Post-classical history


Golden Care

Why doth the crown lie there upon his pillow,

Being so troublesome a bedfellow?

O polish’d perturbation! Golden care!

Henry IV Part Two, Act 4, Scene 4

In France they called it ‘the big winter’, in England ‘the strong winter’ or ‘the great frost and ice’. Animals died in their thousands, rivers froze – even the Baltic Sea froze. Clerks picked up their pens to write only to find the ink frozen in their inkwells.1Nevertheless, at the depth of this cold, the earl of Northumberland and Lord Bardolph decided to enact their latest plot to dethrone Henry. Perhaps they had had enough of flight, having gone from England to Scotland, to Wales and finally to France in their hope of finding a sympathetic lord who would give them an army. Or maybe they thought that they would have the advantage of surprise, the winter being so severe that the normally muddy roads were frozen solid, allowing them a faster advance. Either way, in January 1408 the rebel lords crossed once more into England and attempted to rally their supporters with the old cry, ‘King Richard is alive’.

Henry himself was designing artillery at the time, or to be specific ‘a large cannon … newly invented by the king himself’.2 Guns had always interested him. Gunners travelled with him to Lithuania in 1390, and he had taken several cannon into Scotland in 1400. His accounts reveal that he had thirty-nine guns and cannon stored at the Tower.3 In 1401 he had equipped the prince with six artillery pieces, including ‘two large double cannon’ with which to attack Conway Castle, and had taken cannon into Wales on his own expeditions.4 In 1405 the big guns proved their worth in action against the earl of Northumberland’s castles. When Henry wished to help his eldest son in the siege of Aberystwyth, he sent him ‘our great cannon’ and a quarter of a ton of gunpowder from Nottingham. This may have been the two-ton giant ‘The Messenger’ which blew up during the siege. Notwithstanding this setback, powerful guns had clearly become a lasting feature of the English military scene, and Henry wanted to do his part in improving them. We do not know how successful his own design of 1408 was, but the payment of more than £210 to the same man the following year for iron and coal to make more cannon suggests that the project was not unsuccessful. The general idea seems to have been to manufacture an unrivalled series of large iron bombards with which to smash down the castle walls of his potential enemies.5

There had been signs before January 1408 that the earl of Northumberland and Lord Bardolph would raise the cry of rebellion again. In July 1407 one of Lord Bardolph’s servants was captured carrying seditious letters and imprisoned in Nottingham Castle. In August a letter from the earl of Northumberland to the constable of Warkworth Castle led to the discovery of a plot to stage a rising in the north. But nothing can have prepared Henry for the surprise advance in January. It came just when he was finally free from widespread criticism. News of his illness and discomfort inclined many lords to believe that God was punishing Henry for his misdeeds. Therefore they did not need to bother holding him to account. It is ironic, but the more people who believed that Henry’s illness was divine retribution for his sins, the less justification there was for taking up arms against him.

Henry heard of the rebels’ incursion on 15 February 1408.6 That day he ordered forces to be raised against Northumberland and Bardolph and prepared to set out for the north. But before the month was out, news reached him that the rebellion was over. Sir Thomas Rokeby had led a small force north to meet the rebels at Grimbald Bridge, near Knaresborough. Having pursued the earl and his troops to Tadcaster, Rokeby set men along all the roads to the town, not allowing them to escape undetected. Realising that the hour had come, the earl drew up his forces on Bramham Moor, on 19 February. Rokeby’s men attacked with fury, charging beneath the banner of St George.7 Northumberland himself was their first target. He was killed on the battlefield. The prelates who had thrown in their lot with him were all captured, including the bishop of Bangor, the prior of Hexham and the abbot of Halesowen. Lord Bardolph fled but was chased and forced to turn and fight. In the ensuing conflict in the snow he was so badly hacked about that, when he was finally overpowered, he was fatally wounded. He died that night. The rebellion was over before it had properly begun.

Despite this relieving news, Henry decided he would press on to the north. He was at St Albans on 2 March and Leicester on the 12th. There he paused for three or four days before moving to Nottingham.8 His journey from there was at least partly by boat, for several places at which he is known to have stayed were on the River Ouse.9 From 26 March to 6 April he stayed at Wheelhall, seeing to the punishments and rewards due as a result of Bramham Moor. The abbot of Halesowen was executed. The others were treated more leniently. The bishop of Bangor was sent to be imprisoned in Windsor Castle. The prior of Hexham was tried for treason and later pardoned. Of course, Rokeby and his friends were well rewarded, Rokeby himself receiving several of the late earl’s manors. As for the earl of Northumberland, his body was cut up and exhibited around the realm, at Berwick, Lincoln, Newcastle and York. His grey-haired head was set on a pike on London Bridge. Thus ended the life of the man who had been instrumental in raising Henry to the throne, and had betrayed him.


