Necessity so bow’d the state
That I and greatness were compelled to kiss …
Henry IV Part Two, Act 2, Scene 1
This book began with a note stressing how Shakespeare used the historical Henry as a sort of dressmaker’s dummy over which to sew two very different characters: the cold usurper, Bolingbroke, and the aloof, regal father of England’s hero, Henry V. Occasionally in the plays there is a flash of poetic understanding which accords with the historical Henry’s situation – for example, the speech which ends ‘uneasy lies the head that wears a crown’ – but otherwise Shakespeare’s Henry is just an archetypal king, lacking a distinctive personality. As any ardent Shakespeare reader will have realised, although the nineteen chapter titles in this book have all been drawn from the three plays in which Henry appears, only five have been used in context. ‘The Summons of the Appellant’s Trumpet’, for example, relates to the events of 1397, not the Appellants’ rising in 1387, and ‘The Virtue of Necessity’ comes from a speech in which John of Gaunt tries to persuade Henry to see the positive aspects of exile, and has nothing to do with his return to England in 1399. Such words were drawn from the stardust cloud of poetic truths which turns slowly around the historical Richard II and Henry IV, sometimes shedding light but more often obscuring the characters.
In one respect, though – the title of this final chapter – Shakespeare was absolutely correct. Henry and greatness were compelled to kiss. Henry was kept distant from greatness all through his youth. Richard appointed him to lead no embassies, and gave him no military command. His visits to Lithuania and Jerusalem were remarkable but they were not the stuff of greatness. His patience and forbearance in the 1390s were equally remarkable but again, silence is not greatness. Then came the moment of compulsion, the kiss. To think that Henry could have done anything other than to return to England in 1399 is to misunderstand both the man and his times. He could not have remained a knight, stripped of his titles, in exile; it would not have been good enough for his family or his retainers – the hundreds of people who depended on him – let alone for himself and the dignity of his position. Moreover, he was a fighting man, the sole man to be the grandson of the two greatest war leaders of the fourteenth century. He was the ultimatethoroughbred warrior. The very fact that Richard tried to dishonour and destroy such a man showed contemporaries that their king was acting without thought for the consequences of his actions, and that in itself was dangerous for the realm. Henry was compelled by circumstances to return to England in 1399. And that implied either a kiss with greatness or the more permanent embrace with failure and a traitor’s death.
A kiss is a fleeting thing, but once it has taken place it cannot be undone. Henry’s kiss with greatness was similar. In 1399 he was called upon to act in an extraordinary manner and he did not shrink from the heavy responsibility placed upon his shoulders. What he did – against all the social conventions of his time – was astounding. His manner of assuming the crown was not that of a usurper but more like the winner of an election, a point he recognised himself in his arguments with the friars in 1402. That he did not go on to be a great king does not detract from the courage, initiative and consideration of his actions in 1399. There is almost no sense in which his reign can be considered great; it was dogged by financial problems and rebellion, so that defeating or outlasting all his enemies is his sole claim to greatness as a ruler. But in terms of his stature as a man, those judgements do not apply. His rule may have been characterised by crisis and opposition, but he was one of the most courageous, conscientious, personally committed and energetic men ever to rule England. It is unfortunate that he has historically been judged solely as a king and not as a man.
The purpose of this final chapter is therefore to correct this imbalance, or rather more fairly to appraise the character and achievements of Henry of Lancaster. In doing this, it hardly needs to be repeated that we need to break up the old frames through which we see the kings and queens of England. The idea that we can look down the list of monarchs and compare them all is a facile one, for each man and woman faced his or her own unique problems, and, as we have seen, no one had previously had to face the range of difficulties which confronted Henry. But it is valid to ask how well he personally coped with his particular set of problems, and (to repeat a question posed in the introductory note) why he survived as a king and Richard did not. And the starting point for any such reckoning has to be the personality of Henry himself.
