Henry V and his brothers – Part 1

Henry as Prince of Wales from Thomas Hoccleve, Regement of  Princes, Arundel 38, f. 37 – Wikipedia

Henry of Monmouth (so named because he was born at Monmouth Castle in Wales) was not his father’s favorite. That honor went to the next son Thomas, probably a year younger than him. I suspect this had a lot to do with his father’s absence through much of his youth; Henry Bolingbroke spent many years galivanting around Europe and going on crusade. It’s kind of amazing he had any opportunity to beget so many children! Between 1386 and 1394 poor Mary de Bohun bore six children, dying while giving birth to her second daughter Philippa. The children were then raised by relatives.

When Bolingbroke was exiled in 1398, young Henry was surrendered as a hostage to King Richard II. Second son Thomas accompanied his father to Paris where—let’s face it—he had his sire all to himself. I suspect this accounted for Bolingbroke’s preference for him; could it be the first time he paid any real attention to his child?

Maybe I’m not being fair. It was said that young Henry was a bit aloof, and Thomas reportedly was gregarious, good looking, and martially inclined. Very little was said in these early days about John, the next son born in 1389 and Humphrey, 1390. Their little sisters, Blanche (1392) and Philippa (1394) were married to foreign princes and don’t figure much in Henry’s story.

When young Henry was taken in by King Richard, his fortunes actually took a turn for the better. The childless king took a fancy to him, and it was even said that Richard saw future greatness in the boy. In many ways he treated Henry like the son he never had, took him to Ireland with him, and famously knighted him in the field. However, when word came to Ireland about Bolingbroke’s invasion, Henry was confined to Trim castle along with the heir of Buckingham for safekeeping. Apparently he didn’t resent the necessity, for the next time he saw Richard—after the king had been apprehended and imprisoned—Henry attempted to alleviate Richard’s discomfort. He was distressed by the usurpation, though not enough to refuse his elevation to Prince of Wales.

King Henry IV expected his sons to follow in his footsteps—at least as far as military and leadership training was concerned. Bolingbroke was a champion jouster as a young man, and took over governing the duchy of Lancaster when John of Gaunt campaigned in Spain and Aquitaine from 1386-89.  Bolingbroke would have been 19 years old at the time. So after his new reign began, he had high expectations for his heir. The Welsh rose in rebellion during the first year after Bolingbroke took the crown, and Henry was put under the tutelage of Sir Henry “Hotspur” Percy at Conwy Castle. Unfortunately, Hotspur abandoned the cause after a couple of years in favor of his own rebellion. Within the year, Henry was given the lieutenancy of Wales, a major command and a lot of responsibility for a sixteen year-old. He would play a role in the Battle of Shrewsbury (1403) against his former mentor, taking an arrow in the face that nearly ended his life. That put him out of commission for about a year.

BL Royal_ms_14_e_iv_f201v

Meanwhile, his younger brother Thomas was sent to Ireland as lieutenant in 1402, an office he was to perform on and off—mostly off—for the next ten years. His salary was constantly in arrears and he hated the job, preferring something closer to home. His father preferred having him around, too, and didn’t object when he turned the responsibilities over to a second in command and came back to London. Although he was given the somewhat empty position of steward of England, he had no titles until the year before his father died, when he was made Duke of Clarence. This gave him the necessary prestige to command an invasion of France planned in conjunction with the Armagnacs against the Duke of Burgundy. Although this whole episode was a fiasco, since the French made peace and bought him off, Thomas got his first experience at least by heading a chevauché, the closest thing so far to actual combat.

John was next in line after Thomas, and Henry IV had plans for him as well. The young prince was sent to Northumberland under the tutelage of the Earl of Westmorland, whose rivalry with the Percies had reached a climax. Although Earl Henry had survived the fallout from the Battle of Shrewsbury, his prestige and authority had greatly diminished in the region. John was appointed Warden of the East Marches toward Scotland—Hotspur’s former command. Westmorland was created Warden of the West Marches. This galled Percy to no end, and three years after Hotspur’s death, Percy launched an aborted rebellion against Henry IV. John accompanied Westmorland as they pursued and dealt with the rebels. John was destined to stay in the North all the way through the end of his father’s life; the experience would hold him in good stead when he would take over as regent during his brother’s reign.

This left Humphrey, who was only nine years old when Henry IV took the throne. Either his father ran out of jobs for him, or perhaps the king wanted to keep a son nearby, for Humphrey was stuck in the unenviable position of having nothing to occupy his talents. He was dragged along as the king moved about the country. Both Humphrey and John were young enough to benefit from the presence of Henry’s queen Joan of Navarre, who he married in 1403. Joan was obliged to leave her sons behind when she came to England, so she was ready to take the motherless boys under her wing. Now that Humphrey was the only son left at home, so to speak, he spent quite a lot of time with her. He wasn’t to make any major contribution to history until his brother became king.

Henry, as Prince of Wales, took his responsibilities very seriously—in contradiction to Shakespeare, who portrayed him as a good-for-nothing layabout, hanging around with drunks and thieves and causing trouble. The Welsh rebellion lasted nine years and Henry was in the thick of the fighting. He had no leisure to play around, and I don’t think he even spent much time in London. In 1410, as a result of his father’s failing health, Henry headed the Council in charge of the government. Unfortunately, he disagreed with the king on some fundamental political issues and he was dismissed a year later (there’s some question that he and his uncle Cardinal Beaufort may have tried to persuade King Henry to retire. If so, this backfired terribly.) His dismissal could have freed him up to go drinking with his buddies, but it wasn’t to last. King Henry IV died in March of 1413, and Henry V mounted the throne a changed man—allegedly.

THE FALL OF THE PERCYS UNDER HENRY IV

BnF MS Franc 81 fol. 283R Henry IV and Thomas Percy at Shrewsbury from Jean de Wavrin- Creative commons license

Henry IV’s relationship with the Percys went sour pretty soon after his coronation. He knew that he owed his crown to his northern earl; he also knew that an overly-powerful magnate was a recipe for trouble. So it wasn’t long before the king attempted to mitigate their dominance by promoting their rival, the Earl of Westmorland, who happened to be his brother in-law.

Matters came to a head after their decisive victory at Homildon Hill, where they decimated the Scottish aristocracy. Many were killed, even more were taken hostage—among them the powerful Earl Douglas. Stung by their prowess—in contrast to the humiliating failure he had just experienced in Wales—King Henry demanded they turn over their hostages. It was his right as king, but he couldn’t have made a worse miscalculation. Although Percy senior complied, is son Hotspur adamantly opposed him. King Henry had refused to pay a ransom for Hotspur’s brother in-law Edmund Mortimer—held hostage by the Welsh—and Hotspur saw this as double treachery. He and the king nearly came to blows, and if the chroniclers can be believed, Hotspur stormed out of the room, declaring “Not here, but in the field!” This was the last time they saw each other alive.

