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.

For the young Richard II, who was almost exactly of an age with his cousin, this was not a comfortable prospect. Mortimer believes that he was also jealous and resentful of Henry’s applauded manly accomplishments. Their relations, and Richard’s relations with Henry’s father, John of Gaunt, were complicated by another factor, which Mortimer is the first biographer to be able to take into account. In 1998, Michael Bennett revealed that a badly burned charter in the Cottonian Collection, just readable under ultraviolet light, was a copy of a previously unknown declaration by Edward III of October 1376, strictly limiting the royal succession to his male heirs and their male descent. This declaration was never made public, and it was quite unclear that a king had any right to regulate the succession in this way. If valid, it made John of Gaunt, and Henry after him, heirs to the throne should Richard, the son of Edward’s eldest son, the Black Prince, die childless, and excluded the March line, whose royal blood came through Edward’s granddaughter. The declaration was probably made at Gaunt’s prompting and must have been known to Henry at an early point, and to Richard too. As Mortimer writes, its implications ‘for understanding … Henry IV’s life are huge’. Richard was not easy with it; statements he made in 1386 and 1394 pointedly made it plain that he had other ideas about who should be his heir. Henry must have been aware from a very early date that he might one day be king, which helps to explain why he acted with such conviction in 1399.

Mortimer makes the tensions between Richard and the house of Lancaster the theme of his narrative of the 1380s and 1390s. The young king and his courtier counsellors – Michael de la Pole, Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford and Sir Simon Burley were the most prominent – clearly eyed with fear and hostility Gaunt’s vast landed wealth and the influence it gave him. Twice, in 1384 and 1385, members of the court (and in 1385 Richard himself) were involved in plots against Gaunt’s life. The plot of 1385 brought relations between the king and his uncle close to breaking point. Richard’s mother managed to reconcile them sufficiently for Richard to give his backing to Gaunt’s Spanish expedition of 1386, which aimed at securing for him the crown of Castile through his second wife, Constanza, the daughter of the deposed King Pedro. But given what had passed, it was no surprise that Henry lined himself up with the king’s opponents when, in late 1387 and with Gaunt away, civil war loomed in Richard’s confrontation with the lords led by Thomas, Duke of Gloucester and the Earls of Arundel and Warwick, who were ‘appealing’ Richard’s close counsellors of treason. Henry’s fine generalship at Radcot Bridge in Oxfordshire dispersed the force that Robert de Vere was leading from Cheshire to join the king in London. After this the Appellants had Richard at their mercy. Henry probably saved Richard from being deposed in favour of Thomas, his youngest uncle, by his insistence on Gaunt’s prior right, but he took a full part in the bloody purge in the Merciless Parliament of 1388 of those of Richard’s friends whom the Appellants could lay their hands on. That was what lingered most sharply in the king’s mind in the following years.

Gaunt took no part in any of this, and after his return from Castile in 1389 Richard welcomed him to a position of influence and apparent favour. In the early 1390s Henry was much abroad. Mortimer recounts with verve his part in the famous jousts of St Inglevert by Calais in 1390, in which he distinguished himself greatly; his adventures in the company of the Teutonic Knights on crusade in Lithuania; and the story of his 1392 pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre, fêted en route at the court of Wenceslas of Bohemia, and at Venice, Milan and Paris. At the Milanese court the duke’s cousin Lucia Visconti was so smitten with Henry that seven years later she declared that her heart still remained his before all others. He was beginning to cut a figure on the European scene, not just as his father’s son but in his own right.

