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6th-century imaginary painting of Henry IV, at the National Portrait Gallery, London. (Public Domain)

SCIENCE & TECH: Henry IV: Crown, Conflict, Consequence

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Henry IV of England, reigning from 1399 to 1413, stands as a figure of intrigue amidst the tumultuous tapestry of English history. His ascent to the throne, shrouded in political machinations and challenges to legitimacy, heralded an era of both promise and peril. Henry’s reign witnessed the clash of rival factions, religious upheaval, and the ever-present specter of rebellion. Yet, amidst the chaos, Henry sought to assert his authority and stabilize a realm teetering on the brink of collapse. Henry’s reign may have been relatively short, but it was one of England’s most eventful and sowed the seeds for things to come including the War of the Roses and the rise of the Tudors.

Henry IV – So Many Rebellions, So Little Time

Henry IV was likely born in the April of 1366 or 1367 AD at Lincolnshire’s Bolingbroke Castle, earning him the name Henry Bolingbroke. His father was John of Gaunt, the son of King Edward III of England; his mother was Blanche of Lancaster, the daughter of England’s richest and most powerful peer, Henry of Grossmont. 

6th-century imaginary painting of Henry IV, at the National Portrait Gallery, London. (Public Domain)

In 1376 John’s brother and the next in line to the throne, Edward the Black Prince, died. As Edward III’s eldest surviving son it looked like John would make a claim for the throne when his father died. However, John was deeply unpopular as he had supported corrupt nobles and officials in the past.

These mistakes meant that when Edward III died in 1377 John’s claim was overlooked and the throne went to the Black Prince’s son, Richard II (who was just 10 years old). While his father’s claim had failed, Henry was still Edward III’s grandson – putting him in a good position to make his own claim later on. For the time being, thanks to both his parents’ lineages Henry was given his first title as a child, the Earl of Derby. It was the first of many.

Before settling down, Henry lived a somewhat adventurous life. As a young noble he enjoyed participating in medieval tournaments and did quite well in them. The young man was known for his bravery, piety, and love of the arts, especially literature. He campaigned against the pagans twice in Lithuania during the Northern Crusades, fighting alongside the Teutonic Knights. One of his last acts before focusing on the throne was a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

In 1381, at the age of fifteen, Henry was married off to twelve-year-old Mary of Bohun. They were married for thirteen years until Mary died during childbirth in 1394. Their most well-known child was their son Henry, who would later become Henry V.

Henry did not rush back into marriage and waited nine years to marry again. When he did it was to Joan of Navarre, who would become Queen of England next to her husband.

Henry and Richard II – A Complicated Relationship

Henry and Richard II were first cousins and as children had been friends. In 1377 they were both admitted to the Order of the Garter and served in it together. One would think the two might have remained friends. They didn’t.

In 1387 Henry, now one of England’s most powerful barons, joined the Lords Appellants’ rebellion against Richard. They had taken umbrage with how Richard favored Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford, and had made him Duke of Ireland. The disgruntled nobles first made a move by attacking and defeating de Vere at the Battle of Radcot Bridge, just outside of Oxford.

Following this, the five Lords Appellants, of which Henry was one, called the “Merciless Parliament” to take the crown away from Richard. The attempt, however, ultimately failed and Richard quickly took back power. After doing so, most of those involved in the rebellion were either executed by the young king or exiled.

Somehow, Henry escaped punishment and instead was promoted from Earl of Derby to Duke of Hereford. This was likely a clever political maneuver by the young Richard and an attempt to keep one of the nation’s most powerful men loyal to him. It worked, for a time.

The painting depicts Henry IV of England (left) entering London with Richard II of England (right) as his captive. (Public Domain)

The painting depicts Henry IV of England (left) entering London with Richard II of England (right) as his captive. (Public Domain)

Henry made himself scarce for the next several years. He spent 1390 in Lithuania besieging Vilnius with the Teutonic knights. During this period, he showed his piety by bringing captured local women and children to Konigsberg where they were converted. The siege ultimately failed but the crusade helped earn Henry a positive military reputation.