Although Henry tried to make amends by awarding lands in Scotland to the Percys—most of which happened to belong to Douglas. It was truly an empty gesture because they had to conquer those territories first. But, as they were acquisitive souls, the Percys decided to give it a try. Hotspur soon laid siege to Cocklaw Tower in Teviotdale, deep into Douglas territory, thinking this would be an easy target. It wasn’t. He was soon frustrated and negotiated a six-week truce, coming back to England with another idea in his mind. Why not take advantage of the truce and launch an offensive against the king?

I believe Hotspur caught his father by surprise. He must have been harboring resentment against the king that wouldn’t go away. Leaving his father to guard the border, Hotspur went to Chester and started raising an army against King Henry; the men of Chester were among King Richard’s most favored subjects and they were hostile to the usurper. They responded enthusiastically, especially as Hotspur promised that Richard would return from exile in Scotland and lead them into battle. Even when Hotspur later reneged on his promise, they agreed to fight anyway. With the help of Hotspur’s uncle Thomas, who left Prince Henry’s service with all of his troops, the rebels made for Shrewsbury, where the Prince was understaffed and vulnerable. They might have gotten young Henry into their hands, too, except for the unexpected arrival of the king, who forced them to battle.

Froissart Battle
Froissart Chronicles by Virgil Master, Source: Wikimedia

The Battle of Shrewsbury was the most serious threat to King Henry’s reign, and it was a very close call. This was the first time English archers faced each other across the battlefield. Only Hotspur’s death turned the tide; up until that point no one knew who was winning. Would the presence of Earl Henry Percy have made a difference? Almost certainly. Historians debate the reason why he was absent. Some thought his presence was never planned, although he did belatedly start south to support his son. Some thought it was Hotspur’s fight. Others blame Hotspur’s impetuousness and claim he “jumped the gun” so to speak, and screwed up the timing. Shakespeare said Percy was ill and couldn’t make it. Whatever the reason, Henry Percy was devastated by his son’s death; he was never the same man afterwards, and was pretty much driven by the need for revenge.

King Henry was set on punishing Percy, but because the earl wasn’t directly involved he was obliged to wait until the next Parliament. Unfortunately for the king, the lords were on Percy’s side and their response was merely to charge him with “trespass”—in other words, distributing his badge illegally. Percy was restored most of his lands, but the king refused to reinstate his wardenship or the constableship. The earl was in disgrace.

This unfortunate state of affairs lasted another two years. The king appointed his son John as Warden of the East March toward Scotland and Westmorland became Warden of the West March. Percy licked his wounds for a while before coming up with a new plan. In conjunction with Owain Glyndwr, the wily Prince of Wales, and Edmund Mortimer, uncle of the “true” heir to the throne (the child Earl of March), he concocted a new rebellion, this time originating in the North. Most of his supporters were in Yorkshire; as far as the Northumbrians were concerned, they weren’t quite as interested in rebelling against the king and didn’t respond enthusiastically to his overtures. No matter; Percy was on a mission.

Richard Scrope, Archbishop of York added his voice to this uprising. Once again, historians are divided as to whether Scrope went along with Percy, or did he devise a disturbance on his own that happened to correspond with Percy’s rebellion? The timing certainly favored the former explanation. Working the citizens of York into a righteous frenzy, Scrope led a large assembly to Shipton Moor, a few miles from the city. They were protesting high taxes and intolerable burdens on the clergy. The rebels were not a fighting force; they were local citizens. Nor did they possess cannons or instruments of war. The archbishop insisted that their intentions were peaceful. Some historians suggest that their purpose was to add legitimacy to Percy’s rebellion, which was to swing south and supplement its numbers with Scrope’s insurgents. But unfortunately for the archbishop, the expected rebel army never materialized and he was caught holding the proverbial bag.

The lynchpin of Percy’s rebellion was capturing Westmorland in advance, thus removing the only man capable of stopping him. But someone warned the Earl in time and he got away, foiling Percy’s plot. There was no “Plan B”. Had the Earl of Northumberland lost his nerve? He told his followers he was going to Scotland for help and bolted, leaving all of his co-conspirators to their own devices. Scrope wasn’t even warned about the change of plans. So when the Earl of Westmorland mopped up after the aborted rebellion, his ruse was to convince the archbishop he would present their reasonable manifesto to the king, and that the Yorkist citizens should just go home. Naively, Scrope agreed, only to find himself arrested along with his confederate, the doomed Thomas Mowbray, son of King Henry’s old enemy.

Who would have thought that the king would execute an archbishop? Scrope and Mowbray didn’t stand a chance. Once he arrived at York, the king rushed his judges through a trial and condemned the leaders, deaf to pleas from the Archbishop of Canterbury that he should refer the case to the Pope. Henry was not to be reasoned with, especially since Percy had slipped through his fingers once again. This time, there would be no Parliament to get in his way. He brought his cannons with him and besieged Percy’s castles all the way up to Berwick, ensuring that the traitorous earl would find no further refuge in England.

For the next three years, Henry Percy wandered through Wales and France, looking for support against the usurper king. But it was to no avail. The great earl had lost all credibility. When he was finally lured back into England with a new offer of support, he snatched at the opportunity, campaigning into Northumberland in the midst of the most bitter winter in living memory. Gathering a motley crew of country folk and local knights, Percy was confronted with a local detachment led by the very man who invited him south. He had nothing to lose and chose to risk everything on a last battle, meeting his pitiful end at Branham Moor, about ten miles from York, on 19 February, 1408. His head was delivered in a basket to King Henry and his body was quartered as befitted any traitor. Eventually his parts were collected and the great earl was reunited with his son, laid to rest near the great altar at York Minster.

But the Percy line was not extinct by any means. When Henry Percy took refuge the first time in Scotland, he brought with him Hotspur’s young son Henry, who spent the next ten years a virtual hostage. Henry V decided that a Percy in the North would suit his purposes, and the king arranged Henry’s return, creating him 2nd Earl of Northumberland in 1416. Part of the deal was young Henry’s marriage to Eleanor, the daughter of Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland. And so they came full circle. But never would they achieve the fame of the first earl, their doomed ancestor.

