Henry IV became king in the autumn of 1399 after the violent overthrow of Richard II. At the time he assumed the throne with huge popular support.
However, much of this support was born of the sheer relief of being rid of Richard II. What made Henry so universally appealing in 1399 was the simple fact that he was the obvious pragmatic alternative to the old king.
There were, of course, other ‘not Richard’ candidates but none of them were particularly practical choices.
One alternative being the aging Duke of York. Quite likely, Richard’s favoured heir. However, he was an old man, riddled with arthritis and not expected to live long. In any case he supported Henry’s claim.
Then there was the Mortimer family. They had a strong claim as descendants of the most senior Plantagenet line bar Richard himself. But the Mortimer heir was a child – hardly in a position to rule. And, in the autumn of 1399, no one seriously considered putting a boy on the throne.
That only left Henry Bolingbroke. Henry seemed like he’d make a reasonably decent king and, crucially, he was not Richard. That, in 1399, was more than good enough.
Coronation of Henry
Henry was crowned king on 13 October 1399 at Westminster Abbey.
One of his first acts as king was to burn Richard II’s hated blank charters. These applied to no less than 17 counties. In each case, Richard had forced communities to place their seals to a charter but left the details blank. Richard could then fill them in with whatever he liked later. It was blackmail, plain and simple. So Henry’s burning of these documents was an incredibly popular move.
Notably, Henry became the first monarch to address his people in English at his coronation. His speech outlined the kind of king he aspired to be. It presented a vision of monarchy that, in many ways, conformed to a conventional view of an ideal king. In short, it was a speech no one could disagree with.
Henry IV’s coronation promises were genuine, born of his own idealistic view of kingship. They rang true because he himself believed them.
So, what did Henry IV promise? And why were his words so popular at the time?
In short, Henry promised to be everything Richard was not. Specifically, this meant:
- He promised future glory for England on the field of battle and to ensure the security of the realm.
- He would be merciful. He would not, as Richard II had done, resort to violence against his opponents at the first sign of dissent.
- He would not overtax his subjects. He would live modestly within his means, levying taxation only when the need was great and most pressing.
- He would not be an autocrat. Rather, he would govern in partnership with the senior lords of the land and parliament.
Sounds great! In fact, what he promised conformed in every respect to what many saw as the very definition of a ‘perfect’ English king.
But – there were problems.
Henry based his promises on a theoretical vision of kingship. It lacked any basis in the practical reality of medieval government at the end of the C14th.
The fact was that, prior to 1399, Henry had no experience of government. Richard II had excluded him from significant office. So, he had no real diplomatic experience, limited experience of court politics and no experience at all managing state finance. True, he had experience of war – but as a commander in the field, not of organising major military campaigns.
Henry’s promises also contained an obvious contradiction. Ensuring the security of the nation is often an expensive business and not a happy bedfellow of low taxation.
Fortunately for Henry, Richard II had built up a surplus in his treasury in the final years of his reign. However, the methods by which this had been generated stemmed mainly from Richard’s tyranny and were unsustainable in normal times. Neither was this surplus as substantial as many had assumed.
Henry had no experience of managing state finances and struggled to get to grips with money matters throughout his reign. He also experienced poor luck. Harvest failures, coupled with a systemic decline in wool duties placed an ongoing squeeze on royal income.
Keeping his coronation promises seriously limited his scope to raise additional tax revenues. This inevitably meant he faced constant money problems.
The Epiphany Rising
The first serious challenge to Henry’s new regime came early in 1400. A small number of lords, with the most to lose from Richard’s fall, attempted a coup to restore the old king to the throne.
The uprising was short lived. It began on 6th January and was all over by 16th. It was snuffed out as much by popular opposition to the rebels as by Henry himself. Several rebel lords were caught and executed by mobs of common folk acting on their own initiative. England was in no mood to have Richard back.
The rising had serious consequences. In the early days of the revolt, there was a real fear the rebels might rescue Richard. It is very likely that, at this time, Henry sent one of his men to Richard. The man had orders to kill the old king if a rescue looked imminent.
A second consequence may have been that, because of the failure of the uprising, Richard fell into a despondent mood and started refusing food.