Henry spent Easter 1408 at Pontefract Castle. He remained there for the feast of St George; it was the first time in his reign that he was not at Windsor to oversee the Garter festivities in person. His illness was impinging more and more on his freedom of movement and his ability to govern. On 25 April he delegated to the earl of Westmorland the right to pardon or punish six captured rebels. Leaving Pontefract on the 30th he made his way to Leicester by road, and there rested. He did not stay at the castle. Instead, from the quiet sanctuary of Birdsnest Lodge two miles outside the town, he wrote a note in English and in his own hand to Archbishop Arundel, thanking him heartily for ‘the great business that you do for me and for my realm, and trusting plainly in your good counsel, and hoping to God to speak to you hastily and thank you with good heart’. He signed the letter ‘Your true friend and child in God, H[enry] R[ex]’.10

Well might Henry have wanted to see Arundel and to thank him for his work. From now on he would be dependent on him. On his return from the north, Henry’s health had completely collapsed. He spent four days in Leicester, and the next nine on the road to Windsor. He rested there for several days at a lodge within the park. By boat he travelled to London, but even that journey was slow. He met Arundel at the end of the month, and took a barge up the river to the archbishop’s manor of Mortlake. There in late June he fell into a coma. Those about him could not determine whether he was alive or dead.11

Henry’s disease or diseases had gone far beyond being just a skin ailment. Adam Usk later dated the onset of the illness which killed him to about this time. Indeed, Usk’s testimony is the best evidence we have as to what was actually wrong with Henry, for Usk was on good terms with the archbishop, who gave him several benefices after 1411.12 Not only did this attack happen at the archbishop’s house, in later years the king and the archbishop spent much time together, and the king often stayed at Lambeth Palace with his old friend. So if anyone knew what was wrong with Henry, Archbishop Arundel did. According to Usk, from this time to the end of his life, Henry suffered ‘an infection’ which resulted in ‘festering of the flesh, dehydration of the eyes, and rupture of the internal organs’.13 This is as close as we are likely to get to the archbishop’s own understanding of what was wrong with the king. In this ‘festering of the flesh’ it would appear likely that Henry’s skin disease had grown progressively worse, from his burning skin at Green Hammerton in the summer of 1405 to the great ‘accesse’ he suffered in April 1406 to a more general degradation of his lower body. Such a wasting disease is reminiscent of the condition which affected the Black Prince from 1367 to 1376. His illness also started with an inability to ride a horse, then stopped him from walking, and finally killed him nine years after his first infection. Henry died eight years after his burning skin experience.14 Both men remained sane to the ends of their lives. Whether or not they suffered the same problem, there can be no doubt that Henry in 1408 was as incapacitated as the Black Prince had been in his last years. He was an invalid, dependent on others and in agony as his lower body, quite simply, rotted away beneath him.15

Henry recovered consciousness after a few hours but spent several weeks recuperating at Mortlake. He now felt it necessary to apply to a physician of European renown. This was David Nigarellis of Lucca, who had arrived by the end of September.16 In the intervening time he had a two-volume book of hours specially illuminated for his own use in his private prayers.17 In late July he was persuaded to come to London to take part in the debate in the cathedral chapter house about the schism which continued to divide the Catholic Church. Later he made a pilgrimage to Waltham Abbey, probably by litter. No signet letters from this period are extant. A measure of his state of health is that for the rest of the year he avoided residing at the royal palaces, staying instead at the private houses of his family and close friends. These included Southwark Palace (belonging to Henry Beaufort), Hugh Waterton’s London house, and Lambeth Palace (belonging to Archbishop Arundel). All of these places could be reached by river. He also made a short visit to King’s Langley, the place where Richard II was buried, perhaps a result of increasing feelings of guilt for ordering his death.

Thus the second half of 1408 is little more than a hollow period in the life of Henry IV. He was expected to die. His eldest son, Henry, was recalled to be with him in December, and so too was his second son, Thomas, even though he was in Ireland. On Christmas Eve the king’s barge docked at Lambeth Palace, so he could visit Thomas Arundel on the way back to Eltham for Christmas. The magnates and prelates of England braced themselves for the worst.