 

The Percys and the Lancasters

John of Gaunt by Lucas Cornelisz de Kock
John of Gaunt with his coat of arms attributed to Lucas Cornelisz de Kock source: Wikipedia

Henry Percy, father and son, were larger than life. The Percys went all the way back to the Norman Conquest, but it wasn’t until 1377 that Henry Percy became the first Earl of Northumberland—at Richard II’s coronation, no less. It took eleven generations to get there, but Henry Percy had arrived. It seems that much of his early good fortune can be attributed to John of Gaunt. He served as Gaunt’s right-hand man during the hundred years’ war. While Gaunt was regent during the end of Edward III’s reign, he was badly in need of allies and made Percy Marshal of England—one of the four great offices of state. The marshal’s job was to keep the peace within the Verge—a shifting twelve-mile radius of the king’s presence. Matters got ugly when Gaunt tried to extend the marshal’s jurisdiction into the city (replacing the mayor), even if it was outside of the Verge. The Londoners were furious at the potential loss of their liberties.

Shortly thereafter matters reached a climax when John Wycliffe—an academic theologian challenging the Church’s doctrines and authority—was summoned to answer for his anti-clerical views. This happened on 19 February, 1377 at St. Paul’s during a Convocation led by William Courtenay, Bishop of London. Matters grew ugly very quickly and Gaunt and Percy found themselves at odd with a rioting mob. They had to escape the city to save their skins, taking refuge in Kennington with Prince Richard and his mother, Joan the Fair Maid of Kent. Not an auspicious beginning!

It was five months after this fiasco that Percy was made earl. At the same time, he was created Warden of the East March of Scotland and gave up his Marshal’s baton. A few months later he was created Warden of the West March as well. This pretty much set him up as ruler of the North, for he was far away from the center of government and the rest of the country trusted him to control the borders. After all, he knew the peculiarities of this strange environment, where blood-feuds were expected, border raids were common, and local gangs called all the shots. Percy’s man antagonist was the Scottish Earl of Douglas, Warden of the Marches on the other side of the border. Their own personal feud became disruptive enough that King Richard decided to commission John of Gaunt as King’s Lieutenant in the Marches, placing the Duke in a superior role to the Warden and fatally poising his relationship with Percy.

Matters came to a head in 1381 during the Peasants’ Revolt. Gaunt was in Scotland at the moment, and when he heard of the uprising he hurried south, pausing at Alnwick Castle—only to be refused entrance. In fact, Gaunt was forbidden to enter any of Percy’s castles; the earl used the specious excuse that King Richard had sent orders forbidding entry to anyone unless under the king’s license. The implication was that Gaunt might be leading a rebel army of his own. Humiliated, the Duke had to take refuge in Scotland until it was over, and his ire precipitated such a feud between him and Percy that it almost came to civil war. Their argument was eventually patched up, but things were never the same between them.

And so, eighteen years later, when Henry Bolingbroke landed at Ravenspur with a handful of followers to reclaim his rights, it was by no means certain that he would be able to rely on Percy’s support. The returning exile continued north to Bridlington, due east of York. Once there, he was surprised by a visit from Henry Hotspur (the younger Percy), who could easily have arrested him and ended the whole rebellion on the spot. But he didn’t. The Percys were having their own little spat with King Richard, who was demonstrating uncomfortable tendencies to diminish their power. They did not accompany the king to Ireland, though historians are unsure whether they refused to go on principle, or were they merely protecting the borders?

Percy captures King Richard II
Percy captures King Richard BL Harley 1319 Histoire du Roy d’Angleterre Richard

It didn’t take long for the Percys to throw their weight behind Lancaster (John of Gaunt had died four months earlier). It seems relatively certain that they expected Bolingbroke to show his gratitude; after all, without their assistance, he probably would not have succeeded in his bid for the throne. Not only did Percy furnish the bulk of Henry’s army, he was personally responsible for persuading King Richard to give himself up to Bolingbroke’s tender mercies. As soon as the king was safely removed from Conwy Castle, Percy betrayed his trust and surrounded Richard and his handful of companions with a hidden company of men-at-arms. The end justified the means! Percy was working for Henry Bolingbroke now, who had already granted him (under his Ducal seal) the Wardenship of the West Marches. The appointment may have been somewhat irregular—this was the king’s grant—but it demonstrated Henry’s commitment. More commissions were guaranteed to follow.

And indeed they did. After the usurpation, King Henry was totally reliant upon the Percys to control the Scottish border and North Wales for him. Whether he wanted to or not, Henry was obliged to appoint them to key positions. In addition to his wardenship, Percy was made Constable of England. Hotspur was made Warden of the East March and given the lordship and castle of Bamburgh. He was also appointed Justice of North Wales and Justice of Chester and given constableship of the castles of Chester, Flint, Conwy and Caernarfon as well as the lordship of Anglesey.

Unfortunately, this was not to last. Like his predecessor, Henry IV saw the risk of entrusting too much power to the Percys. Besides, there was another, more tractable earl he could rely on: Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland. Neville had recently married Henry’s half-sister Joan Beaufort, which brought Westmorland into the royal family. His clan, too, had been in the North for generations, although they did not exert the influence that the Percys employed. Not yet, anyway.

Little by little, King Henry awarded Westmorland land and commissions. He was made Marshal—Percy’s former position—and granted the Honour of Richmond for life. The king even took the Keepership of Roxburgh away from Hotspur (who was supposed to hold it for life) and granted it to Westmorland. Then, to add insult to injury, the king promptly reimbursed Neville his expenses while owing the Percys upwards of £20,000 for their services (roughly 29 million dollars in today’s money)—and making excuses for nonpayment. Needless to say, the Percys took this slight personally.

    Battle of Homildon Hill

Nonetheless, they continued to protect the North. In September of 1402, the Scots came across the border in a furious chevauchée all the way to the Tyne. Unable to stop them, Hotspur raised a force to block their return to Scotland. Loaded with plunder, the invaders were intercepted at Homildon Hill, and a great battle was fought. It was a disaster for the Scots. A large number of captives were taken, including the Earl of Douglas, four other earls and at least thirty Scottish knights. It was a tremendous victory for the English, in contrast to the humiliating failure King Henry had just experienced in Wales.

The king’s reaction was less than gracious. Rather than award the Percys, Henry demanded that they turn over the hostages, with the understanding that they would be suitably compensated. It was his right as king, but he couldn’t have made a worse miscalculation. Although Percy senior complied, Hotspur adamantly opposed him. King Henry had refused to pay a ransom for Hotspur’s brother in-law Edmund Mortimer—held hostage by the Welsh—and Hotspur saw this as double treachery. He and the king nearly came to blows, and if the chroniclers can be believed, Hotspur stormed out of the room, declaring “Not here, but in the field!” This was the last time they saw each other alive.

