Home Previous TOC Next Bookshelf

21. Henry VI, Of Windsor, A.D. 1423—1461

The poor little baby, Henry VI., was but nine months old when—over the grave of his father in England, and his grandfather in France—he was proclaimed King of France and England. The crown of England was held over his head, and his lords made their oaths to him: and when he was nine years old he was sent to Paris, and there crowned King of France. He was a very good, little, gentle boy, as meek and obedient as possible; but his friends, who knew that a king must be brave, strong, and firm for his people's sake, began to be afraid that nothing would ever make him manly. The war in France went on all the time: the Duke of Bedford keeping the north and the old lands in the south-west for little Henry, and the French doing their best for their rightful king —though he was so lazy and fond of pleasure that he let them do it all alone.

Yet a wonderful thing happened in his favor. The English were besieging Orleans, when a young village girl, named Joan of Arc, came to King Charles and told him that she had had a commission from Heaven to save Orleans, and to lead him to Rheims, where French kings were always crowned. And she did! She always acted as one led by Heaven. Many wonderful things are told of her, and one circumstance that produced a great impression on the public mind was that when brought into the presence of Charles, whom she had never before seen, she recognized him, although he was dressed plainly, and one of the courtiers had on the royal apparel. She never let anything wrong be done in her sight—no bad words spoken, no savage deeds done; and she never fought herself, only led the French soldiers. The English thought her a witch, and fled like sheep whenever they saw her; and the French common men were always brave with her to lead them. And so she really saved Orleans, and brought the king to be crowned at Rheims. But neither Charles nor his selfish bad nobles liked her. She was too good for them; so, though they would not let her go home to her village as she wished, they gave her no proper help; and once, when there was a fight going on outside the walls of a town, the French all ran away and left her outside, where she was taken by the English. And then, I grieve to say, the court that sat to judge her— some English and some French of the English party—sentenced her to be burnt to death in the market place at Rouen as a witch, and her own king never tried to save her.

But the spirit she had stirred up never died away. The French went on winning back more and more; and there were so many quarrels among the English that they had little chance of keeping anything. The king's youngest uncle, Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester, was always disputing with the Beaufort family. John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster—father to Henry IV.—had, late in life, married a person of low birth, and her children were called Beaufort, after the castle where they were born—not Plantagenet—and were hardly reckoned as princes by other people; but they were very proud, and thought themselves equal to anybody. The good Duke of Bedford died quite worn out with trying to keep the peace among them, and to get proper help from England to save the lands his brother had won in France. All this time, the king liked the Beauforts much better than Duke Humfrey, and he followed their advice, and that of their friend, the Earl of Suffolk, in marrying Margaret of Anjou— the daughter of a French prince, who had a right to a great part of the lands the English held. All these were given back to her father, and this made the Duke of Gloucester and all the English more angry, and they hated the young queen as the cause. She was as bold and high-spirited as the king was gentle and meek. He loved nothing so well as praying, praising God, and reading; and he did one great thing for the country—which did more for it than all the fighting kings had done—he founded Eton College, close to Windsor Castle; and there many of our best clergymen, and soldiers, and statesmen, have had their education. But while he was happy over rules for his scholars, and in plans for the beautiful chapel, the queen was eagerly taking part in the quarrels, and the nation hated her the more for interfering. And very strangely, Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester, was, at the meeting of Parliament, accused of high treason and sent to prison, where, in a few days, he was found dead in his bed—just like his great-uncle, Thomas, Duke of Gloucester; nor does anyone understand the mystery in one case, better than in the other, except that we are more sure that gentle Henry VI. had nothing to do with it than we can be of Richard II.

These were very bad times. There was a rising like Wat Tyler's, under a man named Jack Cade, who held London for two or three days before he was put down; and, almost at the same time, the queen's first English friend, Suffolk, was exiled by her enemies, and taken at sea and murdered by some sailors. Moreover, the last of the brave old friends of Henry V. was killed in France, while trying to save the remains of the old duchy of Aquitaine, which had belonged to the English kings ever since Henry II. married Queen Eleanor. That was the end of the hundred years' war, for peace was made at last, and England kept nothing in France but the one city of Calais.

Still things were growing worse. Duke Humfrey left no children, and as time went on and the king had none, the question was who should reign. If the Beauforts were to be counted as princes, they came next; but everyone hated them, so that people recollected that Henry IV. had thrust aside the young Edmund Mortimer, grandson to Lionel, who had been next eldest to the Black Prince. Edmund was dead, but his sister Anne had married a son of the Duke of York, youngest son of Edward III.; and her son Richard, Duke of York, could not help feeling that he had a much better right to be king than any Beaufort. There was a great English noble named Richard Nevil, Earl of Warwick, who liked to manage everything—just the sort of baron that was always mischievous at home, if not fighting in France—and he took up York's cause hotly. York's friends used to wear white roses, Beaufort's friends red roses, and the two parties kept on getting more bitter; but as no one wished any ill to gentle King Henry—who, to make matters worse, sometimes had fits of madness, like his poor grandfather in France—they would hardly have fought it in his lifetime, if he had not at last had a little son, who was born while he was so mad that he did not know of it. Then, when York found it was of no use to wait, he began to make war, backed up by Warwick, and, after much fighting, they made the king prisoner, and forced him to make an agreement that he should reign as long as he lived, but that after that Richard of York should be king, and his son Edward be only Duke of Lancaster. This made the queen furiously angry. She would not give up her son's rights, and she gathered a great army, with which she came suddenly on the Duke of York near Wakefield, and destroyed nearly his whole army. He was killed in the battle; and his second son, Edmund, was met on Wakefield bridge and stabbed by Lord Clifford; and Margaret had their heads set up over the gates of York, while she went on to London to free her husband.

But Edward, York's eldest son, was a better captain than he, and far fiercer and more cruel. He made the war much more savage than it had been before; and after beating the queen's friends at Mortimer's Cross, he hurried on to London, where the people—who had always been very fond of his father, and hated Queen Margaret—greeted him gladly. He was handsome and stately looking; and though he was really cruel when offended, had easy, good-natured manners, and everyone in London was delighted to receive him and own him as king. But Henry and Margaret were in the north with many friends, and he followed them thither to Towton Moor, where, in a snow storm, began the most cruel and savage battle of all the war. Edward gained the victory, and nobody was spared, or made prisoner—all were killed who could not flee. Poor Henry was hidden among his friends, and Margaret went to seek help in Scotland and abroad, taking her son with her. Once she brought another army and fought at Hexham, but she was beaten again; and before long King Henry was discovered by his enemies, carried to London, and shut up a prisoner in the Tower. His reign is reckoned to have ended in 1461.