Henry VI inherited his father’s throne before he was even one year old. For the first 15 years of his reign, government lay in the hands of a council. It was dominated by his three uncles: Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester; John, Duke of Bedford; and Cardinal Henry Beaufort.
This is the story of Henry VI’s minority government. It is also the story of how this government sowed the seeds of instability that eventually led to the Wars of the Roses.
After Henry V’s death, the regency council that emerged to rule on behalf of the infant king was far from united. In fact, disagreement between Henry’s uncles was so severe that it nearly resulted in civil war within the first few years of his reign.
Gloucester had, through marriage, acquired a claim to certain continental territories. These unfortunately fell within the sphere of influence of Burgundy, England’s key ally in the war with France. Rather than proceeding diplomatically, Gloucester had taken a most bellicose attitude, provoking conflict with Duke Philip of Burgundy.
His continental adventure ended in failure but not before he’d succeeded in making a lifelong enemy of Philip. He also stirred up unrest in London between the capital’s citizens and Flemish merchants. This, in turn, had brought him into direct conflict with his uncle, the then Bishop, Henry Beaufort.
Parliament of Bats
Gloucester’s mess spiralled so far out of control that Bedford was forced to abandon the war in France and return to England to mediate. In a factious Parliament of 1426, an uneasy truce between the squabbling relatives was eventually thrashed out. The parliament was so overshadowed by the threat of violence that it would be remembered as the Parliament of Bats. ‘Bats’ because of the concealed weapons many MPs brought to the occasion for insurance.
If you wish to read more about this parliament and of the events leading up to it, you can read a more in-depth article on the affair here. It was hardly the most auspicious of starts to the rule of little Henry’s new regime.
The Road to Orleans
Bedford remained in England until he was content the situation was under control. However, he could not afford to ignore the war in France for too long and, in the spring of 1427, returned to the continent. Beaufort, now a Cardinal, returned with him. To placate Gloucester, Beaufort had been removed from the council.
Although Gloucester had side-lined Beaufort for the time being, he’d by no means got everything he wanted. Events of 1426 had made it quite clear that it was Bedford and not Gloucester who had the final say in government.
It would not be long before disagreement between the brothers broke out once more. Bedford had always been a realist. His approach to the war in France had been a conservative one, careful to avoid any risk of over-extension. In 1427 he envisioned continuing this approach with the relatively modest objective of taking Angers in Anjou and Maine.
Gloucester, however, felt this was too unambitious. Together with Thomas Montagu, the Earl of Salisbury, he hatched a plan to seize Orleans. It was a critical French stronghold and the strategic payoff of controlling it would be considerable. However, it was extremely well defended and attempting to take it would stretch English resources to the limit.
Gloucester’s plan nevertheless had appeal. To many people it seemed very much in keeping with the bold spirit of Henry V. And so Gloucester was able to garner the necessary support to put his gamble into action.
At first the plan went well. Salisbury’s army made a bold thrust into French held territory. By the autumn of 1428 he was besieging Orleans itself, bombarding the city with artillery. It would be a hard fight, but Salisbury had every confidence of success.
An aggressive assault enabled Salisbury to capture the important gatehouse on the bridge over the Loire, known as Les Tourelles. It was an important step towards taking the city. If he could just follow up his success by securing the bridge itself, Orleans would fall. It would certainly not be easy. The French had demolished the first two bridge arches and were defending what remained with artillery. Nevertheless, Salisbury remained optimistic.
Although no one at the time knew it, this moment represented the high watermark of English success in the Hundred Years’ War. For the briefest of moments, it looked as if Gloucester and Salisbury’s bold plan might just succeed.
The attack falters
However, Salisbury’s plan suffered a setback when French reinforcements under Marshal de Boussac arrived. It was enough to delay English efforts to take the bridge.
Shortly afterwards disaster struck. A fortuitously aimed French canon ball struck the tower in which Salisbury was busy planning his next move. It did not kill him instantly, but his injuries proved fatal within a few days.
It took a couple of weeks before Bedford was able to confirm William de la Pole, the Earl of Suffolk, as the new commander. Suffolk took a less aggressive approach and did not press home the assault as Salisbury may have done had he lived. There followed a lull in fighting until the arrival of Suffolk’s more experienced co-commander, John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, that December.
In the lull that followed Salisbury’s death, the French knocked out the remaining bridge arches. Any attempt to storm the city via the bridge would now require extensive, time-consuming repairs under artillery fire. The English therefore opted to besiege Orleans and attempt to starve the French out.
