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There is no doubting Henry VI was an unstable and unsuitable king. He lacked all the traits usually associated with a good king. He was not a good politician, he didn’t like fighting, he suffered from madness and was very indecisive. So why did he last 8 years as king of England?
There were several candidates who would have like to replace him, these including Richard of York, Sommerset and the Duke of Exeter. The strongest of these candidates was Richard of York. He tried to take the throne several times both directly and indirectly. However he didn’t succeed until 1461. The reasons for this taking so long are numerous. The main reason was that there simply wasn’t a good enough reason for York to overthrow Henry. His ability to rule was questionable but Henry’s claim to the throne was much better than Yorks. Any ruling problems Henry may have hide was compensated for by his ambitious wife Margaret.
Henry had had a number of problems in his reign. England had lost the majority of France, there had been several rebellions (Cade’s been the largest) and several of his leading nobles had been fighting each other. However unfortunately for York none of these had been large enough to provide an excuse to try for the throne.
However in July 1453 Henry has the biggest problem of his reign which isn’t directly his fault. He develops catatonic schizophrenia. This involves complete withdrawal from social situations. He never really recovers his reign properly from this point. Some say it may have been caused by depression although there is little evidence to support this. In the short term this wasn’t a problem as Magret and Henrys advisers could run the country without him. When Henry went mad Magret tried to keep it quiet for as long as possible. This was because she wanted Henry to stay king so that her son Edward Prince of Wales could inherit the throne when he was old enough.
However the population discovering Henrys madness was only a matter of time. Without the King the societal hierarchy would begin to break down. People would begin to take matters into there own hands. This began to become more and more evident as time went on. The Duke of Exeter Henry Holland father died in 1461 leaving him very little land. He began to get worried about his financial position as he didn’t have a great amount of estates. He would need all the land he could get if he was going to be a contender for the throne and regent later.
However there were only two ways of a noble acquiring more land. Marrying into a rich family or conquering land in France. However Exeter was already married to Ann Mortimer and conquering land in France was not an option as the English were rapidly losing their footing. Exeter did however own some estates at Ampthill next to Lord Cromwell’s land. He decides he wants to consolidate his position and so he gathers his retainers and takes Cromwell’s land by force. Cromwell is powerless to stop him as he doesn’t posses many retainers and he has no sons to help him. As a result Exeter gets away with this rather lightly thanks to the Kings absence.
Cromwell was however very rich and he did have an unmarried niece. She is now a very good marriage prospect as her husband is likely to inherit a large amount of land.
There are two key competitors for her. Lord Abromont and Sir Thomas Neville. However after much discussion the stronger family the Neville’s win her hand. The two get married and begin to march back to the Neville estates in the North. They pass York, which is the home of the Percy’s on the way. The Percy’s still seething from been refused the marriage attack the wedding party. The Percy’s are in the end driven off but a family feud has begun. The Percy’s and Neville’s then nearly meet in armed conflict a short time later but the Bishop of York stops any hostilities. Several other noble families also begin to fight as long-term family feuds come to a head. The country is rapidly losing discipline and there is no King to enforce order.
In 1461 it is decided a regent needs to be appointed in order to govern the country until Henry recovers or Edward become old enough to rule with the help of his advisers.
York who is currently sulking in his estates on the Welsh border from his previous defeat decides this is his big chance and returns to London. There are four main contenders for regent. York, Suffolk, Exeter and Magret. York however is the strongest. Although not greatly popular with the people he is a better option than the other candidates.
Magret has the best claim but she is very dominant and isn’t prepared to compromise. She wants full power over the people. The population also don’t like the idea of a female regent.
Sommerset has lots a lot of his power as he depended on the King for support. He is also not popular with the nobles.
Exeter fancies himself as a major contender but his claim isn’t that good and his arrogant nature puts many people off.
Magret the pushes for the throne and gives her terms. She basically states she is the clear option for regent and she should be given full control of the people. This doesn’t help her cause and boosts York’s position as he is the only other contender.
He gets appointed regent in March 1454.York was hated and feared by Margaret because he was a potential rival to the throne she hoped to obtain for her son, then an infant. Consequently, upon Henry’s recovery, in December 1454, Margaret persuaded him to dismiss York and restore Somerset to power. York immediately took up arms. At St. Albans, Hertfordshire, on May 22 1455 his forces killed Somerset in battle and he had control of the government until Margaret again gained the upper hand in October 1456. Hostilities between the two sides reopened late in 1459; in July 1460 York’s able lieutenant Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, defeated the Lancastrians at Northampton and captured the King. A compromise was then worked out whereby Henry was to remain king for life and York was to succeed him. This was effectively the end of Henry VI reign.
I think considering the circumstances Henry was lucky to stay King as long as he did. If he had gone mad earlier, hadn’t had Magrets support or made a larger mistake then I think he would have undoubtedly lost his throne much earlier. A combination of factors led to his downfall. The loss of France, his poor ability to rule, madness and strong opposition led to his eventual downfall.