On 21 January 1409, Henry made his will. It is without doubt an extraordinary document. Most surprising is the language in which it was written. It is the first royal will written in English, even though his own first language was French. Normally Henry reserved English for public statements of national importance, such as his claim to the throne, and it is possible that ‘national importance’ was the reason he dictated in English now. An alternative explanation lies in his close friendship with Thomas Arundel. His handwritten manuscript notes to Arundel in 1408 and 1409 were also in English, and the two men were close spiritually as well as politically. This is revealed very clearly in the most extraordinary aspect of the document: the way in which Henry talks of himself. It begins as follows:

In the name of God, Father and Son, and Holy Ghost, three persons and one God. I Henry sinful wretch, by the grace of God, king of England and of France, and lord of Ireland, being in my whole mind, make my testament in the manner and form following: First I bequeath to Almighty God my sinful soul, which has never been worthy to be [a] man but through his mercy and his grace; which life I have misspent, wherefore I put myself wholly in his grace and mercy, with all my heart. And when it pleases him of his mercy to take me to him, my body [is] to be buried in the church at Canterbury, at the discretion of my cousin the archbishop of Canterbury.18

Here we see an invocation of the Trinity, in line with Henry’s spiritual preference for the cult. But then follow three strikingly harsh, self-recriminating phrases: ‘sinful wretch’, ‘sinful soul’ and ‘never worthy to be a man’. Testamentary sentiments like this generally only appear in Lollard wills of the period. Only two other contemporary non-Lollard wills are known to have similar self-abasing lines: those of Philip Repingdon, bishop of Lincoln, and Archbishop Arundel himself, both of whom died after Henry. Thus Henry’s was the first supposedly orthodox will to contain such extreme statements of unworthiness.19

It seems extraordinary, paradoxical even, to find such spiritual conscientiousness in someone who had executed an archbishop. But Henry was a sincere man, like Arundel and Repingdon, and all three were sufficiently conscientious in life to project their guilt beyond the moment of death. It seems that these three were linked in a spiritual conversation which touched all their lives. Repingdon served as Henry’s confessor for several years before being promoted to Lincoln, and he remained in close touch with Henry in 1408.20 In fact we could say he is a religious shadow in the background through Henry’s life. He had been the abbot of Leicester, an abbey patronised by the Lancastrians, before Henry’s accession. He wrote the humble yet harshly critical letter to Henry about the failings of his government in 1401. It was to him that Henry sent his ring after winning the battle of Shrewsbury.21 He accompanied Henry on his pilgrimage to Bardney Abbey when he kissed the relics there in 1406, seeking a miracle cure. This makes us take notice of the fact that he was a former supporter of the Lollard, John Wycliffe, and had preached in support of Wycliffe at Oxford in the early 1380s. As for Arundel, Henry described him as his ‘father in God’ in his letters at this time. This spiritual conversation is the best evidence we have that when men such as Richard II accused Henry of being ‘against the church’, they were mindful that his approach to religion was personal and unconventional, and not remotely obsequious. Henry was dangerous because he did not blindly accept the Church as an institution but could decide on spiritual matters for himself (as he did when commenting on the theologians at the University of Paris). That independent intellectual approach to spirituality now led him to reflect Repingdon’s post-Wycliffite ideas about unworthiness and the decay of his flesh. When Repingdon wrote in his will that, on account of his sin, he willingly consigned his putrid body to be food for worms, he could well have been reflecting ideas which Henry had about his own body. By January 1409 he had come to hate it, and its decay, and he was willing to believe he would soon be rid of it.

Henry’s will continued with an expression of thanks to ‘all my lords and true people’ for their service. He begged their pardon if he had mistreated them in any way. Bearing in mind his declaration that ‘kings are not wont to render account’ this seems surprisingly humble. He continued with a bequest to found a chantry for twenty priests at Canterbury, and promised special rewards to the grooms of his chamber, as well as the payment of all sums owed to his household servants. He asked that the queen be endowed from the estates of the duchy of Lancaster, his personal inheritance. He appointed the prince his executor. The will was witnessed by Archbishop Arundel, Bishop Langley, Edward, duke of York, Lord Grey (Henry’s chamberlain), John Tiptoft (treasurer), John Prophet (keeper of the privy seal) and three of the faithful Lancastrian retainers who had been with him all his life: Sir Thomas Erpingham, Sir Robert Waterton and Sir John Norbury.22

In the late middle ages only those who expected to die in the near future made wills. Thus we may be confident that, having abased himself before his fellow men and before God, Henry was preparing to meet his maker. But his maker did not reciprocate. Henry was left lying in his bed at Greenwich, day after day, his body an increasingly great embarrassment to himself and those around him.