The Maid of Orleans
Unfortunately for Suffolk and Shrewsbury, they lacked the manpower to effectively blockade Orleans. Over time the French were able to reinforce their defences and keep the garrison adequately supplied. Then, on the 29th April 1429 a small but significant French relief force slipped into the besieged city.
At their head was not a man but a 17-year-old French girl. She rode into the city, in full armour, carrying a white standard with the image of Christ on judgement day. She was Joan of Arc and her successful evasion of the English siege lines seemed to confirm that divine providence was at work.
Over the next few days Joan led a series of aggressive sorties against the English. This culminated in an amphibious assault to clear the south bank of the river Loire. The fighting was hard, but Joan proved a tough fighter, resilient and aggressive. As impressive as she was in hand-to-hand combat, her ability to inspire her troops proved far more crucial.
At one stage Joan was wounded in the shoulder with a longbow arrow. But even this wasn’t enough to stop her. On 7th May the French recaptured Les Tourelles. The siege was effectively broken. The English withdrew.
King of France
The English had hoped to re-group and perhaps re-invest Orleans later. However, they were not given the opportunity.
The French followed up their success by taking the offensive. A resurgent and reinforced French army quickly cleared the Loire region around Orleans. French victories at Jargeau, Meung, and Beaugency in mid-June had the English reeling. Bedford’s worst misgivings about possible over-extension had come true. Suffolk himself was taken prisoner.
Even worse was to come. On 18th of June an English relief army commanded by John Talbot and John Falstaff was comprehensively defeated at the Battle of Patay. The English now had no significant force left in central France.
Joan led the victorious French army on a march northward. She rapidly regained a huge swathe of French territory to the south and east of Paris as the English defences collapsed. The key city of Reims opened its gates to a triumphant Joan on 16th July 1429. The very next day the Dauphin was crowned King Charles VII of France at Reims cathedral.
By early September, Paris itself was threatened. The English only just managed to fend off the assault. Things looked grim, especially now that Charles was king. If defeat was to be avoided, drastic steps were needed.
King of England
Charles VII’s coronation and Joan’s triumphs were a huge boost to French morale. Now France had an adult king. Henry VI was still only a boy of 7 and had not even been formally crowned.
The regency council had little option but to rush through Henry’s coronation. Henry VI was crowned king of England at Westminster on 29th November 1429. However, a French coronation was what was really required and that would be no easy matter. Historically the French kings were crowned at Reims, now firmly in French hands.
The time had come when the boy king would have to go to France. Ideally, he should be crowned at Reims. But to make that happen now would now require a major military effort.
The English counter-offensive
An English army arrived at Calais in the spring of 1430. However, there was disagreement on strategy. Philip of Burgundy wanted the Anglo-Burgundian alliance to re-take Reims as a key priority. The English commanders were more cautious, wanting to make sure that French forts between Paris and Reims were first cleared. The disagreement became quite fractious, and Cardinal Beaufort had to use all his diplomatic skills to placate the duke.
When the armies did start moving, things did not get off to a particularly good start. There had been high hopes that the new English commander, Lord Roos, would achieve great things. However, on 16th April 1430 he met a somewhat ignominious end, drowning in the river Marne during a brief skirmish.
In May 1430, an Anglo-Burgundian army laid siege to Compiègne. Joan of Arc attempted to break the siege, but this time luck was not on her side. In a fierce skirmish outside the city gates, her forces were overwhelmed, and she was taken prisoner.
Joan’s capture was a great morale boost for the Anglo-Burgundians but strategically it changed little. Despite capturing Joan, the siege of Compiègne was a failure and the allies were forced to withdraw in November 1430.
Joan of Arc’s Trial
In December 1430 Joan was taken to Rouen, the principle English stronghold in Normandy. She would never leave.
Given her prominence, it was important for the English to discredit her if possible. Joan had made much of her claims that she had been inspired by visions of angels throughout her life. It had been these visions that had told her to take up arms and liberate France. This provided the politically astute Cardinal Beaufort with an obvious line of attack. Perhaps these visions were false? If this could be demonstrated, it would make Joan a heretic. And, if she could be made to confess, it might just discredit her in French eyes.
Joan’s trial began in January 1431. The prosecution concentrated on demonstrating that her claims to divine inspiration were heretical. They also focused on her ‘unnatural’ tomboyish habit of dressing in male attire. Joan had worn male clothing when on campaign for practical reasons. However, she persisted in dressing as a man in captivity, claiming she feared she might otherwise be raped.