When in England Henry was not prominent in public affairs, but on the surface seemed to share his father’s favour with the king. Mortimer argues persuasively, however, that Richard’s cordiality towards the house of Lancaster was based on the calculation that he would need John of Gaunt’s backing when he found it opportune to take revenge on the one-time leaders of the Appellants, Gloucester, Warwick and Arundel, and that with them out of the way he meant to take out Henry too; his ill-will towards Gaunt, Mortimer believes, had only temporarily evaporated. What happened in 1397, when the three Appellant lords were arrested and charged with treason, fits well with this interpretation. Gaunt, as steward of England, presided over their trials in Parliament, where Arundel was condemned to execution and Warwick to exile (Gloucester had already been murdered on Richard’s secret order in prison at Calais). It also fits in with what Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, who had joined the Appellants in 1387 at the same time as Henry, confided to him on the road between Brentford and London shortly after this. Mowbray had learned, he said, that the king intended to deal with both of them as he had done with the senior Appellants; and that he was plotting to murder both Gaunt and Henry and to confiscate the Lancastrian estates. When Henry on his father’s advice denounced these allegations to Richard as treasonable slanders, Mowbray denied he had ever made them. Mortimer’s careful examination suggests, however, that there was substance in all of them. As there were no witnesses to the exchange, it was decreed that the truth should be decided by judicial duel – the duel at Coventry in Richard II that Richard halted at the last moment, banishing both men, Mowbray for life and Henry for ten years. When John of Gaunt conveniently died on 3 February 1399, Richard confiscated the whole inheritance of Lancaster.

What followed is familiar from Shakespeare: Henry’s return in July 1399 and the welcome he received in Yorkshire, and from the Earls of Northumberland and Westmorland; his triumphant progress south; the collapse of Richard’s support and his surrender to Henry at Flint in August; his forced abdication, and the dramatic scene in Westminster Hall when Henry stepped forward to claim the throne. Henry, Mortimer believes, must have decided before he sailed from France that he had to aim to dethrone Richard, given his experience of Richard’s animosity and duplicity (others have speculated that the decision may have been taken later, perhaps even in early September). Naturally, given his earlier discussion of the succession issue, Mortimer devotes careful attention to the grounds on which Henry claimed to succeed his cousin and the question of why no reference was made to the declaration of 1376 that made him clearly the heir. His answer is that the original had probably been destroyed, and that Henry’s advisers considered that a title based on it would be too disputable, given its uncertain legal status. Henry’s emphasis on his descent from Henry III – uniquely, in his case, on his mother Blanche’s side as well as his father’s – Mortimer explains as looking back to ‘the original male-only law of inheritance’ of Henry III’s time (though there is a difficulty here, since the right of Henry III’s grandfather, Henry II, came through his mother, Matilda). What in the end mattered most was that all those in Westminster Hall accepted Henry’s claim.

Mortimer also gives particular attention to Richard’s fate. In January 1400, Henry was warned just in time of plans made by the ex-king’s courtier peers (the Earls of Kent and Huntingdon, and John Montagu, Earl of Salisbury) to initiate a rising to restore Richard by surprising Henry and his sons in Windsor at Epiphany, and their revolt collapsed ignominiously. Just over a month later, it was officially announced that Richard was dead. The story put about was that in despair he had starved himself to death; unsurprisingly, it was widely assumed that he had been done away with (as in Shakespeare’s play). What really happened has been debated ever since. Mortimer’s view is absolutely clear: Richard was killed on Henry’s order, possibly immediately after the failure of the Epiphany rising, possibly later, after Henry had learned that the French (who it was feared might intervene in Richard’s favour) believed him dead anyway. Either way, Henry’s assurance to Richard that his life would be spared was worthless.

The years from 1400 to 1405 – those covered by Henry IV Part 1 and the first four acts of Part 2 – were difficult for England’s new king. The popular euphoria that had helped to carry him to the throne evaporated rather quickly. Rumours that Richard II was alive began to circulate (the Scots maintained a useful imposter) and helped breed seditious talk. Promises given at his accession of lighter taxation proved impossible to fulfil, and financial constraints hindered Henry from responding effectively to Glendower’s revolt in Wales and from keeping up payments to the Percys for guarding the Scottish border. Government history, the problems of royal finance, taxation, and of Henry’s relations with the sharply critical Commons inevitably slow the momentum of Mortimer’s narrative. His gift for bringing a story to life resurfaces in his recounting of the drama and trauma of the Percy revolts of 1403 and 1405. The year of real danger was 1403; the issue of the ‘bloody field by Shrewsbury’ was long in doubt before Hotspur fell and Henry triumphed. The military threat was less serious in 1405, when Hotspur’s father, Northumberland, pardoned in 1403, rebelled again. He and Lord Bardolph were forced to retreat into Scotland, and the Yorkshiremen who had assembled at Shipton Moor were dispersed bloodlessly. There was blood shed on the block, however. Archbishop Richard Scrope of York, who had drawn up the manifesto of their grievances, was arrested and executed at the king’s order after a summary trial. Henry’s purpose was no doubt, as Mortimer puts it, to show that ‘when necessary, he would rule with an iron fist.’ But news of the death sent shock waves through England, and miracles were soon being reported at the prelate’s tomb.