He returned to Lithuania in 1392 with a small army of 100 men, costing his family £4,360 ($6000). Much like the siege of Vilnius, this campaign was also a failure, and the Lithuanians repelled the crusaders. Following this Henry set off for Jerusalem where he made offerings at the Holy Sepulcher and at the Mount of Olives.

Following these travels Henry returned to England and straight into his next Richard-related crisis. In 1398 Henry fell out with another powerful noble, Thomas De Mowbray, 1st Duke of Norfolk. He had heard the duke making disparaging remarks about Richard and accused him of treason (which was a bit ironic). 

Following this, the two men agreed to undergo a duel of honor in the form of a jousting tournament at Gosford Green near Caludon Castle in September 1398. Just as the duel was about to kick off, however, Richard stepped forward and put a stop to it. Instead, Mowbray was exiled for life and Henry for ten years. The two men had been the only surviving Lord Appellants and the clever Richard had orchestrated the whole thing. Sometimes revenge is a dish best served cold.

Richard wasn’t finished getting his revenge though. On 3 February 1399, John of Gaunt died. Henry should have inherited his father’s lands automatically, but Richard canceled this inheritance and took the lands for himself. If Henry wanted his inheritance he would have to beg Richard for it, which wouldn’t be easy since the king had also extended Henry’s exile to life.

Henry IV crowned on 13 October 1399. (Archivist/Adobe Stock)

Henry IV crowned on 13 October 1399. (Archivist/Adobe Stock)

Taking the Throne

Richard may have thought he was being clever, but he had made a miscalculation – Henry didn’t take this slap in the face lying down. Several months after his father died, he raised a small army of around 300 men and left Boulogne to take back what was his.

As it turned out Henry probably didn’t even need that many men. When he arrived back in England Richard was away in Ireland and many nobles welcomed him back with open arms.

Richard wasn’t a popular king. Under his leadership, England was losing the Hundred Years War against France and the Crown had lost most of its lands in France. On top of this England was hurting financially thanks to French pirates running rampant in the Channel and Richard had alienated many nobles with his overly controlling approach to government.

On the other hand, Henry was a proven military leader who had royal blood. Arguably the only reason he wasn’t already on the throne was because his father had been unpopular. Richard was about to have an unbelievably tough time.

Richard returned from Ireland in August 1399 and immediately went into hiding. He was quickly caught, however, and thrown into the Tower of London. A month later, on 29 September, he was “encouraged” to sign his own abdication, and the next day Parliament nominated Henry to replace him.

Henry became Henry IV on 13 October 1399. Perhaps a sign of things to come, tales tell how during the lavish ceremony Henry dropped the gold coin English kings traditionally offered to God as part of the ceremony. The coin rolled away and was lost for good. Not a good omen.

On 14 February 1400, Richard was conveniently found murdered in Pontefract Castle. The fact some nobles loyal to Richard had been discussing putting him back on the throne obviously had nothing to do with his mysterious death. Henry had the man’s body put on display in the Tower of London as a warning to other potential rivals (even though he supposedly hadn’t had him killed).

A painting of Richard II in Prison. (J. Coghlan / CC BY-SA 4.0)

A painting of Richard II in Prison. (J. Coghlan / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Rebellions Against Henry IV

What goes around tends to come around – a lesson that Henry would soon learn. In September 1400, just a few short months into his reign, Henry faced his first rebellion when Owain Glyn Der announced himself as Prince of Wales. 

This was no small problem. Owain had the backing of The Earl of March whose son, Edmund Mortimer, just happened to be a descendant of Edward III. This made him a possible claimant to Henry’s throne. Owain was also backed by the King of France, who was always happy to cause issues for the English. Compounding Henry’s troubles even further, a group of barons back in England were plotting their own coup.

Henry decided it was best to tackle the English barons first. He met them in battle on July 21, 1403, at the Battle of Shrewsbury and came out victorious. Henry fought in the battle personally and two of the rebellion’s leaders, Sir Percy, and Worcester, were killed. This isn’t to say the battle was a slam dunk, other rebel leaders survived and decided to change tactics.