In the courtroom Joan put up a feisty defence but was ultimately no match for the Cardinal. When it came to legal and political games, there were few alive who could get the better of Beaufort. So, almost inevitably, on 31st May 1431, the unfortunate Joan was burnt at the stake.
King of France and England
Despite this, Joan’s capture was the only thing that went well for the English in 1431. England’s key ally, Burgundy, had been happy to throw its lot in with England when the going was good. But now that war was going poorly, it might soon prove a different story.
The Lancastrian dynastic claims to the French throne desperately needed shoring up. The coronation of Henry VI could not be delayed any longer. And so, on December 16th, 1431, Henry VI was crowned at St. Denis. But what had been conceived as a demonstration of Lancastrian power turned out to be a most lacklustre affair.
Beaufort insisted on officiating, a fact that did not go down well with the French clergy. The English lords were favoured over local French dignitaries at the coronation feast. The Parisian elite were far from impressed. Finally, to add insult to injury, Henry VI made an unmemorable speech to the French Parliament in English.
Most ominously of all the Duke of Burgundy did not attend. The reason became clear when he signed a truce with Charles VII two days after Henry’s coronation.
Henry VI returned to England in February 1432. The only impression he’d made in Paris was that of a 9-year-old nonentity, largely uninterested in his French subjects. He’d never set foot in France again.
The coronation of Henry VI changed the political game in England and, as it turned out, not in a good way. Now that Henry was crowned the council could not carry on ruling as before. More specifically neither Gloucester nor Bedford could technically wield executive power without the king’s express consent. Bedford’s regency now had to be renewed annually, with both the council and the king’s permission.
However, with Bedford, Beaufort and the king having spent so long in France, Gloucester had had a free hand to improve his political position at home. He engineered changes in the Royal Household, forcing out anyone he suspected might be sympathetic to his brother or Beaufort. In their place he’d brought in his own people.
Chancellor Kemp, a well-known ally of Beaufort’s was forced from office. So too was the Chamberlain, Lord Cromwell. And, just as all this was falling into place, an opportunity to bring down his arch-rival Beaufort seemingly presented itself.
Gloucester makes his move
Ironically, Gloucester’s move against Beaufort at this time was probably unnecessary. Cardinal Beaufort in early 1432 probably did not intend to continue playing a major role in English politics. He appears to have had different ambitions; busy positioning himself for career advancement within the Church. And for a Cardinal seeking career advancement in the Church, there was just one obvious position to aspire to – Pope.
However, such grand dreams did not come cheap. And so, in February 1432, Beaufort arranged to ship £20,000 from his personal treasury over to the continent, where it would be needed. Gloucester saw an opportunity and pounced.
The treasure was seized by Gloucester’s men. Beaufort was technically guilty of attempting to export precious metals to the continent without a license. Gloucester decided to ratchet up the pressure even further by questioning why Beaufort had not resigned his Bishopric of Winchester when he became Cardinal. Two jobs? This was far from normal Church practice.
Of course, Gloucester knew very well that the primary source of the Cardinal’s wealth came from his Bishopric. Deprived of that, he would lack the financial resources necessary to maintain his influence with the council and parliament.
A new game
Unfortunately, Gloucester had miscalculated. Henry VI had been crowned king. Beaufort, consummate political operator that he was, understood what this meant far better than Gloucester. And, ever since Henry VI had been crowned at Westminster in 1431, Beaufort had made sure to remain as close to the young king as possible.
In the parliament of June 1432, Beaufort returned to England to defend himself against Gloucester’s accusations. In a passionate plea before parliament and the king he challenged anyone who suspected him of wrongdoing to speak up. No one did. Then Henry himself spoke. The months Beaufort had spent ingratiating himself with young monarch now paid off.
Henry affirmed that he had no doubt Beaufort was a man of good faith, a loyal and true subject. No one dared contradict.
Worse was to follow. Lord Cromwell, as it turned out, was less than pleased at having been forced from office. He resented being treated as little more than a pawn in one of Gloucester’s political games. He complained to Parliament concerning his dismissal, protesting he had done nothing wrong and resented any suggestion that he had. His protests contained within them a strong implied criticism of Gloucester.
Gloucester was thwarted once more. Within a short time, any charges against Beaufort were dropped and Cromwell re-appointed to high office.
The coffers are empty
Meanwhile England’s fortunes in France continued to decline. During the winter of 1432 Paris again faced the prosect of a siege.
Bedford’s wife, Anne of Burgundy had died that autumn. As the Duke of Burgundy’s sister, she had been a key familial tie between Burgundy and England. Now Burgundy had even less reason to stick with England.
