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27 March 2019updated 08 Jul 2021 12:37pm

The madness of King Henry VI

By Nigel Jones

In the hot summer of 1453, King Henry VI went “mad”. Staying at his hunting lodge, Clarendon Palace, outside Salisbury, he slumped like a sack into a catatonic stupor, his eyes downcast, apparently unable or unwilling to speak or move. And he stayed that way for 17 months .

The mental illness of monarchs has been a fruitful subject for historians – witness the debate on the cause of the insanity of George III. In Henry’s case, however, his affliction was not merely inconvenient for England’s ruling political caste: it led directly to a 30-year civil war and the violent deaths of thousands.

In her excellent biography of the luckless king, Lauren Johnson is cautious about any glib modern diagnosis of Henry’s malady. Most historians have concluded from the sparse available evidence that he was probably schizophrenic, with a gene carried from his grandfather, Charles VI of France, via his mother Queen Catherine. Johnson nevertheless points out that Charles’s symptoms were different from Henry’s. The French king’s madness was murderous: in his first fit he butchered several members of his entourage; he was possessed by the delusion that he was made of glass and wore iron bars in his clothing as a precaution against breaking.

Johnson suggests that it was more likely that Henry suffered from a depression so profound that he involuntarily shut down and withdrew from a reality that had simply become too intolerable to endure.

There was certainly plenty to withdraw from. Henry had come to the throne as a baby after the unexpected death of his father, the warrior King Henry V, victor of Agincourt. It soon became plain that Henry VI was quite unlike his father. Pacific, pious and puritanical, he was easy prey to manipulation by his squabbling uncles struggling to control the child king’s court.

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While the factions fought at home, and the kingdom descended into riotous chaos, in France the English were finally losing the Hundred Years War. At Henry’s birth, thanks to his father’s conquests, England ruled one third of France, including Paris, Normandy, Maine, Anjou and Aquitaine. By the time Henry lapsed into madness, all this – apart from the toehold of Calais – had been lost. It may indeed have been the shock of hearing that the last English army in France had been destroyed by the new-fangled French cannons at the battle of Castillon that tipped Henry’s fragile mind over the edge.

Whatever the reason, the result of Henry’s catatonia was catastrophe. He emerged from his prolonged vegetative state at Christmas 1454 to discover that his French queen, Margaret of Anjou, had miraculously produced a son and heir during his vacuity after eight childless years of marriage. Henry declared that the father must have been the Holy Ghost, but rumour was more cynical, crediting paternity to Margaret’s favourite, the Duke of Somerset.

Once again, Lauren Johnson is willing to give Henry the benefit of the doubt, though she has found that courtiers often shared the royal bed, presumably to show the unworldly king how to perform his dynastic duty. Restored to some sort of health, Henry promptly dismissed the Duke of York, who had effectively taken control of the kingdom, and restored Somerset to his role in government.

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Open warfare soon followed between the two rival branches of the Plantagenet clan. Henry’s Lancastrians were challenged by the Yorkists in the bloody switchback struggle we now call the Wars of the Roses, which lasted for the rest of the king’s lifetime. Henry was a helpless spectator. Unable or unwilling to lead an army in battle, and frequently exhibiting renewed catatonia, he was trundled around the country like a sawdust-filled puppet by the ferocious Margaret. Captured, rescued, hunted down and briefly restored to the throne, he was finally immured in the Tower of London, where he was done to death in 1461 – possibly by the future Richard III – on the orders of York’s son Edward IV.

Although he presided over such anarchy and bloodshed, Henry was popular with his people, who recognised his homely simplicity and forgave his uselessness as a ruler. After his battered body was buried, he was venerated as a saint. Today, he is almost forgotten, like the ruins of Clarendon (now populated only by a herd of llamas) and when remembered, merely pitied.

In any other age the king, gentle, peace loving and scholarly – he founded both Eton and King’s College, Cambridge, originally for poor students – would attract sympathy and even admiration. But in a brutal and lawless era, he was the wrong man in the wrong time and place.

Henry, so unfortunate in life, has posthumously found a champion worthy of his redoubtable wife in Johnson. Her intention is to rediscover the man behind the myths and she has succeeded.

Johnson has written a long, scrupulously researched book, but an eminently readable one. Even her imaginative purple passages read convincingly, and whether she is describing battles, diplomatic wrangling or medieval courtship she makes us see familiar facts in a new light. Honourable mention should also be made of her publishers, who have produced a richly illustrated book. Together, they have rescued Henry from the shadows. 

Nigel Jones’s books include “Tower” (Windmill Books)

Shadow King: The Life and Death of Henry VI
Lauren Johnson
Head of Zeus, 776pp, £30

This article appears in the 27 Mar 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Guilty