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Henry IV

Globe Theatre, Bankside, London


When I first wrote this article on Henry IV, I thought I'd done quite a good job of the research. I'd read some general histories, and a big, fat biography by John Lavan Kirby, an historian with impressive credentials. He quoted from other historians with impressive credentials. But then reading Terry Jones's Who Murdered Chaucer it seemed the possibility existed that I had been taken in by a group of powerful history manipulators who did their work six hundred years ago. The following, updated article tells the usual story of Henry, the one he wanted to be told. It also suggests a different story. That is not to say that the usual version should simply be dismissed and forgotten about. As Richard III's biographer Michael Hicks has written: "In history what happened is often much less important than what is thought to have happened" (Richard III P199). Without a self justifying story Henry IV could not have taken control. The story he probably created was as much a fact of his reign as the date of his coronation, or death, or exactly what he ate for lunch. The story was part of the dark reality of the reign of Henry IV.


Henry Bolingbroke was the only son of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and his first wife Blanche. He was probably born in 1366, perhaps in April, although details are uncertain. Little is known of his upbringing. Maybe the details weren't considered important enough to record. Henry after all was not marked out as a future king. We do know that he played a minor role in the coronation of Richard II in June 1377. It was Henry's job at the coronation to carry the Sword of Mercy. In 1380 or 1381 Henry aged fourteen was married to Mary Bohun, aged ten, daughter of Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford and Essex. Mary continued to live with her mother for a few years, until in late 1384 Henry and Mary started living as a married couple, when Henry was able to take possession of Bohun lands. They had two daughters and four sons, the family keeping an itinerant household, moving about, keeping an eye on their land holdings. At this stage Henry was still no more than a fairly run of the mill noble.

Things began to change in 1398. According to the received version of events Richard II resented the nobility's power, and had many nobles imprisoned or exiled. Early in 1399 Henry Bolingbroke was exiled to France on a spurious pretext. Then on 3rd February that year Henry's father John of Gaunt died, his death quickly followed by Richard's seizure of all his lands, which should have passed to Henry. Apparently this opportunist move was a serious miscalculation, since every other major landowner in England now had reason to suspect Richard's intentions towards them. The king went to Ireland to quell rebellion there, and Henry made plans to recover his property. On 4th July 1399 Henry landed with a few hundred followers at Ravenspur, north of the Humber. He then spent three weeks riding from stronghold to stronghold, supposedly gathering sympathetic followers wherever he went. A meeting at Doncaster in late July 1399 turned Henry into the commander of an army of national importance. This story, according to Terry Jones, is very likely a propaganda exercise. Henry was not exiled on a spurious pretext. He and Thomas Mowbray became involved in a mysterious quarrel, and accused each other of treachery. Richard initially told them both to calm down. When the two nobles insisted on continuing their argument, a joust was eventually organised to decide the matter. The combatants were about to lay into each other when Richard, known for his dislike of violence, and perhaps not sure of either man, called off the competition and banished them both. It is possible that this banishment was seen as a cooling off period for two hotheads. The Monk of St-Denys recounts how Henry complains bitterly about his punishment, while "the king quieted him by kind words, and promised him with an oath, to recall him before the end of the year" (quoted Jones P116). In exile Henry was granted £2000 a year to keep him comfortable. Then when John of Gaunt died Richard did not simply steal Henry's inheritance. After pondering for six weeks on what to do, the king decided to keep Henry in exile for the time being. He may well have been concerned about Henry's loyalty, and saw the inheritance as a insurance policy. He said in a stipulation that still exists in the Calendar of Fine Rolls that the forfeited lands could only be held by the Crown "until Henry of Lancaster duke of Hereford, or his heir, shall have sued the same out of the king's hands according to the law of the land". As long as Henry proves himself loyal he can have his inheritance. This seems reasonable in an age where disloyalty to the king was the ultimate crime.