The Illness of Henry IV

Lepers refused admission: Vincent_de_Beauvais_Miroir_historial, Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, folio 373r

When I started writing the volume about the second half of Henry IV’s life, my inclination was to entitle it The Leper King, only to discover there really was a leper king: Baldwin  IV of Jerusalem who died in 1185. And truly, it really wasn’t fair to Henry IV. Yes, he did have some kind of terrible skin disease, though his woes didn’t stop there. But if he really did have leprosy, how did he manage to lead a relatively “normal” existence—without being shunned by his contemporaries? No, apparently something else was going on. It’s nearly impossible to diagnose historical illnesses—especially from over 600 years ago. But historians have come up with some interesting theories.

One of the reasons leprosy achieved such purchase on the medieval mind was the timing of Henry’s first attack. According to many chroniclers, it happened the very night he executed Archbishop Scrope of York for his ill-fated rebellion. No English king had ever executed an archbishop before, and this was a terrible shock to his contemporaries. As the story goes, that very night, Henry woke up shrieking, “Traitors! Traitors! You have thrown fire over me!” His face was burning and he had broken out into a terrible rash—or pustules, or worse. Everyone thought it was God’s retribution for the murder of an archbishop. According to Peter Niven*, “Leprosy was the disease par excellence associated with God’s punishment of sinners”. Did this really happen the night of the execution? So many chroniclers mentioned it, that it would be incautious to dismiss the claim out of hand. Henry was bedridden for a week before he could continue his campaign against the rebel Henry Percy. But once he was back in the saddle, he allegedly carried on with renewed vigor. Temporarily, at least, he recovered—the first argument against leprosy.

There’s always the possibility that the medieval manifestation of leprosy differed from what we currently know as Hansen’s Disease. Nonetheless, the issue seems to have been decided when Henry’s tomb was opened in 1832. Although his remains quickly disintegrated upon exposure to the air, the investigators had enough time to determine that “his skin was intact, his features were not disfigured, and even the all-important nasal cartilage was undamaged” (Peter Niven, again).

It’s the other symptoms that confuse the issue. A little more than a year after his initial illness, Henry was struck with what he referred to as une grande accesse, and at the same time he complained of une maladie in his leg. Unable to ride, he was obliged to travel by barge and missed the first week of the 1406 parliament. Known as The Long Parliament, it lasted most of the year, and it’s thought that the many recesses had to do with his frequent inability to attend. Did he have a stroke? By all indications he retained clarity until his death. Could it be a blood clot in his leg? Historians just don’t know. Although his skin disease came and went for the rest of his life, it was the progressive weakness in his legs and associated attacks that took away his strength and reduced him to an invalid.

Some historians have suggested syphilis, which could account for many of the symptoms. However, the first recorded incidence of this disease hadn’t occurred in Europe before the end of the fifteenth century. Some have suggested psoriasis—possibly psoriatic psoriasis, which included joint inflammation and swelling. Three years after his first attack, Henry was struck down with a sudden seizure so violent that he lost consciousness for quite a few hours; for a while people thought he was dead. A few months later he made his will, which was usually done from the deathbed in this period—or prior to leaving for battle. Apparently he, too, thought he had reached the end. By then, he could barely walk or ride and was mostly carried in a litter or improvised wheelchair. Ultimately, Niven concluded that Henry could well have suffered from coronary heart disease or some sort of circulatory disorder. He suggested that rheumatic heart disease could easily explain his “growing incapacitation, his occasional dramatic collapses, and his relatively early death.” So, along with this conjecture, the skin disease was an unfortunate condition that had nothing to do with the major collapses that incapacitated him.

We certainly can’t ignore the effects of stress and—let’s face it—possible guilt over the usurpation and execution of an archbishop. Henry had more than his fair share of rebellions to deal with, and unless he was a man without a conscience, he must have had a lot of dead traitors weighing on his mind. I tried to count the numbers of executed men and lost track after about eighty. That’s enough to give most of us agita.

 

*McNiven, Peter, THE PROBLEM OF HENRY IV’S HEALTH, 1405-1413, The English Historical Review,  Vol. 100, no. 397 (Oct. 1985), pp. 747-772

 

Shakespeare’s Harry Hotspur

Dispute between Hotspur, Glendower, Mortimer and Worcester by Henry Fuseli – Wikiart

Harry Hotspur (aka Sir Henry Percy) was a major character in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1 who died at the hands of his nemesis, Prince Hal, at the battle of Shrewsbury. Unfortunately, we tend to forget that although Shakespeare was one of our greatest bards, he was not a historian and we can’t take his plays at face value. Yes, Hotspur was killed at Shrewsbury. But no, Hal was at the other end of the battlefield leading a flanking movement, still fighting with an arrow embedded in his face. I think that’s an even more dramatic story, but Shakespeare had other ideas (enter Falstaff).

But that’s not all. Hotspur was not Hal’s rival for Henry IV’s affection. In fact, Sir Henry Percy was the king’s age, not the son’s; he was actually born three years before Henry IV. He was knighted alongside Henry Bolingbroke by King Edward III in 1377. They traveled together to the great Tournament at Inglevert in 1390 (Hal would have been four years old at the time).

In reality, far from being the son Henry IV wished he had in contrast to his own wayward offspring,  Hotspur had been one of Hal’s early mentors. In the first few years after the usurpation, Hotspur had been made Constable of Chester, Flint, Conwy, and Caernarfon castles—all in addition to his other duties as Warden of the East Marches and Justice of North Wales. To say he had his hands full was an understatement! Hal was put under his tutelage at Chester, and I don’t think it would be totally out of line to suggest the prince might have experienced a bit of hero worship at this stage. He was only about sixteen, and Hotspur was the most famous knight of the age. He was indefatigable.

Even at Hal’s tender age, he was already being primed to take on his first responsibility in Wales. Unfortunately, it was unexpectedly thrust upon him at the end of 1402 when Hotspur grew annoyed at his lack of governmental support (and lack of payment) and resigned his command. Leaving young Hal in charge, he rode off, back to Northumberland. Just like that. How could the prince not feel abandoned?

The Welsh didn’t need much more incentive to rise up again, and they were soon attacking town after town, burning and pillaging. Prince Hal called up troops from nearby shires that owed the king service and went after them, holding his own. He was joined by his father a few months later and together they advanced into the heart of Wales. Unfortunately, their foray turned into a disaster and the English were forced to withdraw because of the terrible weather; the king was nearly killed when a storm blew his tent down on top of him. Henry was only saved because he wore his armor to bed. Their ignominious defeat was only made worse on discovering that the Percies had just won a tremendous battle at Homildon Hill, and came home loaded with hostages, among them the Scottish Earl of Douglas.

