The year was 1453 and Henry VI, King of England, was having what could be reasonably called an annus horribilis . His sanity was unsteady and his leadership and decision-making capabilities were even worse. In addition, with the English loss in the Battle of Castillon against the French, the king had effectively lost the conflict later known to history as the Hundred Years’ War.
With a bellicose English aristocracy to placate, this was a precarious turn of fate for the king indeed. The shock of this loss was so great that, upon the arrival of the news, the king became catatonic for about a year and a half. These factors, and others, including self-serving royal advisors, destabilized England in the mid-15th century and effectively created a climate where civil war was all but inevitable.
Another worrisome wrinkle was that the king and his queen, Margaret of Anjou, had had but one child, Edward of Westminster, who had been born that same year. The couple showed no signs of producing future heirs, as Henry was unable to even acknowledge his baby son due to an unspecified mental illness that left him incapacitated and unable to respond. This condition was no doubt inherited from his grandfather Charles VI of France , often referred to in modern times as Charles the Mad.
The marriage of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou. (Wellcome Collection / CC BY 4.0 )
Henry VI Succession Planning for an Heir
With only one heir, the Lancastrian branch of the Plantagenet Dynasty, so named for their descent from John of Gaunt , Duke of Lancaster, was perilously vulnerable and needed at least one more heir to ensure their future. Though the king had three uncles, all of them died without leaving behind any legitimate children.
To make matters worse, Henry was facing a competing, and some would argue superior, claim to the throne from his distant cousin, Richard the Duke of York. Many considered York the rightful heir through his descent from the second and fifth sons of Edward III .
During Henry’s illness, Parliament installed York as Protector of the Realm. Henry eventually recovered from his mysterious stupor on Christmas Day 1455 and York was out as Lord Protector. But the writing was on the wall and it was clear the king needed to take action or possibly face usurpation from the Duke of York or one of his three sons.
In an attempt to bolster the ranks of the royal family, it appears that King Henry VI devised a plan to create an heir with a close blood connection to himself that would come second only to his own son, Edward the Prince of Wales. It was an amazing bit of succession planning that ultimately cemented the House of Lancaster’s contribution to the royal blood line to this very day.
Richard II’s surrender to Henry Bolingbroke at Flint Castle, from the illuminated 15th century manuscript of Jean Creton’s The Capture and Death of King Richard. ( Public domain )
The Background to a Royal Conflict
Let’s take a step back a few generations and set the very complicated stage for how it all came to this. King Edward III, Henry VI’s great, great grandfather, had five sons, of which Henry VI was descended from the third son, the aforementioned John of Gaunt. When Edward III died in 1377, his grandson Richard of Bordeaux, through his first son Edward the Black Prince who died the year before, took the throne as King Richard II according to the strict rules of succession.
Though Richard II had a tumultuous reign, he had survived it until his doom was sealed by the mishandling of a dispute involving his first cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, Gaunt’s son. Bolingbroke was exiled by the king and his substantial inheritance from his father was shockingly seized by the crown.
Richard paid dearly for this overreach as Henry returned the next year and was greeted with countrywide and, crucially, noble support against Richard’s perceived tyranny. In short order, Henry captured Richard and took the crown to become King Henry IV. The deposed Richard was held in captivity in Pontefract Castle and cruelly starved to death, so as to not leave any marks of violence on the body.
Bolingbroke, it should be noted, was not next in line for the throne since he had a young cousin, Roger Mortimer, grandson of Lionel of Antwerp, Duke of Clarence, Edward III’s second surviving son. This flagrant flouting of the rules of succession would have serious consequences for future generations by setting a dangerous precedent that might could make right, no matter the rules.
Henry IV’s son, Henry V, famous victor of the Battle of Agincourt , seemingly won the Hundred Years’ War in 1415 when his tattered army destroyed the much larger aristocratic French forces. With French resistance all but disintegrated, Charles VI of France agreed in 1420 to marry his daughter Catherine de Valois to Henry V and name him as heir to the French throne, disinheriting the crown prince, Charles.
