Was Henry VI England’s Most Unfortunate King?

Discover the life and reigns of Henry VI, a man who reigned twice but was still one of England’s unluckiest monarchs.

Dec 26, 2023By Chester Ollivier, BA (Hons) History

henry vi unfortunate king england


One of only two English monarchs to reign twice, Henry VI is often regarded as one of the worst kings in English history. But perhaps this is a bit harsh. Unfortunate might be a better term to use, as you will soon find out. Henry came to the throne aged just nine months old in 1422, and died a broken man, possibly even murdered on orders of the new king, in 1471. Throughout his tenure as king, he oversaw war with France, civil war at home, and witnessed some of the worst backstabbing in royal history.


Henry VI’s Early Life and Reign

Henry VI, c. 1540, accessed via Wikimedia Commons


Very little can be said of Henry VI’s early life before he became king because he came to the throne aged just nine months old. Henry was born the only child to one of England’s finest kings, Henry V, and his wife Catherine of Valois (who herself was a daughter of King Charles VI of France). On 6th December 1421, Henry became the youngest ever monarch in English history to succeed to the throne following his father’s death on 31st August 1422.  And as if that wasn’t enough, Henry’s maternal grandfather, King Charles VI (sadly known as Charles the Mad, likely due to having a mental illness) died just two months later, leaving Henry with a claim to the French throne — not ideal amid the Hundred Years’ War which was raging on at the time.


Because Henry was so young, he had people ruling on his behalf — two of these key figures were two of his uncles (his father’s brothers): John, Duke of Bedford, who had the huge task of keeping England on the winning side of the war in France (which he did incredibly well — this period represented the pinnacle of English power in France). Back in England Henry V’s youngest brother, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, headed the council on Henry VI’s behalf.


At the remarkable early age of eight years old, Henry VI was deemed suitable enough to undergo the coronation process, and he was crowned at Westminster Abbey on 6 November 1429. The following year, Henry VI broke records again, becoming the only English monarch to be crowned King of France, in a coronation at Notre Dame on 16 December 1431.

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The Tudor Controversy

The Marriage of Catherine of Valois and Henry V, by Jean Chariter, from the Chronicles of Charles VII, pre-1494, via the British Library


In 1437, when Henry VI was 16 years old, his mother died. However, she died amid a huge political scandal. A few years earlier, she had married Owen Tudor in a secret ceremony (Tudor was a Welshman and Catherine’s Clerk of the Wardrobe), and she had given birth to several of his children — three sons and a daughter.


Henry VI gave his half-siblings some important roles — a decision that would transform English history forever. He made the eldest of these (Edmund) Earl of Richmond, while Jasper Tudor was raised to become Earl of Pembroke. Both Edmund and Jasper would play important roles in the Wars of the Roses. Edmund’s role was arguably the most important — he would go on to father a son called Henry, who would himself go on to become King Henry VII of England. Owen Tudor was also brought before the council to explain why he had married Catherine of Valois in the manner that he did, but he was released without punishment.


The 1450s: A Turning Point for Henry VI

The Death of John Talbot, Duke of Shrewsbury, at the Battle of Castillon, c. 1484, via Wikimedia Commons


The biggest turning point in Henry VI’s reign came in 1453 but the precursor could be seen as early as 1429, when Orleans fell, thanks to the intervention of Joan of Arc. From here on in, the tide of the Hundred Years’ War turned in favor of the French, and England began to lose more and more territory in France, much of which had been won by Henry VI’s father, Henry V.


The biggest turning point was the Battle of Castillon on 17th July 1453, whereby England lost a decisive victory, which ultimately led to the English losing all of their territory in France, and the Hundred Years’ War formally coming to an end. A territory that England had held since the twelfth century was now back in French hands once more.


It is thought that upon hearing the news that England had not only lost territory in France, but had also lost the Hundred Years’ War, Henry VI had what would be called today a mental or nervous breakdown. He was reported to have entered a trance-like stupor, and could not speak to anybody — neither reacting to them nor even recognizing them.


However, Henry VI’s maternal grandfather, Charles VI of France, was reported to have also suffered from what today would be diagnosed as schizophrenia, so it is plausible that he inherited it from his grandfather. Either way, it meant that the king was no longer fit to rule, and someone had to rule in his stead.


The Beginning of the Wars of the Roses

Margaret of Anjou, 15th century, via Queen’s College Cambridge


Much to the irritation of Henry’s wife, and Queen of England, Margaret of Anjou, Henry’s cousin Richard, Duke of York, was appointed Protector of the Throne, and ruled in Henry’s place. Things would soon get more complicated when Margaret gave birth to a son, who was known as Edward of Westminster, in October 1453 — thus complicating the succession. The Yorkists who supported the Duke of York argued that the child would be “feeble-minded” like his father, and unable to rule, while the Lancastrians who supported Margaret argued that he was the rightful heir to the throne.


Civil war ensued from 1455, marking the beginning of the conflict known as the Wars of the Roses. On 22 May 1455, the First Battle of St Albans was fought, and Henry VI was captured by the Yorkists. However, Margaret was not prepared to give in so easily.


She fought back, and her forces helped to take Henry VI back to London. In 1460, a temporary agreement was drafted, known as the Act of Accord, whereby Henry VI would remain king for the rest of his life, but York’s heirs would then inherit the throne.