England was now running out of money. Their garrisons in France were far from happy. The war was going poorly, and their pay was in arears. Little surprise then that several garrisons rebelled in 1433.
Between April and June 1433, the prospect of a truce was finally entertained. However, French demands – primarily that the Duke of Orleans be released and that Henry VI renounce the French crown – were deemed unacceptable.
Bedford was now desperate to raise funds for a new campaign. However, the state of the royal finances was dire. In October 1433, Lord Cromwell, now Lord Treasurer, delivered the grim news to Parliament. The debt now ran at an eye-watering £165,000 and, every year, it was growing by £22,000.
There was no money for any wars, not without a significant tax hike. But how had it come to this?
The fiscal problems of the Lancastrian regime were already severe by 1433. Trouble had been brewing for years and now reality was finally catching up with England.
War was expensive. The war in France was costing an average of £9,200 every year and it had been going on pretty much unabated for nearly twenty years. But how had it been financed?
Direct taxation such as income tax could not be relied upon as a stable source of funding. It could only be granted on a one-off basis with the agreement of parliament. And, naturally enough, parliament was most reluctant to grant it.
The charismatic Henry V had mostly been able to persuade parliament to agree the necessary tax levies. However, in the absence of a strong king, the council had enjoyed far less success. The English MPs wanted the glory of a continental empire and were quick enough to complain of setbacks and defeats. However, when it came to it, they were not prepared to open their purses to pay for it.
The result was that over three quarters of the annual cost of the war was financed by borrowing. And, of course, the more money you borrowed, the more interest you needed to pay.
However, the demands of the war were only part of the problem.
Under normal circumstances, the royal treasury received income from two key sources. One was the royal estates and the other was indirect taxation.
The key to indirect tax revenue was the wool trade. Back in the C14th, this had been a substantial revenue stream since the wool trade had boomed. However, by the early C15th the economy was changing. As the century wore on, the wool trade declined and so too did the tax revenue it generated.
Much is made of the fiscal crisis of the late 1440s. It contributed significantly to a climate of political instability that culminated in the Wars of the Roses.
The financial woes of the late Lancastrian regime are often blamed on corrupt officials and mismanagement of royal estates. However, such an assessment ignores the elephant in the room. And that elephant was the precipitous structural decline in indirect tax revenue. A process that was already well underway by the early 1430s. And this was a result of fundamental economic change, not corruption or mismanagement.
English fortunes in France were now set on a course of inexorable decline. Unsurprisingly, Gloucester came up with another grandiose scheme to retake the initiative. But, in absence of an injection of additional tax revenues it was totally impractical. Gloucester even suggested borrowing £50,000 to pay for it. With the treasury already £165,000 in debt, this idea hardly met with enthusiasm.
As 1434 wore on, the situation continued to deteriorate. England could do little more than desperately cling on to what she had. By 1435 Paris itself was in serious danger of falling to the French and only barely managed to hold out.
The Duke of Burgundy had had enough. He was now willing to come to terms with Charles VII and arranged for a peace conference at Arras in the summer of 1435. The English were invited to attend, although there seemed little hope that they would agree to French terms. Nevertheless, England was in no position to refuse.
The conference dragged on over the summer until September. Once again, the real stumbling block was French insistence that Henry VI surrender his claim to the French throne. Without this humiliating concession, there could be no peace with France.
End of an era
It seemed almost inevitable that the conference would end in failure. The best the English were prepared to offer was an extended truce and the marriage of Henry VI to a French Princess. This was nowhere near enough.
On 14th September 1435, just before the conference ended, John, Duke of Bedford died at Rouen. He had been the driving force behind English strategy in France since the death of Henry V. And he, more than anyone else, had been key to holding together England’s alliance with Burgundy. Now he was gone. Duke Philip of Burgundy hated Gloucester and, with Bedford gone, it seemed likely Gloucester would replace him as regent.
Unsurprisingly the English delegation failed to reach any agreement with the French. However, Burgundy and France agreed that the English had behaved in an intransigent and unreasonable manner. On 21st September 1435 they concluded their secret negotiations and signed the Treaty of Arras. In a shock move, Burgundy and France finally settled their differences and were now allies against the English.
It was truly the end of an era.
The Fall of Paris
The English response to this disastrous turn of events was far from impressive. Beaufort and Gloucester could do little except squabble with each other and moan about Burgundy’s betrayal.
Meanwhile the French and their new Burgundian allies launched a major offensive.
In April 1436 Paris finally fell to the French. Meanwhile, the Burgundians had raised a significant force and laid siege to Calais.
