Monday, November 4, 2013

Illness of Henry VI

Henry VI. Reproduced in The History of England by 
David Hume (1826). University of Victoria Library.

September 16, 2010
HENRY VI’s inability to function as an effective monarch, which became total in 1453 with the onset of chronic mental illness, was a main cause of the WARS OF THE ROSES.

In early August 1453, while staying at the royal hunting lodge at Clarendon, Henry fell suddenly into a stupor that rendered him unable to communicate. Because we have no eyewitness accounts of the start of Henry’s illness, the exact cause and nature of his ailment remain mysterious. One contemporary chronicler claimed that it commenced when the king suffered a sudden shock, a suggestion that has led modern historians to speculate that Henry fell ill when he received the devastating news of the destruction in July of an English army at the Battle of CASTILLON, a defeat that ended the English presence in FRANCE. Although rumors that the king was childish or simple had been whispered about the kingdom before 1453, Henry showed no signs of mental illness until that date. However, he may have inherited a genetic predisposition to such illness from his maternal grandfather, Charles VI of France, who suffered recurring bouts of violent madness.

In March 1454, a deputation from PARLIAMENT visited the king at Windsor. Instructed to ascertain Henry’s wishes as to the filling of several important offices that had fallen vacant in recent months, the deputation could get no response from Henry, who seemed unaware of their presence. He could not stand or walk and required round-the-clock care from his grooms and chamber servants. He displayed none of the frenzy that had characterized his grandfather’s illness but neither recognized nor understood anyone or anything. When he finally recovered around Christmas 1454, Henry remembered nothing of the previous seventeen months, including the birth of his son, Prince EDWARD OF LANCASTER. Henry was again unwell after the Battle of ST. ALBANS in May 1455, when the unaccustomed shock of combat may have triggered another episode.

From 1456, the few surviving accounts of Henry’s condition show him as weak-minded, requiring inordinate amounts of sleep, and given almost entirely to a routine of religious devotions. After 1457, the king found seclusion attractive, and his wife, Queen MARGARET OF ANJOU, often housed him in monasteries, away from any but loyal courtiers. Although the king had periods of lucid activity, such as his personal direction of the LOVE-DAY peace effort in 1458, he was largely a cipher during the last fifteen years of his life; the political factions that coalesced around the queen and Richard PLANTAGENET, duke of York, fought to control his person and thereby his government. Because his illness rendered him unable to function as an arbiter of noble disputes, and because the queen’s partisanship made him the figurehead for one political faction, Henry’s mental incapacity was instrumental in overthrowing royal authority and bringing about the dynastic war between the houses of LANCASTER and YORK.

Further Reading: Griffiths, Ralph A., The Reign of King Henry VI (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981); Wolffe, Bertram, Henry VI (London: Eyre Methuen, 1981).

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