‘Yes, Yes, Yes!’
by Chris Given-Wilson
Yale University Press, 2016
Nineteen years after the Yale University Press’ English Monarchs series published Nigel Saul’s biography of King Richard II, the latest volume in the series is Chris Given-Wilson’s biography of Henry, the man who succeeded Richard and became the first Lancastrian king of England, Henry IV.
This new volume is a 600-page doorstop of an account, by far the most serious and impressive biography of Henry IV ever written (surpassing Ian Mortimer’s 2007 Henry IV: The Righteous King in both the breadth of its research and the very attractive pointed solemnity of its rhetoric). And it faces an uphill task from its very first page. The 14-year reign of Henry IV is a strenuous but sorry interval, unfairly lost between two great looming shadows and almost thoroughly obscured by a third. Henry was born at Bolingbroke Castle in 1367 (and often thereafter called “Henry Bolingbroke”), the son of the illustrious John of Gaunt, who was in turn the son of the mighty Edward III, the ultimate tough act to follow. And Henry Bolingbroke was himself the father of the Duke of Cornwall, who went on to become King Henry V, the ultimate tough act to precede. And hovering over all of it is Shakespeare, whose plays Richard II, Henry IV Part 1 & 2, and of course Henry V, in all of which Bolingbroke features as a major character – indeed, the longest treatment of any one character Shakespeare ever gives his readers, which is the ultimate tough act to upstage.
But the life and reign of Henry IV deserves the hunt for its own rightful specifics. It was a strained and pivotal short reign, and Given-Wilson, an emeritus professor of history at the University of St. Andrews, does a superb job of providing both ample context and ample color, capturing the casual panoply to which all the kings of the time were addicted:
Henry travelled in great style. Whenever he moved on, heralds and harbingers were sent ahead to proclaim his imminence and requisition supplies and lodgings. Wherever he stayed more than a night or two, local artisans were hired to paint escutcheons of his arms at the door. Riding his favoured white courser, preceded by Thomas his trumpeter, attended by two dozen knights and esquires on horseback with a baggage train bringing up the rear, his entourage generally covered between fifteen and twenty miles a day but could move faster if required … Henry was also accompanied by a small but growing menagerie of curious and exotic beasts: he acquired an ostrich in Bohemia, a ‘popinjay’ (parrot) in Italy as a gift for his wife Mary, and a leopard, probably a present from the kind of Cyprus.
Henry and Richard grew up together; they were cousins and friends at Court, on progresses throughout the kingdom, and on the jousting pitch. And yet the bond was curiously reptilian in the way of so many relationships forged in the spotlight of power. Each young man had an open and generous nature, but where Henry was forthright, Richard was reserved; where Henry was stridingly athletic, Richard was mincing and a touch soft; where Henry laughed most readily at his own very real shortcomings, Richard sniggered at the imagined shortcomings of stronger people; it was easy for even his enemies to imagine Henry kissing a dog squarely on the snout; Richard they all too readily imagined kicking a cat when he thought nobody was watching. They estimated each other with all the clarity of sibling rivalry, but without the little end-of-the-day accommodations of actual siblings.
Henry saw clearly, for example, that Richard was a bad king, a Machiavel, a tyrant. When a group of powerful noblemen, the so-called Lords Appellant, organized an attack on the coterie of royal favorites with which Richard had surrounded himself, and then a year later, in 1387, when those same Lords Appellant raised an actual insurrection against the King, Henry joined them, perhaps thinking that a tyrant defanged would be a tyrant domesticated. And when Richard eventually won back his power a decade later, he spared Henry, perhaps thinking that a traitor pardoned is a traitor purified. Although other Lords Appellant were harshly punished or killed, Henry was restored to royal favor, his already fabulous wealth increased. Richard’s generosity had an oily tincture to it, but it ultimately bought him nothing. Henry went on to enjoy his “gadling days” leading a company of freebooters on mercenary campaigns on the Continent, where he cut a great dash. He took a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. But neither he nor Richard had changed.
