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 ) 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.

Sandal Castle: Ruination of a Famous Ruin

dscn3857Sandal Castle near Wakefield is well-known to Wars of the Roses history buffs as a favourite residence of Richard, Duke of York, and close to the spot where he and his second son Edmund, Earl of Rutland, met their deaths in battle in December 1460. This, along with its connections to Richard III and its use during the later English Civil War, make the castle a site of local and national heritage significance; and when I published my Wars of the Roses battlefield guidebook Walk Wakefield 1460 in 2011, the place was in fine fettle. Stout timber stairs across the moat and up the motte gave full access to the monument (a couple of years later, stairways down into the moat were added, giving spectacular views of the earthworks), and its Visitor Centre, containing displays on the castle’s history, plus space for educational activities, loos and a shop, was open every Wednesday to Sunday for four hours a day. The site looked tidy and well cared-for, and was a wonderful amenity for the dog-walkers, joggers, local families and visitors from farther afield who came to enjoy its beauty and unique atmosphere (not to mention the bracing winds that always seem to blow there).

Today it’s a very different, and depressing, story. Years of savage cuts to local authority budgets forced Wakefield Council to pare back staffing until the Visitor Centre finally had to close completely; then the stairways to the inner bailey and up the motte became structurally unsound and were blocked off in March this year, limiting permitted access to the perimeter of the monument only.

The consequences were sadly predictable. Lack of access for grounds maintenance means the inner monument is now so overgrown with bushes and weeds that it looks a right mess. Many visitors totally ignore the ‘No Entry’ and warning signs, (or view them as a challenge), and simply scramble or ride mountain bikes up and down the earthworks, damaging the grass and forming highly visible, unsightly tracks. With no staff to warn them off or call the police, they do this quite blatantly; the other day I witnessed several truanting schoolboys climb to the top of the motte, and a ‘carer’ (hah!) lead his special needs charge very deliberately up and down the sides of the moat (proving that some folk really don’t have the sense they were born with). The site has become a magnet for antisocial behaviour, a place for teenagers to congregate at night to booze (leaving their empties behind, of course), intimidate bona fide visitors, and spray their moronic graffiti – yes, recently the stonework was vandalised with purple paint, the work of local yobs well-known to police, who are now bragging about their exploits around the neighbourhood. Most dangerous of all, a group of young adults who should have known better drove a car around the site during the day, putting everyone else present with their children and dogs in danger, and leaving deep wheel ruts in the grass as a lasting trip hazard.

Am I angry? You bet. Who do I blame? Primarily the Government, for consistently starving local authorities of the money to provide essential services, let alone quality of life amenities like heritage (always a soft target at times of austerity). The site abusers: those who lack respect for themselves, for other people’s safety and enjoyment, and for our shared environment and history. (However, I can sympathise with locals whose Council Tax goes in part to pay for Sandal Castle’s upkeep and who are determined to continue accessing the whole site as they always have done, despite the blocked stairways). And for all that I understand Wakefield Council’s financial difficulties, I can’t help feeling frustrated by the flabby, short-sighted, ‘we can’t do that’ approach they seem to have taken, rather than energetically pursuing solutions to this problem. Where is the joined-up thinking? Where is the major public appeal to raise a relatively modest £175,000 to reinstate the walkways? Where is the regional tourism drive to capitalise on the unprecedented levels of national and international interest in the Wars of the Roses since the discovery of Richard III’s remains in 2012? And why is it now falling on unpaid members of the community to kick up a fuss and take action when there are senior and principal council officers receiving good salaries to address issues like this?!

Towton 555: Remembering Palm Sunday

For the first time in ten years, I’m not stressed out as the date approaches Palm Sunday. Why? Because the Towton Battlefield Society annual event to remember the fallen of Britain’s bloodiest battle on Palm Sunday 1461 has been, if not cancelled, then radically scaled down.

