It was 22nd July 1403. Henry IV had just won the battle of Shrewsbury. He had been in power for less than four years and already endured considerable dissent and rebellion.
Nevertheless, in defeating Hotspur in 1403, he successfully survived the most serious threat his regime had yet faced.
If you missed my previous article on the early part of Henry’s reign, you may wish to catch up with it here.
Hotspur may be dead, but Henry still needed to deal with his father, the earl.
Earl Henry Percy had not been at Shrewsbury. With the Hotspur dead, he desperately denied foreknowledge of his son’s actions and offered future assurances of his loyalty. However, he couldn’t really deny he’d questioned the king’s legitimacy. A wary king gave him the benefit of the doubt but stripped him of office as a precaution.
The immediate danger may have passed but Henry still faced armed opposition. The Welsh rebel Glyndŵr was still at large and now in league with Edmund Mortimer. Mortimer continued to claim that his nephew, the young Earl of March, was the rightful king. Both denounced Henry as a usurper.
There was clearly much still to do.
A year of Parliaments
However, during the remainder of 1403 and 1404 Henry’s toughest fights were not fought on the battlefield. Rather, he faced a constant battle over financing. Despite the ongoing unrest, Parliament dragged its feet in supplying additional funding, tying Henry’s hands financially. As a result, there was very little money available to deal with Glyndŵr and Mortimer.
Glyndŵr took advantage and during 1404 enjoyed some significant successes, taking Aberystwyth and Harlech, and raiding Cardiff. He now felt confident enough to call a first Welsh Parliament at Machynlleth, at which he was officially crowned as Prince of Wales. As the year wore on, he began negotiations with the Duke of Orleans about a trade agreement between Wales and France.
Without adequate funding from parliament, there was little Henry could do.
The Tripartite Indenture
In early 1405, the various rebellious factions arrived at an agreement known as the Tripartite Indenture. In this agreement, England and Wales would be divided into three kingdoms. Henry Percy, having narrowly escaped a traitor’s death in 1403, now felt confident enough to re-join the rebellion.
Under the agreement, Wales would form a kingdom on its own ruled by Glyndŵr. England would be divided between a northern kingdom, ruled by Henry Percy and a southern kingdom, ruled by the younger Edmund Mortimer. The king had been right to remain wary of the Percys but foolish in his leniency.
The first step of this latest plot involved the abduction of the young Edmund Mortimer and his brother Roger. Constance of York (the Duke of York’s sister) took the boys from Windsor Castle and fled west, presumably heading for Wales. However, she only got as far as Cheltenham before Henry’s men intercepted her and recovered the boys.
Constance implicated her brother, Edward of York, in the plot and as a result he was arrested and held in custody for several weeks. Edward at first denied any involvement but later admitted knowing of the abduction plot. Nevertheless, the exact nature of Edward’s involvement beyond this (if any) was difficult to establish, so he was eventually restored to Henry’s good graces.
Trouble in the North
Earl Percy assembled a force of some 8000 in the north in May 1405. The rebel army was led by Archbishop Scrope, Thomas de Mowbray, 4th Earl of Norfolk, and Scrope’s nephew, Sir William Plumpton. All were staunch Percy supporters.
The first stage of their plan depended on successfully capturing Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland, who was Henry’s principal supporter in the north. However, Neville not only evaded capture but raised his own army and inflicted a defeat on Percy forces at Topcliffe.
With the rebellion not going to plan, Neville was able to persuade the rebel to parley with him at Shipton. Neville was somehow able to trick them into believing they’d receive royal pardons if they disbanded. This they did at the end of May. However, rather than being forgiven, Scrope, Mowbray and Plumpton were taken into custody. Henry Percy, realising the game was up, fled to Scotland.
Death of an Archbishop
The king, his patience finally at an end, was keen to make an example of the rebels. He had Archbishop Scrope, Mowbray and Plumpton tried for high treason at Scrope’s own manor at Bishopthorpe.
However, the men were tried by a commission appointed by the king himself, rather than a jury of their peers. Sir William Gascoigne, the Lord Chief Justice of the time, was so uncomfortable with this arrangement that he refused to pass sentence on the men.
Nevertheless, the king was determined that the rebels should be punished. All three men were condemned by the commission and sentenced to death. All three were beheaded in a nearby field on 8th June 1405.