In 1398, Henry made a series of accusations against the Earl of Mowbray, including that he had killed the King’s uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, an awkward contention for Richard, already uncomfortably associated with his uncle’s suspicious death. “Simply to talk of Gloucester’s murder was, in a sense, to point the finger at the king,” Given-Wilson writes, “for it was his contention that Gloucester had died a natural death.” It was, as our author notes, a “calculated gamble” on Henry’s part:
Henry may have hoped that Richard would take fright and proceed to judgment against Mowbray forthwith, hoping to avoid any further discussion of the question, but would Mowbray then plead that he had been acting on the king’s orders? It was to neither man’s advantage to have the matter discussed …
Henry and Mowbray engaged to settle their dispute through trial by combat, but at the crucial final moment, Richard intervened to call off the combat and instead banished both men from England; he was encouraged in this course of action by none other than John of Gaunt, who angrily pointed out to him that Henry was no good. And when John of Gaunt died, Richard decided to interfere in the otherwise automatic process of Henry’s inheritance. He took the enormous proceeds into his own hands and required Henry, stewing in France, to plead for them.
It was not simply that there was widespread unease about the legality of deposing an anointed king, although that was certainly the case. Equally germane was that, as king-in-waiting, Henry had no wish to concede at the outset that it was lawful for the estates of the realm (let alone parliament) to depose a king contrary to his wishes; hence the insistence on the voluntary nature of Richard’s resignation, although as is made clear by an independent eyewitness account of the meetings in the Tower and at Westminster on 28-29 September, this was a fiction. According to this source, ‘The Manner of King Richard’s Renunciation’, when asked if he was willing to abdicate, the king became ‘greatly incensed’ and refused utterly to do so, declaring that ‘he would like to have it explained to him how it was that he could resign the crown, and to whom’.
Richard’s sullen bewilderment was understandable but every bit as fruitless as would be similar mewed objections made by King Charles I two centuries later. When the notice of his alleged renunciation was read out to the assembled estates and they were asked whether they accepted Richard’s resignation, they responded in a chorus: “Yes, yes, yes!” Richard went into a secluded captivity from which he emerged a few months later feet-first. With the body strung up on display in the old St. Paul’s Cathedral, Henry circulated the story that Richard had starved himself to death out of sadness at losing his crown and kingdom. It’s theoretically possible that there was an Englishman somewhere in the land who believed this.
As Henry Tudor, the man who took the crown from a later King Richard and founded a dynasty, could have told the new King Henry IV, usurpers have no peace on their stolen thrones. Henry not only faced aggression from abroad in every direction – including, most picturesquely, from the Welsh warlord Owain Glyn Dwr – but he also dealt with well-organized insurrections throughout the whole of his reign. It’s a testament to capabilities of his family line, the Lancastrian branch of the Plantagenet family, the facility for ruthless multi-tasking that he was able to crush such rebellions, execute their ringleaders, and still rule a Court full of art and outward gaiety, still conduct complicated diplomacy with practically every country that wasn’t actively trying to invade him, and still manage to strengthen Parliament without lessening his own kingly prerogatives. This portrait of a working king trying to modernize and stabilize the kingdom he usurped is the quietest part of Given-Wilson’s sprawling life of the man, and yet in many ways it’s the most captivating part as well.
Henry’s health was declining throughout his reign (easy enough for the credulous to see in that the hand of God, although as always, no explanation was offered for why that hand wasn’t extended earlier, in this case to support Richard on his throne), and he died in 1413, aged 45. Irked into action by apocryphal legends that Henry was suffering from leprosy, historians have spent a good deal of time and energy speculating on some more likely, less Scriptural medical explanation. Given-Wilson offers readers the peculiarly gruesome little detail that Henry’s body was examined – in 1832! – and found to be in possession of intact nasal cartilage which, as anybody familiar with the heartbreaking ravages of leprosy can attest, would have been extremely unlikely if Henry really had been afflicted. Our author’s speculations run to more complicated, though no less revolting, explanations:
Clearly this was something more disabling than a skin condition: perhaps a circulatory problem which weakened his heart, perhaps a chronic intestinal condition following his prolapsed rectum. His collapses were not strokes, for his brain seems to have been unaffected and his resolve to govern insofar as he could was undimmed.
In any case, Henry wasted away, his skin covered with raw, flaming patches, his eyes red and scratchy, his limbs like sticks. He collapsed in Westminster Abbey, mouthed the expected deathbed pieties, and died on March 20, 1413. His son, a Lancaster to his fingertips, was absolutely ready to carry on.
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston. His reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, and The Christian Science Monitor. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.