However, fate struck a serious blow when Henry V died in 1422, probably of dysentery, before he could inherit his hard won French kingdom. His baby son was crowned Henry VI of England. When Charles VI died six weeks later, the crown of France was also inherited by little Henry—who was aged all of 10 months.
This opened the door for a fascinating sequence of events when Owen Tudor, a handsome Welsh squire became employed in the household of the dowager Queen Catherine de Valois, mother of the young king. The story goes that Owen, a chamber servant, was dancing during some festivities and fell into Catherine’s lap thereby initiating a clandestine romance.
There’s no evidence the couple ever married, but their relationship produced at least four children, including Edmund and Jasper Tudor. These young men, half-brothers of the king, were eventually invited to court and granted the earldoms of Richmond and Pembroke, respectively.
Lady Margaret Beaufort, the bride of Edmund Tudor and mother of Henry VII. ( Public domain )
A Bride for Edmund Tudor
At this point another of Henry VI’s cousins, the prudent and limitlessly clever Margaret Beaufort, was introduced into the situation. Margaret, still a child, was the richest heiress in England, being the daughter of the late John Beaufort, Duke of Somerset. The Beauforts were a legitimized branch of the House of Lancaster who were also descended from John of Gaunt through a relationship with a woman named Katherine Swynford.
John and Katherine later married and their children were legitimized by Parliament—however, they and their descendants were barred from ever taking the throne. Margaret was initially betrothed to John de la Pole, son of the 1st Duke of Suffolk. The king, however, had say over whom she married and dissolved the union in 1453, instead opting to marry the 12-year-old girl to his half-brother Edmund in 1455.
Edmund, eager to secure the substantial Beaufort inheritance, impregnated his young bride without much delay. He then died from the plague a few months later. Henry Tudor, named for the king, was born at Pembroke Castle , under the protection of Jasper Tudor, in winter 1457.
Lady Margaret Beaufort with her son Henry Tudor. ( Public domain )
Henry VI, Henry Tudor and the Lancastrian Bloodline
So in the person of Henry Tudor, we now have Lancastrian royal blood from Margaret Beaufort, Henry VI’s second cousin on his father’s side, and French royal blood from Edmund Tudor, Henry VI’s half-brother on his mother’s side, that made Henry Tudor related to Henry VI on both sides of his family.
There was perhaps no one in England more closely related to the king except for Edward, Prince of Wales himself. This made, Henry VI and Henry Tudor half third cousins and half uncle and nephew. This genetic relationship is about as close as first cousins, or a half uncle/half nephew. Henry had quite deftly facilitated the creation of his spare who would be firmly positioned as a Lancastrian loyalist.
Though Henry VI did not explicitly name Henry Tudor as his heir, there is a famous story where Margaret Beaufort brought her young son to court to meet the king and he is said, by Shakespeare, to have remarked “lo, surely this is he to whom both we and our adversaries shall hereafter give place,” which was taken by all to mean he would someday be king.
We have no idea if this really occurred, though perhaps it explains why Margaret and Henry felt uniquely entitled to the throne despite their flimsy, practically non-existent claim. Margaret, a devoutly religious woman, spent the next few decades surviving, switching allegiances to each new monarch, marrying well, and brokering deals that would eventually land her son on the throne.
The murder of the princes in the Tower: Edward V and his brother Prince Richard, by James Northcote. ( Public domain )
The Wars of the Roses Begin
When Henry Tudor was just a boy civil war commenced. By 1455, rowing amongst members of the House of Lancaster, which was symbolized by a red rose, and the House of York, symbolized, at least later in the Tudor era, by a white rose, devolved into outright violence at the First Battle of St. Albans.
