Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

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

Friday, May 26, 2006

Dead King Watch: Henry VI

Henry VI was murdered in the Tower of London in late May 1471, which meant this week saw the 535th anniversary of his death. Leon Trotsky once noted that 'naive minds think that the office of kingship lodges in the king himself, in his ermine cloak and his crown, in his flesh and bones. As a matter of fact, the office of kingship is an interrelation between people. The king is king only because the interests and prejudices of millions of people are refracted through his person. When the flood of development sweeps away these interrelations, then the king appears to be only a washed-out man with a flabby lower lip.' Sadly, the flood of development failed to sweep away this interrelations in England in the 15th century, but Henry VI is a good example as any, of the King who in reality was but a 'washed out man with a flabby lower lip'. Ironically for one so personally pious and peace-loving, Henry left a great legacy of strife and civil war. Perhaps his one 'achievement' was his fostering of education for the rich — he founded both Eton College and King's College, Cambridge.

Henry was born in 1421, the only child of King Henry V of England and was his heir, and therefore great things were expected of him from birth. This was lucky, as his father died 9 months later and so the baby Henry succeeded to the throne in 1422. Henry was eventually crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey on November 6, 1429 a month before his eighth birthday, and King of France at Notre Dame in Paris on December 16, 1431. However, after the death of his father the French kind of grew resentful of being ruled by a young English child and by the time Henry assumed the reins of government properly in 1437, English power in France was on the wane. By 1450, despite marrying a French Queen, Margeret, Henry VI only had Calais left in terms of French land - which was not much to show for the 'Hundred Years War' fought by his forefathers. Henry fell into periodic bouts of mental illness.

Discontent with his disasterous foreign policy grew among nobles - particularly the Earls of Warwick and Salisbury - who in the mid 1450s took matters into their own hands by backing the claims of the rival House of York, first to the Regency, and then to the throne itself. After a violent struggle between the nobles - the houses of Lancaster led by Henry VI and that of York - in the Wars of the Roses, Henry was deposed on March 4, 1461 by his cousin, Edward of York, who became King Edward IV of England. But Edward failed to capture Henry, and so with his Queen he was able to flee into exile abroad. During the first period of Edward IV's reign, Lancastrian resistance continued mainly under the leadership of Queen Margaret and the few nobles still loyal to her in the northern counties of England and Wales. Henry was captured by King Edward in 1465 and subsequently held captive in the Tower of London.

Queen Margeret, exiled in Scotland and later in France, was determined to win back the throne on behalf of her husband and son, and with the help of King Louis XI of France eventually formed an alliance with Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, who had fallen out with Edward IV. Warwick returned to England, defeated the Yorkists in battle, liberated Henry VI and restored him to the throne on October 30, 1470. Henry's return to the throne lasted a very short time. By this time, years in hiding followed by years in captivity had taken their toll on Henry, who had been weak-willed and mentally unstable to start with. By all accounts Henry looked lethargic and vacant as Warwick and his men paraded him through the streets of London as the rightful King of England, and the constrast with the imposing King Edward whom he had replaced must have been marked. Within a few months Warwick had overreached himself by declaring war on Burgundy, whose ruler responded by giving Edward IV the assistance he needed to win back his throne by force. Henry VI was once more imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he was murdered on 21st May 1471.



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