A third consequence was that, somehow, the French court became aware an order for Richard’s murder had been issued. However, they jumped to the conclusion that this meant Richard must be dead. This prompted them to write to Henry and his council in late January.
This letter made two points:
- The French king knew Richard was dead. (This caused confusion, as Henry’s council thought Richard was still alive at this time).
- That being the case, he was willing to consider terms of a truce with Henry.
Richard may well have been starving by this time. But it is highly unlikely he was dead. It takes more than three weeks for someone to starve to death (people commonly survive at least this long on hunger strike). Even if the regime had begun systematically starving Richard on 6th January, he would almost certainly still have been alive at the end of January.
However, the French sealed Richard’s fate. Henry now knew that the French would consider a truce if Richard was dead. At this point, if Richard was not already starving, the decision was taken to kill him.
By mid-February, Richard was dead. Starvation was almost certainly the cause (examination of his remains rules out a violent death). This timing means Richard almost certainly began starving in early to mid-January – during the uprising.
We cannot absolutely discount the possibility that Richard really did starve himself to death. However, in the grand scheme of things the key thing was that Richard was dead. Many were bound to suspect regicide, whatever the truth.
It was not a great start for a king who promised to be ‘merciful’.
1400 brought the new king several challenges. The manner of his succession undeniably left a question mark over legitimacy. The Epiphany Rising and Richard’s suspicious death further highlighted the regime’s vulnerability. This did not pass unnoticed by England’s enemies.
The threat of war with France hung like a shadow over Henry. The French king wanted his daughter (Richard II’s young bride) returned to him, complete with her dowry, before confirming any truce. Certain elements of the French nobility had been well disposed to Richard because of his peace policies. In particular, the Duke of Orleans took a particularly hostile attitude to Henry’s new regime.
The Scots refused to recognise Henry as king, writing to him as the ‘Duke of Lancaster’. It was a slight that Henry couldn’t allow to pass. He’d promised glory in the field in his coronation speech. Scotland now looked like the obvious place in which to make good this promise.
The Invasion of Scotland
The promise to bring the Scots to heel was very popular. Popular, that is, until it came to finding the money to pay for it. Then Parliament showed its true colours.
Henry, in early 1400, encountered the hard realities of late medieval government. Parliament had no intention of financing wars, or anything else, if it could get away with it.
Nevertheless, Henry pressed ahead without securing the financing. He’d just have to somehow scrimp together the money to pay for it all later. So, in the summer of 1400, he invaded Scotland. The Scots avoided confrontation and adopted a scorched earth policy. With such limited finances Henry was soon forced to negotiate. Here Henry’s inexperience as a diplomat counted against him. The Scots fobbed him off with vague promises.
It was a hard lesson in the reality of statecraft. Henry failed to raise the necessary financing, failed to subdue the Scots, and failed to negotiate a meaningful settlement. The days when an English king exerted the power to force Scotland to recognise him as overlord were well and truly done with. Henry returned to England having achieved nothing other than ramping up debts.
The Glyndŵr Rising
No sooner had he returned from Scotland than another problem reared its head.
A Welsh nobleman, Owain Glyndŵr, was engaged in a quarrel with his English neighbour, Baron Reginald Grey. In many ways it was not untypical of the kind of argument that often broke out between noblemen. It mainly all boiled down to a land dispute.
Grey had been one of Henry’s supporters in 1399 and used his influence to get an edge in his dispute with Glyndŵr. By September 1400, Glyndŵr had had enough. He declared himself Prince of Powys and openly rebelled against Henry.
Owain began his campaign by raiding several castles in north Wales. It was mostly a hit and run war. However, it would come to represent an ongoing drain on Henry’s resources. Glyndŵr was a frustrating enemy and attempts to decisively defeat him proved elusive.
Henry’s attempts to bring Glyndŵr to heel in 1400 achieved nothing decisive (aside from costing money).
The rebellion rumbled on into 1401 and, in June, Glyndŵr even managed to pull off an especially damaging victory at Mynydd Hyddgen. Prompted by such successes, Owain assumed the title of ‘Prince of Wales’.
It was now a full-blown war for Welsh independence.
In many ways, the real struggle in 1401 was between Henry and Parliament.