Since my first participation back in 2005, the event steadily grew and developed, helped by a series of freakishly perfect Spring weekends which attracted ever more re-enactors and traders keen to start off the new season, and ever larger audiences keen to find something interesting to do on a fine sunny Sunday. From 2007 I was on the management team; and as secretary and chair of the Society’s in-house re-enactment group, the Frei Compagnie, it naturally fell to me and hubcap to organise the living history camp, guest re-enactors and programme of field entertainment, including combat demonstrations and a battle finale. Planning and preparation involved a massive amount of work – not only for us but for the TBS chairman and committee, other Frei Compagnie members, and many Society members who spent successive weekends gathering and processing wood for the camp fires, cleaning the barn to receive traders and exhibitors, and mowing and marking out the field. Then the event itself spanned four days of preparation, delivery and cleaning up afterwards, with everything from setting cones out on the roads, marshalling the car-park and cleaning out the Portaloos being done by volunteers, many of whom were fitting all this in around full-time jobs.

By the battle’s 550th anniversary, a low-key day of guided walks and a small living history camp had turned into one of the biggest private events of its kind in Yorkshire and, arguably, one of the best. Many re-enactors and visitors would come along year after year to enjoy the very special atmosphere of an event held in the grounds of Towton Hall, where the famous mass graves were found, courtesy of landowner and Society President Mrs. Elizabeth Verity; and in terms of commemorating ‘our boys’, I like to think we did them proud.

Alas, in the process we all ran ourselves ragged and it became too much to cope with. By December it was obvious that TBS wouldn’t have enough volunteers to run a large public event safely and professionally in 2016, and it had to be cancelled. To be honest, my relief was as huge as the task-list we would otherwise have had to embark on straightaway in the New Year. Realisation soon followed that neither hubcap or I could face ever picking up that burden again – it had always been very tough for a self-employed pair at the financial year-end, and start of the busiest season in Mick’s gardening business – so whatever might happen on future Palm Sundays, any living history element won’t be organised by us!

But of course the Battlefield Society will always commemorate Towton, and this year I’m looking forward to taking part in a far more chilled-out way. Our main public event is next Saturday, 19th March: a series of guided walks of the Battlefield Trail between 9.30 am and 2 pm – we’re leading the 11.30 walk – plus a couple of Society stands in the barn on Old London Road, where I’ll also have a Herstory stall selling new and pre-owned books, and the trilogy of Richard III CDs by The Legendary Ten Seconds. Then on Palm Sunday itself we’ll go round the trail again on a special members-only walk, which will include a wreath-laying service at Dacre’s Cross, before repairing to The Crooked Billet for lunch and a spot of archery. Compared to the amount of effort we’ve put in over the past decade, two walks and a little stint on my book-stall seems like a mere bagatelle!

So if you’d like to join us next Saturday, dress warm, wear stout shoes and come prepared to pay £3 into the Society coffers for your guided walk. You can also enjoy various medieval experiences at venues in York, including beautiful Barley Hall in Coffee Yard – see for further information. Or if you’d like to support TBS but are too far away to attend these events, log onto Just Giving and sponsor our intrepid friends Wes Perriman and James Hodgson of the Red Wyverns (Clifford Household) who are marching from Skipton on March 18th and meeting up with the Beaufort Companye to complete the trek to Towton on the 20th. But wherever you are and whatever you’re doing next weekend, please join us in spirit and spare a thought or prayer for the thousands of poor souls who died in miserable conditions on that snowy Palm Sunday 555 years ago…


History Matters: Counterfactual Conjectures on the Marriage of Edward IV

Recently I’ve been thinking: why blame Richard III for whatever befell the ‘Princes in the Tower’? Because if you trace back to root causes, it was all their dad’s fault, really.

Yes – much as I admire Edward IV in other ways, I find his sexual behaviour repugnant: a man who exploited his position, striking good looks and personal charm to the utmost, bedding swathes of women irrespective of their marital status then discarding them (in some cases, to pass on to his mates). These days, we might recommend he sought therapy for chronic sex addiction – well, if Richard III can be decried as a ‘serial incestor’ and next thing to a paedophile in Michael Hicks’ Anne Neville, why balk at calling Edward IV a predatory sex-maniac? – and even in a more misogynistic age, his conduct towards women was remarked upon.

