious and political sedition, and parliament began to disperse, leaving only a committee of members to oversee the accurate enrolment of proceedings.

Henry went to Eltham to spend Christmas with his queen. He was physically weak and despondent. He had let his and his family’s royal authority be trampled by parliament. Nor had it resulted in unlocking sufficient funds for the exchequer: the grant of taxation had not been that generous, and the long sitting had been very costly. The expenses of the seventy-four county members alone came to more than £2,500; those of the burgesses may have amounted to considerably more.36 The chronicler Walsingham suggested that the total cost amounted to the whole value of the tax, which, though an exaggeration, makes a point.37 The disputations had added nothing to the standing of the royal family. The council instructed Henry that, as soon as Christmas was out of the way, he should take himself off into the country somewhere, and live quietly and cheaply.


Ironically, at the moment when Henry’s reputation was at its lowest, a figure from his glorious heyday came to England. Lucia Visconti arrived to marry the earl of Kent at Southwark on 24 January. Henry gave her away at the church door.38 He could hardly have avoided reflecting on how much had happened in the fourteen years since they had last met. Then he had been the chivalric hero in his mid-twenties, an earl in the prime of life, and she, at twenty-one, had swooned. Now she was in her mid-thirties and past her prime, and he was an incapacitated king heavily reliant on his second wife and his council, with more problems than he could have believed he would ever have had to face in 1393. If she did not avert her eyes from his out of respect for his royal dignity, what did she see? That through this man she might have been a queen? Or that she could have been married to a majestic invalid? Whatever her thoughts, Henry must have silently asked himself which of the two was uppermost in her mind.

After the wedding Henry returned to Westminster. In the royal chapel on 30 January he directed Thomas Langley to relinquish the great seal to his old friend Archbishop Arundel. Arundel thereby became not only the most prominent member of the council but chancellor too. It heralded the height of his political career: for the next few months he was effectively the ruler of England, a sort of prime minister. Together with the prince, who now attended the royal council, he set about reforming the government. Money from direct taxation – the tenths and the fifteenths – could henceforth be directed to pay for the expenses of the royal household.39 Revenues which had in the past been paid in cash to the household were now required to be paid directly to the exchequer. Payments from the treasury were to be authorised more regularly. The budget was subjected to a process of prioritisation, with defence being given top priority. And through Sir John Tiptoft, treasurer of the royal household, he managed to reduce Henry’s household expenses by ten per cent. In this way, the government’s finances were gradually brought under control.40

The employment of Archbishop Arundel was a pragmatic move on Henry’s part. It marks a point of realisation that he could not govern personally, however well-meaning he was. He could not control all the departments of the household, nor could he dictate national priorities and expect his treasurer to meet all the expenses. Most of all, he realised that his very attempt to govern in this manner allowed his critics to attack him. Had he been successful and glorious in his military expeditions he might have been forgiven, but by 1406 it was impossible to ignore that he had failed to deliver on a number of his own policies, most notably Wales. The Thirty-One Articles, coupled with his physical weakness, seem finally to have shocked Henry into doing what he had always publicly promised to do – to rule with the advice of the great men of the realm – and in the way that the commons expected him to do it: by openly subjecting himself to their counsel. To oppose such measures would only result in more criticism, whereas, by giving up control and working with those who sought to rebuild the royal finances and restore trust in the government, he might yet recover the dignity of the Crown.

In this way, Henry came to rely more closely than ever on Archbishop Arundel, whose political fortunes had been intertwined with his own now for twenty years. As chancellor, the archbishop dominated the council, both intellectually and politically, as evidenced in a number of council proceedings.41 Such pre-eminence led to clashes between him and the twenty-year-old prince, Henry of Monmouth. Young Henry may have seen the limitations placed on his father as a dangerous precedent for controls which might one day be placed upon him. In addition, it was almost inevitable that questions would arise over whether or not a chancellor-archbishop had authority to direct a prince. In February 1407 Arundel confirmed the Act legitimising the Beauforts, Henry’s half-brothers, but he introduced a clause which barred them from the throne. The Beauforts, thus slighted, seem to have taken against the archbishop, and supported the prince against him.42