A month passed. Improving a little, he began to take a role in government again. He had his secretary write to the council expressing his satisfaction with the work they had done in drafting diplomatic replies to the merchants of the Hanseatic League and the grand master of the Teutonic Knights.23 On 12 March, still at Greenwich, he chose to complete the foundation of the collegiate chapel marking the site of the battle of Shrewsbury.24 It was one of Henry’s three religious foundations, chantry chapels at St Paul’s for his father and mother, and at Canterbury Cathedral for himself being the others. Considering he had so little control over his own finances and was hardly able to travel to Shrewsbury to oversee the foundation in person, it is hardly surprising that his collegiate foundation is a small matter by comparison with the great Lancastrian foundations of Henry VI, his grandson.25 Nevertheless the chapel still stands, although the college buildings have long since disappeared, and it still holds a statue of the victorious king in a niche above the east window.

In mid-March, Henry was well enough to travel the short distance to Eltham Palace. On 20 March he started to undertake royal business on a regular basis again. At least five letters sealed with his signet ring were sent out to the council over the next four days, concerning such matters as the general council of the Church at Pisa, the grant of a Windsor prebend to his old physician, John Malvern, and pardons to eight men from Sowerby, Yorkshire. On 31 March, he wrote to Archbishop Arundel and assured him firmly that he was ‘in good health’.26 The following week, he sent another letter to the archbishop asking that letters patent be granted to the queen, confirming her income in the event of his death. By this stage he was well enough to add in his own hand the following note to the archbishop:

With all my true heart, worshipful and well-beloved cousin, I greet you well and next to God I thank you for the good health that I am in, for so I may well without saying so. Reverend and well-beloved cousin, I send you a bill for the queen touching her dower, which I pray you might speed, and you shall do us both great ease therein, wherefore we will thank you with all our heart. Your true son, Henry.27

Making provision for the eventuality that Joan might soon become a widow suggests that Henry’s health was actually far from normal; nevertheless, it was improving. Not long afterwards he took his barge up the river to Windsor to attend the Garter festivities at the castle. He went on a slow but steady tour of the area, taking in small places like Easthampstead, Swallowfield, Henley-on-the-Heath and Chertsey, and returned to London in June to join his son, Prince Henry, in watching a four-day-long enactment of the Creation story at Clerkenwell. Then, from an unexpected quarter, tragedy struck. He received a letter from Germany. His daughter Blanche was dead.

The first Henry would have known of her death was seeing the sealed letter from Count Rupert, father of Blanche’s husband, Louis. The text survives. Whoever had the unfortunate duty of reading the letter to Henry would have had to utter the count’s words on how their two houses were bound together in happiness and sadness. ‘It weighs heavily with us, the tearful case of your illustrious daughter, our late daughter-in-law …’ From the moment of hearing those words, Henry would have known that his daughter was no more. She had died in childbirth on 22 May.28

The count’s letter contained many further lines of consolation and spiritual platitudes, but Henry probably heard none of them. Just as his own mother had died in her youth, and just as his own wife had died when his sons and daughters were in infancy, so too now had his seventeen-year-old daughter died, leaving an infant boy, a grandson whom Henry was destined never to see. At the same time Henry received a letter from Blanche’s husband, Louis, who spoke of his grief at losing his ‘most loved and sweetest wife’, and how all the delights and joys of his life were gone as he stood looking at her grave.29 It was a passionate letter for a prince, and expressive of a genuine feeling of loss. The young man did not marry again for another eight years.

Henry’s reply to the count was measured and formal, and yet at the same time tinged with sadness. ‘Excellent prince, very dear brother, having read your letters our mind is filled with sorrow’, he began, ‘for in the beginning of those accounts as well as at the end, one senses her extraordinary beauty and a bitter sadness mixed with consolation.’30 The consolation to which he was referring was twofold: the birth of her son and the fact that she had received the holy sacrament before she died. But beyond phrases designed to alleviate the grief of others, there was little more than measured politeness. What more could he say? How could a king express his feelings? And what was the point of doing so in a letter to a distant ruler? Indeed, what should the dying say about the dead?

