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Within the context of the period 1337-1471, to what extent can Henry VI be held primarily responsible for the Wars of the Roses 1455-1471?
When Henry VI came to the throne in 1431, people already had high expectations of him. At only 8 years old, he had already broken tradition by becoming the first king to rule over both England and France. However, when the minority council finally permitted Henry VI to rule of his own accord, he seemed to be a hopeless King, making severe mistakes that ultimately contributed to beginning of the Wars of the Roses in the period 1455 to 1471. However, there is some debate amongst historians as to whether Henry VI can be held primarily to blame for causing the Wars of the Roses, or whether other factors such as the over mighty subjects, the feuds between noble, and the actions of Margaret of Anjou were greater contributing factors to the outbreak of war.
Henry VI’s personality has been criticised by many historians as being unsuited to the role of king. Contemporary interpretations of Henry are that he was terrible at ruling, as he was “utterly devoid of wit or spirit” (according to Pope Pius II). Subjects who were condemned for speaking ill of the king in the 1440s and 1450s referred to him as “a sheep”. Victorian views on Henry VI were that he lacked the qualities required for successful kingship, although at that time he was still praised for being “a pious, humane and Christian character”. The historian Antonia Fraser concludes that “these were not the attributes of a king and the truth is that Henry had no real wish to act like one”. This suggests that henry’s personality was overall, entirely ill-suited for the role of kingship.
Henry’s chaplain John Blacman (writing during the reign of Henry Tudor), although writing somewhat positively about Henry VI, chooses to avoid mentioning Henry VI’S ability to rule and instead focuses on how religious Henry VI is, describing him as “chaste and pure from the beginning of his days”, and presenting him as a pious and puritanical king. The fact that Blacman puts emphasis on his pious character rather than his ability to rule, suggests that Henry VI was a poor ruler. Dockray comments “during the reign of Henry VII, at a time when the king was hoping to secure his predecessor’s canonisation”, so this source cannot be trusted. Robin Neillands concludes that “The accounts of the King’s goodness are largely based on his devotion to religion, at the expense of more pressing secular matters concerning the government of the realm”.
The role of the minority council is also an important factor to consider when assessing whether Henry VI was primarily to blame. Henry V had, on his deathbed, made the fundamental arrangements for his son’s minority; Duke John of Bedford was to take charge in France as Regent (as Henry VI was too young to rule), and pursue the war against the Dauphin Charles-while hanging on to Normandy at all costs and maintaining the alliance with Philip the Good, and Humphrey Duke of Gloucester was to keep a watchful eye on England. In 1431, Henry VI was crowned king but the ministers ruled in his stead. This minority council ruled until Henry was in his mid-twenties, well over the normal ruling age, which suggests that Henry VI could not be trusted to rule the kingdom effectively. Gillingham, however, paints a very positive portrayal of Henry VI’s minority. He concludes that it was “evidence showing that in fifteenth century England there existed a stable political system, containing in the council an institutional framework within which tensions could be contained and resolved.”
K.B. McFarlane referred to Henry VI as “a baby who grew up to be an imbecile”, and the length of minority supports this view. Contemporary and Yorkist views on Henry VI were that he was a child-like, idiotic king, and that the council made all the decisions for him. The English Chronicle that was published in the 1460s stated that Henry “was simple and led by a covetous council” and “that puppet of a king”. Henry is often criticised for relying too heavily on his council, and continuing to support their decisions. Helen Castor states that “he was proving to be no more capable of leadership as an adult than he had been as an infant”, supporting the view that he was a childlike king incapable of ruing effectively.
However, other historians have suggested that Henry VI did in fact take an active role in government, and can be seen as primarily to blame, rather than his minority council. The historian Wolffe claims that the documentation Henry VI signed is proof of his heavy involvement in government. His own involvement in the war in France led to defeat and humiliation, as he pursued his own French policy and made a secret deal with Charles VII to surrender Maine and Anjou, meaning that they lost all of France apart from Calais. By doing this, he had removed two key parts of the empire, making it inevitable for it to crumble.