There is no getting away from the fact that Henry was a complex character. Logical, conservative, intelligent, articulate, eager to engage in dispute, militarily minded, energetic, a creature of routine … Already we have some obvious contradictions, for how could Henry have been both ‘conservative’ and the leader of the most far-reaching revolution in England before the seventeenth century? How can he have been so argumentative, in his disputes with the friars, and so fond of routine (in his itinerary, spending virtually every Christmas at Eltham, for instance)? This point is an important one, for it is arguably the key to understanding any historical person. In the course of writing The Perfect King: the life of Edward III, it was impossible to avoid the realisation that Edward III was also a mass of apparent contradictions: romantic yet hard-headed, pious yet ruthless, faithful to his wife yet encouraging of sexual adventure.1 As that study showed, it is only when we tease out and juxtapose the apparent contradictions of a lord or king that we obtain an in-depth view of his character. In fact, apparent contradictions such as these very rarely represent real aberrations but rather are different viewpoints from which to see a multi-dimensional character.
To show how this affects our interpretation of Henry, consider his spirituality. There is no doubt that Henry’s devotion to the Trinity was sincere and unfaltering. There are far too many references in his life for his adherence to the cult to be considered any less sincere than the devotion of his uncle (the Black Prince) and Henry V, both of whom were fervent believers in the Trinity. Yet Henry executed an archbishop. He also executed the abbot of Halesowen, the prior of Launde and a whole host of friars. He had the bishop of Carlisle tried for treason, and was accused by Richard II of being an enemy to the Church. These details prevent us from interpreting his religious views as traditional and straightforward. Knowing that he had no respect for opponents who held high office in the Church allows us to contextualise his piety and see a direct link between his God and himself, thereby largely circumventing the role of the clergy. His attitude towards the prelates he executed was that they deserved no special treatment if they stood in the way of God’s will that Henry should rule England. Hence the apparent contradiction of a pious king who executed an archbishop is explained, and a much fuller picture of his religious conscience obtained.
So, what was Henry really like? Having started with his spirituality, it seems appropriate to continue with that theme. Very clearly, Henry cared more for God than for the Church, and more for the Church than for some of the men who exercised office within it. Indeed, his relationship with God was one of the most powerful drivers in his life. This is not reflected in great buildings and worthy foundations like those of Henry III or Henry VI; Henry simply did not have the time or the money to build on a lavish scale, nor did he have the need to make a show of his religion. But there is plentiful evidence for his zeal. Although there were already two chapels at Eltham, he built another for his own personal use, connected by a staircase from his own bed chamber. In decorating the windows of his private rooms within the palace, he chose figures of saints and the Trinity. Similarly, when prevented from going on crusade in 1392, his alternative was a protracted pilgrimage. Throughout his life we may notice this tendency to opt for the religious path, even celebrating his birthday through Maundy alms-giving. As mentioned in the text, Richard and others feared this personal religious confidence in Henry. Those who have seen Scrope’s execution as evidence that Henry was irreligious are missing the key point: Henry’s spiritual strength was so great that not even an archbishop could stand in the way of him performing what he believed was right. This spiritual conviction – so dramatically reflected in his will of 1409 – must be considered to have been a solid foundation for his outlook on life and a reassurance in dealing with the vicissitudes of his reign.
This personal religion – Henry’s ‘direct link’ with God – is closely connected to the private side of his life, and his preference for the company of his household staff and family, not a great mass of courtiers and magnates. It is this respect in which he differs most markedly from his grandfather, Edward III. Although he was extraordinarily courageous, confident and militarily accomplished, he did not have his grandfather’s ability to bring together a large number of knights and bind them in a quasi-Arthurian thirst for collective glory. The Arthurian renaissance was not yet over in 1399 but Henry was unable to capitalise on it. Similarly, the Welsh expeditions in which he took part were all short forays, with the prime purpose of demonstrating that the king of England could march through Wales at will. We do not sense any great collective enthusiasm for glory in the company around Henry on these expeditions. He was just too serious. His nature did not prevent him being one of the greatest knights of his age, and a good battle commander, but it did make his court less exuberant, less romantic, less fun and less united than that of his male-bonding grandfather.
From this we can begin to see the makings of an individualist, and this accords with other aspects of Henry’s character. The serious, logical underpinning of many of his interests was outlined early on in this book; for example, his love of music, jousting and disputation. To these we might add his preference for archery and cannon: highly efficient means of fighting with projectile weapons, not hand-to-hand gallantry. This logical way of thinking, combined with his high level of education and a natural intelligence, gave him an intellectual self-confidence matched by very few of his contemporaries. Hence his ability to comment constructively on theological disputes at the University of Paris, and his readiness to engage in arguments with the friars about their perverse loyalty to a discredited and deceased ex-king. Such argumentativeness is supported by Capgrave’s line about Henry’s tendency to discuss moral issues at length. It is further supported by Jean de Waurin, who recorded that ‘his good sense, and his prudence extended into many lands and divers countries. He maintained and loved justice above all things, and besides was a very handsome prince, learned, and eloquent, courteous, valiant and brave in arms …’2 It is no surprise that he continued arguing with the duke of Orléans far beyond the point of regal dignity.
