Post-classical history

2 : We Were in Perfect Health

Boy-kings were not unknown in the fifteenth century, but they presented a realm with many difficult questions. A king who was a baby, a toddler, even a young man was perfectly able to reign, but he was not in any practical sense able to rule. At nine months old, Henry VI had been accepted unquestioningly as rightful and legitimate king. Yet until he came of age, or began to show enough discretion to start taking part in government, it would be necessary to make all the decisions of his public and private life on his behalf. As a child, the king was incapable of choosing his officials and servants or giving direction in war and justice, and insufficiently competent to make critical decisions about succession, on which the security of England rested. Yet these matters could not be ignored for eighteen years until the boy became a man.

This problem had been anticipated, in part at least, by his father. As Henry V lay dying in August of 1422, he had gathered his companions around him and given them instructions for the care of his son and his kingdom after his death. Codicils to his will established that responsibility for the young Henry VI’s person would fall to his great-uncle, Thomas Beaufort, duke of Exeter. The duke was to have overall governance of the royal person, with responsibility for choosing his servants. In this, he was to be assisted by two men who had been conspicuously loyal to the old king: Sir Walter Hungerford, a long-serving steward to the royal household, and Henry, Lord FitzHugh, a trusted chamberlain. One or other was to attend the king at all times. (They were later succeeded in their positions by two more soldiers who had been loyal to the old regime: John, Lord Tiptoft and Louis de Robesart.) But when it came to the practicalities of raising a tiny child, a mother knew best. Catherine de Valois – herself only recently out of childhood – played an equally important role in her son’s early life and upbringing.

Catherine’s household was institutionally separate from her son’s, but in practice they overlapped a great deal. The dowager queen’s household finances supplemented those of her son and Catherine was influential in his choice of servants. As a baby, Henry VI was attended chiefly by women: he had a head nurse called Joan Asteley, a day nurse, Matilda Fosbroke, a chamber-woman, Agnes Jakeman, and a laundress, Margaret Brotherman; little is known about any of the women, but it is impossible to imagine that Catherine had no say in their selection, for they would spend far more time with the boy than she did. When Henry was two years old, Catherine’s former servant Dame Alice Boutiller was appointed as royal governess, with an official licence from the king’s council to chastise Henry from time to time, without fear of reprisals if and when he took offence at his necessary discipline. Even when the king grew older and more men were added to his company, Catherine’s hand was still visible. In 1428, Richard Beauchamp, earl of Warwick, took over responsibility for Henry’s education, with a mandate to imbue him with the qualities of chivalrous, knightly kingship. But Henry’s confessor, George Arthurton, and the head knight of his chamber, Sir Walter Beauchamp, had both been former servants in the queen’s household.1

The young dowager queen held extensive lands and properties throughout England and Wales – including the vast Welsh castles of Flint, Rhuddlan and Beaumaris, the imposing fortress of Knaresborough in Yorkshire and, further south, Hertford Castle, Leeds Castle and Pleshey in Kent, and Wallingford, an ancient royal castle that had been extensively repaired and fitted out for her comfort and benefit. She divided her time between her favourite residences, but for the most part, she stayed near her son in the magnificent royal palaces of the Thames valley, and particularly at Windsor, Westminster and Eltham.

Eltham, in Kent, a favourite royal residence for more than a century, affords a glimpse of the young king’s early life. It offered space, grandeur, luxury and comfort for Queen Catherine and plenty of intriguing corners for a toddler to explore. It was surrounded with acres of parklands, and landscaped gardens planted with vines. Stone bridges arched elegantly across its moats and led to a network of outbuildings: the young king could stumble upon the cooks at work in the kitchen and buttery, the comforting scents of the morning’s bread drifting up from the bakery and the more exotic foreign flavours of the spicery. The palace had come into royal hands in 1305 and had been significantly redeveloped three times since the 1350s. In the early years of Henry’s reign, yet more money was spent ensuring that it offered all the clean and modern facilities needed to raise a young king.2 Smart wooden apartments with stone chimneys were joined by cloisters to a grand private chapel. Catherine could entertain her guests at night in the hall and a specially constructed dancing chamber, while the king’s household kept to his rooms, centring on a private chamber warmed by two roaring fires and lit by stained-glass windows, decorated with birds and grotesques and the personal symbols of Henry’s paternal grandfather, Henry IV. Royal badges and crowns surrounded the old king’s motto: soueignex vous de moy; remember me.3 In this chamber, and others like it around the palaces of England, young Henry began his path to manhood and kingship: playing with toys and jewels given to him as gifts at New Year, taking his academic lessons from his tutor, the Oxbridge scholar and medical doctor John Somerset, learning devotions by rote from his prayer book, laughing on feast days at court entertainers like Jakke Travaille or the performing troupe called the Jews of Abingdon, learning to play the two musical organs he possessed, and receiving early instruction in the martial arts, while wearing his specially built ‘little coat armours’ and wielding a long sword. In private, Henry lived the life not of a king, but of a young prince – raised and taught and loved and entertained and (occasionally) punished much like other royal boys before him. Yet in the public sphere of kingship, things were far more complicated.