Even though Scrope acted primarily for political reasons, there were still many who regarded him as a martyr. His guilt was undeniable but the irregular manner of his trial and the fact he was an Archbishop was problematic. The Pope even went so far as to excommunicate those involved with Scrope’s execution.
Certainly, for some at least, Scope’s death carried unfortunate echoes of the killing of Archbishop Becket on the orders of another King Henry.
Henry IV’s illness
Henry IV probably suffered from ill health for some considerable time before it became serious enough to significantly impact his daily life. In June 1405, not long after the rebel executions, he suffered the first of a series of incapacitating attacks. From this point onwards his health deteriorated. For someone who lived a very active, athletic life as a young man, it must have been a heavy blow.
It is not possible to say exactly what caused Henry’s health problems. Indeed, he may have suffered from more than one condition for all we know. Certainly, he had a serious skin condition that caused severe pain and an intense burning sensation. At times he suffered such debilitating attacks that he was unable to walk.
At the time some believed Henry was afflicted with leprosy. However, a modern examination of his remains ruled this out. Others suggested he suffered a series of strokes. However, since he regained full mobility between attacks and his handwriting remained unaffected, this seems unlikely. Others have suggested syphilis. There is no evidence that his illness ever affected his mind. Henry remained lucid and clear thinking up until his death.
Whatever the truth, from 1405 onwards, there is no doubt Henry experienced increasingly poor health.
The Long Parliament
1406 saw the longest sitting Parliament in medieval history. A major reason for this was Henry’s poor health. The king’s health problems prevented him from attending on and off throughout, and a serious attack delayed proceedings for much of April.
During this Parliament, Henry handed over effective decision-making power to his council. His reason related mainly to his health, and concerns that it would prevent him ruling effectively. In short, he needed to delegate.
When the dust finally settled, the government lay in the hands of Henry’s Chancellor, Archbishop Arundel. Arundel was an experienced political operator and a long time Henry loyalist. He also proved a capable administrator of royal finances. Arundel understood Henry’s limited money management skills were problematic, but he also knew that this was by no means the sole cause of the treasury’s problems.
The fact was that Parliament’s ongoing reluctance to supply adequate financing was as much to blame for the regime’s problems as anything else. With Henry having relinquished so much direct control, Arundel knew it would be increasingly difficult for Parliament to evade responsibility by blaming the king.
The sons of kings
1406 saw Henry have some luck for a change. The English captured the future James I of Scotland, as he was sailing to France. It threw Scotland into political disarray and effectively neutralised any significant threat to the northern border.
From 1406 onwards, the task of dealing with the Welsh rebels was increasingly supervised by Henry of Monmouth, the future Henry V. Prince Henry was only 20, but his keen military mind would prove to be the undoing of Glyndŵr’s rebellion. Rather than trying to grab a quick, decisive victory or launch a spectacular punitive raid, he opted to play the long game.
Prince Henry enjoyed some success in late 1405/early 1406, when his forces defeated rebel raiding parties in two battles at Grosmont and Usk. Gruffudd ap Owain Glyndŵr, Owain’s eldest son and heir, was taken captive. It was a major coup for the Lancastrian regime.
Glyndŵr under pressure
As 1406 wore on, the prince systematically focused on re-taking Welsh strongholds and making use of the network of castles to impose an economic squeeze on the rebels. The aim was to starve the rebels of weapons and supplies until they submitted of their own accord.
By 1407 Prince Henry’s approach was clearly working and he retook Aberystwyth before the year was out. It was the beginning of the end for Glyndŵr but it also marked the start of the prince’s rise to political prominence.
At around this time, Prince Henry began to work increasingly closely with his Beaufort uncles. Together, they would form a potent political force in the latter years of Henry IV’s reign.
The rise of the Beauforts
The Beauforts were half-siblings of Henry IV. They were children of John of Gaunt, like Henry, but by his third wife Katherine Swynford.
There had always been a taint of illegitimacy about them since they were born out of wedlock. However, as John and Katherine were subsequently married, the legitimacy of the Beauforts was later acknowledged by Pope Boniface IX and Richard II.
The senior brother, John, Earl of Somerset, became Constable of England after Henry Percy’s fall from grace. Another brother, Bishop Henry Beaufort, briefly served as chancellor in 1403-04.