Clearly, neither side was happy, and at the Battle of Wakefield on 30 December 1460, the Duke of York was killed, alongside his long-time supporter, the Duke of Salisbury, and York’s second son, Edmund, who, though he begged for his life, was still executed. Margaret of Anjou had both the father and son’s heads impaled on spikes on the walls outside the city of York.


James III of Scotland, by Hugo van der Goes, c. 1480, via Wikimedia Commons


However, this controversy was still not at an end. York’s eldest son, Edward, who was the next natural leader of the Yorkist cause and now aged eighteen, defeated a Lancastrian force at the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross, and won one of the most decisive victories of the Wars of the Roses shortly after: The Battle of Towton.


In English history, the Battle of Towton (fought on 29 March 1461) is regarded as the bloodiest ever battle on English soil, with some 25,000 men killed. Remarkably, Margaret and her son, Edward, survived this bloodbath and fled to Scotland, where they were granted refuge by King James III of Scotland.


The 1460s: Edward IV’s First Reign and Henry VI’s Imprisonment

Edward IV, c. 1540, via Wikimedia Commons


While Margaret and Edward of Westminster had fled to Scotland, Henry had been captured in Lancashire, while the Duke of York was crowned as King Edward IV. Henry was then returned to London and kept there as a prisoner.


However, despite the first years of Edward’s reign going relatively well, the cracks in the armor would not take long to appear. It was discovered that he had secretly married Elizabeth Woodville in 1464, who herself was the widow of a Lancastrian supporter, John Grey.


One of the people most irked by this was Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick. Warwick had been a staunch supporter of the Yorkist cause, and had been a key figure in putting Edward IV on the throne — but now he changed his allegiance, hence his nickname: Warwick the Kingmaker.


By this time, Margaret of Anjou and Edward of Westminster had moved to France, and were under the protection of the French king, Louis XI. Warwick reconciled with Margaret, and made a plan to put Henry VI back on the throne. Following an invasion, Edward IV was forced to flee (temporarily), while Henry was restored to the throne.


Henry VI’s Brief Second Reign and Death

The Battle of Barnet, artist unknown, from the Ghent Manuscript, late 15th century, via Wikimedia Commons


Henry’s restoration was certainly not what Warwick and Margaret of Anjou had expected. Years of mental illness had taken its toll on Henry, and he looked a pitiful figure as he was paraded through the streets of London. Realistically, the rule of the country was Warwick’s — Henry VI was a mere puppet in Warwick’s plans — and it did not take Edward IV long to realize and capitalize on this.


The Yorkist and Lancastrian forces met once more, this time at the Battle of Barnet on the 14th April 1471. This was a disaster for the Lancastrian side, as Edward IV’s Yorkists not only won but Warwick himself was killed during the battle. Edward rode on to London, where he was greeted pleasantly by Henry VI, who was reported to have said, “Cousin of York, you are very welcome. I hold my life to be in no danger in your hands.” Edward, not taking any chances, returned Henry VI to the Tower of London where he was held as a prisoner once more.


Margaret of Anjou would still not give up, though. Edward’s Yorkist forces met a strong Lancastrian force at the Battle of Tewkesbury on 4 May 1471. This was once again a hugely important victory for the Yorkists, which helped solidify Edward IV’s position on the throne. Also, importantly for the Yorkists, Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou’s son, Edward of Westminster, was killed either during or in the aftermath of the battle. He was just 17 years old.


Drawing of Edward of Westminster, from the Beauchamp Pageant, c. 1483-954, via the British Library


Henry VI’s time on Earth was limited. As long as Edward of Westminster lived, there was still a genuine cause for Henry VI’s reign, in Edward IV’s mind. Now that he was dead, there was every reason to dispose of Henry VI so that the Lancastrians did not have a say.


And so it happened, that overnight between 21 and 22 May 1471, Henry VI died in the Tower of London. The Lancastrian version is that he was murdered, likely on the orders of Edward IV, whereas the Yorkist version stated that he died of “grief and melancholy” upon hearing about the death of his son. One thing was for certain, though: Henry VI was dead, and Edward IV would reign as the King of England once more.


Henry VI’s Legacy: The Grandfather of the Tudors?

Henry VII, c. 1505-09, via Wikimedia Commons


Of all the English kings who have ruled since William the Conqueror, or even Alfred the Great, Henry VI is often towards the bottom of the list, alongside names such as Æthelred the Unready, King John, and Edward II. But living with a mental health issue and civil war at home, perhaps Henry VI should be remembered for the circumstances he faced and the condition he was in, rather than simply looking at his reign and stating that he lost the Hundred Years’ War and ended the Lancastrian rule of England.


It could even be argued that Henry VI had the last laugh — after Edward IV’s death in 1483, his sons, Edward V and Richard both mysteriously disappeared while under the “protection” of their uncle, who crowned himself Richard III of England. Yet just two years later, the man who would end the Wars of the Roses, was a son of one of Henry VI’s half-brothers, a man named Henry Tudor, of the Lancastrian family.


Henry Tudor would go on to claim the throne of England as Henry VII, marry Elizabeth of York, and formally end the Wars of the Roses, uniting the Houses of York and Lancaster, and ushering in a new period in British history: The Tudor period.

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By Chester OllivierBA (Hons) HistoryChester is a contributing history writer, with a First Class Honours degree BA (Hons) in History from Northumbria University. He is from the North East of England, and an avid Middlesbrough FC supporter.