England was a realm whose government spun like a wheel around the hub of the king’s person. Institutionally, it was sophisticated, mature and complex. The king was obliged by his coronation oath to consult his senior noblemen on matters of state, either through a formally composed council or the more informal means of taking counsel, or considered advice, from the great men of the land as he saw fit. When taxes were required, he had to work in partnership with the realm via the gatherings of lords and commons that met when he called a parliament. Justice was dispensed by increasingly professional public servants answerable ultimately to the court of chancery, and public finance was managed through another ancient and very bureaucratic institution, the exchequer.

But although it was big and complicated, English royal government was not a machine that could operate of its own accord. Indeed, the machine’s smooth operation, and by extension, the fortunes of the realm at large, still depended fundamentally on the personal competence of the king. The magic ingredient that made royal government work was the absolute freedom of the royal will, and it was by exercising his royal will that the king could settle disputes between the great men of the realm, correct abuses and corruption in the system, and generally give a sense of leadership and direction to the country. Thus, a confident, decisive, persuasive and soldierly king like Henry V was able to govern a united and peaceful realm. By contrast, a wavering, untrustworthy king without luck or skill on the battlefield and bereft of good judgement, such as Richard II had been, could swiftly see his rule unravel and disorder tear apart the realm.4

Self-evidently, it was impossible for a child to fulfil this part of kingship, which marked the essential difference between reigning and ruling. Yet from the very day that England learned of Henry V’s death, there was an astonishingly sophisticated and united effort by virtually the entire English political community to operate the young king’s power responsibly and carefully on his behalf.

On his deathbed, Henry had given instructions that led to his eldest surviving brother, John duke of Bedford, taking responsibility for French affairs.5 This was uncontroversial: Bedford was the heir presumptive to the French crown, a sober, pious, hard-working man, a canny politician and an effortlessly impressive lord, who projected princely magnificence in everything he did. More controversial were the measures Henry had proposed for government at home in England. One of the codicils to Henry’s will suggested that his youngest brother, Humphrey duke of Gloucester, would be appointed as tutela during Henry VI’s minority. It may well have been that this term implied simply that Gloucester should have personal responsibility for the education and upbringing of the new king. However, it was also possible to interpret the term to suggest that Gloucester would wield full regency powers in England, accountable only to the king himself.

Many in England would have approved of this interpretation, for in the country at large Gloucester was held in high esteem. He was a literate and cultured man, with knowledge and interests in every direction, from English, French and Italian poetry and the humanist learning of Italy to alchemy, which was then popular in educated circles. He employed foreign scholars as his secretaries, spent large sums on patronising and promoting artists and writers, collected books and fostered a learned, courtly atmosphere in his household. Moreover, he was a veteran of the battle of Agincourt, and the beautiful Jacqueline of Hainault, whom he married in 1423, was a princess generally beloved by the people of England. He held implacably aggressive views on foreign policy and, although these were not shared by many of his fellow noblemen, Gloucester was seen in London as the champion of mercantile interests and someone who would stand up for native traders.

Yet for all these qualities and his undeniable popularity among the English, Gloucester did not command the devotion of everyone around the new king. Although he was a deep drinker of high culture, he could also be pompous and self-regarding. In his military career he had pursued an image of chivalry, but he was decidedly less impressive than his three elder brothers: for while Henry V had been a peerless commander and a magnetic character, Thomas of Clarence a suicidally brave soldier and John of Bedford a sober strategist, Gloucester tended to place mindless belligerence above all other tactical considerations. His desire for popular worship alienated others who had a claim to power as well, and made him a curiously shallow leader. Meanwhile, his pretensions to chivalry would founder in 1428 when he callously cast aside Jacqueline of Hainault, having their marriage annulled in order to take up with one of her ladies-in-waiting, a smart and seductive baron’s daughter by the name of Eleanor Cobham. Like his older brother Bedford, Humphrey duke of Gloucester cultivated a reputation for stateliness and grandeur. His simply rang hollower.

