In late August 1422 Henry V lay on his deathbed at the Château de Vincennes in France. He was dying at the height of his powers at the age of just 35.
He would leave behind him a Lancastrian empire that encompassed not only England, Wales, and Ireland but also large tracts of France.
However, Henry’s son and heir was an infant, not yet one year old. Little baby Henry would inherit not only his father’s conquests and past glories but also a bitter ongoing war and mounting debt.
Henry V’s formidable military, political and diplomatic talents had forged an impressive empire, held together by military force and clever diplomacy. Henry himself had been central to English political life for the past decade. He’d dominated policy and projected a daunting aura of authority that few people dared defy. His spectacular successes only served to reinforce the sense of historic destiny that surrounded him.
Now he was dying. Soon he would be gone. But even on his deathbed Henry was determined to ensure that England’s future would follow the path that he thought best.
Gathered around Henry were some of his most trusted friends and closest relatives. Many of them were men who had spent the past few years campaigning alongside him. They included the eldest of his surviving brothers, John, Duke of Bedford, a talented and experienced military leader in his own right. Then there were his two half-uncles, Bishop Henry Beaufort, and his brother Thomas, both key members of Henry’s inner circle for more than a decade. Then there was his cousin, Edmund Mortimer, the earl of March. Although Mortimer had a strong (and potentially rival) claim to the throne, he had nevertheless proven himself staunchly loyal to Henry.
The King’s will
In the last few days of his life, Henry informed his inner circle of his will and his wishes for the realm after his death. He impressed upon them the need, at all costs, to maintain close relations with England’s Burgundian allies. He also stressed that Normandy should, under no circumstances, ever be returned to French rule. Finally, he encouraged all present to vigorously defend his son’s right to the French throne and to never agree terms with the French Dauphin.
As far as specific arrangements for his infant son were concerned, Henry charged his youngest brother Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, with his protection. Thomas Beaufort would be given the responsibility of supervising his education. Finally, little Henry’s day-to-day care would be placed in the hands of two of Henry V’s most trusted retainers.
Until young Henry came of age, domestic affairs would be entrusted to Gloucester whilst his brother was away organising the war effort in France. The regency of France itself would be entrusted to England’s ally Phillippe of Burgundy (assuming Phillippe accepted the proposal). Should, for some reason, Phillippe refuse, Bedford would assume the responsibility.
The only thing that wasn’t entirely clear was which of Henry’s brothers, if any, should serve as regent during Henry VI’s minority. However, the king had stipulated that Bedford should act as principal councillor to his son, ahead of Gloucester. The implication being that if there was to be a regent, it should be Bedford. But, with Henry slipping away, few could spare much thought for finer details. The shock of Henry’s death and its potential implications was more than enough for many to take in as it was.
In the immediate aftermath, almost everyone agreed that a show of unity was essential. The precise details of how the government would operate could be sorted out in the weeks that followed. After all, Henry V had made his feelings on overall policy quite clear. Even after his death, Henry’s imposing reputation ensured his policies would survive him. It was surely now just a case of deciding who was to play what role in the execution of those policies.
Of course, it wasn’t long before the reality that Henry V was no longer around to tell everyone what to do began to dawn. Disagreement soon broke out between the principal power-players.
Gloucester felt that, since he had been entrusted with the protection of the infant monarch, he should act as regent. However, his brother and Bishop Beaufort did not see it that way. The protection of the young king, Beaufort argued, simply meant that Gloucester was entrusted with protecting little Henry’s property.
In the end the details were thrashed out during the autumn. It was decided that a council would be appointed to rule until such time as Henry VI came of age. Bedford, as the eldest surviving son of Henry IV, would act as principal councillor. However, since his duties lay mainly in France, Gloucester would assume the role of Lord Protector in his absence. This meant Gloucester would lead the council under normal circumstances. However, his role was effectively limited to that of a chairman. The decisions of the council would be taken by a collective vote and Gloucester was bound to abide by the will of the majority.
The power players
It was, of course, a compromise. But like all compromises it was not without its tensions. Four men now effectively dominated the government. Three were living: Bedford, Gloucester, and Bishop Beaufort. One, Henry V, was dead.
