Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Kingdoms Are but Cares

Henry VI is an interesting figure. The only son of Henry V, he came to the English throne at the age of nine months, and the French throne shortly afterward. This is an obvious recipe for a weak king -- a king so young he will spend all his early years entirely in the power of others, and who has moreover inherited a tangled political situation -- in this case the Hundred Years War, which was about to begin a major reversal due to a certain Jeanne d'Arc -- about which he could not do anything. Even making it to adulthood, such a king has already started adulthood in a state of great dependence, and strength of rule does not come of such things. What made it worse was that the young king, when he came into his full powers at the age of sixteen, was shy and averse to conflict; sufficiently strong-willed nobles could pretty much do as they pleased. To add to the problems, in 1453, in his early thirties, he had a mental breakdown over the war with the French, which by that point was going so badly almost nothing remained of the massive French territory that had been gained by his father. For an entire year he was almost completely nonresponsive to everything around him. When he regained his senses on Christmas, 1454, he found himself with a court of nobles who were not particularly interested in obeying his commands. The War of the Roses exploded all around him. He was thoroughly defeated by Edward of York -- now King Edward IV -- and had to flee to Scotland; Henry himself was soon captured, and his resourceful wife, Margaret, had to find a way to win his throne back. This, with a little luck, she managed, but Henry, still a very weak and dependent king, lasted less than six months. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London; exactly when and how he died is unknown, but he died by a blow to the head, probably in May of 1471.

Posthumous history would be kinder to Henry than life had been, and one of the ways it treated him more kindly was by spreading his reputation for piety. He was known to be quite devout, and his death had the overtones of martyrdom. Stories of miracles started collecting around his tomb, and it became, for a while, a popular pilgrimage site. This reputation was encouraged by the Tudors, who started advocating for his canonization. All of this infant tradition of veneration ended with Henry VIII and the overthrow of so many things in his wake, but popular devotion for a while ran far ahead of the slow process of formal canonization; in England on the verge of the Henrician reformation, Henry was already venerated as a saint. Some prayers were written for him:

As far as hope will yn lengthe
On the Kyng Henry I fix my mynde
That be thy prayer I may have strenkith
In vertuous life my warks to bynde
Though I to thè have been unkynde
Off wilfulnresse long tyme and space
Off forgeveness I aske the grace
Hop hathe me movyde to seke his place
In trust of socor thyn old properte
Was never man cam beforne thy face
Rebellion or oder yn adversitie
Off thyn compassion commaunded them goe free
Now for thi pety to hym that all schall deme
Pray for me thy servaunt and pilgreme.

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