As depicted in Shakespeare, King Henry demanded that Hotspur turn over his prisoners and Harry angrily refused, precipitating the conflict that drove him to rebel. That much corresponds to history. In the play, there’s a scene where he conspired with Owain Glyndwr, Mortimer, and his uncle the earl of Worcester. This probably did not happen, though it’s possible some communication took place between them. The Welsh did not participate in the battle of Shrewsbury, though it’s possible they were creating a diversion by a very successful attack on Carmarthen in South Wales. Or the timing could have been a coincidence. Historians just don’t know, but since Glyndwr was occupied at Carmarthen, he couldn’t have been expected at Shrewsbury.

Death of Henry “Harry Hotspur” Percy, from a 1910 illustration by Richard Caton Woodville Jr. – Wikipedia

One can only imagine the shock and betrayal Hal must have felt to discover that his former friend and tutor had declared himself his enemy. I doubt he even knew trouble was brewing—it certainly caught his father by surprise. King Henry moved at his usual unpredictable speed and showed up with an army literally in the nick of time. Hotspur withdrew from besieging the town and prepared for battle.

Shrewsbury was a close-fought contest, and Hotspur was in the middle of the action. Shakespeare has him meeting Prince Hal seemingly alone, and they fight a duel where Hal slays his antagonist. And Falstaff takes credit for the killing after Hal walks away—apparently to get help. But of course, that’s all made up. The battle was total chaos and only the shouts of “Henry Percy dead!” turned the tide. His men panicked and fled, and later the trail of bodies stretched up to two miles away, with most of them fatally wounded in the back. No one knows precisely what happened to Hotspur, but after a search his body was found where the fighting was fiercest. Although the king supposedly shed a few tears over his corpse, he didn’t have any problem ordering that Hotspur’s naked body be propped up between two millstones so everyone knew he was truly dead.

While Hotspur fought valiantly, Prince Hal was leading a charge on the enemy flank; he wreaked havoc on the leaderless rearguard. It wasn’t until the fighting was over that Hal collapsed into the arms of his companions. In all probability he was unconscious for days—if not longer. Under almost any other circumstances his wound would have been fatal, for the arrowhead was embedded six inches into his skull next to his eye. It was only under the brilliant ministrations of John Bradmore, the most innovative surgeon in the kingdom, that Hal survived. It was probably a long time after the battle before he learned of Hotspur’s death.

You can learn more about the Battle of Shrewsbury and events leading up to it in my novel, THE USURPER KING.

CHIVALRY IN THE AGE OF RICHARD II

The tournament of Saint-Inglevert, in the Harley Froissart, Harley MS 4379, f. 43r, British Library Creative Commons license

Aside from a slight digression to Scotland in order to prove his manhood, Richard II was not interested in warfare. But there’s no getting away from the fact that the Age of Chivalry had reached its apex by the end of the fourteenth century. When we think of knights armored from head to foot in articulated plate with splendid crests atop their helmets and gay caparisons flowing from their stallions, this is the period that comes to mind. Europe may have experienced a brief hiatus in warfare, but the knights gave themselves plenty of opportunity to excel in arms: the tournament.

I would say the most famous tournament of all time were the Jousts of St. Inglevert, held in 1390 and described in detail by Jean Froissart. Three famous French knights, Jean Boucicaut (soon to be marshal of France), Renaud de Roya, and the lord de Sempy challenged one and all to meet them at St. Inglevert, a religious house between Boulogne on the sea and Calais. This was to be a month-long event, and all of Christendom were keen to attend.

The French knights erected three rich vermilion-colored pavilions. Each was hung with two shields, emblazoned with their arms: one shield represented the “joust of peace”, requiring blunt lances, and the other, the “joust of war” requiring sharpened steel lances. Each challenger (or his squire) was to ride up and touch his shield of preference with a special wand, and the resident herald would record his name, country, and family.

King Richard II did not attend; he was still recovering from the trauma of the Merciless Parliament of 1388. Henry Bolingbroke, on the other hand, led a solid contingent of over one hundred knights and squires, including John Holland, earl of Huntingdon (the king’s half-brother), Thomas Mowbray, the Earl Marshal, John Beaufort, Thomas Swynford, Harry (Hotspur) Percy and his uncle Thomas Percy.

According to Froissart: “Sir John Holland was the first who sent his squire to touch the war-target of Sir Boucicaut, who instantly issued from his pavilion completely armed. Having mounted his horse, and grasped his spear, which was stiff and well steeled, they took their distances. When the two knights had for a short time eyed each other, they spurred their horses and met full gallop with such force that Sir Boucicaut pierced the shield of the Earl of Huntingdon, and the point of his lance slipped along his arm, but without wounding him. The two knights, having passed, continued their gallop to the end of the list. This course was much praised. At the second course, they hit each other slightly, but no harm was done; and their horses refused to complete the third. The earl of Huntingdon, who wished to continue the tilt, and was heated, returned to his place, expecting that sir Boucicaut would call for his lance; but he did not, and showed plainly he would not that day tilt more with the earl.

Sir John Holland, seeing this, sent his squire to touch the war-target of the lord de Sempy. This knight, who was waiting for the combat, sallied out from his pavilion, and took his lance and shield. When the earl saw he was ready, he violently spurred his horse, as did the lord de Sempy. They couched their lances, and pointed them at each other. At the onset, their horses crossed; notwithstanding which, they met; but by this crossing, which was blamed, the earl was unhelmed. He returned to his people, who soon re-helmed him; and, having resumed their lances, they met full gallop, and hit each other with such force in the middle of their shields, that they would have been unhorsed had they not kept tight seats by the pressure of their legs against the horses’ sides. They went to the proper places, where they refreshed themselves and took breath.”

After Holland chose the shield of war, no one else chose the shield of peace for fear of being declared coward. There were lots of sparks flying from helmets, shattered lances, and pierced targets. Most knights ran up to 5 courses. All told, 137 courses were run during the month and all three French challengers survived the ordeal, to their everlasting glory (somewhat the worse for wear but intact). At times they needed a few days to heal from wounds, whereupon their surviving companions covered for them. Henry Bolingbroke was said to have made a spectacular showing and Boucicaut later invited him to accompany him to two crusades.

Not to be outdone, King Richard II hosted another famous tournament at Smithfield in October of the same year. This was the same location where he confronted Wat Tyler during the Peasants’ Revolt nine years previously. Sixty fully-armored knights paraded through the streets from the Tower, down Cheapside to Smithfield, led by sixty ladies mounted on palfreys, richly ornamented and dressed. The ladies led their knights by a silver chain, and all were accompanied by minstrels and trumpets. The king and queen attended, accompanied by dukes, counts, and lords, and after a full day’s jousting entertained their guests with a magnificent banquet. The jousting went on for five days, then the court moved on to Windsor castle.