Battle of Shrewsbury, an illustration from Pennant's 'A tour in Wales', 1781 (Public Domian)

Battle of Shrewsbury, an illustration from Pennant’s ‘A tour in Wales’, 1781 (Public Domian)

Leaders like the Earl of Northumberland and the Earl of March teamed up with Archbishop Scrope of York and Owain Glyn Dwr to form a new rebellion. Rather than one swift takeover, they planned to carve Henry’s kingdom up one piece at a time – starting with Wales. King Henry soon discovered this plot and the Earl of Northumberland escaped to Scotland.

The next few years were relatively uneventful. Tensions simmered in the background as rebel nobles continued plotting but there were no more battles of note. That was until 1408 when the English and Welsh rebels attacked the crown once again. This culminated in February 1408 with the Battle of Bramham Moor. 

Henry was once again victorious and had both the traitor Archbishop and the Earl of Northumberland executed. The following year Henry finally put down the Welsh rebellion by capturing what was left of the rebels at Harlech Castle. Their leader, Owain, escaped into the mountains and what became of him remains a mystery.

While not a rebellion, per se, Henry had one other important enemy to contend with during this period – his parliament. Things came to a head in 1406 when Parliament sat for an unusually long time while it debated the King’s expenditures in a period now known as the “Long Parliament”. 

Parliament was unhappy with Henry for several reasons. It felt he had taken too long to deal with the English and Welsh rebels, something that was not just embarrassing, but costly. Henry had raised taxes to pay for all the fighting over the years, but these extra funds hadn’t produced the desired results in France or Wales. He had also failed to curb his private expenditures, which parliament deemed excessive.

In 1406 Parliament put its foot down and refused to let Henry raise taxes again unless he sat down and listened to their concerns. While ultimately nothing dramatic directly came from the “Long Parliament” it was a crucial step in the emboldening of the English Parliament and the weakening of the traditional English monarchy. 

Out With the Old

The rebellions had also caused Henry another unexpected problem – his son, also named Henry. The younger Henry had led the attack at Harlech that led to the fall of the Welsh rebellion and captured Owain’s son. The younger Henry also led campaigns in France during this time to capitalize on the chaos caused by the declining mental health of King Charles VI of France.

Henry was never a particularly popular king but toward the end of his reign, he had become increasingly unpopular. Raising taxes to pay for rebellions you sparked in the first place while bickering with parliament will do that to a king. His son, on the other hand, was a rising star.

Everything the younger Henry did made his father look bad. Making things worse, he was an outspoken critic of his father’s stance on France and a fierce proponent of stronger military action against England’s oldest enemy. Did Henry need to worry about another rebellion? This time led by his ambitious young namesake?

He was saved from that embarrassment by dying on 20 March 1413. He was just 45 or 46 years old but had been ill for some time – plagued by a skin disease believed to be either leprosy or eczema. In the years preceding his death, he had suffered a series of serious attacks believed by some historians to have been perhaps epilepsy or even strokes. His mental health had also begun to fail during this time as he became haunted by his treatment of his childhood friend, Richard.

Henry IV was buried at Canterbury Cathedral and swiftly replaced by his son Henry V who was crowned on 9 April 1413. Henry V went on to become one of England’s great kings, defeating the French at the Battle of Agincourt and capturing both Normandy and Paris. His reign was cut short by illness in 1422.

Conclusion

Depending on which way you look at it, Henry IV was both the hero and the villain of his own story. On the one hand, he betrayed his old friend Richard II and led a rebellion against him. On the other, he had good reasons for doing so. As a young noble Henry seems to have been more interested in going on adventures than claiming the throne. 

That was until Richard stole Henry’s birthright, causing Henry to truly rebel against him. Henry may have triumphed over Richard but was forced to spend much of his reign fighting to maintain a grip on his throne. By the time he had beaten all of his enemies, he was wracked by ill health and had less than a year left. If nothing else, Henry’s reign is a lesson that oftentimes being King was one of the least enviable jobs in England.

Top image: Henry IV and Joan of Navarre, detail of their effigies in Canterbury Cathedral. Source: Nilfanion/CC BY-SA 4.0

By Robbie Mitchell





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