This shift of the political initiative to the archbishop and prince, coupled with his illness, meant that the year 1407 was not one of great activity for Henry. Abiding by the council’s direction that he should reside cheaply away from London, he stayed at Hertford Castle for much of February and March. Although he stated in a letter dated 5 February that he wished to lead a military campaign against the French, either from Calais or in Gascony, this was quickly scotched by the council.43 In April he went to Windsor for the Garter feast, and stayed there a month. Affairs of state – dealing with the mutiny of the Calais garrison, for example, who seized the wool of English merchants in lieu of their unpaid wages – were mainly handled by the council in his absence. It would appear that when he did try to act in defiance of the Thirty-One Articles, Archbishop Arundel took measures to undermine him. On 20 April a writ was sent to the exchequer ‘from the king’ – for which read ‘from Arundel’ – demanding that the Articles be properly observed by officers even if the king were to issue a writ to the contrary.44 Arundel was determined that Henry would swallow his reforming medicine, every last drop.

The council sat continually for nine weeks, during which time Henry remained in the Thames area, presumably receiving petitions on Wednesdays and Fridays, as he had promised to do. After this period, in June, he travelled north to the Lancastrian estates, keeping in touch with the archbishop by letter. Despite the distance, the archbishop continued to rule him. On 1 June Henry declared that he would lead an army into Wales; nine days later he retracted this, probably on the advice of the archbishop, who knew that Henry was neither physically nor politically strong enough to lead a campaign. When Henry’s old comrade-in-arms Sir Thomas Rempston drowned in the Thames, and the duke of York was appointed by the council to replace him as constable of the Tower, Henry ordered his most important prisoners (namely the young king of Scotland and Glendower’s son) to be taken from the Tower to Nottingham Castle, indicating that he remained uncertain about the duke’s loyalty. Again, he was overruled by the council. A third example of Henry’s plans being thwarted came after the archbishop had already summoned the next parliament to meet, at Gloucester. Although the writs for this had been despatched on 26 August, Henry declared on 22 September that he would lead a force to help the prince in the siege of Aberystwyth.45 There is no doubt that he was ardent for glory, and longed to be present at the surrender of Aberystwyth Castle, but equally there is no doubt that he was financially and politically ill equipped to take arms in person. He might have been motivated by a wish to be seen leading his men even at the point of death, like his great-great-grandfather, King Edward I, exactly a century earlier. But in 1407 there was no room for such chivalric histrionics, and Archbishop Arundel was quick to make sure the council’s careful financial measures were not all blown in a rash campaign.


Henry spent the summer in the north, travelling by boat between his castles and pilgrimage sites.46 The long stays at Lancastrian castles might have been part of a money-saving measure but just as probably they were due to the difficulties he was now experiencing when travelling by road. The man who once jousted along with the best of them, and had won praise from Boucicaut, now rode on a brass saddle, or possibly a form of litter.47 Although this meant that his speeds on occasion were as fast as they had been in 1403 (fifteen or sixteen miles per day), there were protracted periods of rest between these journeys. In order to be at Gloucester on 20 October, for the next sitting of parliament, he set out from York on 21 September, giving himself a full month to cover a journey of less than two hundred miles. Some of that was probably undertaken by river: from Bishopthorpe along the River Ouse to Cawood, for example, and along the River Trent from Nottingham to Repton.48 At Evesham Abbey, on the River Avon, he rested for six days. From there he could have been rowed the rest of the way to Gloucester.