Henry was unswervingly loyal to his friends and loved ones. His loyalty to his father was exceptional: as far as we can see, he never went against his father’s directions, even though such obedience risked humiliation at court. That instinctive loyalty and fidelity is noticeable through his entire life: from his relationships with his wives, both of whom he loved dearly, to his children and his Lancastrian retainers. His only known illegitimate child was conceived and born between his marriages. His support of Thomas Arundel was unflinching, even on those occasions when it was contrary to his own interests. Naturally, for a man with a logical mind, this was part of a quid pro quo agreement, and his loyalty to his friends was only half the story. Just as important was his appreciation of the loyalty of others, and his ability to encourage and retain that loyalty even in the face of adversity was crucial. The betrayal of the Percys, for example, proved less significant than the loyalty of those who stood by the king in 1403. Henry’s relationships with his sons, and his ability to retain their devotion, and to forgive Prince Henry in 1412, is similarly striking. When we recall the Lancastrian retainers who had supported him all his life – for example, John Norbury, Thomas Erpingham and Hugh and Robert Waterton – the importance of these personal ties is revealed. He did all he could to keep his promises to them – resisting the commons’ demands in 1404 for their pensions and gifts to be cut – and they stuck by him with an equal loyalty.
Beyond this we can see another sort of loyalty in Henry: loyalty to his kingdom. There is no doubt that Henry’s responsibility to the realm was of an altogether different nature to Richard’s. Part of this is due to the fact that Henry could not take his status as king for granted. Not only was it constantly under threat, he himself had been a subject – a vassal – for most of his life. His outlook as a subject of the king became transposed, on his accession, to becoming a subject of the kingdom. In parliament this allowed him to be far more tolerant of opposition than any previous king. It can also be seen in his readiness to accept responsibility for the defence of the realm, especially Wales. In neither arena did he shirk his responsibilities. Henry’s loyalty to individuals and his sense of obligation to the kingdom are factors which cannot be ignored in assessing his character.
Loyalty? In Henry IV, the man who rebelled against his liege lord and usurped his throne? We have another apparent contradiction here. But it is not hard to find an answer; it is a matter of to whom or to what he was loyal. Henry was loyal to his friends, not to Richard II. Readers of The Greatest Traitor might have recalled the first line of the opening chapter of that book when reading this one: ‘the roots of betrayal lie in friendship; those of treason lie in loyalty’. It is a truism which may be repeated over and over again for the later middle ages, for the causes of rebellion are normally to be found in an undiminished loyalty to another cause. It was the Counter-Appellants’ loyalty to Richard II which led to the Epiphany Rising. The reason Glendower took arms was not just hatred of Lord Grey but his loyalty to the idea of an independent Welsh nation. Even the Percy rebellion was partly actuated by loyalty to the Mortimer claim to the throne. Similarly Henry, in returning to England in 1399, was acting in accordance with a combination of Lancastrian and national loyalties which went over and above his obligations to an unworthy king.
The above parade of Henry’s characteristics makes him appear a model medieval magnate. Spiritually motivated, intellectual, conscientious, courageous, loyal to his friends, family and kingdom: all these – coupled with his education and his military skill – make him appear too good to be true. Add to these his wit (remarked on by the emperor of Byzantium) and his charming manners (noticed on his pilgrimage as well as in Paris during his exile) and we may begin to wonder was there no downside to him as a man. The answer to that question, of course, lies in the ultimate testing of his character, following his accession. Yes, he was a virtuous man, but virtue is not necessarily the most suitable characteristic in a king, especially if the kingdom’s highest priority is to stamp out opposition at home and to win overseas victories. As a king, under pressure, the potential weaknesses in his character became clearer and clearer. His concept of mercy was pushed to the limit, and then beyond, with the inevitable result that he was forced to take more direct action against unrepentant rebels, making his initial promises of mercy appear false. His own standards of duty and loyalty were so high that he expected more of his leading subjects than they were able to give. A few lived up to his expectations – such as the earl of Westmorland – but others did not, and broke from him. Most of all, he wanted so much to be a good king – attempting to please everyone all the time – that he inevitably displeased some. In no aspect of his rule is this clearer than his failure to cope financially. His natural generosity and his loyalty to his friends meant that, after 1399, he became generous to a fault, giving away far more than he could afford. When the implications of this were made clear in parliament, he was reluctant to do anything to remedy the situation. He would rather tax the anonymous masses than take away a grant from a loyal supporter. In this way the strains of kingship almost proved Henry’s undoing.