As siblings of the king, they were amongst his staunchest supporters. However, as close relations, their line carried the potential to present a future challenge for the throne.
In 1406 Henry IV re-confirmed the legitimacy of the Beauforts. However, clearly wary of their political ambitions, he took the additional step of expressly excluding them from the line of succession.
Of all the Beauforts, Bishop Henry, was the most talented politician. He would come to exert significant influence over Lancastrian policy for several decades. By 1407 he was fast becoming a close confidante of Prince Henry; his political star was now well and truly on the rise.
Fall of the Percys
In 1408, Henry Percy made a final bid to unseat the king. He marched south from Scotland with a new army. He was intercepted at Bramham Moor, near Wetherby in Yorkshire, by a royalist force led by Sir Thomas Rokeby.
Details of the ensuing battle are sketchy, but the result was decisive. Lord Percy’s army was completely defeated. The earl himself died in the fighting and one of his principal allies, Baron Thomas Bardolf, died of his injuries shortly afterwards. The Percy threat was finally quashed.
With Percy power in the north now broken (at least for the time being), the door was open for the Neville family to emerge as a major force in the region.
The first decade of the C15th had seen a significant clash between the Percys and Nevilles in the north. By 1408 the Nevilles had emerged on top. But it was just the beginning. It marked the start of the Neville-Percy rivalry that would play such an important role in the Wars of the Roses.
Prince Henry triumphant
Henry of Monmouth’s campaign in Wales now entered its final stages as he methodically ground Glyndŵr and his supporters into submission. In 1409 Harlech Castle finally fell. Sir Edmund Mortimer died in the fighting and Owain’s wife and daughters were taken captive.
Owain was reduced to a fugitive, still able to launch small scale raids but unable to seriously threaten the Lancastrian regime.
The increasingly positive situation in Wales freed up Prince Henry’s time to play a more direct role in government.
Shakespeare presents the young Henry V as leading a largely dissolute youth. This is a view he gets partly from the sources. Tito Livio Frulovisi, for example, describes the young prince as “a fervent soldier of Venus as well as Mars”. However, the young Henry was clearly more than just a classic wayward boy. His focus on defeating Glyndŵr was relentless and methodical. The prince may have partied hard, but he also worked hard.
A brighter future for Henry?
As to Henry IV, he was discovering, perhaps to his surprise, that the more he delegated, the more successful his regime became. The Percys were defeated. Edmund Mortimer dead. The Scots neutralised. Glyndŵr a shadow of his former self. To cap it all, Arundel was proving a deft manager of Parliament.
1407 had seen the assassination of the Duke of Orleans, Henry’s principal enemy in France. The Duke of Burgundy had finally acted against his political enemy. This dramatically reduced the threat of France initiating military action against England. However, the fallout from the assassination was severe. By 1410, civil war between the house of Burgundy and the Armagnacs (relatives of the Duke of Orleans) threatened to tear France apart.
Henry’s regime, which had for some time appeared worryingly unstable, was now looking more secure than ever before.
The rise of Prince Henry
As the king’s health continued to deteriorate, Prince Henry and his political allies gradually obtained control of the council. Principal amongst the prince’s supporters were his Beaufort uncles, especially Bishop Henry.
Eventually the prince and the bishop successfully ousted Arundel from the council. However, installing Bishop Beaufort as chancellor would have been a step too far for Henry IV. Instead, the prince had the bishop’s more politically acceptable brother, Thomas, appointed chancellor in January 1410. It was the first act in a growing battle of wills between father and son.
The prince and his father also held different views about foreign policy, especially in relation to France. Prince Henry favoured the Burgundian faction and opened negotiations with them for a potential alliance. The Duke of Burgundy offered the prince his daughter’s hand in marriage and four Flemish cities in exchange for his support in the civil war.
The king, however, favoured the Armagnacs, although he appears to have been open to the prospect of a Burgundian alliance to begin with.
By late 1411 the prince’s supporters, quite likely at the instigation of Bishop Henry, pushed the idea that the king should abdicate in favour of his son. It is hard to say how seriously this was pursued. It may have been nothing more than whispers in corridors, or it may have progressed as far as the active lobbying of key members of the nobility.