It was perhaps no surprise, then, that when the conditions of Henry V’s will became known, a concerted effort was made to prevent Gloucester from taking up the personally dominant position in government that he craved. This resistance was led by Bedford, in alliance with other lords of the royal council. In December 1422, during the first parliament of the new reign, Gloucester was summoned to be told he had been awarded the title of ‘Protector and Defender of the kingdom of England and the English church and principal councillor of the lord King’. Even if it sounded grand, this title was designed to be strictly limited, and it would lapse whenever the more senior Bedford visited England. Neither Gloucester nor anyone else was going to be a lieutenant, tutor, governor or regent. The duke was simply the pre-eminent man in what would prove to be a very carefully constructed conciliar protectorate – the first such experiment in English history, and one which acted under a very singular fiction. Government was carried out on Henry’s behalf, but it also continued as if the child-king was in fact a fully functioning public figure.

Gloucester was bitterly disappointed. Not even the large salary he received in his new role could mask the fact that he had been passed over in a manner that suggested not even his own brother, with whom he maintained generally good relations, considered him fit to govern England independently. Yet to his credit, Gloucester did not withdraw from politics or begin to think of rebellion. Despite the sting of personal rejection, he appears to have recognised the same facts that had struck everyone else close to the English crown: that Henry V’s death left England in a very dangerous position and that without a collective attempt to create a stable form of minority government that could last for a decade or more, the realm could very easily end up in the same disastrous condition as that which had afflicted their French neighbours across the sea. Seen in this light, the decision to pass over Gloucester in favour of a form of conciliar rule serving the conceit that the baby king was a genuine ruler was both a piece of wholly artificial constitutional backbending and a stroke of brilliance.


King Henry VI presided over parliament for the first time at Westminster in the autumn of 1423, when he was not yet two years old. A medieval parliament had no power of its own to speak of, save that derived from the sovereign, whether he was a baby, a grown man or a dribbling geriatric. On Friday 12 November, therefore, Queen Catherine prepared to bring her son from his nursery at Windsor down through the affluent towns and villages that stood on the north bank of the Thames, to Westminster, where he would meet representatives of his subjects in the time-honoured fashion. Windsor was grander than Eltham, a fairytale castle imbued with all the pious chivalric trappings of English kingship: a moated and walled forest of towers and turrets, with glorious painted chambers and sumptuous living quarters, as well as the magnificent chapel of St George, home to the Order of the Garter. It was from this tranquil place that in the second week of November, the twenty-three-month-old king – a toddler now, with the beginnings of his own will – was about to be removed.

Henry was not impressed by the prospect of the trip. Although the start of the journey was smooth, and the infant king was well attended by his nurses and nannies, the travelling did not much agree with him. After the first day on the road the royal party spent the night at Staines. Then, on the morning of Sunday 13 November, as Henry was carried towards his mother, seated in her coach and ready to travel onwards to Westminster via Kingston, he threw a royal tantrum. ‘He cried and shremed [i.e. shrieked and thrashed about and wept] and would not be carried further,’ wrote one London chronicler, ‘wherefore he was borne again into his inn, and there bode the Sunday all day.’6 Only twenty-four hours later, after a day of mollification in his lodgings, would the toddler consent to be taken on towards parliament. Finally, on 18 November he arrived, was presented to the realm on his mother’s lap and listened, presumably with no interest whatsoever, to the Speaker, the lawyer and MP John Russell, expressing the thanks of all concerned for their great ‘comfort and gladness to see your high and royal person to sit and occupy your own rightful see and place in your parliament’.7

If all this seemed rather a strained and strange political dance, it nevertheless had profound importance to the men who performed it. Kingship was a sacred and essential office, and in the 1420s every effort was made to draw the young Henry into its symbolic rituals. Day-to-day government was carried out by a council with clear rules and a fixed membership. Seventeen councillors were initially appointed, articles of conduct for their meetings were agreed and a quorum of four was deemed necessary to make decisions binding. The council kept detailed minutes, including the names of those who had made decisions, and it limited itself to carrying out only the essential functions of kingship. It sold offices and titles only for the financial benefit of the Crown, rather than for private political patronage. It held absolute and secret control over the royal finances. It was as close to a disinterested political body as could be conceived.

Yet the king was still brought into play whenever it was possible. In the first month of Henry’s reign, a solemn ceremony had been held at Windsor to mark the transfer of the great seal of England – the essential tool in royal government – out of the hands of the old king’s chancellor, Thomas Langley, bishop of Durham. The baby was surrounded in his chamber by the greatest nobles and bishops of the land, who watched carefully as the ‘chancellor delivered to King Henry the late king’s great seal of gold in a purse of white leather sealed with the said chancellor’s seal, and the king delivered the same by [the duke of Gloucester]’ s hands to the keeping of [the keeper of the chancery rolls], who took it with him to London …’8 The next day the seal was taken to parliament and solemnly handed over to a clerk of the royal treasury for safekeeping.

