Shadow King: the Life and Death of Henry VI

Shadow King: The Life and Death of Henry VI by Lauren Johnson
Head of Zeus Publications, 2020, paperback, 700 pages, £12.00
ISBN 978-1784-979645

Henry VI has gone down in history as one of England’s worst kings. Not for being cruel or despotic; on the contrary, his nature was kindly and pliant, peace-loving and deeply devout – qualities that made him likeable as a person but hopeless as a monarch, a faint wavering shadow of his shrewd, martial father. His life would have been very different, and he may have become a better ruler, had he grown to manhood under the guidance of Henry V, this perfect model of the medieval warrior-statesman. Instead, by the latter’s untimely death in 1422 with his French kingdom far from pacified, the infant Henry only received the dire legacy of an unwinnable war, and perpetual bitter conflict between members of his family over the implementation of the late king’s will and their respective powers on the minority council.

Such is the context for the opening chapters of Lauren Johnson’s sympathetic new study, which sets out to ‘explore Henry VI as an evolving individual struggling in an extraordinary situation. In short, to consider him as a man.’ Recently released in paperback, Shadow King is a handsome volume, illustrated with 24 colour plates, family trees of the Houses of Lancaster, Beaufort and York, and three helpful maps, (France 1415 – 53; Wars of the Roses battles 1455 – 71; and 15th century noble landholding in England and Wales).

The well-referenced text falls into logical sections: Henry’s minority 1422 – 37; adult rule to 1453, including his marriage to Margaret of Anjou; political and mental breakdown, culminating in his deposition by Edward IV at Towton in 1461; his fugitive years, short-lived re-adeption, and eventual fate in the Tower of London. A brief ‘Afterlife’ and epilogue conclude the sad, strange stories of this unfortunate king and his queen, followed by two appendices, ‘Where did Henry VI die?’ and ‘Key Characters’, 68 pages of notes, and an extensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources.

Stylistically, some passages read like an historical novel: ‘The inky waters of the River Thames rippled and slid beneath the wherrymen’s oars. In places the peaks of the waves glistened, light falling from the windows of Winchester Palace as bursts of laughter and music echoed out.’ (Page 45). Such imaginative touches bring the text to life for many readers, although my own preference is for Johnson’s straight prose, which I found admirably clear and refreshing. Why gild the lily?

As for content, I particularly enjoyed the first two sections. Johnson makes excellent use of some seldom-used sources to paint a convincing, detailed picture of Henry’s early life. Her exposition of the complex political situations in England and France, (riven by its own civil war between the Armagnacs and Burgundians), and the equally complex personal war between Henry’s kinsmen, is lucid and easy to follow; and she offers some perceptive analyses of the likely effects on an impressionable child of having to perform the rituals of royalty surrounded by such constant conflict and tension. Theoretically wielding absolute power but practically powerless to control his feuding councillors, it’s no wonder that Henry grew up hating discord, and wishing only to please and appease the people closest to him, emotionally or literally.

However, as the story moved into more familiar territory, I felt some disappointment. Plainly no fan of Richard, Duke of York, Johnson gives short shrift to his justifiable reasons for expecting a primary place on Henry’s council/in his confidence, and justifiable chagrin at being passed over for lesser men. York’s assumption of pre-eminence was based on his royal pedigree: descended from the second and fifth sons of Edward III via his mother and father respectively, he was one of England’s wealthiest magnates with a claim to the throne arguably stronger than Henry’s. This was not lost upon the king’s beloved Beaufort kin, a legitimated line sprung from John, Duke of Lancaster’s affair with Kathryn Swynford, who, (along with sundry other jealous rivals), persistently undermined York in Henry’s malleable affections. Had Henry managed to keep his powerful cousin on-side, the Wars of the Roses might never have happened; instead, he progressively alienated York, and wounded his pride, by showing an unfair and obvious partiality for the base-born Beauforts . It seems a shame that Johnson doesn’t extend her even-handed approach to Duke Richard, or treat him as another ‘evolving individual struggling in an extraordinary situation’ who, no less than Henry VI, deserves to be viewed ‘as a man’ trying to do his best for his country, his family and himself.