To quell a rebellion like Glyndŵr’s or decisively defeat the Scots king, Henry needed to maintain an army in the field for a long time. That cost money. However, thanks to his coronation promises he was committed to low taxes. That meant no money. At best he could only afford to keep a significant force in the field for a short period of time.
A glorious victory in the field would certainly help. Success at the Battle of Crécy had granted Edward III the personal cachet needed to persuade parliament to grant him money. But in the absence of any glorious victories in the field, parliament was unlikely to agree to significant taxation. And, with no money, glorious victory in the field remained highly unlikely. Catch-22.
Not only did Parliament block financing, but such financing as it granted was often conditional. Not least, Parliament insisted on forcing through petty anti-Welsh legislation that only served to inflame the rebellion further.
A most unexpected match
Then, in 1402, something entirely unexpected happened.
Henry put the cat amongst the pigeons by announcing his intention to marry Joan, Queen of Navarre, Duchess of Brittany.
Joan and Henry probably became close during Henry’s exile from Richard’s court, in 1398/9. It appears to have been a genuine love match. Now they planned to marry.
The news sent shockwaves through the English and French establishments.
The French had been very reluctant to recognise Henry’s legitimacy. And there were few in France more hostile to Henry than the Duke of Orleans. So much so that Orleans wrote to Henry several times in 1402, attempting to provoke conflict. A prospect of a marriage union between Henry and a high-ranking French noblewoman therefore came as huge shock.
Joan was not just any French noblewoman; she was also the regent of Brittany and a cousin of the king of France. Her marriage to Henry was therefore a big deal – the kind of marriage that alliances and treaties are often founded on.
Internal French politics now kicked in, in a big way. The Duke of Orleans, ever hostile to Henry, was dead against the match. Joan’s own supporters resented such interference.
In steps the Duke of Burgundy to mediate. Except that everyone in France knows Burgundy is Orleans’ bitterest political enemy. Burgundy, no doubt motivated by the prospect of creating an awkward situation for Orleans, arranges a clever compromise. He persuades Joan to surrender her regency of Brittany to him. This prevents Brittany falling under the indirect rule of the King of England and opens the way for the marriage.
It took an entire year to resolve all the diplomatic details. Nevertheless, Joan was crowned Queen of England in February 1403. Orleans’ plans to provoke a confrontation between France and England were thwarted, at least for the time being.
Aside from having to contend with Glydŵr, French provocations and the Scots, Henry faced dissent in the form of ongoing support for Richard II.
A man appeared at the Scots court in the early 1400s claiming to be Richard II. The Scots, keen to undermine Henry, encouraged his claim. This stirred a certain amount of sedition in England but no widespread rebellion. It was taken seriously enough by the French for them to send someone to verify the claim. To their disappointment they soon discovered the man was an imposter.
The ghost of Richard II, it seemed, continued to haunt Henry.
In mid-1402 several friars went so far as to openly declare their support for Richard II. Richard was, of course, dead. However, this did not seem to put them off. They argued that if Richard lived, he would still be the rightful king. This clearly implied that Henry was therefore a usurper.
In a heated argument with one friar, Henry pointed out that Richard was dead. The friar persisted with his hypothetical argument. An angry Henry then provided the friar with reasons why he, not Richard, was the legitimate king. In making this argument Henry provides us with insight into his personal justification for seizing the throne.
Henry, revealingly, made no reference to his dynastic lineage in stating his case. Instead, he claimed to be the rightful king because Richard had abdicated, and he had been ‘elected’ by Parliament. It was a highly revolutionary claim for a medieval monarch to make. He was effectively asserting his legitimacy based on a democratic mandate (in so far as medieval England was capable of democracy).
This highlights both the strength and the weakness of Henry’s regime. Strength in so far as his claim to rule with the support of Parliament stood in stark contrast to Richard’s autocracy. Weakness because it made Henry more dependent on Parliament than any of his predecessors.
The friars’ hypothetic support for Richard was, of course, a lost cause. However, their ongoing support for him stemmed largely from Richard’s patronage of their order. Few in the wider population had cause to remember the old king so favourably.
Nevertheless, such sedition could not be tolerated. Henry’s hand was forced. He had several friars executed for treason to stave off the possibility of any more serious revolt.
