Henry VI, Long Reigned and Lost All

Queen Catherine of Valois gave birth to the future King Henry VI on 6 December 1421 at Windsor Castle.

Young-Henry6-Crowned

The queen would have given birth like any other woman of her era, with midwives attending and with her ladies to assist them. Medieval midwives were, in spite of modern calumny about them, very good at their jobs. For one thing, they knew to wash their hands when delivering a baby, which the medical profession wouldn’t pick up on until the 1870s. Obviously midwives didn’t know what “germs” were, but they through that dirt an/or foul odors brought sickness and thus they were very clean in their habits in order to prevent disease.

Medieval midwives were also skilled in delivering even difficult birthing presentations, so Queen Catherine was in good hands for her delivery. Historical records show that on average only one percent of women died from giving birth. This is, of course, an astronomically high number of women when compared to the maternal mortality rate today, but considering the absolute minimum of tools the women had to work with their achievements are incredibly impressive.  Furthermore, doctors would not be able to best or even equal the midwives success rate until the 1920’s.

medieval birth 3

After the usual amount of agony, Queen Catherine delivered a beautiful, healthy, golden-haired prince came into the world, much to the rejoicing of England. The baby was named Henry, after his father, King Henry V.

Henry’s birth at Windsor was strange only in that his father had theoretically forbidden Catherine to go to Windsor for her lying in because of a prophesy warning that “Henry born at Monmouth, shall small time reign and much get, but Henry born at Windsor shall long reign and lose all.” So why did the queen ignore her husband and go to Windsor to have her baby? And why, when a boy was born, did she name him “Henry”, rather than something like “William” which would have broken the prophesy?

The simplest answer is that the prophesy was probably made by rumor AFTER the adult King Henry VI had lost his kingdom. There is nothing like 20/20 hindsight to ‘foretell’ the future!

Henry VI being crowned King of France as a child

However, if it was a real prediction that Catherine of Valois knew about before her son’s arrival … then the plot thickens considerably. Would Catherine of Valois have deliberately given birth at Windsor in hopes her son would lose the crown of France? Why would any mother chose to lessen her son’s riches?

Well, in this case her son’s lands were actually the birthright of her brother, the future Charles VII of France. Catherine’s husband had taken the French crown by force, using the scorched-earth tactics of of chevauchée as his forces raped and pillaged their way through Catherine’s native land. She had little reason to love her husband, whom she was forced to wed as part of the Treaty of Troyes in 1420. Even if she had loved her son, which she seems to have done, why would she want him to have France as well as England? Why would she want to see France subjugated by English lords who had decimated the country? What if her son grew up as ruthless as his father? What would happen to France then?

Harfleur during 100 years war

In the end, King Henry VI could not have been more different than his father. Where Henry V was a military genius and warrior bent on conquest, King Henry VI was a gentle, pious man with little taste for conflict. Henry’s sweet temper and devotion to religious matters would have been enough of a risk for a medieval king in a time when only the strongest and toughest rulers could survive and keep their throne, but Henry was also mentally ill. The poor guy was doomed, prophesy or not. 

As for the prophesy … King Henry VI would indeed reign long, a total of 40 years — from 31 August 1422 to 4 March 1461 and again briefly from 3 October 1470 until his murder the following spring. He would also lose all – first the lands in France his father had conquered, then his kingdom to King Edward IV, then finally his son Edward of Westminster and his life to the Yorkists in 1471. He was 49 years old when he died and had been king from his infancy, but his lifelong rule had brought this kindly man very little happiness.

henry VI from warwick shire hall

Henry VI was remembered lovingly after his death. Polydore Vergil wrote that Henry VI had been “a man of mild and plain-speaking disposition, who preferred peace before wars, quietness before troubles, honesty before utility… there was not in this world a more pure, honest, and more holy creature”. The populace of England soon began to consider him a saint, although there wasn’t too much fanfare made about it as long as the family who murdered him was in power. 

When Henry VII became king the new Tudor monarch petitioned three successive popes to canonize his half-uncle, even compiling a book listing 174 miracles attributed to the former monarch between 1471 and 1495 to submit as evidence. King Henry IV “was commemorated in churches and cathedrals, in stained-glass windows or on rood screens, with votive lights burning before his image … His cult became so popular that the abbots of Westminster and Chertsey both tried to secure possession of his body. Henry VII planned the great chapel that he built at Westminster as a shrine for his saintly kinsman”.

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