Canterbury Cathedral, Kent

Henry could well have calmed down, been quietly invited back, and enjoyed his lands into a contented old age. Unfortunately in late 1398 or early 1399 the impressionable young man met Thomas Arundel in Paris. Arundel was a former Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor of England, exiled as a traitor for his part in a revolt by the nobility in 1386 - 8. Arundel was a frankly scary man, intelligent, ravenous for power, with a strong desire to burn people who did not hold the same religious views as himself. Not that his religious convictions were particularly strong. He simply liked the life of wealth which a career in the Church gave him, and was infuriated by agitators for reform who objected to Church wealth, and the way in which money was made. Wanting a way back to England, Arundel saw an opportunity in Henry's apparent grievances. He knew that the nobility would be very touchy about what could be presented as the theft of lands. Arundel knew that many of the nobility did not like Richard II's inclinations to peace, art, music, literature, and nice clothes. Arundel, it seems, poured poison in Henry's ear, turning a fairly innocuous young man into a tool in his scheme. Henry headed for England in July 1399 knowing that to return without royal approval was treachery. The supposed aim was only to recover his lands, but even if he succeeded in that, he would not be protected from the consequences of treachery. The only way he could return to England and hope to survive was to take the throne when he got there. So Henry arrived in England, and apparently found people flocking around him. This touching scene, sadly, coincides with records of a scorched earth policy in Cheshire, a part of the country particularly loyal to Richard. Adam of Usk who was with Henry, describes what happened: "On the ninth day of August, the Duke with his host entered the county of Chester, and there, in the parish of Coddington and other neighbouring parishes, taking up his camping grounds and pitching his tents, nor sparing meadow nor corn field, pillaging all the country round, and keeping silent watch against the wiles of the men of Chester." Adam of Usk also says that Henry wanted to "spare the people and the county", but what Henry said and what he did were two different things (quotes from Terry Jones).


Leeds Castle, Kent

While Henry was on his supposed summer tour of 1399, waving to grateful people at the roadside, Richard was in Ireland putting down a rebellion. The Duke of York left in charge acted purposefully at first, sending Sir William Bagot to Ireland to warn Richard of Henry's landing. But after that the uninspiring York found himself unable to rouse any enthusiasm in his troops. Things rapidly got out of hand, and York soon found himself having to give himself up to Henry. Richard's supporters, Lords Scrope, Bushy and Green fled to Bristol Castle, but were handed over by the castle governor, and immediately executed without trial. Meanwhile in Ireland it is believed that the Duke of Albermarle intentionally advised a delay in returning to north Wales to give Henry time to consolidate his gains. When Richard finally returned from Ireland the situation was lost. Compared to the relatively peaceful and forgiving monarch Richard had been, Henry and Arundel, with their ruthlessness and news manipulation, must have been a shock. Some no doubt took up Henry's cause of their own volition. Others no doubt did so out of fear. Richard reached Conwy Castle, but his army there had already dispersed. Richard was tricked into leaving Conwy by the treacherous Duke of Northumberland who led the king into captivity at Flint Castle. Efforts made to rescue him failed. Geoffrey Chaucer a writer who had satirised the kind of Church corruption on which Arundel's fortune was based, is thought to have taken sanctuary at Westminster, but then disappeared. Richard was sent to the Tower, then to Leeds Castle in Kent, and then on to Pontefract Castle. By 30th September 1399 a meeting of nobles confirmed Richard's abdication. Apparently he had agreed to it, but was not allowed to appear to say so. The rightful heir, Edmund Mortimer, the Earl of March, was passed over, the throne being given to Henry by the gathered lords. His coronation took place on 30th October at Westminster Abbey. Richard died soon after at Pontefract, possibly of starvation.

Henry had careered to the throne supposedly because the people wanted him there. A more likely scenario is that Henry became king because Arundel wanted him there, to advance his own power. Henry reinstated all the cruel punishments of opponents which Richard had stood against, burning of heretics, hanging, drawing and quartering of anyone who showed even the slightest suggestion of disloyalty. One man, a John Sparrowhawk of Morden, was according to Terry Jones, beheaded for going round saying that it had rained more since Henry became king. Arundel, meanwhile instituted a draconian control over religious life, where masters at Oxford and Cambridge colleges were obliged to investigate every student once a month for signs of unorthodox thought. Acceptance of the literal reality of the Eucharist was made the litmus test of belief: that is, everyone had to believe that, by some magic, bread and wine handed out at the Eucharist service actually turned into the body and blood of Christ. If you didn't believe this you were a heretic and could be burnt at the stake.