Henry did not shut himself away after hearing of Blanche’s death and burial; he had practically already done that. But he appeared in public towards the end of July, in order to attend a great tournament at Smithfield in honour of the steward of Hainault. This was the social event of the year. The steward himself fought with Henry’s half-brother, John Beaufort, who ‘put his adversary to the worse in all points and won himself great worship and degree of the field’.31 Although Sir Richard Arundel lost to his challenger, the king’s brother-in-law, Sir John Cornwaille, defeated his. Sir John Cheyne’s son did so well that Henry knighted him on the spot. But for the forty-two-year-old king it must have been another reminder of his former glory. He and John Beaufort had both jousted at St Inglevert in 1390. Now he could only look on – a cloud of royal greatness – just as he could only look on as Archbishop Arundel and the council governed the country in his name.


In modern times if a political leader is critically ill then he or she simply steps down and hands power to a colleague. In the late middle ages, when political power was vested in a hereditary monarch, that was only possible through the king’s abdication. Having fought so hard to maintain his position, Henry was not going to abdicate now. Thus there was a power vacuum developing in 1409, and it increasingly sucked in the leading members of the royal council.

When the rule of the council had been set up in 1406 it had been a temporary measure, only to last until the next parliament. In 1408, owing to his declining health, Henry continued to delegate most business to his council and especially to the chancellor, Arundel. As already mentioned, tensions arose between Arundel and the prince. For a start, there was the question of who was ultimately responsible for the war expenses in Wales. Since control of the money – which was in Arundel’s hands – ultimately governed policy, it was inevitable that the twenty-two-year-old prince would run into difficulties with the fifty-five-year-old archbishop. Arundel did not help matters by banning the Beauforts from the succession. The prince increasingly promoted his Beaufort uncles, and they increasingly sided with him against Arundel.32 Tiptoft, who had been treasurer since July 1408, was on the side of the archbishop in maintaining strict control of the royal finances. In this way the council became divided. No one was an enemy of the king – all these men were Lancastrians through and through – but they jostled for influence as the king’s authority waned and the council’s increased.

There was another dimension to this development of factions, namely sibling rivalry. Several writers have suggested over the years that Thomas was the king’s favourite son.33 In support of this, in his will Thomas asked to be buried at the foot of his father’s grave in Canterbury Cathedral, unlike his elder brother. When Henry was thought to be dying in late 1408, Thomas returned straightaway from Ireland. The prince also attended his father’s bedside, but the latter came with the expectation of his coronation. In reality, Henry and his eldest son did not see eye to eye on a number of issues, with the result that Thomas stood higher in his affections. The king and the prince had differing views on Richard II, who had been far kinder to the prince than his father.34 Second, the prince never much liked his stepmother, Queen Joan, whom he later falsely accused of sorcery so he could confiscate her income.35 Third, the king and the prince did not agree about the developing situation in France.36 But perhaps the most striking evidence of the king’s favouritism to Thomas is his attempt to entail the throne upon his male descendants only in 1406. This would have had very little effect on the succession, but with one important exception. In the absence of the prince having a son, the throne would pass to Thomas.37 It is not surprising that the prince was keen to see this altered, so any daughters of his would inherit before his brother.

These differences between the king’s two eldest sons became even more marked in the autumn of 1409, when the prince expected shortly to inherit. He had completed his duties in Wales, having recaptured Aberystwyth Castle in September 1408 and Harlech in February 1409, thereby leaving Glendower a helpless outlaw. Such success gained him praise and left him free to engage more directly with the council. But as his father’s health improved it became apparent to the prince and his Beaufort uncles that royal power might remain vested in Archbishop Arundel for many years to come. They began to speak of Henry abdicating.38 Naturally, they were opposed by the archbishop and Thomas of Lancaster.39 In August 1409 Thomas returned to his father’s household and demanded payment from the council for his service in Ireland.40 His elder brother tried to get him to resign his position. Thomas refused. Both parties were aware that the money from the 1407 parliament had run out, but bankruptcy only made agreement between the two factions more difficult. On 26 October Arundel persuaded the king to summon another parliament to meet at the end of January at Bristol. It looked as if the government would fail in its promise not to call for further taxation before March 1410.

