Henry IV

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Not to be confused with Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor

Henry IV

King of England
In office
September 30, 1399 – March 20, 1413
Preceded by Richard II
Succeeded by Henry V

Born c. April 1367
Old Bolingbroke, Lincolnshire
Died March 20, 1413
Westminster Abbey

Henry IV (1367-1413), King of England (1399-1413), was born at Bolingbroke, Lincolnshire, the oldest surviving son of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and Blanche of Lancaster. He is the “Bolingbroke” of the Shakespeare plays, and the de facto founder of the House of Lancaster, one of the two parties contending for the English throne in the "Wars of the Roses" that would engulf England during the mid- to late 15th century. He was the cousin of Richard II, who succeeded their grandfather, Edward III, as English monarch in 1377. In his youth, Henry was known as "Henry of Bolingbroke" after the place of his birth, though he was also titled "Earl of Derby." In either 1380 or 1381 he was married to Mary de Bohun (c. 1369–1394), with whom he would eventually have six children. In response to the incompetent and self-aggrandizing rule of Richard II's court, Henry became one of the Lords Appellant in the “Merciless Parliament” of 1388, forcing Richard to sack some of his most unpopular advisers. An angry Richard soon retaliated against the Lords, and Henry found it advisable to leave England, spending the next several years in continental Europe and once journeying to Jerusalem. Back in England in the 1390s he found sufficient favour with the king to be created the Earl of Hereford, but they fell out again over a quarrel between Henry and another of the Lords Appellant and Henry was banished.

In 1399, John of Gaunt died, and Richard confiscated the Lancastrian estates. Joined by others who had suffered under the king's autocracy, he took advantage of Richard's absence in Ireland and invaded. Richard was forced to abdicate and was incarcerated in Pontefract Castle, where he died – probably murdered - the following year.

For most of the next nine years he fought to keep his crown – against Richard's supporters in 1400; against the Welsh under Owen Glendower (1400-1409); the Percy lords (1403-1408) and crushing a resurrection organised by Richard Scrope, the Archbishop of York in 1405. In 1408 Henry fell ill. There is conjecture that he had leprosy, though stress is as likely a cause. Certainly there was much discussion at the time that he was being punished for his execution of Scrope. It was to get steadily worse, and was to cause his death. Increasingly in the last nine years of his reign the kingdom was effectively ruled by his eldest son, Henry of Monmouth, the future Henry V.[1]

He had literary and musical tastes, was said to be chivalrous; was an able administrator and won fame as the foremost jouster of his age. He was a crusader, joining the Teutonic Knights in Lithuania in 1390, and, during the next three years, visited Prussia and made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. His successes in the almost constant troubles of the first years of his reign are put down to ability, political acumen and the (well rewarded, no doubt) loyalty of his supporters. Like his grandfather, he was not against conciliation for the greater good.

It has been said that Henry suffered guilt for the forced abdication and regicide of Richard II, and the execution of Scrope; and had planned another pilgrimage to the Holy Land. As death became imminent, he had his bed moved into the Jerusalem Chamber in Westminster Abbey where he died on March 20, 1413.

The succession of his eldest son was accepted by all, and a new dynasty was established; author Alison Weir summarizes his reign by saying that "Henry left England in a more prosperous and in a more settled state than he had found it."[2] However, the fact remained that Henry IV was a usurper whose claim to the throne was of more than questionable legitimacy. With the acts of 1399–1400, a precedent had been set that would lead to much turbulence in the years ahead.

Henry's reign has been most famously depicted in the Shakespeare plays, The First Part of King Henry IV and The Second Part of King Henry IV.


  1. The Plantagenet Encyclopedia. The Oxford Companion to British History.
  2. Alison Weir, The Wars of the Roses (New York: Random House, 1995), p. 53.