At this point, Henry VI did seem to act of his own accord, as the fact that he made the deal a secret suggest that he knew that many people would disapprove of his actions. All this suggests that Henry was fully in charge of the government and its decisions, and can consequently be blamed for the mistakes made during that time. Another example of Henry playing an active role in ruling is the increase in elevations to the peerage under Henry VI’s rule. During the first thirty six years of the Lancastrian dynasty, only nine elevations were made to the peerage. However, twenty five years later (during Henry’s reign), there were twenty five elevations to the peerage. This massive increase in elevations to the peerage made during Henry’s reign seems to indicate that Henry was in fact playing an active role in ruling.
Another reason why Henry VI could be seen as primarily responsible is because his mental collapse during the period 1453-54 left the government unattended, allowing violence to flare up with no authority to deal with it. According to the historian Robin Neillands, it “flung the whole responsibility for the management of the realm entirely on the Royal Council”, and as a result “the fragile rule of law in England fell apart”. The quarrel between the Nevilles and the Percies soon escalated into violence in August 1453, despite measures that the Royal Council put in place in a failed attempt to end their quarrelling. However, it is debatable as to whether or not that Henry’s illness made any fundamental change to these events, as he’d already proved himself as incapable of solving these disputes even before his mental collapse. It also led to more conflict between Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York and Somerset.
Another key factor to consider is the role of Margaret of Anjou. Henry VI married Margaret, the niece of Charles VII in 1455, when she was fifteen years of age and had no dowry. Some historians have suggested that Margaret was to blame for convincing the king to surrender Maine and Anjou in order to please her, and referred to her as “the queen who had brought nothing and taken much away”-although as Gillingham points out “it is unlikely that a fifteen year old girl could wield so much influence within a few months of her arrival at a strange court where most people spoke a language she was yet to learn”.
Margaret of Anjou played a pivotal role in the Wars of the Roses, most notably after February 1456, when York’s second protectorate ended, as Margaret managed to establish a power base in the northwest, and also persuade the king to come to Chester, turning the political tide against York. She had successfully stepped into the vacuum left by Henry VI, and continued to play a dominant role in court, creating the Attainment Bill in 1459 to show the extent of her control.
Overall, the balance of evidence seems to suggest that Henry was a weak ruler and ill-suited to the role of medieval kingship. He clearly lacked the qualities needed to rule effectively, and there was no clear leadership in any key sphere of government due to Henry’s long absences from power- the minority council ruled in his stead until he was in his mid-twenties, and reappeared when he suffered his mental collapse in the 1450s, and there were others ruling for him. He also failed to stop the feud between York and Somerset before it escalated into violence. He also neglected to stop the quarrels between other nobles.
The balance of evidence also seems to point towards the interpretation of Henry VI being far too easily led and manipulated. Helen Castor even goes on to say that he “did little more than smile and agree to every suggestion his advisers made”. While Jack Cade’s rebellion showed the discontent of the people at that time, the fact that the rebellion was aimed solely against Henry VI’s advisors rather than Henry himself is a clear indicator of how easily manipulated he was, as his own people believed that his advisors were at fault. According to Antonia Fraser, the main demand from the rebels was the punishment of “the false progeny and affinity of the Duke of Suffolk” and a later chronicler said he “was simple and led by a covetous counsel”. However, none of this means that Henry VI should be held any less accountable, as he chose the government that was now in place.
However, there are other factors that suggest that he wasn’t entirely to blame for the Wars of the Roses. Many historians have identified the family tree of Edward III as a significant factor in causing the wars of the roses for several reasons. One main reason why it could be seen as a significant factor is because it started the debate as to who had the stronger claim to the throne, the house of Lancaster, or the house of York. When Edward II died in 1377, Richard II succeeded him (as Edward the black prince had predeceased his father). However, as she was too young to rule, John of Gaunt ruled in his stead until Richard II turned 20. Richard II banished Gaunt’s heir, Henry Bolingbroke, and Thomas Mobray when they had a quarrel, but made the fatal mistake of seizing all of the wealth of the house of Lancaster.
This caused Henry Bolingbroke to return to reclaim his wealth, ultimately ending in Bolingbroke taking the throne of England as Henry IV. By doing so, he ignored the claims of the Mortimer family, which followed back through a woman named Philippa, the daughter of Lionel of Clarence (the second son of Edward iii), and these claims eventually passed down to Richard, duke of York. The Yorkist line seemed to have the stronger claim to the throne than the Lancastrian line, as Richard, earl of Cambridge’s marriage with Anne Mortimer connected his line with the Mortimer line, arguably putting him ahead of the Lancastrians in the line of succession.