The 1407 parliament, which opened on 24 October in Gloucester Abbey (now the cathedral), was orchestrated by Archbishop Arundel from the moment it opened. As chancellor, it was Arundel who delivered the opening speech. The purpose of the parliament, he announced, was nothing less than that they should ‘honour the king’.49 He then outlined three reasons. First they should honour him because Henry had upheld the liberties of the cities and boroughs of the kingdom – a direct appeal to the representatives of the boroughs who had given him such a hard time in the previous parliament. They should honour him because of his maintenance of the law and in particular his own personal efforts to defend the realm in war. And thirdly, they should honour him because ‘he had shown such great compassion and clemency that, in the case of anyone who had offended against him … who had been willing humbly to acknowledge his offence and beg for grace and mercy for it, the king had been so full of compassion that he had been quicker to show mercy than the person who had committed the offence had been to request it’.50

Henry was not present to hear this parade of his cardinal virtues. This was undoubtedly by design, as he could easily have come down the river from Evesham in time for the parliament.51 Nevertheless, it was very unusual. It was even more unusual for thepurpose of the parliament to be that of honouring the king. When he did arrive, on the second day, Henry kept silent, only speaking (so far as we can tell from the parliament roll) when told to do so by Archbishop Arundel. After the commons had chosen their Speaker to be Thomas Chaucer (son of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer), the discussions started. At the first plenary session, on 9 November, the crucial debate was held concerning the Thirty-One Articles. Arundel managed it perfectly. The commons pressed their usual request for ‘good government’ and reminded the king that they had made their grant in the previous parliament with high expectations upon the performance of the council. To this Arundel deftly replied that he had already spoken to them about this matter, and had provided them with a written schedule of the council’s actions. Then he added that many members of the council had, over and above the call of duty, made good the shortcomings of the commons’ finance through loans from their own estates. Since the commons had not seen to offer any reward or gratitude for this, or for the council’s labours in running the affairs of state, the councillors no longer wished to be bound by their oaths to observe the Thirty-One Articles.

The commons were taken by surprise. They had no response. Rather lamely, Thomas Chaucer changed the subject and presented the commons’ complaint against royal purveyors. Tiptoft gave them as sharp a rebuke as Arundel had dealt: if there was a purveyor who was breaking the law, then he should be reported to the sheriff in the same way as any other lawbreaker, and he would be tried. On Tuesday 14 November the commons asked that a committee of lords be appointed to discuss matters of state with them; Arundel of course put himself at the head of the list of the six lords appointed by the king. But this was nothing compared to his strategy for extricating sufficient taxation out of the commons. On 21 October, the lords met in the abbey council chamber. There Arundel put to them the question of how much taxation would be needed to defend the realm adequately. No doubt he produced his defence budget, worked out in council earlier in the year. The lords agreed that what was required was nothing less than one and a half tenths and fifteenths, plus a continuation of the wool subsidy for three years. Arundel then asked that a committee of twelve commoners be appointed to attend a meeting of the lords. The members of the committee appointed were astounded when it emerged that they were to take back the details of the sum they were required to grant. The rest of the commons were outraged, but the alternative was to be held responsible for the inadequate defence of the realm and for failing to ‘honour the king’. They were mollified by Henry’s declaration that he would not again levy direct taxation for two and half years – until March 1410, a promise he put in writing to each of them, and kept – and they were pleased with his grant that the commons in future could have the right to discuss the state of the realm in his absence. But otherwise the commons had been forced to confront a stark reality: they could not continue to blame the king for the problems of the realm. He had been nearly a year out of power, and yet their complaints had not abated. The solution to their demands lay in a combination of adequate finance through taxation, to be spent on properly costed priorities, with tight financial controls and competent military leadership. It was not the continual denigration of the king.

The parliament of 1407 was thus something of a lesson in medieval governance to all participants. The commons were used to seeing the throne as the centre of their political battleground. Henry too had always believed that it fell to him personally to deal with the issues of government. But as a result of his illness, and the collapse of royal authority in the Long Parliament, the battleground had shifted away from the throne. Of course Arundel had help in his restoration of Henry’s royal power, especially from Henry’s half-brothers, John and Henry Beaufort and Thomas Langley, all of whom were on the committee to the commons in November 1407; but otherwise Arundel must be given the credit.52 And so too must Henry, for appointing Arundel in the first place. It had taken just a year to halt the decline of the royal fortunes, and the process marked a watershed in Henry’s government.