With the king in such poor health and the prince now in control of the council, a formal abdication would have been little more than a formality. But Henry IV was not about to surrender power so easily, not even to his own son.
In late 1411/early 1412, the king acted. Calling a Parliament, he announced he was resuming his regal powers in full. He thanked the council for their service and dismissed them. He then re-instated his old friend Arundel as chancellor.
Given the difficulties Henry had experienced with Parliament before, his resumption of power received parliamentary approval with surprising ease. But Henry IV in 1412 was in a very different position to Henry IV in 1403. Then his regime had looked far from secure, threatened by Scots, French, Welsh rebels, and a Percy revolt. Now, the Scots and French were in turmoil, the Percys dead and the Welsh rebellion all but quashed.
King Henry was firmly back in charge.
War with France
Henry reversed his son’s policy of allying with Burgundy and struck a deal with the Armagnacs. He wasted no time in raising an army to send to France. Given Prince Henry’s associations with Burgundy, the king chose his second eldest son, Thomas, to lead the expedition. As a sign of his father’s favour, Thomas was awarded the title of Duke of Clarence.
But even as Thomas set off, French politics were shifting. The Burgundians and Armagnacs had arrived at a truce (at least for now), so that by the time Thomas’ English army arrived it was not welcome.
Thomas accused the Armagnacs of betraying their English allies and began to take revenge by raiding French towns. It was a clash that would foreshadow the resumption of the hundred years war under his brother’s reign.
However, Thomas’ military expedition would soon be overshadowed by events back home.
The king’s health continued to decline. He had his good days and his bad days but, as 1412 wore on he found it increasingly difficult to walk far unaided. In December, he suffered another serious attack. He summoned a Parliament for early 1413 and announced plans for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He knew he did not have long to live and was keen to visit the Holy Land one last time before he died.
It was not to be.
In March 1413 his health finally failed. He collapsed whilst in Westminster Abbey and was taken to the Abbott’s house to recover. But there would be no recovery this time. As Henry drifted in and out of consciousness, he discovered that the room in which he lay was known as the Jerusalem Chamber. He was relieved. He would die in Jerusalem after all.
Prince Henry came to see his father before the end. The two had achieved a reconciliation the previous year and their final meeting was cordial. Before he died, Henry advised his son to live a pious life, rule wisely and settle all his debts.
Henry IV died on 20th March 1413. The reign of Henry V had begun.
Despite a decidedly shaky start, by the end of his reign, Henry IV had undeniably triumphed over his enemies.
Given the nature of Richard II’s demise, anyone becoming king in 1399 would have faced considerable challenges. The Scots and French would have sought to take advantage whoever Richard’s successor had been. The Percy rebellion, far from being a noble attempt to put Richard’s legitimate successor on the throne, was primarily driven by self-interest. The Percys, after all, had not bothered to champion the Mortimer cause for the first few years of Henry’s reign.
The truth is that neither a York nor Mortimer regime would have fared any better than Henry IV. Both would also have been tainted with the label of ‘usurper’ for the simple reason that neither were Richard II any more than Henry was. And Mortimer, as a boy-king, would have been especially vulnerable.
Henry IV’s reign had been born out of necessity. His revolution may not have been an ideal solution to the tyranny of Richard II, but the fact was there was no ideal solution.
“Necessity knows no law.”Henry IV
In the final analysis, Henry’s reign was a successful one. Through a combination of his determination, pragmatism, and flexibility, Henry IV ultimately endured to lay the foundations of the Lancastrian dynasty.
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:
And related articles on the period:
In the next article in this series, we’ll focus on the reign of Henry V. We’ll look at how Henry built on his father’s legacy to preside over the House of Lancaster’s finest hour.
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References & further reading:
The tomb of Henry IV – photograph by Renaud Camus (from Wiki Commons)
Gascoigne refuses to sentence Archbishop Scrope – James William Edmund Doyle (from Wiki Commons)
Thomas Arundel portrait – a C19th copy of C15th original (from Wiki Commons)
Bishop Henry Beaufort – J Parker (from Wiki Commons)
Henry V of England miniature, 1411 – unknown artist (from Wiki Commons)
Assassination of Louis Duke of Orleans – Bibliothèque nationale de France (from Wiki Commons)