Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Death of Henry VI

On May 21, 1471, Edward IV and his forces, having defeated their Lancastrian opponents, rode triumphantly into London. With them was a very high-profile captive: Margaret of Anjou, queen to Henry VI. Margaret was brought to the Tower, where her husband was already a prisoner. Just weeks before, the couple's son, Edward of Lancaster, had died at age seventeen at the Battle of Tewkesbury.

The night his queen arrived at the Tower, Henry VI died. Though the Historie of the arrivall of Edward IV in England, and the finall recoverye of his kingdomes from Henry VI, the official account of the Yorkist triumph, claimed that the former king had died of "pure displeasure and melancholy," few believed this, then or now. The Milanese ambassador summed up the general feeling about the matter: "King Edward has not chosen to have the custody of King Henry any longer, although he was in some sense innocent, and there was no great fear about his proceedings, the prince his son and the Earl of Warwick being dead as well as all those who were for him and had any vigour, as he has caused King Henry to be secretly assassinated in the Tower, where he was a prisoner. . . . He has, in short, chosen to crush the seed."

Henry VI's remains were exhumed in 1910. According to W. H. St. John Hope, who was present, some hair was still attached to the skull. The hair was "brown in colour, save in one place where it was much darker and apparently matted with blood." As W. J. White has pointed out, however, Hope did not have the qualifications to identify the substance as blood; he was an architectural historian. Dr. A. Macalister, a professor of anatomy who was also present at the exhumation, supplied Hope with a report about the condition of the remains, but made no mention of the hair or the blood. He did, however, state that "the bones of the head were unfortunately much broken," although again as White points out, this does not necessarily indicate a violent cause of death; the bones could have been broken over time, especially since the corpse had previously been exhumed in 1484 and moved from Chertsey Abbey to Windsor.

Even if the evidence from the exhumation does not conclusively prove that Henry VI died a violent death, it still seems likely that he did. Henry had suffered many reversals over the years before his death, and had personally witnessed the Lancastrian defeat at Barnet, having been dragged along to the site with Edward IV's army. While the news of his son's death at Tewkesbury and his wife's being taken captive must have been shattering for Henry VI to hear, it is hard to believe that it was such an unexpected shock that it would have caused his death. And with Edward of Lancaster dead, it would have been foolish for Edward IV to keep the Lancastrian cause alive in the shape of his father.

If Henry was murdered, as seems most likely, the identity of his murderer or murderers is one of the best-kept secrets in English history. Richard, Duke of Gloucester, has been credited with the deed in popular legend, but there is no evidence that he was the murderer or that he carried the deed out alone if he was. He was present at the Tower the night of Henry's death, but so were many others.

The next morning, Henry VI's body was treated with all of the respect due to that of a deceased king. The Issues of the Exchequer record the following expenses:

To Hugh Brice. In money paid to his own hands, for so much money expended by him, as well for wax, linen, spices, and other ordinary expenses incurred for the burial of the said Henry of Windsor, who died within the Tower of London; and for wages and rewards to divers men carrying torches from the Tower aforesaid to the cathedral church of Saint Paul's, London, and from thence accompanying the body to Chertesey. By writ, &c, —15l. 3s. 6 1/2d.

To Master Richard Martyn. In money paid to him at different times; viz., at one time to his own hands 9l. 10s. 11d., for so much money by him expended for 28 yards of linen cloth from Holland, and for expenses incurred, as well within the Tower aforesaid, at the last valediction of the said Henry, as also at Chertesey on the day of his burial; and for a reward given to divers soldiers from Calais guarding his body, and for the hire of barges, with masters and sailors rowing the same on the river Thames to Chertesey aforesaid; also at another time 81. 12s. 3d., for so much money paid by him to four orders of brethren within the city of London; and to the brethren of the Holy Cross therein; also for other works of charity; viz., to the Carmelite brethren 20s., to the Augustine Friars 20s., to the Friars Minors 20s., and to the Friars Preachers, to celebrate obsequies and masses, 40s.; also to the said brethren of the Holy Cross, 10s.; and for obsequies and masses said at Chertesey aforesaid, on the day of the burial of the said Henry,—52s. 3d. By writ, &c,—18l. 3s. 2d.

Henry, as these records indicate, was buried at Chertsey Abbey in Surrey. (A drawing of the abbey can be found here.) There his body rested until 1484, when Richard III had the remains moved to St. George's Chapel at Windsor Castle--just feet away from where the king who had supplanted him, Edward IV, had been buried the year before.


Frederick Devon, Issues of the Exchequer. London: John Murray, 1837.

W. H. St. John Hope, "The Discovery of the Remains of King Henry VI in St. George's Chapel, Windsor Castle." Archaeologia, 1911.

W. J. White, "The Death and Burial of Henry VI." Parts I and II. The Ricardian, September 1982 and December 1982.


Ragged Staff said...

Nice post, Susan. I can't help feeling for poor Henry in all this. The wrong guy in the wrong job at the wrong time, maybe?

Kathryn Warner said...

RIP, King Henry - the poor man, I can't help feeling so sorry for him. :-(

Anerje said...

You'd have to be hard-hearted not to feel sorry for Henry. And naive to think he died of natural causes. With his son dead, there was no need to keep him alive. As Susan says, we don't know who killed him, but you can bet Edward would have asked the advice of his brothers, George and Richard. Not wishing to stain his own hands, who better than to see the deed carried out than either of his brothers? Poor Margaret must have been distraught to think of her husband murdered whilst she was in the Tower.