The debate was that Anne Mortimer was a woman, making Richard Plantagenet’s claim through a female line, so the Lancastrian claim was considered stronger, and also the Yorkist claim was not pursued after 1415, as his father, Richard, earl of Cambridge had been beheaded for treason. This chain of events helped to start off the Wars of the Roses, as it was Richard Plantagenet who founded the house of York. Yet while Edward III’S family tree provided the possibility for war, there are arguably more significant factors.
Edward III’s complicated family tree was a factor that drove Richard of Cambridge to attempting to place his brother-in-law, Edmund Mortimer, on the throne, as he believed that Edmund Mortimer had the stronger claim. As it was his son, Richard Plantagenet, who founded the house of York, it suggests that the family tree helped to cause the feud between the house of Lancaster, and the house of York, effectively starting the Wars of the Roses.
Henry IV’s usurpation of Richard II in 1399 has been regarded by several historians as the root cause of the Wars of the Roses. In particular, the historian A.L .Rouse stated that “It all began with a revolution. The revolution of 1399.”When Henry Bolingbroke overthrew Richard II and took the throne, he “struck at the very foundations of kingship”. During that period, it was believed that the king was always chosen by God. Therefore, it was considered dreadful to overthrow a king, and Shakespeare later described the Wars of the Roses as a form of divine retribution, as punishment for the sins that their predecessors committed. This idea was used as propaganda, and the usurpation was viewed as so shocking that it created the precedent for overthrowing a sacredly anointed king.
It also put forward the idea that the divinity of kingship could be passed down to someone else of a stronger bloodline, and Henry IV used this as an excuse by claiming that his ancestor was the eldest son of Henry III. However, there were other contenders to the throne who had a stronger claim than Henry Bolingbroke, and as there was much dispute in later years about who had a stronger claim to the throne, it could be argued that the cause of all these disputes originated. The usurpation of Richard II was also significant because it meant that any person of royal blood who had raised an army, and who had argued with the king could become a contender for the throne, as they could simply overthrow the king and take the crown for themselves.
This meant that the throne was never going to be safe from anyone who wished to take it. This made it almost inevitable for war to break out, as any of the following rulers’ claims to the throne could be questioned, and it created political uncertainty and instability due to the fact that the Lancastrian dynasty was based on usurpation. Despite Henry Bolingbroke’s excuse that Richard II had been unfit to rule, it still caused a dispute about whether the usurpation of the throne could really be excused. However, this was not a problem during the reigns of Henry IV and Henry V, and the debate was only brought about when Henry VI’s failings became apparent- had there been a strong, capable ruler on the throne, this debate would not have been reopened.
“Bastard Feudalism” also played a significant role in the Wars of the Roses. The phrase was coined by the historian Charles Plummer. K.B. McFarlane argues that the whole system of bastard feudalism did in fact have the potential to provide stability, suggesting that its contribution to the disorder and instability of that period was merely a reflection of Henry VI’s ineffective rule. This serves to reinforce the argument that it was Henry VI’s inability to rule that created the problems which arose and ultimately culminated in the outbreak of war. Certainly, had a strong king, capable of maintaining control, been placed on the throne, then the system of “bastard feudalism” would not have proved an issue.
It could also be argued that the “over-mighty subjects such as York and Warwick were to blame for causing the Wars of the Roses. Some historians have argued that Henry VI’s mistrust of York was not justified, as he had legitimate grievances. He had been the king’s lieutenant in France but was replaced by Somerset who was given a larger army. Somerset was even paid £2 5,000 for troops while York was given nothing and instead told to wait. Somerset’s younger brother was also made lieutenant of France and York was humiliated as lieutenant of Ireland. The government also owed York £38,666 (£12,666 of this York agreed to forgo), but they still failed to pay his wages, and even owed him a further £10,000 due to his hereditary pension.