I was also disappointed by the brief, conventional accounts of the battles of Wakefield and Towton, the great Lancastrian victory followed shortly by the catastrophic defeat which cost Henry his crown, changing his life – and the course of English history – forever. In a work of this magnitude, it’s inevitable that some areas will be less well researched than others; nonetheless, for such a crucial episode, it was frustrating to see some old Wakefield myths perpetuated and enlarged. Like other commentators unfamiliar with the place, Johnson describes Sandal Castle as ‘majestic’ when, as castles go, it’s quite small (Sandal would fit inside the truly majestic Pontefract Castle several times over) and utilitarian. Interestingly, the ‘meagre’ household expenditure of £4 6s 7d for the Christmas – New Year period is cited to show that the castle was poorly provisioned, whereas to me it says precisely the opposite: it was already so well provisioned that little further spending was required. (I say ‘little,’ but the sum in question represents around 18 months – three years’ pay for a labourer, or six months’ pay for a liveried archer – it’s all relative!). This debatable interpretation is then used to present a version of the battle of Wakefield which simply doesn’t make sense: York, Salisbury, Rutland and their men, driven by hunger to hunt in the deer-park ‘north of the River Calder,’ ambushed by the Lancastrian army and slaughtered. Said deer park wasn’t just north of the river – it was the Outwood, some three miles north of Sandal and two miles north of Wakefield city, with its chantry chapel of St Mary perched on the Calder bridge; an unnecessarily long way to go when Sandal Castle had its own deer-park to the south, literally on its threshold, and miles of nearby river for fishing and wild-fowl hunting. (For my personal take on the battle, see http://www.helencox-herstorywriting.co.uk/publications/4539280721 ) I also found her treatment of Towton somewhat superficial, and lacking reference to more recent studies such as those by George Goodwin and Tim Sutherland.

Suffice to say, if I wasn’t such a pro-Yorkist anorak about this period in Wars of the Roses history, these criticisms wouldn’t have occurred, and I would have read the whole book with the same relish as I devoured the earlier sections! So, on the whole, I’m happy to recommend Shadow King as a worthwhile read, an enthralling tragedy which left me moved and thoughtful, and which will make a valuable addition to my bookshelves.

Literature Matters: One of Your Own

One of Your Own: The Life and Death of Myra Hindley by Carol Ann Lee, Mainstream Publishing Company, revised and reprinted 2012; paperback, £8.99, ISBN 9781845976017

I was only a child when the Moors Murders were committed, but I remember them well: the blaring newspaper headlines I was just learning to read, the unnerving mugshots, the black-and-white news on our little TV, the grown-ups talking in hushed tones about the horror of it all. And thanks to the ongoing media obsession with the subject, they remained on the periphery of my consciousness – so when I spotted Carol Ann Lee’s recently updated biography of Myra Hindley in the bookshop, I decided to give it a go.

One of Your Own is a profoundly disturbing, profoundly tragic book. In it, Myra Hindley and Ian Brady are shown in the round as intelligent, gifted people with likeable qualities, (such as their deep love of animals); two people with the potential to do great things with their lives, had they not chosen to murder. More harrowingly, their five victims, three boys and two girls aged from ten to seventeen, appear not just as grainy newsprint images but live, flesh-and-blood young people cherished by their families, their lives, their last days and the hours leading up to their deaths painstakingly (and heartbreakingly) reconstructed. Their murders are discussed as bleakly as the moors themselves, without prurient sensationalism – and include for the first time, a full transcript of Ian Brady’s tape of Lesley Ann Downey recorded shortly before she was forced to pose for indecent photographs and then killed.

The story plays on through the trial, the lives of the murderers in prison and the bereaved families imprisoned by grief, to the eventual disclosure of more murders and the discovery of the bodies of John Kilbride and Pauline Reade; to the death of Myra Hindley and the intermittent searches for the murderers’ last known victim, Keith Bennett. It also discusses the relentless media vilification of Myra Hindley in particular, which may have served to keep her in prison for life, (as she arguably deserved), but also did untold damage by making targets of her wholly innocent parents, sister, and brother-in-law David Smith, whose witnessing and subsequent reporting of Edward Evans’ murder led to the perpetrators’ arrests. And, sadly, the tabloids’ ranting has to date failed in a vital respect, in that the body of Keith Bennett still lies undiscovered on Saddleworth Moor.

Altogether, Carol Ann Lee has pulled off a stunning piece of work. One of Your Own is meticulously researched, admirably even-handed in its treatment of this most painful subject matter, and like all the best biographies, presents its evidence in such a way that the reader is left to draw their own conclusions. Would Ian Brady ever have realised his murderous fantasies if he hadn’t met the perfect foil in Myra Hindley? Possibly. Would she ever have thought of committing murder if she hadn’t met, and fallen fatally in love, with Ian Brady? Almost certainly not. Therefore did she deserve to be so comprehensively demonised because of her sex, seen as somehow worse because ‘women shouldn’t do such things’? In this respect, I think Hindley was unfairly treated… although it doesn’t follow that I think she should have received the parole she endlessly campaigned for. Throughout, she lied to her family, to her supporters, to her God and to herself about the extent of her involvement with the crimes, rather than doing the one thing that might have demonstrated true repentance and secured the release she so desperately sought: coming clean and revealing the whereabouts of all her victims long before Ian Brady forced her hand with his own confessions in 1985.