By James Munro
Undergraduate thesis, University of Bristol, 2011
Introduction: “[Henry V]…This Star of England. Fortune made his sword, by which the world’s best garden he achieved, and of it left his son imperial lord. Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crowned King of France and England, did this king succeed; whose state so many had the managing that they lost France and made his England bleed.”
The life of Henry VI was not a particularly happy one. The young king was plagued first by inanity and then, later, insanity throughout his life to such a degree that it has been claimed that England suffered under “forty years of [a] virtual minority”. Unable to fulfil the duties expected of the one who held the crown he failed to measure up to the archetypal image of a late medieval king: that of a capable, vigorous and militaristic individual. In a system which had come to increasingly rely upon the personal qualities and abilities of the monarch that sat at its head the ascension of a incapable heir would prove to have very dire consequences not only for Henry himself, but also for the very fabric of ideals and beliefs which defined and networked the fifteenth century polity. His forays into politics were often counter-productive in nature and proved dangerous to the stability of his government: he showed himself to be both easily captivated by the influences of the few and open to abuses at the hands of those who sought to further their own aims at the expense of the crown which they claimed to serve.
Despite these consistent displays of inability, which should have made him unsuitable to hold the crown and the inherent responsibilities of a monarch, his reign, starting with the minority government in 1422, was to last some thirty-eight years in total: most of them peaceful, several of them even effective; he would face little serious opposition to his reign until as late as the 1450s and the rebellion of Richard, duke of York.
The questions we must ask ourselves at this early juncture, considering the nature of the debate, is why this king was able to persevere for so long on the throne despite his infirmities? Was the concept of usurpation, for that is what is was, so unthinkable, perhaps even abhorrent, to the political community of Henry’s England that they preferred a reign in inability and instability to that of an able bodied, capable and yet illegitimate king who would be capable of providing the strong governance England needed? The answer to this, in a formative context, requires an analysis of both the nature of fifteenth century royal government and the place of the king in that system.