On the night after Scrope’s execution, Henry, who was travelling north from York, woke screaming that his skin was on fire. This was the onset of the disease that, at first intermittently and from 1408 more chronically, incapacitated him. Wisely, Mortimer does not attempt a precise medical diagnosis (it certainly was not, as many near contemporaries thought, leprosy), but he makes vividly clear how painful and physically debilitating it became. Given the timing of the first attack it was inevitable that many should have interpreted it as divine retribution for killing an archbishop; and historians have often speculated that Henry himself may have been haunted by feelings of guilt for that death and for his usurpation. Mortimer is not of that view, and it is quite at odds with the determination with which Henry to the end insisted on upholding his royal dignity and prerogatives ‘in all respects as wholly as any of his noble progenitors’. Though for long periods sickness forced him to leave the conduct of government to his council, he never lost touch and when his health permitted could be very forceful. Late in 1411 he briefly resumed direct control of affairs, completely altered the direction of his dismissed council’s Anglo-French diplomacy and appointed new councillors (excluding among others Prince Hal). In 1412 he sat out the vocal discontent of his eldest son and brought him round to seeking forgiveness and reconciliation. Prince Hal was there to receive his blessing when on 20 March 1413 he died in the Jerusalem Chamber of the abbot’s house at Westminster, where he had been carried a month before after collapsing at the shrine of St Edward the Confessor.

Mortimer’s rating of Henry’s abilities and of the moral basis of his actions and judgments is very high. In evaluating him as a ruler, he stresses two qualities, the tenacity with which he outfaced and survived multifarious dangers and difficulties, and the shrewd pragmatism that taught him when to be pliable in face of criticism (especially from Parliament) and when to insist on his prerogatives, when to be merciful and when to show the ‘iron fist’. These qualities and his gift for martial leadership might well, as Mortimer argues, have carried him to successes comparable with those of Edward III or Henry V, had he succeeded in more favourable circumstances. As it was, although his reign was probably a disappointment to him as well as to many of his subjects, it was a notable achievement to have by the end established a stable authority.

Mortimer’s very favourable interpretation of Henry’s character and motivation is not quite as convincing as his evaluation of him as king, and occasionally verges on whitewash. Given the situation in 1399, it may be reasonable to claim that Henry ‘had nothing to be ashamed of in dethroning Richard’ if one is judging in terms of political expediency; the same expediency that Henry later concluded demanded Richard’s death and that of Archbishop Scrope. But these decisions are hardly those of a man who ‘believed passionately in the difference between right and wrong’. In each case a broken promise was involved, to Richard of his life and his dignity as king, to Archbishop Arundel that proceedings against his fellow archbishop would be delayed until he and the king had had further consultation (which never took place). If Henry did order Richard’s death, the best that can be said of his vehement denial of it in a letter to the Duke of Orléans is that he had to lie because the truth was too unpalatable. Even if one is prepared with Mortimer to accept as well deserved Henry’s high reputation in his pre-royal days, it is difficult not to conclude that he later became ruthless about abandoning scruples (and promises) that got in the way of realpolitik. Though he did not share Richard II’s vindictiveness, long before the end of his reign Henry had plenty of blood on his hands. Mortimer strives eloquently for an exculpatory verdict, but McFarlane’s conclusion still seems to me nearer the truth: ‘Had Shakespeare written a play about Henry IV it would have been the tragedy of a more complex Macbeth, and as such would not have wanted historical accuracy.’