Henry had been largely absent during this worsening of relations between his chief councillors, sons and half-brothers. In July 1409 he stayed in private houses in London, and in the late summer and autumn he went on a pilgrimage tour, taking in the abbeys of Romsey and St Albans.41 He dined with the prince on 20 November at Berkhamsted, apparently unaware of the crisis unfolding, and then headed north by road to visit Leicester. In the meantime the council tore itself to pieces. The very next day – 21 November – Henry Beaufort declared himself to be in support of the prince.42 Over the next two weeks Tiptoft and Arundel found their positions on the council unworkable. On 11 December Tiptoft resigned.43 On the 18th Arundel was forced to agree that parliament should be summoned to London, not Bristol (where he would have been able to control proceedings more easily). Three days later he too resigned, in the presence of the king, who had hurried back as quickly as he could to attend to the crisis.44 At the same time he resigned from the council. The king’s ministers had been forced to yield to the prince. The king’s authority was being usurped by his own family.


Henry spent Christmas 1409 at Eltham, as usual. He did not immediately appoint new ministers; instead, he kept the great seals of the chancellor and treasurer himself. On 6 January 1410 the prince persuaded him to give that of the treasurer to one of his own supporters: Henry, Lord Scrope of Masham. As for the chancellorship, Henry declined to appoint anyone, probably hoping that he could persuade Arundel to change his mind when parliament began.45 If so, Arundel steadfastly stood by his resignation. The obvious alternative candidate was Henry Beaufort, but the king was reluctant to appoint him. He seems to have become a little suspicious of his half-brother.46 There is no direct evidence of a rift between them at this time, but Beaufort’s rivalry with Thomas Arundel was probably sufficient to bar him from high office.47 The king could not appoint Beaufort without betraying the archbishop, who had now become his closest friend.

When parliament opened at Westminster on 27 January, Bishop Beaufort performed the role of the chancellor in delivering the opening speech. He explained that parliament had been summoned for the good government of the realm and its defence, and, in particular, that the duke of Burgundy was now planning an attack on Calais. If the town were not strengthened immediately, it would be vulnerable to attack. Having made these points, Beaufort continued with a matter of his own interest: an exposition on two forms of government, ‘one by right of government, and the other by right of subjugation’. As Aristotle had informed Alexander the Great, the love of the people was a stronger means of protecting a city than any walls. Bishop Beaufort’s ideas may have been governed by a belief in the merits of a constitutional monarchy, or they may have simply been a way of bringing to an end the dissent in the council. Either way, making this speech was as close as he came to being chancellor. Four days later the office was given to his more acceptable younger brother, Thomas Beaufort.48 In this way the king prevented Henry Beaufort from being seen to triumph over his rival, Arundel, but the compromise marked another advance for the prince, who was on equally good terms with Thomas.

What did Henry make of this attempt by his son to obtain control over the council? This is an interesting question, and it is insufficient just to point to the disagreements between him and the prince as an indicator that he resented his son’s ambition. It was hardly surprising that the young man was impatient to rule. After all, it was his birthright, so this attempt to take royal power was an encouraging sign of his son’s enthusiasm to perform his royal duties. After his successes in Wales, he deserved a chance to prove himself. However, there were many dangers, not least to Archbishop Arundel. Henry was not unaware of these, as shown by his reaction when Thomas Chaucer (the Beauforts’ first cousin) was again elected by the commons to be Speaker. Henry warned Chaucer that he was free to speak only as far as tradition allowed. The king obviously feared for his prerogatives, and the most likely explanation is that he suspected he might be asked to abdicate. As things turned out, the situation did not arise. There were radical developments in the air of a very different and far more horrific kind.

Lollardy was a subject of debate from the outset. The commons presented an extraordinary petition to disendow the Church, taking away the entire worldly wealth of the diocesan clergy and paying them each a subsistence allowance of £2 per year. In this way, it was argued, the king would be able ‘to support fifteen new earls, 1,500 knights, 6,200 esquires and 100 new almshouses, and still be left with an annual income of £20,000’.49 Moreover, by taking away the temporalities of ‘worldly clerks’, fifteen new universities could be founded, each educating one thousand scholars. That the sums did not add up was only the first problem with such a radical proposal.50 The political obstacles were insurmountable. The whole scheme was bound to anger Archbishop Arundel who had fought long and hard against such ideas, most notably in the parliament of October 1404. As on that occasion, he received Henry’s full support. The king went so far as to prohibit such proposals ever being put to him again, and the petition was not included on the parliament roll.

