Within the context of the period 1337-1471, to what extent can Henry VI be held primarily responsible for the Wars of the Roses 1455-1471?

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Emily Carleton

Within the context of the period 1337-1471, to what extent can Henry VI be held primarily responsible for the Wars of the Roses 1455-1471?

When Henry VI came to the throne in 1431, people already had high expectations of him. At only 8 years old, he had already broken tradition by becoming the first king to rule over both England and France. However, when the minority council finally permitted Henry VI to rule of his own accord, he seemed to be a hopeless King, making severe mistakes that ultimately contributed to beginning of the Wars of the Roses in the period 1455 to 1471. However, there is some debate amongst historians as to whether Henry VI  can be held primarily to blame for causing the Wars of the Roses, or whether other factors such as the over mighty subjects, the feuds between noble, and the actions of Margaret of Anjou were greater contributing factors to the outbreak of war.

Henry VI’s personality has been criticised by many historians as being unsuited to the role of king. Contemporary interpretations of Henry are that he was terrible at ruling, as he was “utterly devoid of wit or spirit” (according to Pope Pius II). Subjects who were condemned for speaking ill of the king in the 1440s and 1450s referred to him as “a sheep”. Victorian views on Henry VI were that he lacked the qualities required for successful kingship, although at that time he was still praised for being “a pious, humane and Christian character”. The historian Antonia Fraser concludes that “these were not the attributes of a king and the truth is that Henry had no real wish to act like one”. This suggests that henry’s personality was overall, entirely ill-suited for the role of kingship. Henry’s chaplain  John Blacman (writing during the reign of Henry Tudor), although writing somewhat positively about Henry VI, chooses to avoid mentioning Henry VI’S ability to rule and instead focuses on how religious Henry VI is, describing him as “chaste and pure from the beginning of his days”, and presenting him as a pious and puritanical king. The fact that Blacman puts emphasis on his pious character rather than his ability to rule, suggests that Henry VI was a poor ruler. Dockray comments “during the reign of Henry VII, at a time when the king was hoping to secure his predecessor’s canonisation”, so this source cannot be trusted. Robin Neillands concludes that “The accounts of the King’s goodness are largely based on his devotion to religion, at the expense of more pressing secular matters concerning the government of the realm”.

The role of the minority council is also an important factor to consider when assessing whether Henry VI was primarily to blame. Henry V had, on his deathbed, made the fundamental arrangements for his son’s minority; Duke John of Bedford was to take charge in France as Regent (as Henry VI was too young to rule), and pursue the war against the Dauphin Charles-while hanging on to Normandy at all costs and maintaining the alliance with Philip the Good, and Humphrey Duke of Gloucester was to keep a watchful eye on England. In 1431, Henry VI was crowned king but the ministers ruled in his stead. This minority council ruled until Henry was in his mid-twenties, well over the normal ruling age, which suggests that Henry VI could not be trusted to rule the kingdom effectively. Gillingham, however, paints a very positive portrayal of Henry VI’s minority. He concludes that it was “evidence showing that in fifteenth century England there existed a stable political system, containing in the council an institutional framework within which tensions could be contained and resolved.”

K.B. McFarlane referred to Henry VI as “a baby who grew up to be an imbecile”, and the length of minority supports this view. Contemporary and Yorkist views on Henry VI were that he was a child-like, idiotic king, and that the council made all the decisions for him. The English Chronicle that was published in the 1460s stated that Henry “was simple and led by a covetous council” and “that puppet of a king”. Henry is often criticised for relying too heavily on his council, and continuing to support their decisions. Helen Castor states that “he was proving to be no more capable of leadership as an adult than he had been as an infant”, supporting the view that he was a childlike king incapable of ruing effectively.

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However, other historians have suggested that Henry VI did in fact take an active role in government, and can be seen as primarily to blame, rather than his minority council. The historian Wolffe claims that the documentation Henry VI signed is proof of his heavy involvement in government. His own involvement in the war in France led to defeat and humiliation, as he pursued his own French policy and made a secret deal with Charles VII to surrender Maine and Anjou, meaning that they lost all of France apart from Calais. By doing this, he had removed two key parts ...

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