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Henry VI

(1421—1471) king of England and lord of Ireland, and duke of Aquitaine

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king of England (1422–61 and 1470–1). Henry VI was the youngest king of England ever to ascend the throne; the only one ever to be crowned king of France; and arguably the worst, who inherited two kingdoms and lost both. His reign is divided into three parts. The first is his minority (1422–37); the second is his active majority (1437–53); and the third is the period of his mental incapacity (1453 until his death). Given the inherent dangers, Henry's minority was remarkably successful. Fifteen years later not only was Henry still on the throne (he was crowned king of England in 1429, king of France in 1431), but his kingdom was not unduly lawless, the crown was solvent, and a substantial part of Henry V's conquests in France remained in Lancastrian hands.

It was a cruel trick of fate to provide Henry V with a son who was the very antithesis of the martial traditions of the house of Lancaster. Henry VI proved to be improvident, malleable, vacillating, uninterested in the arts of government, and, above all, antipathetic to the chivalric world his ancestors had adorned. The defining moment came in 1440 when at 18 he had the opportunity to take the field in Normandy. Instead he sent his cousin the duke of York as his lieutenant, devoting himself to the foundation of Eton College. Within ten years the government of the kingdom had fallen into the hands of an unscrupulous court faction led by William de la Pole, duke of Suffolk, royal debts were mounting, and Normandy was lost. In 1450 the regime was shaken by Cade's revolt, the most widespread popular rising since 1381.

Henry VI fell into a coma in August 1453. He recovered his senses just before Christmas 1454, but was permanently impaired. By 1459 royal government was almost totally powerless, the administration of the law had collapsed, and the crown was bankrupt. In the civil war that erupted Henry was a passive onlooker. In 1461 he became the victim when he was deposed by the victorious Edward IV. But his life was spared. There was no sentiment in this. Throughout the 1460s the hope of his cause was carried by his only son and heir Edward, in exile in France; killing Henry would only have promoted a more plausible Lancastrian claimant. In 1470 he was restored to the throne for six months. Coming out of the Tower for rare public appearances, he was a pitiful sight. But the death of the prince of Wales at Tewkesbury in 1471 sealed his own fate, and a few days later he was done to death.

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