Probably because of this reaction (which was supported by the prince) the commons asked on 8 February that a petition they had submitted ‘concerning the statute formerly made about the Lollards’ might be withdrawn from consideration in parliament. The king agreed. Another petition was resubmitted in the hope of lessening the powers of local ecclesiastical officials to imprison Lollards. Even this was too much for Henry, who retorted that he would rather the heresy statute was made stricter than more lenient.51

It was while these Lollard debates were echoing around the chambers of Westminster that Archbishop Arundel decided to make a show of religious orthodoxy. A craftsman, John Badby, had been arrested early in 1409 for uttering heretical ideas. Upon examination by the bishop of Worcester, he had declared that he did not believe a priest could turn a piece of bread into the body of Christ. Not only did he deny the possibility as well as the reality of transubstantiation, he insisted that a priest had no more power to effect this miracle than ‘John Rakyer of Bristol’, probably referring to a ‘raker’, or cleaner, of refuse and animal excrement from the town streets. This was not just heresy, it was a brutal attack by a layman on the dignity of the Church. The case had confounded the bishop of Worcester. How could this man, who had no religious credentials or qualifications, question the orthodox outlook of the whole Catholic Church? And what should he do with him? He could hardly excommunicate him, for, by definition, this man would not care whether he was excommunicated or not. He decided to refer the matter to his superior, Archbishop Arundel.

On 1 March Badby was brought into a hall in the London house of the Dominican friars. Never before in his life could he have been confronted by so many great men of the realm. Both archbishops – Arundel and Henry’s old friend, Henry Bowet, now archbishop of York – were present. So were the duke of York, Bishop Henry Beaufort, Thomas Beaufort and the bishops of London, Exeter, Norwich, Bath and Wells, St David’s, Bangor and Salisbury. Arundel, of course, took the lead in examining the prisoner. What he hoped for is not clear: he said he would ‘offer his soul’ for Badby at the Last Judgement if Badby would only recant. Badby had no intention of doing any such thing. It was not that he was irreligious – he stated he wished to believe in an omnipotent divine Trinity, and that the bread and wine left on the table after a priest had failed to turn it into the body and blood of Christ was still symbolic of God – but his certainty that the clergy were powerless was unshakeable. If each consecrated host was really the body of Christ, he said, then there must be twenty thousand gods in England, but he believed only in one. That was it. In the eyes of everyone present, he was damned.

Badby was locked up in another part of the friars’ house to await sentencing. Arundel himself kept the key. By this stage Arundel would have known that he had an extraordinary man to deal with, and to show the would-be reformers in the commons that they could expect harsh treatment for heresy he decided that the sentence upon Badby should be passed by the whole of convocation (all the prelates of England and Wales). On 5 March convocation assembled in St Paul’s Cathedral, together with several prominent laymen: the duke of York, the earl of Westmorland, Lord Beaumont and the chancellor, Thomas Beaufort. Before them all Badby declared that he would not renounce any of his beliefs, and further declared that the holy sacrament was ‘less than a toad or a spider’, because these were at least living things. Anything created by God, he said, was more worthy of worship than a man-made image.52 Having heard him utter these abominations against the tenets of the Church, Arundel confirmed the bishop of Worcester’s verdict of heresy and handed Badby over to the secular authorities for punishment under the law, expressing his wish that he should not suffer death by burning.

Did Arundel really want the man spared the flames? Or was his intention all along that he would be burned to death, like William Sawtre, a terrible example to the faction in parliament which had dared to suggest the disendowment of the Church? We cannot know. Nevertheless, the warrant for his execution by burning alive was obtained very rapidly, so fast in fact that we must suspect it had already been written. Such a warrant had to come from the office of the chancellor, Thomas Beaufort, who was present at the final examination at St Paul’s. It is unlikely to have been at Beaufort’s own instigation that the warrant was issued; rather, it is more probable that it was done on Henry’s instructions or those of the prince and the bishops on the council. It was certainly an ominous sign that the prince suddenly arrived to witness the spectacle, presumably having prior knowledge of the sentence. There was no going back now.

If anyone thinks of English history as one long, great progression of social improvement, they should ponder on what happened next. Until 1410 no layman in England had been burned simply for stating what he believed, and Sawtre had been the only priest. But now men-at-arms forced Badby into a barrel, and placed it in the middle of a heap of faggots. As the condemned man waited, chained inside his barrel, the prince approached the pyre and called to him to renounce his heresy. Badby refused. So the faggots were lit, and in a short while the barrel began to burn. Badby began to scream in pain. All the bishops who had attended his last interrogation – including the three who were members of the council – stood watching. As his screams intensified, the horror-struck prince gave the order for the man to be taken off the pyre. This was impossible, for the heat was already too intense. Instead, the burning faggots were pulled away. When the barrel was cool enough to approach, the prince went up to the scorched and sweating man and offered him a pardon and three pence a day for life if he would only renounce his heresy. The prior of St Bartholomew’s was standing by with the Holy Sacrament should he agree, but still Badby refused. So the faggots were pushed back around the smouldering barrel, and the man was burned to ashes.