Henry V, though no longer alive, had laid down the general political direction for the future. His will, that the kings of England should inherit the French throne, would prove impossible to wholly abandon. Indeed, the legacy of Henry V’s foreign and fiscal policies would continue to haunt both Lancastrian and Yorkist kings for the rest of the century.
The power dynamic between Bedford, Gloucester and Beaufort shaped the character of the regime that emerged during Henry VI’s minority. Unfortunately, however, events would show that Bedford, Gloucester and Beaufort did not always see eye-to-eye.
So, who were these men who’d rule England in Henry VI’s early years?
By 1422 Bedford was a highly experienced military commander. He played a key role in his brother’s French military adventures. Arguably his naval victory at the Battle of the Seine in 1416 was every bit as important as Agincourt, perhaps more so.
When Henry V died, Bedford was the obvious candidate to assume command of the war effort. In addition to his military ability, Bedford was politically aware and mindful of the need for a pragmatic approach to diplomacy.
If Henry VI was to inherit the French throne as well as the English, Bedford understood better than most that the support of key French nobles would be essential. In particular, England needed the Duke of Burgundy. However, Duke Phillippe could not be taken for granted since he had his own agenda. He’d thrown his lot in with England only because he hated the Dauphin and his Armagnac allies more than he distrusted the English.
In taking the lead in French affairs, Bedford would need all his political and military talent to successfully prosecute his brother’s war.
Gloucester was Henry V’s youngest brother. Unlike his older brothers, he had not been entrusted with military command at an early age. However, he was not entirely lacking in military experience. He had been wounded whilst fighting at Agincourt and continued to play an active role in Henry’s later French campaigns.
Gloucester had an extensive classical education and remained a keen scholar throughout his life. He became a patron of the arts and was, in many ways, more of a new renaissance man than his brothers.
He fully bought into Henry V’s vision of empire. For him, more than anyone, his brother’s legacy of conquest was sacrosanct. He was the most hawkish member of the council throughout the minority of Henry VI. In that sense he captured the zeitgeist of the age. Henry V’s dreams of glory had instilled a strong sense of patriotic militaristic pride in the commons. Gloucester shared this zeal. He possessed a common touch and, when he spoke, people loved his jingoism.
However, when it came to dealing the nobility, Gloucester lacked subtlety. He often allowed his personal ambition to take priority over political realities. Whenever he felt his personal prerogatives were under threat, his instinct was to provoke confrontation. Gloucester, at his worst, could be a most bellicose and disruptive character.
Bishop Beaufort had been a political heavy weight in the Lancastrian regime ever since his half-brother Henry IV had claimed the throne in 1399. He’d served as Lord Chancellor of England in 1403 and again between 1413 and 1417. He’d been central to promoting Henry V’s interests since the latter years of Henry IV. At one time, he’d even been suspected of attempting to engineer Henry IV’s abdication to enable Prince Henry (as he then was) to take the throne.
No one knew the English political system better than Beaufort. He was highly ambitious and revelled in orchestrating events from behind the scenes. In brokering deals and acting as Henry V’s fixer he’d been in his element. Quite a few people were wary of his ambition, but no one doubted his ability and political instincts.
Henry IV had pushed through an act of parliament to prevent the Beaufort family from inheriting the throne. Arguably this might have been prompted by a concern that the wily Bishop might just be ambitious enough to make a bid for the throne himself one day.
Nevertheless, Beaufort was the consummate political survivor. He’d outlasted both his old masters. And, as the new council took shape, Beaufort had no intention of taking a back seat.
The French war
The main challenge facing the new regime was the ongoing war in France. For military leadership, England was able to turn to Bedford. He was an experienced and capable commander. England also had an alliance in place with Burgundy. In the short term, this placed England in a strong position even if the longer-term reliability of Burgundy could not be taken for granted.
The immediate political and military concerns tended to eclipse another major (if less glamorous) challenge – money.
Wars are inevitably expensive and, by 1422, the conflict with France had been raging for seven years. Henry’s spectacular successes gave him significant leverage to raise tax grants from parliament. It had none the less been a difficult balancing act. Henry was an energetic and meticulous administrator, capable of managing royal finances down to a level of detail unmatched by most other kings. He also sold off royal assets, took out loans and generally used every fiscal trick in the book to finance his campaigns.