Because of the government’s refusal to pay York the money he was owed, his debt increased to the extent that he was forced to consider selling some of his manors, as well as endanger relationships with his friends by borrowing heavily from them. York also received £21,000 worth of “bad tallies”-which were the crown’s method of discharging its debts by handing out tallies on some regular source of income, and receiving the tallies did not guarantee proper payment. Many historians agree that York deserved fairer treatment than this- he had been active in the king’s service abroad and was the crown’s largest single creditor after loaning them £26,000.
The historian Keith Dockray claims that he “could reasonably expect a prominent role in Henry VI’s council and even, perhaps, formal recognition as the king’s heir”. Many pro-Yorkist chroniclers were of the belief that he was a good person who was being treated very poorly by the “corrupt clique surrounding the king”(Dockray). The English Chronicle states that “common people hated Somerset but loved York because he loved the commons and [reserved the common profit of this land”. According to K.B. Mcfarlane, some of the blame can still be attributed to the king, because “only an under-mighty ruler had anything to fear from over-mighty subjects”.
This links back to the key problem underlying all these factors-Henry VI was a poor ruler, and so the stability of the government depended on his ability to assert authority and make good decisions. The development of bastard feudalism, caused by the growth of affinities, also helped to cause instability between the king and his magnates, as it enabled the magnates to subvert the wishes of the crown and take the law into their own hands. According to Neillands, the magnates “began to maintain bodies of soldiers, even in peacetime, and this “maintenance” was not illegal “unless the lord attempted to support his retainer in outlawry or by influencing the court of law”. As a result, violence became widespread due to Henry VI’s inability to maintain control of the system. Gillingham, however, paints a very positive portrayal of Henry VI’s minority. He concludes that it was “evidence showing that in fifteenth century England there existed a stable political system, containing in the council an institutional framework within which tensions could be contained and resolved.”
However, Richard Plantagenet’s contemporaries tended to be more critical when assessing whether he deserved this treatment. The historian J.R. Lander referred to him as “an ambitious, opportunist and self-interested magnate who failed to win much committed support from his peers”. Many of York’s contemporary critics believed that he was far more motivated by self-interest rather than concern for public good, and some even called him a traitor. This is evident in a Chancery memorandum in 1456 that claimed that all disturbances since Cade’s rebellion had been “at the will of the Duke of York, descended from the Mortimers’.
The fact that he is not only blamed for the disturbances after Cade’s rebellion, but there is also an accusatory remark about his lineage, clearly suggests that he had not won the support of his peers. The Coventry Parliament in 1459 even wrote a catalogue of his alleged treacheries, and the tract Somnium Vigilantes criticised his behaviour as being “subversive to the commonwealth”. The events in 1452 also support this view; York started a campaign to remove Somerset from power which failed, so he had to resort to an armed force. He also confronted the king at Blackheath with armed retainers, with a view to finally gaining his deserved position beside the king.
According to the historian J.R. Lander, one contemporary writer claims that he “surrendered on the promise that Somerset would be arrested”. However, this failed, as little support from nobles and the common people led to his humiliation. These events suggest that York was indeed ambitious and self-interested with little support. When York returned from Ireland in 1450, many of the king’s servants became suspicious. Despite returning because he was worried about the return of Somerset from France, the king’s servants assumed he was there to overthrow the king due to rumours spread about during that time. This suggests that he certainly did not have the approval of the public, as they were prepared to believe in rumours rather than trusting in his character.
Overall, the balance of evidence seems to suggest that Henry VI was primarily responsible for the Wars of the Roses. Henry VI’s incompetence allowed rebellion to take place, and his inability to rule effectively meant that the government was filled with over-mighty subjects all vying for power. He also worsened the disputes between the nobles and increased tensions between them, creating the perfect conditions for war to take place. Although he cannot be blamed substantially for the defeat in France, he did play a role in events by surrendering Maine and Anjou. The usurpation in 1399 also heightened all of these factors, as it encouraged the belief that God was against his rule. None of the key factors responsible for the Wars of the Roses would have been as influential on events if Henry VI had been the dominant, assertive ruler everyone needed him to be.
The Wars of the Roses by John Gillingham
The Wars of the Roses by Robin Neillands
The Wars of the Roses by Antonia Fraser
The Wars of the Roses by J.R.Lander
Blood and Roses by Helen Castor
Bosworth Field and the Wars of the Roses by A.L .Rowse
Henry VI and the Politics of Kingship by John Watts