Solemn_Joust_on_London_Bridge tapestry by Richard Beavis, Wikipedia

One of the more interesting jousts was actually held on London Bridge. Many Scots and English participated in the tournament, but the main event was a personal challenge between the English Ambassador to Scotland, Lord Wells, and Sir David de Lindsay, a Scottish knight; they engaged to  joust a l’outrance, or to the death. Held before King Richard, the knights ran two courses without incident, and on the third pass Lord Wells was unhorsed. They proceeded to fight on foot and again Sir David held the advantage. But just as the Scot was ready to deliver the killing blow he relented and helped Lord Wells to his feet, gaining the approval of the crowd.

The most famous trial by combat in the fourteenth century was between Henry of Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV) and Sir Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk. Unfortunately, the combat never took place; the King stopped it at the last minute. But the ceremony and protocol were all there; we get a colorful description in the Chronicque de la Traison et Mort de Richart Deux Roy Dengleterre (the author was probably an eye-witness).

According to la Traison, “The lists were to be sixty paces long and forty wide; the barriers seven feet high. The sergeants-at-arms were not to let the people approach within four feet of the lists… the penalty for entering the lists, or making any noise, so that one party might take advantage of the other, was the loss of life or limb, and also of their castles, at the pleasure of the King.” This was serious stuff! Again, according to la Traison, “The weapons allowed by the marshal and constable were the “Glaive”, long sword, short sword, and dagger. The long sword was straight, and called by the French “estoc”, whence estocade, a thrust.”

The King ordered that they take away the pavilions and “let go the chargers, and that each should perform his duty”. Apparently Bolingbroke first advanced a few paces when the King threw his threw his staff (warder) into the list, crying, “Ho! Ho!” For the King to interfere in the duel was not unheard of, though it seems that the crowd was bitterly disappointed to be denied their entertainment; never mind that the fight was to the death. Apparently there were no other amusements on the agenda. The contestants were equally skilled in tournament fighting, and by no means was the result a foregone conclusion. The king withdrew with his council—including Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt—and discussed the matter for two hours while the attendees waited. Finally it was announced that Bolingbroke was to be exiled for ten years and Mowbray for life. From most accounts, the crowd was incensed at Bolingbroke’s treatment; after all, he had done nothing wrong. Few seemed to object to Mowbray’s fate; was he guilty until proven innocent? Nonetheless, everybody went home unhappy, not least of all the main contestants.

Trial by combat seems to have died out by the 15th century, and I haven’t found anything quite as dramatic as this contest. The amount of preparation for such a non-event was staggering. If you happened to be versed in medieval French, you can learn more about tournament ceremonies in this book, reproduced in Google Books: “Ceremonies des gages de batailles selon les constitutions du bon roi Philippe de France”.

Further reading: ROYAL JOUSTS AT THE END OF THE FOURTEENTH CENTURY by Steven Muhlberger, Freelance Academy Press, Wheaton IL, 2012

Who Were the Last Plantagenets?

Portrait of Henry IV
Portrait of Henry IV- National Portrait Gallery (Creative Commons license)

Many people get confused when they read that Richard II was the last Plantagenet king. How can that be? During the Wars of the Roses, both the Lancastrians and the Yorkists were Plantagenets. And that’s true. However, Richard II was the last in the direct line—and that’s the difference.

One could almost say that Edward III had too many sons. If his heir, Edward the Black Prince hadn’t died prematurely, all would probably have gone a different route. Lionel, the second son of Edward III (who survived infancy) also predeceased his father, leaving a daughter Philippa from his first wife. It was through Philippa that we have the Mortimers, arguably the true heirs to the throne if you follow the “laws” of primogeniture (see below). The next son was John of Gaunt, the father of the future Henry IV (the Lancastrians). After him came Edmund Langley, later Duke of York (yes, those Yorkists), and lastly, Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester.

What is primogeniture? According to historian K.B. McFarlane, “a son always preferred to a daughter, a daughter to a brother or other collateral.” So the daughter’s heirs should come before the brother’s heirs (hence the Mortimers). Of course, it didn’t always work that way, even among the royals. As far back as King John, we see the youngest brother of a previous king mount the throne rather than the son of an elder brother (Arthur of Brittany—son of Geoffrey—should have ruled if the tradition of primogeniture were followed).

The Black Prince took nothing for granted, and on his deathbed he asked both his father and his brother John of Gaunt to swear an oath to protect nine year-old Richard and uphold his inheritance. Even this precaution didn’t guarantee Richard’s patrimony, and Edward III felt obliged to create an entail that ordered the succession along traditional male lines. This meant that the Mortimers were excluded. It also meant that John of Gaunt was next in line after Richard, and after him, Henry of Bolingbroke. This entail was kept secret at the time because of Gaunt’s unpopularity, and it’s possible that Richard later destroyed at least his own copy. It might have been lost to history until the last century when a badly damaged copy was discovered in the British Library among the Cotton charters (damaged by a fire in 1731). It clearly gave the order of succession as Richard, then Gaunt and his issue, then probably Gaunt’s brothers; parts of the manuscript are lost. According to historian Michael Bennett, “While crucial pieces of the text are missing, it is tolerably certain that the whole settlement is in tail male…”

John of Gaunt by Lucas Cornelisz de Kock
John of Gaunt with his coat of arms attributed to Lucas Cornelisz de Kock source: Wikipedia

Why is this important? It’s more than likely that at least members of the royal family knew about the entail. King Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke never got along, and as Richard continued to remain childless, the thought of Henry succeeding him was anathema. He still refused to name an heir, and since he remarried in 1396 the 29 year-old king was still young enough to father a child, even though his new queen was only seven at the time. It’s interesting that he never gave the Mortimer line much credence; he only mentioned them once in his own defense when his barons grew rebellious in 1385: why usurp Richard and replace him with a child? (The Mortimers had a history of dying young and the current heir was just a boy.) Nonetheless, many of his countrymen assumed Roger Mortimer was heir presumptive and didn’t think to question it. By 1397 the grown-up Roger was very popular, but was killed in Ireland shortly thereafter.

Fast forward to Henry IV’s usurpation. Legally, he had a problem. There was another living under-aged Mortimer heir (he quickly took the boy hostage and raised him alongside his own children). Richard abdicated the crown to Henry but only under duress. The new king was advised against claiming the crown by right of arms, because the same thing could be done to him. His reign was riddled with rebellions, and because things didn’t improve like he promised, people started remembering Richard with nostalgia. They wanted the old king back, and rumors of his escape to Scotland only added fuel to the proverbial fire.

