Friday, October 25, 2013

King Henry VI Descends Into Madness, Leaving Margaret of Anjou to Rule

Henry VI madness could not have come at a more inconvenient time. With two Yorkist uprisings in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire in 1452, Margaret of Anjou giving birth to Prince Edward in 1453, and tensions rising between the queen and the Duke of York, England was far from ready to see its king become temporarily unavailable. In August 1453, Henry descended into a 17-month period of psychosis.

Accounts of the king as a child construct him as some form of simpleton. How much of these accounts are true, we will never know. Maybe those who chose to call Henry out as a simpleton were expecting too much of a child king, who had a lot to live up to in the form of his father. One account describes Henry as being the simple child of his mother rather than one who takes after his father. Had Catherine been disposed to Bermondsey Abbey as a result of mental illness as I have hypothesised, it could be that Henry was showing signs of decline before this time.

What is clear is that his grandfather—Charles VI of France—most certainly suffered from periods of psychosis. From the 1390s onwards, Charles would enter a state of psychosis approximately every five months. This once ended in the king catching fire at a royal ball, resulting in two of his courtiers burning to death in the process.

As it is clear that Charles VI suffered from mental illness, and plausible that Catherine of Valois did too, it is worth questioning whether Henry's period of psychosis was due to hereditary causes. Like his grandfather, Henry faced significant challenges at court. Charles too was a child king, who also faced conflict with England, as well as the provinces of Burgundy and Brittany within France. Under such stressful conditions, there were plenty of triggers present to cause a breakdown.

According to Whathamsted's Register, "Nearly all his body was so uncoordinated and out of control that he could neither walk nor hold his head upright". Based on this account, Margaret of Anjou was thrown from being a mother and queen consort, to becoming a ruler. However, Keith Dockray notes that women in the Anjou household in France would have successfully stepped up to the role as regent, which means Margaret may not have felt as daunted as we may imagine. Unfortunately, England was not ready to accept a female regent—least of all a French one.

By the time Henry fell ill in 1453, he had lost the French territories his father gained. This meant he lost his claim to the French crown, as well as the respect of his people. In the build-up to his psychosis, tensions between Richard Duke of York and Cardinal Beaufort—Henry VI's former protector—continued to grow. Unwilling to take a bipartisan approach, or perhaps unable to see a way to do so, Margaret of Anjou firmly aligned herself with Cardinal Beaufort.

It was perhaps the case that Margaret saw York's ambitious approach to life at court. In 1453, she immediately made attempts to instate herself as England's regent. Unfortunately, a combination of England's aversion to female regents and the Yorkist factions gathering pace meant that Margaret failed. She also made the mistake of trying to block Richard of York from playing a role in politics. By 1454, this meant that he was Henry's Lord Protector, further distancing Margaret from her potential role as regent.

Despite this, she was not deterred from leading the Lancastrian faction. As we will see as we explore the next decade, Margaret of Anjou was not the type of queen consort to hold back—and she soon gathered a significant enough following to virtually establish herself as a Lancastrian leader.

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