It was pure theatre, but the fabric of English government was materially sustained when the king’s soft and tiny fingers passed over the fine white leather of the seal’s purse. The same ceremony was repeated nearly two years later at Hertford Castle, when the king was again called upon to hand the seal over to his great-uncle Henry Beaufort, bishop of Winchester, who had been appointed chancellor in his turn.9 When the king was five years old, the lords of his council recorded in their minutes an astonishingly clear summary of their position: ‘How be it that the king as now be of tender age nevertheless the same authority resteth and is at this day in his person that shall be in him at any time hereafter.’10

This attempt to affect personal kingship was, at times, comical in its confection. Official letters survive, written in the very first years of Henry VI’s reign, which were framed not as instructions from older men ruling on the behalf of a baby, but with the pretence that the baby himself was a fully functioning adult dictating his royal despatches in person. One such, written to the duke of Bedford in France, on 15 May 1423, when the king was still a couple of weeks short of eighteen months old, began, ‘Right trusty and most beloved uncle we greet you well with all our heart and signify unto you as for your consolation that at the time of the writing of this thanked by God we were in perfect health of person trusting to our Lord it as we desire in semblable wise ye so be …’11 Five years later, the king was described in parliament as showing signs of readiness to rule: ‘The king, blessed be our lord, is … far gone and grown in person, in wit and understanding, and like with the grace of God to occupy his own royal power within [a] few years.’12 He was six years old.

In fact, conciliar government continued throughout the 1420s. In areas where an adult king would traditionally have intervened in person, such as arbitrating disputes between the great nobles in the shires, a system of mutual oath-taking served to keep the peace. It was not always straightforward, but order was generally maintained. Only in 1425 did a personal feud threaten to destabilise the administration completely, when a dispute flared up between two of the most powerful and potentially dangerous men in England: the frustrated protector, Humphrey duke of Gloucester, and the king’s rich and influential great-uncle, Henry Beaufort, bishop of Winchester.


On 29 October 1425, the city of London boiled with excitement. A new mayor, John Coventry, had been elected and was taking office, but as he sat down to his official feast, he received an urgent message summoning him with all the most important men in the city to a meeting with the duke of Gloucester. When he arrived in the duke’s presence, he was instructed to secure London as swiftly as possible for the night ahead. He was told that a large armed force was gathering under the leadership of Beaufort on the south side of London Bridge, in the suburb of Southwark. Archers, men-at-arms and a whole array of other men loyal to the bishop were said to be preparing to invade London the next day, determined to do harm to anyone loyal to Gloucester, and to cause mayhem in the city. A long, sleepless night lay ahead. The citizens were told to keep watch, and to ready themselves for a fight.

The background to the quarrel was complex. Gloucester and Beaufort were both capable and experienced men, with vital roles in the minority government. In the absence of the duke of Bedford, they bore, between them, a large responsibility for keeping the peace, but their views on foreign policy and domestic issues frequently clashed, producing mutual suspicion and hostility.

Gloucester’s outsized personality was well known, but Beaufort was also an imposing figure. The second son of Henry VI’s great-grandfather, John of Gaunt, and his third wife, Katherine Swynford, he had been made a cardinal and legate by Pope Martin V in 1417. The cardinal’s personal power and wealth came from his diocese of Winchester, the richest in England, and his public standing came from a long life of service. At fifty, he had held high office in England for more than twenty years, often helping to prop up Crown finances by means of vast and generous loans. In 1425 he was the chancellor of England and probably the leading advocate of the conciliar system of government. It was likely that Beaufort, naturally conservative, had helped co-ordinate opposition among the lords of the council to Gloucester’s regency. All this meant that the two men were, as one chronicler laconically put it, ‘not good friends’.13

By 1425 their animosity and mutual suspicion was intense. The principal fault lay with Gloucester who, the previous summer, had led a popular but extremely unwise military expedition to the Low Countries, in pursuit of his wife’s claim to the county of Hainault. Unfortunately, the man who now held Gloucester’s wife’s possessions was her first husband, John of Brabant, who was supported by the duke of Burgundy, a key ally of the English in their war with Armagnac France, and a man whom Beaufort had spent a great deal of time and effort courting. That Burgundy was greatly upset and antagonised by Gloucester’s heedless aggression was bad enough. To make things worse, the campaign was a total failure. It also stirred up violent anti-Flemish feeling in London, which bubbled over into xenophobic riots and disturbances in the streets. Beaufort, as chancellor, was left to try and calm the capital. He appointed a new keeper of the Tower of London, one Richard Woodville, as a precautionary peacekeeping measure, but this was interpreted as an attempt to intimidate the citizens by putting the fortress that loomed over the city in the hands of a government stooge, and had the effect of arousing still more popular ire. By 1425, Cardinal Beaufort had become the chief public enemy in the capital, perceived to be a friend of foreigners and enemy of native Londoners.