Then, in late 1460, Richard Duke of York was executed after the Battle of Wakefield, his severed head adorned with a paper crown and displayed on a bridge in the city of York. The next year after the extremely bloody Battle of Towton , York’s son, the 19-year old Edward, Earl of March, took the crown and imprisoned Henry VI.
Henry Tudor, still just a child, lived in the custody of William Herbert until 1469. After a betrayal and rebellion in 1470 by two of Edward’s closest supporters, (George Duke of Clarence, his brother, and Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, his cousin, known as the Kingmaker) Henry VI was released from prison and restored to the throne. In 1471, Henry Tudor, now aged 14 went on the run to Brittany.
While in exile, Henry Tudor identified himself to his rag tag group of disaffected supporters as the rightful king. This caused enough confusion that the reigning King Edward IV released Henry’s pedigree showing his true underwhelming lineage.
Henry VI’s son Edward was killed in the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471 at age 17. At this point, Henry VI’s support further collapsed, and he was eventually recaptured and died suddenly in the Tower of London . Some say he was strangled to death by another of the king’s brothers, Richard, Duke of Gloucester.
The chronicle the Historie of the arrivall of Edward IV provided the laughable and utterly unconvincing explanation that the king died of “pure displeasure, and melancholy.” The king’s murder left Henry Tudor as the last best hope for Lancastrians, while Edward IV’s supporters, the Yorkists, wanted him locked up and probably put six feet under.
It wasn’t until Edward IV died in 1483 that destiny finally called upon Henry Tudor. Richard, Duke of Gloucester, had the rightful heirs, the 12-year-old Edward V and nine-year-old Richard of Shrewsbury, imprisoned in the Tower of London . After a convenient act of Parliament declaring them illegitimate, due to Edward IV’s supposed bigamy, Richard took the throne as Richard III . Shortly thereafter, the boys disappeared deep into the Tower for good.
The corpse of Richard III found by his herald by Johannes Hendricus Jurres. ( Public domain )
The Pursuit of the Crown
During this time, Margaret Beaufort, ever the savvy player, cut a deal with Edward IV’s dowager Queen Elizabeth Woodville that Henry Tudor and Edward IV’s daughter, Elizabeth of York, would marry upon Henry taking the throne. Henry swore an oath to this effect in Rennes Cathedral in December 1483.
There was an abortive attempt to invade in 1483, and by August 1485, Henry Tudor was ready to strike, having raised an army in France consisting of exiled Englishmen and French mercenaries. His forces landed in Milford Haven, Wales on the 7th of August. His army marched northeast and gained Welsh supporters as they went.
One indicator of Richard’s unpopularity and Henry’s charisma could perhaps be found in the tale of Rhys ap Thomas. He swore an oath of loyalty to Richard that Henry Tudor would not pass through Wales without resistance, saying; “Whoever ill-affected to the state, shall dare to land in those parts of Wales where I have any employment under your majesty, must resolve with himself to make his entrance and irruption over my belly.”
He is said to have found a creative way to support Henry without breaking this oath. He either laid on the ground and allowed Henry to step over him, or he positioned himself under Mullock Bridge, near Dale, while Henry and his forces crossed above. The truth of the matter may never be definitively known.
Eventually, Henry’s army met the much larger royal army in a field near Market Bosworth in Leicestershire to settle matters once and for all. Though Richard III arrived with superior numbers, a last minute betrayal by Thomas Stanley, Earl of Derby, Henry’s stepfather, sealed Richard’s fate. The king was surrounded, unhorsed, and battered to death in the melee.
Some say his former oath taker Rhys ap Thomas struck the coup de grace with a poleaxe. The crown of England was found in a thorn bush and Henry Tudor was crowned right on the battlefield. Henry VII ushered in the magnificent Tudor Dynasty that would include some of the greatest personalities and triumphs in English history.
Top image: King Henry VI of England genetically engineered Henry Tudor for the English throne. Source: KIFOR PRODUCTION / Adobe Stock
By Alex White
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