Warkworth Castle - stronghold of the Duke of Northumberland

Once in power Henry was constantly in fear of his life, fighting one insurrection after another. Shakespeare's play King Henry IV continually ponders on how much control over life people actually have, and the events of Henry IV's reign certainly lend themselves to such musings. Henry was immediately faced by a rebellion led by Owen Glendower in Wales, and rebellion amongst some of the nobles who had put Henry on the throne in the first place. In 1403 Henry Percy, or Hotspur, son of the Duke of Northumberland led an uprising, hoping to unite forces of disaffection and overthrow Henry. There are memorable scenes in King Henry IV Part 1 where down to earth Hotspur meets mystical Owen Glendower. Hotspur thinks the world is for him to shape, while Glendower talks of portents and the position of planets. This kind of talk greatly irritates Hotspur. But at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403 events fall out of the confident young man's control and the rebels are defeated. The battle did indeed go badly for the rebels, but one of the reasons for this outcome was the influence of a gloomy prophecy on Glendower, making him refuse to send help. The prophecy was self-fulfilling. The story created reality. This is a question that hangs over the history of Henry IV, and over the whole story of history, and is central to all of Shakespeare's history plays.

The site of the Battle of Shrewsbury is now marked by Battlefield Church in the village of Battlefield in Shropshire. A circular path has been laid out around the site, and there are information panels. The Duke of Northumberland's stronghold at Warkworth Castle, which provides the setting for the opening scenes of King Henry IV Part 2 also survives and can be visited.





Westminster Abbey, London

The rest of Henry's reign was not a happy one. Rebellions kept coming, and while fighting to keep his throne, Henry began to doubt the rightness of his claim. By 1409 the king was ill. He went to Greenwich for fresh air, and wrote his will, the first royal will to be written in English. His fortunes picked up a little in his final months with the defeat of Glendower's Welsh rebels, but by now he was too unwell to capitalise on this. The final scenes of Henry's life are vividly portrayed by Shakespeare. He is described as having fainted while making an offering at the shrine of Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey. The ailing king was then carried to the Jerusalem Chamber in the Abbot's Lodging. The crown was placed on a pillow beside the king's head. Thinking Henry had died, his eldest son Henry, Prince of Wales, soon to be Henry V , picked up the crown and took it away. But then the king revived, and is supposed to have asked his son what right he had to the crown when his father had none. Prince Henry is reputed to have replied: "as you have kept it by the sword,so I will keep it while my life lasts." The king is then supposed to have given a last speech of advice to his son, to be cautious in prosperity, patient in adversity, to ignore evil councilors and love his brothers. Then King Henry died. It was 20th March 1413. Henry was buried in Becket's Chapel in Canterbury Cathedral.



So, that's the story, and the alternative story, of Henry IV. Many of the debates of history are hidden away in archives, in chronicles and official records which few non specialists ever see. But if you visit Westminster Abbey take a moment to look at the inscription over the tomb of Richard II and his wife Anne. Henry V moved Richard's body here from its hiding place at Kings Langley. The tomb supposedly has an inscription written by Richard, although there is no actual evidence he wrote it. It is possible, even probable, that the actual author was Henry V, the aim once again to rewrite history. Henry V wanted to associate himself with a rightful king, and distance himself from his usurping father. Therefore, he made much of restoring Richard to his fitting resting place in Westminster Abbey, with an inscription that mentions the rightfulness of Richard's position. Henry V was also implacably opposed to religious unorthodoxy, so he threw a line into the inscription which suggested that Richard felt the same way. In fact Richard's reign had almost certainly been one of tolerance, a time when artists such as Chaucer or Langland could write about religious matters in a liberated way. Henry V, like his father, had no time for that, and put new words in Richard's mouth. Translated from the Latin, the inscription reads:

"Sage and elegant, lawfully Richard II, conquered by fate he lies here depicted beneath this marble. He was truthful in discourse and full of reason: tall in body, he was prudent in mind as Homer. He showed favour to the Church, he overthrew the proud and threw down anybody who violated the royal prerogative. He crushed heretics and laid low their friends. O merciful Christ, to whom he was devoted, may you save, through the prayers of the Baptist, whom he esteemed."

No need to go searching around in libraries to witness the bruising reality of history. Just stand and look at Richard's Westminster memorial.





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