Henry IV only ruled for a little over thirteen years, and the last half of his reign he was a very sick man. There were times he couldn’t rule at all and had to depend on his council. His son, the future Henry V, was ready and willing to take over; he even tried to persuade the old man to retire. But that miscarried and Henry dragged himself back into action for a short time, dismissing his son from the council and taking control again. But his days were numbered and everyone knew it. Henry V’s short and glorious reign was cut short by dysentery, and the long and pitiful reign of his infant son Henry VI drove the country into civil war. So much for the Lancastrians.

The Yorkists were descended from both Edmund Langley, the first Duke of York and Philippa, ancestor of the Mortimers. That’s why they felt they had a superior claim to the throne. But by the Wars of the Roses, the Plantagenet line was pretty much diluted. It’s ironic that Henry Tudor, father to the next dynasty, was himself actually descended from a Plantagenet through his mother. Margaret Beaufort was the last surviving member of the bastard line issuing from John of Gaunt (and legitimized by Richard II). It sounds like poetic justice to me.

The Wily Archbishop Arundel

Portrait of Archbishop Thomas Arundel
Lambeth Palace portrait, Wikipedia

It’s hard to decide whether Thomas Arundel was a villain or an asset. On the one hand, he was a brilliant administrator. On the other hand, he tended toward despotism. If you read Terry Jones’ entertaining but very biased Who Murdered Chaucer? he was practically the devil incarnate: “The war on heresy, which Archbishop Arundel announced in that winter of 1401, added a new dimension to a period already characterized by fear and intimidation. Gone was the experimental and questioning ‘blue skies’ intellectual environment of Richard II’s court, to be replaced by repression and censorship. The country slid into a regime of Orwellian thought-control and MacCarthyite witch-hunting.” Wow. Colorful though this opinion is, I couldn’t find anyone else who agreed with it—at least to the extent of the archbishop’s oppressiveness. And I looked for it. Yes, anti-Wycliffe dogma was prevalent in Henry IV’s reign—with the approval of the king—and Arundel did attempt to control the curriculum at Oxford with varied success. Yes, the first heretic was burned in Henry’s reign (two total, I believe). But wholesale burning of heretics would have to wait until Mary Tudor.

Thomas Arundel was the younger brother of Richard Earl of Arundel, one of the Lords Appellant in Richard II’s reign who traumatized the king during the Merciless Parliament of 1387.  Thomas was serving his first of five stints as Lord Chancellor. He sided with the Appellants against the king, an error he was to pay dearly for ten years later during the Revenge Parliament. By then he was Archbishop of Canterbury, which probably saved his life; Richard shrunk from executing an archbishop. He was sentenced to forfeiture and outlawry instead, commanded to leave the country. A new archbishop was raised in his place.

When Richard outlawed Henry Bolingbroke, he demanded that the exiles never contact each other. Of course, who was going to enforce that? Just as soon as Richard left the country for Ireland, Arundel showed up on Henry’s doorstep in Paris and together they plotted Lancaster’s return. Would Henry have had the audacity to take such a risk without Arundel’s prodding? Many historians wonder. Up until that point Henry had been the obedient son, apolitical and relatively carefree (at least, before his exile). Now he was about to launch a major rebellion, with Arundel beside him every step of the way. Not long after they landed in England, Arundel took up his role as archbishop again (without any official appointment) and proceeded to preach against Richard II, allegedly spreading propaganda lies to encourage the people to rebel. You can see the dubious faces of his listeners…

Archbishop Arundel preaches against Richard II
Arundel preaching: British Library Harley 1319 F12

Of course, all went according to plan and Arundel is credited for putting together the means to legitimize Henry’s usurpation. Over the course of his reign, Henry came to depend on him more and more, though at first their association was more political than friendly. But as Henry’s health declined after 1405, he began to spend extended periods of time at the archbishop’s residences. While the king faded into the background, Arundel took a major role in governing the council as well as serving as chancellor from 1407-10 and again from 1412-13. The gap in his official duties was due to the opposition of Prince Henry, who was gaining ascendance as his father was increasingly unable to rule. In fact, the very day Henry V became king, he sacked Arundel and replaced him with his uncle, Henry Beaufort, who was the archbishop’s bitter political opponent. Arundel died a year later and was buried in Canterbury Cathedral. Interestingly, his tomb and chapel were destroyed by Archbishop Cranmer in 1540, presumably as revenge for his repression of heresy.

Insurrections Under Henry IV

Henry Bolingbroke delivers Richard II to the Londoners
Henry Delivers Richard to Londoners-Harley 1319 f53v, British Library

It goes without saying that any usurper will have to deal with resistance. Considering the wave of popularity that thrust Henry Bolingbroke onto the throne, I imagine he never would have suspected the number of rebellions he would have to confront in the first five years of his reign. Some were major, others were minor. Two nearly condemned him as the shortest reigning monarch in English history. All must have been disheartening to the man who saw himself as an honorable, chivalric knight.

What could possibly have gone wrong?

The first rebellion wasn’t much of a surprise—though the timing was shocking. Only three months after his coronation, King Richard II’s favorites launched the Epiphany Rising of January, 1400. Their aim was to capture and kill the king and his family on the eve of a tournament at Windsor Castle. Unfortunately, they were in too much of a hurry; Henry was still at the height of his popularity. At the very last minute, King Henry was warned and he made a frantic escape to London. Nonetheless, the ringleaders were committed; after they found their prey had flown they continued with their revolt, though they weren’t able to attract as much support as they expected. Rather, most of them suffered the indignity of being killed by the citizenry, who took the law into their own hands.

Needless to say, the Epiphany Revolt put an end to Richard. Or did it? Although he was reported dead by February 14 and a very public funeral was held, rumors spread that he had escaped to Scotland and was going to return at the head of an army. Disgruntled rebels were quick to challenge the usurper in his name, and the spectre of a vengeful Richard haunted Henry for the rest of his life. Or, if Richard was dead, the young Earl of March—considered by many the true heir to the throne—served the same purpose. As far as the rebels were concerned, one figurehead was as good as the other.

During most of Henry’s reign, the country was bankrupt—or nearly so—and the first few years were the worst. It didn’t take long for the populace to cry foul, for as they remembered it, he promised not to raise taxes (untrue). Things were supposed to get better (they didn’t). Mob violence was everywhere. Even tax collectors were killed. Meanwhile, a fresh source of rebellion reared its head: the Welsh.

