Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Monday, March 20, 2006

Dead King Watch: Henry IV

Henry IV died on March 20th 1413, which makes today the 593rd anniversary of his death. Henry's life is actually quite illuminating with respect to the monarchy - and Shakespeare's work about him is considered one of his most successful historical dramas.

Henry was born in 1366 at Bolingbroke Castle in Lincolnshire, hence he became known as 'Henry of Bolingbroke'. His father, John of Gaunt, a fabulously wealthy noble, was the third and oldest surviving son of King Edward III of England, and on Edward's death in 1377, became effective ruler of England given the young age of the actual King Richard II, Gaunt's nephew. Henry was about the same age as Richard and being first cousins had grown up childhood playmates with the future King. Henry grew up to be tall, well built and an excellent jouster, becoming Earl of Derby. In 1380, Henry married Mary de Bohun, and they had two daughters and four sons.

In 1386, Richard, who had by now assumed more power for himself, dispatched John of Gaunt to Spain as an ambassador. However, crisis ensued almost immediately, and Henry involved himself in the Lords Appellant's rebellion against Richard. John of Gaunt returned to restore order through a compromise between the Lords Appellant and King Richard, ushering in a period of relative stability and harmony. Henry remained still relatively favoured by Richard, who promoted him to be Duke of Hereford.

However, this relationship broke down in 1398, when Henry got involved with a blood feud with Thomas de Mowbray, 1st Duke of Norfolk who was rumoured to be plotting to oust Richard. Bolingbroke and Mowbray got ready to have a fight to the death and each went to the top armourers around to get 'tooled up'. Richard had a dilemma - if his cousin Henry of Bolingbroke won then Henry would be extremely popular and so a potential threat to his power - but if Henry was killed by Mowbray then John of Gaunt (Henry's father) was hardly going to be happy about it. Richard stopped the fight - banishing Henry into exile for ten years and exiling Mowbray for life. Richard now made a bid to establish even more power - assuming that he had got rid of his potential rivals with one fell swoop.

Henry took up residence at the French court, nursing his grievance. In 1399, his father John of Gaunt died and Bolingbroke stood in line to inherit the vast estates of Lancaster. However, Richard was now a power hungry warmongering bastard and cunningly decided to take John of Gaunt's land for himself while extending Henry's exile for life. Henry, quite understandably, was hardly best pleased at this - and swore revenge on his cousin.

In 1399, while Richard was busy killing peasants in Ireland, Henry saw his chance and after some hesitation, Henry met with the exiled Thomas Arundel, former Archbishop of Canterbury, who had lost his position because of his involvement with the Lords Appellant. With Arundel as his advisor, Henry Bolingbroke returned to England and began a military campaign, confiscating land from those who opposed him and ordering his soldiers to destroy much of Cheshire. Quickly, Henry gained enough power and support to take control, imprisoning King Richard. He was at the zenith of his power.

From Bolingbroke to King Henry IV - 'Uneasy is the head that wears the Crown'.

However, there was a slight problem of legitimacy if he was going to now be King as his power rested on his popularity and military strength. Richard’s son and heir, Edmund de Mortimer, had a better claim to the throne than Henry - and indeed Richard was still alive himself. Yet Mortimer was only seven and Henry went ahead with the coronation, on October 13, 1399, which is notable as being the first time following the Norman Conquest that the monarch made an address in English. He tried to make things appear as natural as possible, yet even on this occasion, there was a shadow over proceedings. Despite excellent health up to know, Henry now got a severe case of head lice.

More ominously, a series of revolts in favour of Richard now broke out - which further challenged his claim to be on the throne. Henry would have been happy for Richard to live in retirement in prison, but now he thought that if Richard was dead this problem might be resolved. In 1400, Henry seems to have given the tacit consent to the murder of his cousin in prison.

Henry knew that Richard had lost support of many people through being an autocrat and so Henry consulted with parliament far more frequently, but was sometimes at odds with them, especially over ecclesiastical matters. Indeed, AL Morton notes that because he could hardly claim Divine Hereditary Right Henry IV 'was thus committed to a policy of conciliating the gentry and the town middle class, and during his reign Parliament reached its high water mark for the Middle Ages.' Yet they were hardly years of religious toleration - Arundel was restored to Archbishop of Canterbury and on his advice, Henry was the first English king to allow the burning of heretics, mainly to suppress the Lollard movement.

However, Henry's reign was brief and troubled. Scottish incursions were continual, as they would be for most of the century. France harried the south coast with impunity, while Wales was in revolt under Owain Glyndwr who declared himself Prince of Wales in 1400. Moreover, if Henry was to have the support of Parliament he had to challenge what Morton calls 'the anarchy of the great nobles'. But they had helped Henry into power and so were resistant. Glyndwr's rebellion was therefore complemented by English revolts led by the Lords and centring on Edmund Mortimer and Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland; the three men were related by marriage but also were keen rivals for power. Henry's reprisals - aided by his eldest son - were effective but brutal; in 1406 he executed the Archbishop of York, who had denounced him as a usurper. That year English forces kidnapped the future James I of Scotland, who was held in England for 18 years; Northumberland died in 1408, and Glyndwr's rebellion collapsed soon after.

The later years of Henry's reign were marked by serious health problems. He had some sort of disfiguring skin disease, suffered epileptic fits (possibly from too much jousting when younger), and more seriously suffered acute attacks of some grave illness in June 1405, April 1406, June 1408, during the winter of 1408–09, December 1412, and then finally a fatal bout in March 1413. Many in England at the time saw his illness and subsequent death as divine retribution. More importantly, Henry IV's life reminds us that many monarchs got their hands on the Crown not through some God given right passed down through the generations but through armed might and sheer will to power.



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