In her book The Shadow King: The Life and Death of Henry VI , historian Lauren Johnson claimed that the prudish 15th century king of England needed a helping hand to do the deed when it came to impregnating his wife. Remembered as an inordinately pious king, it appears that Henry was more interested in religion than his duties as a husband. So much so, that after his marriage it took eight years to produce an heir.
The reign of Henry VI has gone down in history as the nadir of the British monarchy, a rule marked by civil war and the loss of England’s French territory. For Henry didn’t conform to the stereotypes of kingship during his era; depicted by Shakespeare as weak-willed, he was educated, shy, pro-peace, famously chaste before marriage and he even suffered a nervous breakdown.
Smithsonian Magazine even reported that he found nudity distasteful. His royal chaplain wrote that when a noble tried to curry favor by hiring topless dancers, Henry was not impressed. It seems that Henry “very angrily averted his eyes, turned his back upon them and went out of his chamber, saying ‘Fie, fie, for shame.’” I think I would have liked him.
As far as satisfying his wife Margaret of Anjou, described as passionate and beautiful, by today’s standards their marriage appears to have been a frustrating experience in more ways than one. In fact, their union was a failed attempt to ensure a truce between England and France in what is now known as the Hundred Years’ War .
Drawing of 15th century stained-glass window from Cordeliers church in Angers, depicting Margaret of Anjou, the wife of Henry VI, in prayer. ( Public domain )
First off, Henry VI hadn’t actually made it to their betrothal, which took place in May 1444 in Tours with the Earl of Suffolk acting as proxy for the King. They were finally married at Titchfield Abbey on 23 April 1445. Margaret was just 15 and Henry was 23. Both were inexperienced. One can only imagine their discomfort when their guests led the newlyweds to their bedchamber as part of the bedding ceremony.
For a medieval king, creating an heir was of utmost importance and the lack of one created concern for a smooth succession. “Infertility was usually blamed on women, but complaints about royal sterility undermined Henry’s masculinity and his authority,” wrote Johnson in 2019. During her research, the historian had come across some unusual evidence.
Much like a modern-day sex coach, the Ryalle Boke (Royal Book) of protocol for the royal household recorded that when the royal couple were to “lie together” the chamberlain would join them in the bedroom. “It’s entirely possible that it had reached a certain point where it perhaps became necessary to make clear to him what he should be doing,” explained Johnson in The Guardian .
Top image: King Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou in an illuminated miniature. Source: Public domain
By Cecilia Bogaard