Among the most important backers of Henry IV’s regime in 1402 was Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland. Percy provided Henry with significant military support during the 1399 uprising. As a result, the king rewarded him with high office. But such rewards were double-edged.
Henry Percy was granted the title of Constable of England, a prestigious office. However, in return, he and his family were tasked with supressing the Glyndŵr Rising and securing the northern borders. When it came to the fighting, much of the heavy lifting was done by Henry Percy’s son, another Henry, more commonly known as ‘Hotspur’. Hotspur had an impressive martial reputation, but he became increasingly frustrated by the lack of financial compensation for his efforts.
In defending the northern borders from the Scots, the Percys won an important victory at Homildon Hill in September 1402. However, the king prevented them ransoming their Scots prisoners, which just caused even more bad blood.
Throughout 1402, the Percys continued to write to Henry IV, demanding more money to help cover their expenses. But, of course, Henry had no money.
The rightful heir
In June 1402, Glyndŵr defeated an English force commanded by Sir Edmund Mortimer at the Battle of Bryn Glas, taking Mortimer captive. It was another frustrating set-back for the king. For some reason Henry initially refused to raise a ransom to free Mortimer. Some have suggested this was because Henry did not trust Mortimer. However, his delay may simply have been a reflection of his over-stretched financial resources.
Perhaps Henry was right not to trust Mortimer. In December 1402, Edmund married Glyndŵr’s daughter and allied himself with the Welsh Prince. He then went further by formally proclaiming his nephew, the young Earl of March, the rightful king.
The Mortimer claim
This was the first time that the Mortimer claim had been seriously championed as an alternative to Henry IV. Opposition to Henry prior to this time had questioned his legitimacy as a usurper. However, it had not proposed an alternative king aside from Richard II himself.
Edmund of March could make a strong claim to the throne. The boy was the great grandson of Lionel of Antwerp – the elder brother of John of Gaunt. As such Edmund was descended via a Plantagenet line that was senior to King Henry’s.
Under English common law, which governed property inheritance, Edmund of March was Richard II’s presumed heir. However, common law did not necessarily apply to royal succession. On the other hand, Edmund’s father may have been named as Richard’s heir in 1385. Unfortunately, there is no record of this being formalised. Richard may just have expressed an informal preference at this time.
In any case Richard may later have named Edward of York as his heir (and, if not, certainly seems to have favoured him by the end of his reign). However, again we have no formal confirmation of this.
If neither York nor Mortimer had been officially named as Richard’s heir, then the entail of Edward III would still apply. And this would mean that Henry IV was Richard’s rightful successor.
It was a confusing situation and, given the nature of Richard’s downfall, Henry’s dynastic credentials were clearly vulnerable to challenge.
During the first three years of Henry’s reign, the Mortimer claim remained no more than a hypothetical challenge. Only when Edmund Mortimer turned against Henry at the end of 1402 did it become a real threat.
What made the threat a serious one, of course, was the support of Owain Glyndŵr. For Glyndŵr, regime change in England offered the prospect of a freer hand in Wales. At the very least he could expect to deal with a more sympathetic English government.
But, if this was not bad enough, worse followed in 1403.
The disgruntled Percys had had enough. From being amongst Henry’s most dependable allies they suddenly combined forces with Glyndŵr and Mortimer in open revolt.
For the Percys, the Mortimer claim was useful. Supporting it added legitimacy to their opposition to Henry. Young Edmund Mortimer also had the merit of being Hotspur’s nephew. Most importantly, a boy-king would be far easier for them to control than Henry IV.
In July 1403, the Percys issued a manifesto, stating their opposition to Henry and support for young Mortimer. The rebellion had begun.
Henry IV had to move fast. Hotspur had raised a significant force in the north, including archers from Cheshire – famous for producing some of the best longbowmen in the country. In addition, Henry could not be sure what aid might to them come from Glyndŵr and Mortimer in Wales.
The king clearly struggled to cope with the kind of hit-and-run war waged by Glyndŵr or the Scots’ scorched earth tactics. However, in a more conventional campaign he was a skilled opponent. When it came to a direct confrontation between opposing armies, Henry had a talent for outmanoeuvring his enemies. He had done it before to de Vere at Radcot Bridge, now he would do it again to Hotspur.
