The Death and Burial of Henry VI

Henry VI was the only child of Henry V and Catherine de Valois, the daughter of Charles VI of France. In accordance with the Treaty of Troy, Henry V married Charles VI’s daughter and upon the death of Charles VI, the French crown would pass on to Henry V and his heirs.

Since his father’s untimely death in 1422, Henry was King from the age of just 9 months old until 1461 and briefly from 1470 until 1471 and King of France upon the death of his maternal grandfather Charles VI of France the same year. Henry was the only person ever crowned King of both England and France in both countries.

From 1422 until 1437, during Henry’s minority, England had a regency government made up of the most influential people in the government, including Henry’s two uncles Humphrey Duke of Gloucester and John, Duke of Bedford and Thomas Beaufort Duke of Exeter, Bishop Henry Beaufort of Winchester and later William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk. By the time Henry was declared fit to rule, he found his kingdom in a problematic state with setbacks in France and rifts among the nobility in England, most crucially, rivalries between those high in charge. In the hope of achieving peace, Henry married Charles VII’s strong-willed niece Margaret of Anjou. Henry was more interested in religion and peace than in military matters, resulting in many losses, including his mental state. After seven years of marriage, Queen Margaret gave birth to their only son in 1453 but since Henry’s mental health deteriorated further, Margaret felt the need to protect the rights of her son against those trying to depose her husband. This continued throughout Henry’s reign and his lack of strong leadership made French territories slip out of English hands and England slide into a civil war. Starting in 1455 with the 1st Battle of St. Albans and ending Henry’s reign with the Battle of Tewkesbury on 4 May 1471. From 1461 Henry was in exile and was imprisoned between 1465 and 1470.


 

Henry VI, ca 1540, National Portrait Gallery, London

Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou, receiving the Talbot Shrewsbury Book

A little more than two weeks after the Battle of Tewkesbury, Henry VI died on the night of 21 May 1471. The very night Edward IV returned in triumph to London after defeating the Lancastrians at Tewkesbury, where Henry’s only son Prince Edward was killed and his wife Margaret captured soon after. In the weeks before the battle, Edward IV had taken Henry from his residence at the Bishop of London’s Palace and returned him once more to the Tower of London.


The Bishop of London's Palace © Heritage Fund

Despite the claim of Yorkist propaganda, there can be no reasonable doubt that Henry did not die a violent death, nor can there be any doubt that his death was authorized by Edward IV. Now that Prince Edward was dead, a Lancastrian coup seemed very dim.


Traditionally, it was said that Henry was imprisoned in the Wakefield Tower but since this was used as a storage house of documents it may also be that he was in the Lanthorn Tower at the time of his murder. It is generally thought that Henry’s death was not due to melancholy hearing about the death of his son and the capture of his wife, as reported by the official Yorkist chronicler. According to most (near) contemporary sources, including Warkworth and Commynes, Henry was murdered; some say he was assassinated by Edward’s brother Richard Duke of Gloucester who was reported to be in the Tower the night of Henry’s death. Whether or not this is true, it would have been Edward IV giving the actual order as he was the person in charge. So the blame should lay with Edward IV alone.


Edward IV

The evening after his death, Henry’s body was escorted to St. Paul’s Cathedral where he laid in state ‘opyn vysagid, that he might be knowyn’.

The following morning his body was taken to the Benedictine Monastery of Chertsey Abbey for burial. The abbey was not seen as an appropriate burial site befitting a King. It was also not Henry’s wish to be buried here as he had started making a will as early as 1443 and already in the 1450’s he visited Westminster Abbey on several occasions to discuss his tomb in the Edward the Confessor’s Chapel. The King didn’t wish for an imposing defiant effigy but one with a vault in which his body would be placed. In the attendance of his chamberlain Sir Richard Tunstall Henry asked a stonemason to come with a crowbar to mark the spot he measured with his own feet and pointed out. A trustworthy word exchange survives between Henry and Edward from when Edward entered London:

‘My Cousin of York, you are very welcome. I know that in your hands my life will not be in danger.’ On his turn Edward replied that Henry had no need to worry, ‘He would fare well.’


In 1910 Henry’s tomb in St. George’s Chapel in Windsor was opened and examined. The hair that was found was brown, some still attached to the skull. The skull was heavily damaged, which may or may not be due to the way he died. It was also reported that the bone of the skull was unusually thin.

Since is tomb was moved from Chertsey to Windsor during the reign of Richard III it may also be that the remains were damaged because of that. It was claimed that part of the surviving hair was darker due to dried blood. Even though there is no actual doubt that Henry was murdered, it is not known how he died. Given that his body was displayed in public the day after his death, makes it unlikely he had received a blow to the head. Perhaps a more likely scenario is that he was stabbed by a dagger. Warkworth states that Henry’s body bled on the floor and again bled at London’s Black friars where his body was escorted to after St. Paul’s Cathedral.


The Benedictine Chertsey Abbey was not seen as an appropriate burial site befitting a king. The reason why Edward chooses this location may have been to make the people’s memory of Henry fade away faster. If this was indeed the case then it failed, as already two years after his death, a cult to the King was already well-established. Edward tried to stop people from going on pilgrimage to Henry’s grave in Chertsey. A statue of Henry was erected in York Minster in 1473 which Edward ordered to be removed. The current statue dates from Victorian times. He was the founder of Eton College and King's College, Cambridge.

Henry VI statue in York Minster

Henry was an unmistakably decent and pious man but outright unsuitable for the job and his lack of ability to control governmental parties drew England into the “Wars of the Roses”. As a result, thousands of common folk and generations of noblemen died in the course of at least 2 decades (and would continue for at least another) and eventually ended the Lancastrian Dynasty with Henry’s own death.


‘And so no one from that stock remained among the living who could now claim the crown.’


Henry VI's grave in St. George Chapel in Windsor, ironically, close to the grave of the man who opposed him and was responsible for his death - Edward IV


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