Almost, but not quite. For in the foregoing list of Henry’s qualities and characteristics we have not mentioned the most important two. First of these is his tenacity. With the exception of his expedition to Scotland, it is difficult to think of anything on which Henry gave up. Surely Glendower cannot have expected in 1400 that the king of England would personally lead expeditions against him every year for the next five years? And that he would delegate to his son the responsibility to continue the fight for another four years? As reflected in his propensity to argue points of honour, he was determined to have the final word in everything. On matters of loyalty, duty and almost every aspect of his royal prerogative, he did have the last word, dying peacefully with his royal power intact and the word ‘Jerusalem’ on his lips. Even his illness did not overwhelm this tenacity; it is wholly remarkable that a man whose flesh was rotting, who could not walk and who had twice been in a coma should stage a comeback and resume power as he did in the parliament of 1411. If he did indeed suffer from the same disease as the Black Prince in the last eight years of his life, then his achievements in his time of illness outstrip the prince’s by a very great margin, and that is due wholly to his determination to see things to an end.
This brings us to the last and by far the most important characteristic of Henry IV. Without it, none of the above would have happened, and this book would not have been written, for Henry himself would not have survived. It is, of course, his pragmatism. It runs like a golden thread of self-preservation throughout his life. Without it, he would have seen his uncle Thomas seize the throne from Richard in the last days of 1387. He would have buckled under the weight of Richard’s antipathy, forced into an open and treasonable revolt in 1385, when Richard tried to murder his father, or in 1394, when Richard appointed his uncle to be keeper of the realm, ignoring Henry’s claim to the throne. Or in 1397 when Richard murdered his uncle. As for how he managed to contain himself in 1398, after learning that Richard had planned to murder his father and was yet planning to destroy the Lancastrians, we can only guess. By the time of the duel with Mowbray, Henry must have been on the point of lynching Richard. But he did not. His pragmatism during his revolution was a clear factor in his success, and it is repeatedly in evidence, from his oath-swearing to his claiming the throne by inheritance from Henry III, and his precaution of being confirmed as king in parliament. Afterwards, his pragmatism proved his saving grace. His order to have Richard killed – a reversal of his earlier decision – is perhaps the best example. All those thousands who rallied to the cry ‘King Richard is alive’ would have been able to cause a great deal more trouble if Richard had been languishing in some dungeon, or able to return from Scotland and lead an army in person. And most of all, Henry’s pragmatism in standing back from the most intense criticisms and demands of his kingship allowed him to weather the worst political storms. Whereas Richard’s attitude towards political opponents was summed up in his phrase that ‘he is a child of death who offends the king’, Henry accommodated his opponents’ skills within his government. It has been said once already but it is worth saying again thatthat quality – the ability of the tree to bend and sway in the storm and not to snap – was the key reason why Henry survived and Richard did not.
If you go looking for the visual reminders of Henry IV today, you will find very few. Nothing at all remains of his palace at Eltham: the surviving hall was built for Edward IV. The gatehouse at Lancaster Castle is Henry’s only significant secular structure, and the church at Battlefield, near Shrewsbury, and the chapel of St Edward the Confessor at Canterbury are his only religious foundations visible today. Given his shortage of money and the need to prioritise what gold there was for the defence of the realm, it is not surprising that Henry did not build on a large scale. It is also important to remember that in his reign, most of Edward III’s great buildings were still standing, and thus he did not need to build huge palaces to celebrate his kingship. Thus the physical impact of Henry’s reign on the landscape was, and is, minimal.