On his way back to London after his first (and only) campaign into Scotland, the king learned of a Welsh rising led by one Owain Glyndwr, who visited fire and destruction on his recalcitrant neighbor Reginald Grey of Ruthin. Turning immediately to the west, Henry led his army into Wales, chasing the elusive enemy deep into the mountains. Unfortunately, lack of funds and terrible weather forced them to turn back. But this just added fuel to the proverbial fire. Repeated Welsh raids unsettled his border barons, who were quick to complain. During parliament—only one year after Henry’s coronation—the Commons insisted on enforcing the most repressive anti-Welsh legislation since Edward I. None of these laws would have been enacted in Richard’s reign. The Welsh were in no mood to acquiesce, and their rebellion gained steam for the next several years, sapping an already exhausted exchequer.

Royal MS 14e iv f.14v, British Library

Then there were the Percies. The Earl of Northumberland and his son, Harry Hotspur were instrumental in putting Henry on the throne. They also ruled the north as though it was their own kingdom. This would not do, and Henry followed his predecessor’s strategy of raising up other great families as a counter to their ambitions. Disappointed that Henry did not appreciate them as much as they expected—especially after they won Homildon Hill, the most significant battle against the Scots since Edward I days—the Percies launched a totally unexpected assault in 1403. It was Harry Hotspur who drove this insurrection, using Richard II’s imminent return as a means to raise the restive Cheshiremen to his cause. Once his soldiers realized that Richard wasn’t coming, they fought to avenge him instead. The resulting Battle of Shrewsbury was a very close call; if Henry hadn’t unexpectedly traveled north from London that week to join Henry Percy, he never would have been close enough to intercept the rebels when he learned about the uprising. The fighting was ferocious; it was only Hotspur’s death on the battlefield that determined which side had won the day. As it was, Percy’s ally, the Earl of Douglas, allegedly killed two knights who wore Henry’s livery, giving their lives to save the king in the confusion of battle.

The Earl of Northumberland was still in the North when the Battle of Shrewsbury took place. Historians can’t decide whether Percy’s failure to assist his son was planned or unplanned. But one thing was for sure; Henry Percy was still a force to be reckoned with. Although the king reluctantly pardoned him (with the urging of the Commons), he was back two years later, leading another rebellion in conjunction with a rising led by Richard Scrope, the Archbishop of York, and Thomas Mowbray, son of Henry Bolingbroke’s old rival. Northumberland’s thrust was repelled before he gained much speed, yet Scrope’s forces waited at York for three days before being tricked into disbanding by the Earl of Westmorland, Percy’s nemesis. Poor Archbishop Scrope became the focus of King Henry’s rage. Despite resistance from all sides, the king ordered him to be executed, creating a huge scandal and a new martyr.

Henry Percy suffered outlawry at that point, but he returned three years later, fighting one last battle, so pathetic one wonders whether he had a death wish. He was killed on the field and subsequently decapitated.

These were the major rebellions. Other disturbances were usually dealt with without Henry’s presence. In 1404, Maud de Ufford, Countess of Oxford—mother of the ill-fated Robert de Vere, Richard’s favorite—organized an uprising centered around the return of King Richard. This was in conjunction with Louis d’Orleans, the French duke who planned to invade the country in December. Alas, he was held up by the weather and Richard failed to materialize. In 1405, Constance of York, sister of Edward (Rutland), Duke of York concocted a plot to kidnap the young Earl of March (remember him, the other heir to the throne?) and his brother from Windsor Castle. She was taking them to Owain Glyndwr but got caught before they entered Wales. She implicated her brother who was imprisoned for several months, but no one knows for sure whether he was complicit or not (he probably was).

Bad weather, failed crops, an empty exchequer, regional disorders, piracy that disrupted the wool trade, all contributed to general unrest that plagued the fragile Lancastrian dynasty. Henry’s willingness to accept criticism from friends and supporters—and sincerely try to act upon it—could well be one of the reasons he survived and King Richard failed.

Author’s Inspiration: THE USURPER KING

Henry IV with coat of arms
Henry IV, MS Harley 4205 f. 7, British Library

For a long time my only knowledge about Henry IV came from Shakespeare. How typical! I suspect he would have been amazed at how literally we took his memorable characters. Interestingly, although Shakespeare wrote two plays about Henry IV, the king played a minor role in both. It is thought that because Henry was a usurper, the great bard didn’t want to ruffle Queen Elizabeth’s feathers by giving him prominence; too many of his fellow playwrights ended up in prison. Besides, it was much more diverting to give the spotlight to Falstaff! And of course, Prince Hal was safe, since he wasn’t responsible for his father’s actions.

It seems that other scholars followed Shakespeare’s example and gave Henry IV short shrift—possibly because his reign was sandwiched between two much more dynamic kings. Fortunately, modern historians have taken another look and discovered there is plenty to talk about (though much credit is due to the Victorian historian James Hamilton Wylie who wrote a four-volume biography about him. Try finding it!).

Originally, I had only planned to write my first two volumes about Richard II’s life. But I got caught up in the whole usurpation story and realized that Henry’s point of view was just as interesting as Richard’s. It was too much to include in volume two; in fact, Henry’s story covers two books on its own. Naturally, I soon realized that I might as well take the Plantagenets all the way to the end. Every one of them had a story to tell—even Henry VI (we forget that he reigned 40 years).

I found Henry IV’s story to be very sympathetic. Although it was more than a little unethical for him to break Thomas Mowbray’s confidence and start the whole brouhaha that got them exiled (see THE KING’S RETRIBUTION), the punishment was certainly disproportionate to the offense. What was the crime? Why was he declared a traitor? It was all so unfair! Once he returned to reclaim his lost inheritance, he realized that he had to go “all the way” or else risk losing his head to a vindictive Richard. There were to be no half-measures here. Luckily for him, practically the whole country rallied behind his banner.

But that’s only part of the story. All the good-will built up between him and the populace was exhausted pretty quickly. Promises were broken, expectations disappointed, the exchequer was empty, law-and-order disintegrated. Repressive measures led to even more discontent. Poor Henry was quick to learn that that that having the kingship was much less rewarding than striving for it.

But the proverbial die was cast. Once he had established the Lancastrian dynasty, Henry was determined to make it stick. However, on more than one occasion he nearly came to disaster, and his reign might have become the shortest-lasting kingship in English history. The Epiphany Rising—a mere three months after his coronation—and the Battle of Shrewsbury were only two of the rebellions he had to face in the first four years of his reign. And all this happened before the infamous execution of Richard Scrope, Archbishop of York, and Henry’s subsequent attack of leprosy (or so everyone thought). More to come in The Accursed King which I am working on as we speak.