Henry remained for some days at Gloucester. He was still there when he received news of an extraordinary story unfolding in France, which was to have the most profound implications for England. Henry’s sworn enemy, the duke of Orléans, had been making himself increasingly unpopular amongst the French nobility, partly for his philandering and raping of noblewomen (including his sister-in-law, the queen of France) and partly because of his rivalry with his cousin, the duke of Burgundy.53 On Wednesday 23 November he had attended a reception in Paris for the recovery of the queen from the birth of her twelfth child, who had died after only a day. As the duke joined the other guests in trying to rouse the queen’s spirits, a messenger entered with a summons: the king wished to see him immediately at the Hôtel de St Pol. The duke politely left, and set out into the cold winter evening with five attendants. As he rode past an empty house on the rue Barbette, seven or eight masked men rushed out and attacked him. They dragged him from his horse, hacking off the hand with which he clung to the saddle, and stabbed him repeatedly in the face and body as he lay on the ground, eventually smashing open his skull to finish him off.

When Henry first heard about the murder, he was told that it was the work of a lord whose wife had been seduced by the duke.54 But over subsequent days it emerged that, far from being a crime of passion, it was a coldblooded political assassination. The duke of Burgundy had suspiciously fled Paris. Later he would return at the head of an army and admit his guilt.

Regardless of who was responsible, the duke’s death immediately changed the political landscape. Orléans had been the most important manipulator of power in the French council since the death of the old duke of Burgundy in 1404. He was also the principal member of the royal family agitating for war with England. Ever since 1399 he had been at pains to show that he felt Henry had betrayed him with his revolution, and his three bellicose letters to Henry in 1402–3 had merely been the written expositions of his anger. In September 1406, he personally led an army to attack English castles in Gascony at Bourg and Blaye, and had kept up the siege of Bourg until January 1407. There was no doubting his resolve to continue with such hostilities, especially since Charles had supported him by creating the dauphin nominal duke of Aquitaine. Thus his death immediately relieved the anxiety in Gascony. It also scotched any possibility that he would fulfil his offer to the earl of Northumberland in 1405 to assist him in attacking Henry in England.55

When it emerged that the duke had been assassinated by his own cousin, however, the crime assumed a wholly new complexion. Hatred of Henry in France had been particularly stirred up by the rumours that he, a member of the English royal family, had ordered his own cousin, Richard, to be murdered. The horror Frenchmen felt at this injustice was now transferred to their own royal family. They could hardly maintain that the crime of cousin murder barred Henry from the throne of England when members of their own royal family were busy hacking each other to pieces for similar political motives. Worse, the various plotters began to appeal to King Henry, the enemy of France, for protection and help. As France slipped towards civil war, the protagonists of the various factions each sought help from Henry. As for Glendower, he could no longer pretend to his fellow Welshmen that the French would offer them military assistance.

For the moment all these military implications were far off, and the first thought in Henry’s mind was that the duke’s death allowed the truce with France to be finalised. As it happened, news of the murder arrived at Gloucester at the very time the French ambassadors were present for the truce. On the penultimate day of the parliament, Henry renewed his commission to his own ambassadors – Thomas Langley, Sir Thomas Erpingham, Sir Hugh Mortimer and John Catterick – and the following day added his second son, Thomas, to the team. With the assassination of the key French agent for war, the way to peace in Gascony was clear, and it took the negotiators just six days to reach a settlement. The truce was concluded on 7 December and ratified by the council in the king’s name on the 10th.56

By then Henry himself was on his way back to Eltham, travelling slowly by way of Cirencester to Windsor and probably from there along the Thames. At Eltham he spent Christmas, free from the worries of both government and disempowerment. With the prince making headway against Glendower, the Scots king in his custody, his French adversary dead, his finances improving and the truce proclaimed in Gascony, it was the easiest Christmas of his reign. There were only two black clouds in the otherwise relatively clear winter sky. One was his worsening health. The other was the earl of Northumberland’s last stand.

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