Thus it was that on the evening of 29 October, tensions exploded. Beaufort had come to believe that it was his cousin’s intention to travel from London to Eltham to take personal command of the young king, a symbolic appropriation of the source of power that would have amounted to a fullcoup d’état. It is unlikely that Gloucester really meant to kidnap the king, but Beaufort was not prepared to gamble on the duke’s trustworthiness. He had thus garrisoned Southwark, and, when day broke over a wakeful city, the citizens rushed to the riverbank to see that that the south side of London Bridge had been barricaded, with huge chains drawn across it and heavily armed men standing guard at windows, ‘as it had been in the land of war, as though they would have fought against the king’s people and breaking of the peace’. On the north side of the bridge, Gloucester and London’s new mayor had closed the city gates. It was a stand-off whose most likely conclusion appeared to be a deadly confrontation on the bridge itself. There was panic throughout the city. ‘All the shops in London were shut in one hour,’ wrote one breathless chronicler.14

Yet battle was never joined. There was enough passion on both sides of the Thames to have foamed the eddies beneath London Bridge’s narrow arches with blood, but England luckily had cooler heads than those of the two disgruntled uncles of the king. Chief among them were Henry Chichele, archbishop of Canterbury, and Pedro, prince of Portugal and duke of Coimbra, a much-travelled cousin of King Henry, who was then staying in England as an honoured guest of the court.15 They led frantic negotiations throughout the day on 30 October, their messengers riding eight times between the opposing camps until eventually a truce was brokered.

Bad blood lingered on both sides. The next day, Beaufort wrote an indignant letter to his nephew, John duke of Bedford, begging him to return from France and take command of the troubled regime. ‘As ye desire the welfare of the king our sovereign lord and of his Realms of England and of France, and your owne wele [i.e. well-being] and ours also, hasten you hither,’ he wrote, ‘for by my troth [ if ] ye tarry, we shall put this land in adventure with a field [i.e. a battle]. Such a brother ye have here. God make him a good man.’16 Bedford returned in January and spent a year restoring calm.

This was a significant act: in a sense his return to mediate between his sparring kinsmen had the duke playing surrogate king. But it worked. Cardinal Beaufort resigned as chancellor, his attentions soon diverted by instructions from the pope to lead a military crusade against the Hussites, a reforming sect of heretics in Bohemia. Yet Beaufort’s climbdown did not mean that Gloucester was allowed to feel he had emerged victorious: under Bedford’s instruction the regulations that had established the careful conciliar government of 1422–4 were re-enacted, and in January 1427 two separate meetings were held in the Star Chamber at Westminster and Gloucester’s inn in London, where Bedford and Gloucester both swore to the assembled lords of the council on the Holy Gospels that they would support a conciliar form of government. Both agreed they would be ‘advised, demesned [i.e. dealt with] and ruled by the lordes of the council and obey unto the King and to them as for the King’. Gloucester evidently gave his oath in bad faith, for less than one year later he would again demand an expansion of his powers over domestic government, huffily threatening to boycott all future parliaments unless he was granted what he desired. Yet once again, he would be unequivocally slapped down, told in parliament to satisfy himself with the powers that the realm had deemed sufficient for him and asked forcefully to confirm ‘that you desire no greater power’. In the face of every serious crisis of authority, a general commitment to preserving and defending royal government triumphed.

Nevertheless, no matter how diligently the principles of conciliar rule were observed, royal government without the king could only ever be temporary, and each challenge to the existing order inevitably tested the ability of all around the council table to preserve their constitutional pact. The crisis of 1425–7 illustrated precisely why there was such eagerness to see in the child-king the ability ‘to occupy his own royal power within [a] few years’. Recalling Bedford from France had been a desperate measure that would not prove practical or desirable to repeat. In short, as the 1420s progressed it became very clear that Henry would have to grow up – or be forced to grow up – as rapidly as could be managed. Yet it would not be domestic affairs that prompted Henry’s most significant advancement. Rather, it was events across the Channel that impelled England’s surrogate rulers to thrust the first real vestiges of kingship upon a seven-year-old boy.

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