However, by 1420, parliament objected to raising further funds for Henry’s French adventures. Henry, they argued, was regent of France. If some French lords were in rebellion, should not Henry’s French subjects foot the bill? Why should Henry’s English subjects pay?
Parliament’s opposition was a problem. The mechanisms for raising significant revenues from Henry’s French subjects (especially as he did not control most of southern France) were not yet in place. He could perhaps have arm-twisted parliament into agreeing to raise a tax. However, this would have been an unpopular move. It was also an unnecessary one, as Henry had come up with a bright idea as to how he could get around the impasse.
Each year the royal exchequer received normal or ‘ordinary’ income from a variety of sources. These included such things as clerical taxes and income from royal estates. However, the primary source of income was undoubtedly indirect taxation applied to wool exports. The revenue this brought in each year could vary wildly from one year to the next. However, over time it could be relied on to add up to a tidy income.
Henry’s bright idea was to draw down an advance, a kind of loan, secured against future income from indirect taxation. It was this fiscal trick that helped to finance the last couple of years of Henry’s French campaigns. These advances would eventually appear in royal accounts under the somewhat worrying heading of ‘fictitious loans’. Since Henry, by this stage, had a most formidable reputation, the wisdom of this expediency was not seriously challenged.
Ever since Edward III’s time, the exchequer had been reliant primarily on incomes from royal estates and wool duties. There were other sources of income, but these were mostly either one-offs or window dressing.
Wool exports had been experiencing a steady decline since the late fourteenth century. By the 1420s that decline was becoming significant, and it would only get worse during the next few decades.
An alternative source of revenue was income tax. However, income tax had to be granted by parliament as a one-off payment made from ‘necessity’. It was not, as it is today, a regular annual tax that everyone is used to paying. And, of course, people objected to paying it. And, unless there was an obvious national emergency, such as a war to pay for, there was no reason to grant it.
Henry V’s wars had given himself the leverage he needed to claim ‘necessity’. But, by 1420, parliament was of a mind to regard it as a French necessity rather than an English one.
Seeds of disaster
By the end of Henry V’s reign ordinary royal income was struggling to cover ordinary royal expenditure (even when the war was taken out of the equation). This was the inevitable result of the gradual decline in ordinary income. Even if ordinary expenditure was not increasing, the fact was that financial wriggle room was getting tighter and tighter.
Henry V was able to supplement his income because parliament had been willing to make a series of one-off tax grants to help cover the cost of his wars. Henry almost certainly used some of this money to help cover ordinary expenses as well. Since no one dared scrutinise how Henry spent his money too closely, this was simply lost in the noise. Henry’s towering reputation and ongoing success cut him a lot of slack. But now he was dead, it would not be possible to play the same game so easily.
So, during the first half of the fifteenth century we have a perfect storm developing. Royal revenues were doomed to decline over the long term without serious structural reform. But, in the short term, the exchequer could put off the day of reckoning by drawing down ‘fictitious loans’.
A new regime
On 28th September 1422, in the royal chambers at Windsor, a baby, not yet a year old, was handed a white leather purse. Quite what he made of this purse we can only guess. Being a baby, he might have attempted to put it in his mouth.
That baby was Henry VI. The man who’d handed him the purse was Bishop Thomas Langley, Henry V’s last Lord Chancellor. Inside the bag was the royal seal; the official stamp of authority and power used by the kings of England. The purse was then passed from the little king (either willingly or otherwise) to the keeper of the chancellery rolls. The keeper conveyed it to the royal treasury, where it would reside until such time as the first Lord Chancellor of the new regime could be appointed.
It was the very first official duty of Henry VI. A new regime had begun.
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References and further reading
The fiscal constitution of later medieval England: the reign of Henry VI, Alex Bryson, 2013, PhD paper, University of York
Tomb of King Henry V – Photo by VCR Giulio19 (Wiki Commons)
House of Lancaster and Beaufort, 1422 – by Paul Watts
John, Duke of Bedford – British Library Add MS 18850 f256v (Wiki Commons)
Humphrey of Gloucester – Illustration by Jacques Le Boucq (Wiki Commons)
Bishop Henry Beaufort – J Parker (Wiki Commons)