There was no more talk of disendowment or heresy in the parliament of 1410.


Parliament was suspended for Easter on 15 March. The following day, at the hospital of St Katherine by the Tower, John Beaufort uttered his last will at about 9 a.m., in the hearing of his assembled household servants.53 Later that day he died. John had been the eldest of Henry’s half-brothers, and thus the closest in age when they were growing up. In their jousting and travelling, John was the one with whom he had the most in common. In 1399, Henry had produced letters to save John’s life when the earl of Northumberland and Hotspur had demanded that he be executed. From that moment on he had remained absolutely loyal. With his death, Henry lost a strong supporter and a close companion. In line with Henry’s own intention (already made explicit in his will of 1409), John desired to be buried in Canterbury Cathedral.

In the wake of John’s death, Henry withdrew even more from the business of government. He stayed with Archbishop Arundel at Lambeth. Neither attended meetings of the royal council. Instead the council met at the prince’s house. Its membership was reduced to the bare minimum. On some occasions, only the prince himself, the chancellor and the treasurer were present.54 The prince’s preference was for a smaller council than his father, who had hitherto appointed twelve or fourteen men to advise him.

Parliament reassembled on 7 April, and the prince’s influence was soon felt. On 23 April the commons presented eighteen articles to the king. This seems to have been a recapitulation of matters discussed over the previous two weeks and was presented in the form of a petition to Henry, who had probably been absent throughout. He spent three days considering the articles, and replied to them all in writing. One, the fifteenth, concerning the bribing of royal officials, was taken in hand by the prince and the council even though the king had assented to it. In other words, the king was overruled by his son. This is interesting, for about this time parliament agreed to another mysterious article, the terms of which are not known but which severely curtailed the king’s authority. It probably rendered the king’s judgement subject to the approval of the council in some way, and the prince and council taking this fifteenth article into their own hands might be evidence of it working.55

On 2 May the commons asked that the royal council be announced in parliament; the chancellor read out just seven names: the prince, Henry Beaufort, Thomas Langley, Nicholas Bubwith (the bishops of Winchester, Durham and Bath and Wells respectively), the earls of Arundel and Westmorland and Lord Burnell. To these should be added the chancellor himself, the treasurer and the keeper of the privy seal. Thus the council consisted largely of the prince’s friends. The absence of other prominent men – Arundel and Tiptoft – was explained by a statement that they had ‘reasonable causes’ to be excused. At the end of the parliament the prince strengthened his hand still further by asking that two more of his friends, Bishop Henry Chichele (bishop of St David’s) and the earl of Warwick, should also be appointed to the council, as the earl of Westmorland and Bishop Langley (the members most friendly with the king) could be expected to be regularly absent in the north. When parliament broke up on 9 May, the transferral of power appeared to be complete.

Henry withdrew from the parliament a sick, redundant man. He must have known he had surrendered power to his son, and that he was back where he had been after the 1406 parliament, when the council had told him to go off somewhere and live quietly and inexpensively. He now did the same again. He spent the next month at Lambeth Palace and Windsor Castle. As June turned to July, he headed off for Woodstock, where he stayed for five weeks. He spent more than three months shuffling between Leicester and Groby (five miles from Leicester) in the autumn and early winter. There were no more pilgrimages to health-giving shrines; he had stopped searching for a miracle cure. That December he did not venture south to spend Christmas at Eltham, as was his custom, but travelled the far shorter distance to spend it at Kenilworth Castle. There he remained for another two months, his inactivity undoubtedly a symptom of his illness. For all this time there are just two or three signet letters extant.56 As for the royal charters, they were all granted in the king’s absence.57 Henry simply did not involve himself in royal business. He had retired.

For a short time it looked as if the king really had retired. But in one very important respect he could never relinquish power. He was unable to give up his concern with that royal identity which governed his entire life. Just as Richard had claimed he could never abdicate the divine anointment he had received at his coronation, so too Henry could not relinquish sovereignty, even in his invalid state. So, as the events of 1411 unfolded, he roused himself for one last time, and set about reasserting himself. It was not for the sake of personal power, not now; it was for something more. Or, rather, two last things: royal dignity and spiritual duty.

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