Blood on the Block

Maurice Keen

  • The Fears of Henry IV: The Life of England’s Self-Made King by Ian Mortimer
    Vintage, 480 pp, £8.99, July 2008, ISBN 978 1 84413 529 5

Returning unbidden from exile in July 1399 to claim his confiscated inheritance as Duke of Lancaster while Richard II was in Ireland, Henry Bolingbroke was greeted tumultuously as the prospective saviour of the realm. Richard, hurrying home, found himself deserted in mid-Wales and faced with no alternative to putting himself in his cousin’s power. With Richard his virtual prisoner, and satisfied that those who had welcomed him would go along with the next step, Henry set about preparing to supplant the king. On 30 September, before the assembled lords and commons in Westminster Hall, he claimed the throne, which Richard had abdicated the day before, as the true heir ‘descended by right line of the blood coming from the good lord King Henry the Third’. On 13 October he was crowned king.

The son of John of Gaunt, Edward III’s third son, Henry was certainly Richard’s nearest male heir in 1399; but the seven-year-old Edmund, Earl of March, grandson of Philippa, the daughter of Edward III’s second son, Lionel, had through the female line a senior claim in blood. That blood, passed on again through the female line to Richard, Duke of York, was to become two generations later the basis of the Yorkist claim to the throne of Henry’s grandson Henry VI and so provided the formal casus belli for the dynastic strife of the Wars of the Roses. Henry’s usurpation was thus crucial to the whole story of the English 15th-century monarchy.

This was well appreciated by Shakespeare, and Henry has a central role in three of the history plays, Richard II and Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. For all that, Shakespeare does not give Henry much more than a pasteboard personality, clearly seeing more attractive dramatic possibilities in the characters of Richard, Hotspur and Prince Hal. Historians, however, cannot dodge the question of the character of the central actor in a vital series of events. Rather surprisingly, although Henry’s life and personality offer what K.B. McFarlane described as ‘a series of fascinating problems, mostly unsolved’, they have been chary of taking up this challenge. Ian Mortimer’s The Fears of Henry IV fills an important gap, and if it does not solve all the problems it certainly tackles most of them.

In the years before 1397, Henry won a large reputation: as his father’s dutiful son, as a champion of chivalry and a crusader, and as a generous lord to his retainers and servants. How does this square with the decisive ruthlessness of 1399, the raising of his professed ambition from the restoration of his inheritance to the royal succession, and the broken promises to Richard that he should keep his crown and life? Do we conclude, with the eminent Victorian historian William Stubbs, that the pressures of 1399 wrought in Henry a ‘deep change of character’; or was he merely revealing his true self? And how did the experience colour his outlook and actions as king? Henry’s story cannot be told without addressing these questions.

Mortimer’s account of Henry’s upbringing and early career is full and perceptive. His father ensured that he knew the courtly manners and style befitting a nobleman of his standing, and he showed early skill in the aristocratically fashionable sport of jousting. He was a serious reader, with whom ‘men of great literary attainments’ enjoyed conversing, according to Capgrave’s De Illustribus Henricis, and had a great love of music: he possessed a cither and recorder, and was probably the composer of two early pieces of polyphony. This passion he shared with his first wife, Mary, whom he married when she was 11 and he 13. Their relationship grew to be one of real affection, and she bore him four sons and two daughters before her death in 1394; she also, as an heiress of Bohun, brought estates that gave him substantial independent wealth. This meant that when Henry came into his vast ducal inheritance of Lancaster, he would possess land-based power far superior to that of any other English peer, and second only to the king’s.

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