Anticipating Hotspur’s likely movements, he managed to get to Shrewsbury before Hotspur could take it. Then, as the two armies considered their next move, Henry crossed the Severn to cut off Hotspur’s line of retreat north. Henry successfully forced a battle before Hotspur could link up with any potential allies.
The Battle of Shrewsbury
Henry had a larger force than Hotspur, but the advantage was not overwhelming. In all there were probably somewhere around 14,000-15,000 troops on each side.
The battle opened with an assault by Henry’s vanguard. This was met with a fierce and sustained volley of arrows from the Cheshire archers. The vanguard was defeated but the Cheshire archers began running out of ammunition. The situation stabilised when the king’s son, Henry of Monmouth (later Henry V), launched an aggressive attack against the rebels.
In the fighting Prince Henry was hit in the face by an arrow. Very fortunately, he somehow survived. Although the arrow was later removed, it left the prince with a disfiguring scar on his left cheek, below the eye.
At this point the fight increasingly became a contest of attrition. In such a struggle there was little doubt that King Henry, having the numeric advantage, would eventually win.
Last throw of the dice
Hotspur decided on one last desperate throw of the dice. He gathered a company of his best knights and launched a charge aimed at killing Henry himself. However, as he fought his way through the melee, he inevitably lost several of his company. At last, he reached the king’s entourage and even managed to kill the king’s standard bearer.
Seeing that the king’s standard fall, some of the Percy men believed the king was dead and began shouting “Henry Percy king!” (So much for young Mortimer!) However, Henry IV was alive. What is more, it was Hotspur who was dead; shot in the head by an arrow. Once this became widely known the battle was over. The king was victorious.
It had been a close-run thing. Hotspur’s charge had nearly succeeded in killing the king. Prince Henry also had a very lucky escape. The regime had come very close to losing its king and his heir. It could easily have spelt the end of the Lancastrian dynasty. But it did not.
Henry’s regime had weathered the storm.
Aside from securing Henry’s throne, the battle had shown that Prince Henry was a formidable military commander in his own right. It was a taste of things to come.
Although immediate danger had passed, Henry’s regime was far from secure.
Lord Percy, on hearing of his son’s death, cynically pretended that Hotspur had acted without his knowledge. It was enough to save him, but the king stripped him of the office of Constable of England. Henry Percy was defeated but had survived. And his ambition remained undiminished.
In the next article in this series, we’ll look at the latter part of Henry’s reign. Henry continued to wrestle with ongoing rebellion and dissent but, as he grew older, he would also have to contend with deteriorating health. Then, in the final years of his life, he would have to contend with a new threat to his royal authority. This time the challenge would come from his own son.
In the next article in this series, we look at the second part of Henry’s reign.
After 1403, Henry would go on to overcome dissent and rebellion to ultimately outlast his detractors. By end of his life Henry’s reign could be judged a successful one. The next article looks at how he managed to achieve this and lay the foundations of the Lancastrian dynasty.
Read the next article in this series here
The fall of the Plantagenets and the Wars of the Roses
This article is one in a series of features covering the history of the fall of the Plantagenet dynasty and the Wars of the Roses. If you would like to read earlier articles in this series, you can catch up with them here:
An introduction to the period & the legacy of Edward III
The tyranny and downfall of Richard II
And related articles on the period:
The Legacy of Richard II – Monster or Misunderstood?
The Adventures of Young Henry of Bolingbroke
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References & further reading:
The Fears of Henry IV: The Life of England’s Self-Made King, Ian Mortimer, Vintage, 2008
Richard II and the Revolution of 1399, Michael Bennett, Sutton Publishing, 1999
The Plantagenets: The Kings Who Made England, Dan Jones, William Collins, 2013
Illumination of Henry IV – National Archives (from Wiki Commons)
Coronation of Henry IV – Froissant Chronicles (from Wiki Commons)
Thomas Holland, Duke of Surrey – Jean Creton (from Wiki Commons)
Glydŵr – portrait by AC Michael (from Wiki Commons)
Houses of York, Lancaster and March, Family Tree in 1403 – by Paul Watts
The Death of Hotspur – Illustration by James William Edmund Doyle (from Wiki Commons)