Much the same can be said about other artworks and items of patronage. You will find little to do with Henry IV in any museum. Coins from the reign are relatively rare, because Henry was able to depend on the specie in circulation from the long reign of his grandfather. No textiles have survived. The Dunstable swan jewel may or may not have passed through his hands. The crown of his daughter, Blanche, survives in Munich, but it was inherited with the treasure of Richard II, and was probably made for Queen Anne in Paris in about 1380. A few livery collars survive; none, however, can be associated with Henry himself. Some early fifteenth-century cannon survive but there is no evidence that they were based on Henry’s designs. Even the two extant pieces of music probably by him are often attributed to his eldest son, and are very rarely sung. To see physical evidence of Henry’s existence we must either go to Canterbury Cathedral to see his tomb, with the effigy of him placed there after his death by his widow, or we must go to The National Archives to see his accounts, a few letters bearing his handwriting, and images of him in manuscript.
For these reasons, it could be said that Henry hardly made a mark on England. With few visual reminders, he just does not crop up in conversation or feature on the tourist trail. Even the custom of the sovereign giving an age-related amount of money to an age-related number of recipients has lost its connection with Henry. Ask the man in the street which English crusader king entered Jerusalem, and the chances are that he will answer Richard I (who never set foot in the holy city), not Henry IV. Henry’s life, of course, saw a golden age of literature, and he had an indirect legacy in the work of the poets Chaucer, Hoccleve and Gower, all of whom he patronised or employed. But if our purpose in searching for antiquities and literary remains is to establish what difference Henry made to England, we are setting about answering it in wholly the wrong way. The Roman Emperor Claudius never came to England but he has a good claim to be named one of the most important men in the history of the country, for it was his invasion which brought the country within the Roman Empire. Likewise Henry’s importance is not to be found in any physical manifestation of royal power, such as a great palace or a widely read book. It lies in the fact that Henry forced all of England and much of the rest of Christendom to consider the nature of the accepted social order in relation to God. If the king ruled badly, broke his promises and murdered his subjects, could it be lawful for a man to depose him and take the throne in his place? Could it be justified in the eyes of God? These questions would continue to tear society apart for the next two hundred and fifty years, and would only be finally answered when England deposed its king in 1649 and killed him, not secretly by starvation but with an axe, in public.
This challenge to the social order is undoubtedly Henry’s lasting legacy. It is ironic that it was accidental; he himself was very conservative in his determination to preserve the royal prerogative. But there is no avoiding the fact that he dealt a colossal blow to the prerogatives of the English throne. Not only did he force the king to abdicate, he used parliament to introduce and confirm a new royal legitimacy, scrubbing the lawbooks clean in order to facilitate his ‘inheritance’. Thus the precedent was created that parliament had the de facto authority to choose a new king as well as to depose one. If we take the view that Henry was not Richard II’s legal heir (and the claim from Henry III seems to indicate that he was not), then it follows that he was the first elected ruler of England since William the Conqueror, who was ‘chosen’ to be king by the Saxon Witan following the battle of Hastings.
That empowerment of parliament was, of course, where many of his problems started. A parliament which had ratified a king’s claim to the throne was always going to have a high opinion of its own importance and authority. From 1401 we get the impression that, in parliament, Henry was like a wounded mammoth, surrounded by scavengers scenting that the great animal was weak, although it was still strong enough to lash out with its great tusks and defend itself. In that he was unfortunate. Indeed, luck was rarely on his side. He was fortunate to have the king of Scotland fall into his hands but unlucky that the Scottish and French kings chose not to recognise him in the first place. He was financially unlucky too. He could hardly help the terrible harvests and high food prices early in the reign, or the simultaneous collapse of the revenue from the wool trade, but they both caused enormous hardship, fuelling discontent against him and his government. Similarly he was unlucky to have prophecies stacked against him, foretelling his doom and encouraging opposition. People did not have to believe in prophecy to see that such calamities might well come true.
Considering these misfortunes, it was no small achievement for Henry to retain the throne. But the reign was not without its political achievements. First and foremost there is the stabilising effect of his ability to see off all attempts to dethrone him. Then there was the stability of his form of kingship. In the 1407 parliament Thomas Arundel listed the reasons why he thought the people should ‘honour the king’: because Henry had preserved the liberties of towns and religious institutions; because he had showed himself unstinting in his efforts to defend the realm; and because he had showed mercy to his adversaries. All of these were matters of maintaining the status quo; nothing here was a new development. This points to the very success of his conservative policy. If a revolution is to be wholly successful, all the counter-revolutions must be defeated. That Henry did so while showing mercy and preserving existing liberties is to his credit.
