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Happy 600th birthday, Henry VI. By Benedict King

Blog | By Benedict King | May 20, 2021

Dulwich Picture Gallery

This is quite a year for Henry VI.

21st May marks the 550th anniversary of his death in the Tower of London, aged 49, in 1471. And 6th November will be the 600thanniversary of the birth, in 1421, of the most pitiful of English monarchs.

He came to the throne a baby and was always, as Sellar and Yeatman noted in 1066 and All That, a “weak king” but a “good man”. Although his life was personally a tragedy and, politically, an unparalleled disaster, his achievements were far more enduring than those of his father, Henry V – whose military conquests and great monasteries he raised to commemorate them were rapidly sunk in the sands of time.

Aged ten, Henry VI was crowned ‘Henri II’ of France in Notre-Dame. But, thanks to Joan of Arc and gunpowder, by 1452 all his French possessions were lost. Henry never visited France after his coronation. If he’d had his way, he’d have probably made peace in the 1430s. His apparent indifference to his French inheritance was his undoing, but it exhibited a realism wholly lacking among England’s bellicose baronage. After Henry VI, English territorial claims in France were never seriously revived.

Henry’s interests were religious and cultural. As a teenager, he joined a monastic fraternity and later, visiting Bath, was shocked to see men and women bathing together naked. In his late teens, he conceived of the idea of building a school in the lee of Windsor Castle, where he had been born. The College at Eton, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, was to educate 70 poor scholars – twinned with a sister college, King’s College Cambridge.

He used to visit Eton, encouraging the boys to be good, work hard and not to visit his corrupt court at Windsor. At King’s, Henry took a keen interest in the building of the chapel – one of the world’s most beautiful buildings. The chapel is a fine example of Perpendicular Gothic, arguably England’s only really “native” architecture.

Henry’s other great achievement was dynastic. With the Yorkist jackals circling, he raised his Tudor half-brother, Edmund, to the Earldom of Richmond and married him off to the greatest heiress in the land, Lady Margaret Beaufort, on whom the Lancastrian claim to the throne ultimately devolved. Their son, Henry VII, became the first Tudor monarch.

The Tudors were very conscious of their dynastic and cultural debt to Henry. As well as King’s, Henry was closely involved in the founding of Christ’s College, Cambridge. His feisty wife, Margaret of Anjou, founded Queens’ College. Lady Margaret vowed to continue his pious projects. She further endowed Christ’s and founded St John’s College. Henry VIII, as he finished building the chapel at King’s, liberally adorned it with the interlocking heraldic devices of Richmond, Tudor, Beaufort and Lancaster. He subsequently founded Trinity College, Cambridge. This munificent royal patronage turned Cambridge from a relative backwater into an international centre for humanism, attracting the likes of Erasmus to study there.

Tudor England also emulated Henry VI in founding grammar schools, many of them, particularly under Edward VI, royal foundations. But Eton has remained to this day, as Henry VI hoped it would, “the lady mother and mistress” of them all.

A popular cult of sainthood grew up around Henry VI after his murder in the Tower in 1471, with many attested miracles. But, under Henry VII and Henry VIII, there were strong, official representations made to the papacy to have Henry VI canonised. Henry VII’s chapel in Westminster Abbey was built to hold Henry VI’s remains and allow pilgrims to visit his shrine and pray for his assistance. The royal saint was to bind the Tudors, God and the English people in a triple lock.

But, as in life, so in death, Henry VI came close to the pinnacle of greatness, only to have it snatched away by fate — this time in the shape of Henry VIII’s break with Rome. And he was buried, not in Westminster Abbey, but in Chertsey Abbey before being moved to St George’s Chapel, Windsor.

Contemporary Britain should be proud of Henry VI. He was committed to educating the poor and building world-class universities. He is also good for the union: almost uniquely among medieval English monarchs, he never led an army against Ireland, Scotland or Wales. He is also the model post-Brexit prince. He married a French princess and never attacked France. He welcomed foreign knights into the Order of the Garter – constructive friendship without joint institutions.

Culturally, he can appeal to us all. He was a religious and moral conservative, but a peacemaker, who, in the early 1450s, under huge political strain, lost his mind. He never completely recovered, spending much of his last decade a lonely and confused prisoner in the Tower.

And he’s a monarch for the House of Windsor. Like them, he reigned without ruling. Perhaps the Duke of Sussex, his Old-Etonian namesake, with his interest in mental health and his acknowledged difficulties with the crushing burdens of royal duty, could lead this year’s anniversaries of his birth and death.