Henry VI (1421-1471), king of England (1422-1461, 1470-1471), only son of Henry V and Catherine of Valois, was the youngest (at 9 months) to ascend to the throne of England. He also had the most to look forward to as both the English and French crowns were awaiting him after his father’s exploits in the years just before his birth. He was crowned King of England in 1429, King of France in 1431. His minority was marked by the quality of his guardians and their regard for the institutions they served.
His rule, once he gained the reality of kingship, was a disaster. He proved to be the opposite of his father in all but his piety and love of the arts. He was the antithesis of the Plantagenet king. He was the first Norman-Angevin king not to participate in battle against foreign forces. He was vacillating, he was not interested in governance, he ignored the chivalric code at the time of its greatest importance, and he took heed of the latest advice (which, after 1445, was usually that of the clique led by his wife, Margaret of Anjou and her favourite, William de la Pole, duke of Suffolk.) He was also given to mental instability, inherited from his maternal grandfather, Charles VI of France.
He assumed personal rule in 1437, six years after the death of Joan of Arc at a time when the French were starting to extricate themselves from the successes of Henry V. When English prestige and morale required a leader of character, Henry was more inclined towards cultural pursuits. By the 1450s - partly due to his unpopular decision in 1448, (at Margaret’s request) to cede control of the county of Maine to the French king - certain barons began agitating for Henry to be replaced by Richard, duke of York, next in line to the throne. Their cause was strengthened in 1453 by Henry’s first bout of madness and widespread anger at the loss of Gascony.
Open conflict began in 1455 at St. Albans and marks the start of the dynastic strife in England between the houses of Lancaster and York and their supporters, known as the Wars of the Roses. Henry was forced to bring Richard into government; however Margaret was able to persuade her husband to dismiss Richard the next year. Open conflict again broke out in 1459, Henry was captured at Northampton the following year, and forced to accept Richard as his heir.
Hostilities continued, however, and ended in Towton in March 1461, with the defeat of the Lancastrian forces and the exile of Henry and Margaret to Scotland. Richard had died in battle at Wakefield in December 1460 and his son became king of England as Edward IV.
Henry was captured in northern England in 1465 and imprisoned in the Tower of London until 1470, when the political situation again changed (see Richard Neville) and he was released and restored to the throne. However, after Edward's victories at Barnet (14 March) and Tewkesbury (4 May), he was returned to the Tower, and put to death on the 21st May 1471. His only son, Edward, Prince of Wales, (born 1453) had died and Margaret captured at Tewkesbury. Edward IV regained the throne. Henry's body was buried in Chertsey Abbey but moved to St. George Chapel, Windsor in 1484 by Richard III because of a growing veneration of his memory. Henry VII was to make a failed attempt at sainthood.
Henry VI’s immediate legacy was a kingdom in the middle of a major civil war, suffering lack of prestige abroad and morale at home from the loss of its French dominions (Calais alone remained.) Many of the country’s ruling class were dead or dispossessed and more were to follow, because the conflict did not end with his death. His long term place in history, though, is assuaged by his patronage of the arts and learning. Institutions that have become synonymous with England – Eton College and King's College, Cambridge, numerous abbeys chapels and churches and the English grammar school as an institution, were all beneficiaries of his piety and interest.
It is an irony of history that this least Arthurian of kings died in the same year as Sir Thomas Malory, the man whose Morte d’Arthur was written to reflect the high point of the chivalric ethos and would bring the legends surrounding King Arthur and his knights to posterity.
For the plays by William Shakespeare, see The First Part of King Henry VI, The Second Part of King Henry VI and The Third Part of King Henry VI. The plays portray King Henry as a weak, yet honest King.