Historians of parliament of course can (and do) list many other developments in this reign. To what extent they were due to Henry himself, and to what extent they can be classed his achievements, are quite different questions. Perhaps Henry deserves some credit for his flexibility and initiative in proposing new forms of taxation, such as the land tax. The promise of low taxation was very clearly unsustainable but it did result in the acceptance of the principle that extraordinary taxation could be used to repay the government’s debts. On the other hand, the confirmation of the right to discuss matters of state without the king being present was a step forward for the commons. Both sides of the parliamentary lobby thus gained from the reign. That is hardly surprising, but if Henry can be credited with these developments it is only on account of his successful management of change. As stated at the outset, most of the developments in parliament were in spite of his involvement, not because of it.
On this basis, we have to conclude that Henry has been unfortunate in the way he has been treated historically, and to have had his reputation stamped with the superficial judgement of ‘usurper’. At the time, men called him a saviour, not a usurper, and it was largely the ambitions of subsequent aspiring usurpers and the vulnerability of subsequent rulers which has maintained the ‘usurper’ tag. Another blow to Henry’s reputation came with the success of his son. Given that Henry IV’s reign was a struggle to stabilise the realm, the subsequent one seemed glorious by comparison. The contrast was exaggerated by polemicists wishing to create a warrior-hero out of Henry V. To make the younger Henry’s achievements seem even greater, they compared his victories to his father’s frustrations. And Henry IV’s successes, such as the victory of Shrewsbury and the defeat of Glendower, were associated with the hero-son, not the usurper-father, as if it was only due to Prince Henry’s presence that Henry IV survived at all. There is a clear mismatch of condemnation and praise.
How then should we see Henry today? In chapter fifteen it was observed that he and Glendower had a number of points in common; for example, their high level of education, justification for revolution, aspirations for international recognition, military skill and political resilience. In terms of reputation, they cannot be compared. Not only was their struggle an unequal one; there is still today a cultural need in Wales to celebrate Glendower as a national hero, whereas in England there is no equivalent need to view Henry in a positive light. Historical judgement is cruel; most historical reputations develop in an arbitrary way. In fact, to see just how unfair historical judgement can be, consider Henry’s life in relation to that of a later ruler of England, Oliver Cromwell. Neither Henry nor Cromwell was born to be head of state. Both men deposed and (reluctantly) killed their lawful king. Both were soldiers, both achieved power through a military campaign and parliamentary acclamation. Both were serious, spiritually motivated, private men, and both attempted to rule through God’s direction. Neither man was educated in governance but did so in good faith, and both had to face a series of economic disasters. Both died of natural causes, still in power but exhausted and gravely sick, after little more than a decade of rule. Of course there are significant differences – Henry was a nobleman, Cromwell was a commoner, and the country deserted Richard II whereas many stood by Charles I – but the point is clear. Cromwell is judged a great man and a great leader; today there are statues to him, and he is a household name. There is only one commemorative statue to Henry IV, on the east end of Battlefield Church, near Shrewsbury. He is still labelled a usurper because that is the way subsequent monarchs wanted people to think of him, and the way their subjects (including Shakespeare) agreed to present him.
Thus we come to the end of this study of the life of Henry IV. And what more appropriate image is there with which to end but that final moment of his life. Picture him lying on that low bed in the Jerusalem Chamber of the abbot’s house at Westminster. He is lying by the fire, covered in blankets, dying. He is in great pain. But as he lies there, who can doubt that his career has been the most phenomenal success. What has he not achieved? The king of Scotland is his prisoner. The Welsh revolt is crushed. The French are in disarray as Clarence rides at the head of an army all the way to Gascony. Henry’s throne now will pass unopposed to his eldest son, Henry of Monmouth, who is at his bedside, reconciled to him. Despite all Henry’s fears, despite Richard’s bitter hatred, despite all those rebellions, plots, and arguments in parliament and in the council chamber, he will die in peace, a respected man and an unvanquished king.
Few men confront the basic tenets of the society in which they live and try to change them. Very few of those are successful. And even fewer survive to reflect on their success. Henry IV was one of these very few.