The unfolding disaster finally forced Gloucester and Beaufort to co-operate (or at least, set aside their differences). New English forces were finally raised, and Gloucester set off across the channel to relieve Calais. However, once again, Gloucester would be denied his hour of glory. The Burgundians had been unable to prevent Calais being re-supplied from the sea and hearing of Gloucester’s approach, abandoned the siege and withdrew.
For now, at least, England appeared to have weathered the worst of the storm.
The boy becomes a man
Ever since 1434, Henry VI had gradually been assuming a greater role in government. It was a long process and such interventions as the young king chose to make at this time were limited.
However, everyone knew the minority government was coming to an end. Henry was now a teenager, fast approaching an age when it was inevitable.
In October 1435, Henry attended his first council meeting. A couple of months later he announced that he was attending to affairs of state personally (albeit he was still heavily dependent on his council).
In May 1436 he dismissed Warwick, the man who’d been assigned to govern him during his minority. At around the same time he took charge of the Privy Seal, the official stamp of royal executive power.
At the All Saints’ Day feast of 1437, Henry appeared wearing his crown, the official regalia of an adult king ruling in his own name. From mid-November that year, he assumed full authority for all royal appointments. The last trappings of the minority government were ended.
However, this new adult king faced some serious challenges. Aside from the poor state of royal finances and the deteriorating French situation, there was the matter of his squabbling uncles.
A fundamental disagreement on war policy was emerging between Gloucester and Beaufort (as if their clashing personalities and past rivalries were not problem enough).
Beaufort may have been many things, but he was ultimately a pragmatist. He, more than most, understood the significance of the disintegration of the Burgundian alliance. The war was now unwinnable. That being the case, Beaufort was increasingly convinced that peace with France was the only way forward.
Gloucester, by contrast, refused to give up on the grand dreams of Henry V. He still urged that one final major military effort be made to win victory in France. However, in the absence of any serious parliamentary appetite to levy significant sums through direct taxation, Gloucester’s ambitions were no more than pipedreams.
But by 1437, a new generation of political actors were emerging in Henry’s England. At 41, William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk was just beginning to make an impact at court. As the 1430s wore on, he increasingly aligned himself with Cardinal Beaufort’s agenda. His presence within court circles would, in time, enable him to forge a close friendship with the young king. A friendship that would allow his political star to rise.
Richard of York had been appointed to replace Bedford as military commander in Normandy as something of a stop-gap measure in the initial instance. Given the dire state of resources at his disposal, all Richard could realistically achieve was to hold the line as best he could. He assumed his command too late to prevent the fall of Paris but was able to stabilise the situation in Normandy. However, he soon encountered the familiar problem: lack of adequate resources. Nevertheless, Richard was just 26 in 1437 and the fact that he was the king’s cousin made him an emerging force to be reckoned with. As such, he represented the political future every bit as much as Suffolk.
Both Richard and William would play key political roles in 1440s England but, as yet, both men still lived in the shadows of Gloucester and Beaufort.
King Henry VI
And so, by November 1437, the period of the minority government was finally over. Henry VI was now ruling with full adult authority at the age of 16. The only real question now, in the minds many, was what kind of king would he be?
He’d spent his entire youth in the shadow of his uncles, Bedford, Beaufort, and Gloucester. He had been happy to take his lead from them and had thus far demonstrated very little inclination to push any distinct policies of his own.
He’d also received a very limited practical education in the art of kingship. His father had died when he was still a baby, so he’d never had any kind of role model for the task. Furthermore, his squabbling uncles hardly provided him with shining examples of statesmanship. And, unlike most of his predecessors, he had no practical experience of military command. Indeed, most of what he knew about kingship had been learnt from books. It was a far from ideal preparation.
Only time would tell whether he’d be able to stamp his authority on his court and provide the country with the strong leadership it so desperately needed.
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References and further reading
King Henry VI of England is crowned as King of France. (Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Français 83, fol. 205.) (Wiki Commons)
Joan of Arc enters Orleans, Jean-Jacques Scherrer, 1887, Musée des Beaux-Art (Wiki Commons)
Cardinal Beaufort, taken from a portrait of Beaufort and Joan of Arc (cropped); Paul Delaroche (Wiki Commons)
Humphrey of Gloucester – Illustration by Jacques Le Boucq (Wiki Commons)
Lancastrian income from indirect taxation during the minority of Henry VI – analysis and chart by Paul Watts using data from Alex Bryson’s 2013 PhD paper – The fiscal constitution of late medieval England: the reign of Henry VI