However, his libido wasn’t remarked upon as much as his ill-advised marriage. Although it’s easy enough to sympathise with Edward’s determination to marry for love, as most people in modern Britain do, in 15th century England this was undesirable for the nobility, unthinkable for the king, and his realisation of this desire was to have tragic consequences. Not that I blame Elizabeth Woodville for refusing to be another ‘loved and left’ and holding out for marriage. It shows a healthy self-respect from the Duchess’s daughter, as well as understandable ambition – after all, Edward was the ultimate catch – but he should not have married her. By the standards of the time it was utterly irresponsible and un-kingly to put his personal feelings above the well-being of his country. This older widow’s only fortune was her comely face and figure; she brought the Crown no rich dowry, no political advantage, no valuable alliance with a foreign power. Instead, their mesalliance made the King of England a laughing-stock in the courts of Europe, (and sorely affronted a potential bride, Bona of Savoy). It was a hideous, humiliating blow to his royal family, proud descendants of Edward III, obliging them to bend the knee to the daughter of a lowly Lancastrian knight and prompting Edward’s mother Cecily, Duchess of York, to cry, ‘That bastard’s no true son of York!’ (or words to that effect). It made Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, negotiating for a suitable princess even as the clandestine wedding took place, look a total berk – an insult he would never forget or forgive. And it outraged the rest of the nobility, above all Edward’s brother George, Duke of Clarence, now forced to watch the king’s tribe of relatively humble in-laws elevated and inter-married with the established peerage.

It proved too much for Clarence and Warwick to stomach, and by 1469 their festering chagrin had broken out into open rebellion… so the deaths in the battles of Edgecote, Barnet and Tewkesbury, along with the rash of executions carried out in that period, can all be laid at the door of Edward’s marriage – as can the subsequent execution of the alienated, conflicted Clarence in 1478.

Meanwhile Richard of Gloucester succeeded in keeping his own counsel, tolerating his Woodville in-laws for his beloved eldest brother’s sake; but the depth of his true feelings became clear after Edward’s untimely death in 1483. Bitterly blaming the Woodvilles for encouraging Edward’s dissolute lifestyle and thereby hastening his death, refusing to lose everything he had laboured for to their rapacity, fearing the possible disaster of another minority rule and convinced of his nephews’ illegitimacy, (by virtue of a pre-contract to Eleanor Butler in which I can readily believe, given Edward’s reputation), Richard took matters decisively into his own hands.

And this would never have happened if Edward IV had only exercised some self-control and kept it in his cod-piece. If he had dutifully married an acceptable foreign princess and begotten an heir of indisputable legitimacy and royal blood, Richard would have had no reason to challenge the prince’s right to succeed. He would have remained Duke of Gloucester; there would have been no mysterious disappearances from the Tower of London, no battle of Bosworth, and no dishonoured corpse to find 527 years later under a car-park in Leicester.

Instead, what a price England paid for its hedonistic sovereign’s stupid selfish love-match…

History Matters: New Ricardian Lies?

On BBC Look North last night, I saw something that had me spitting feathers: children at a York primary school are petitioning the Queen for Richard III’s remains to be reburied in York.

I have no problem with that – I’ve signed such a petition myself. What I have a BIG problem with is the reasons they were giving, like, ‘Richard III came from York’. No, he didn’t – he was born at Fotheringhay in the Midlands. Or, ‘It was his dying wish to be buried in York.’ Um – I doubt he had time to wish anything before the back of his head was cleaved off, except perhaps to reach Henry Tudor and kill him.

This suggests several things, none of them very pleasant. Had the children grossly misunderstood their lesson? If so, it’s not a very good advert for the school or the history teacher. Were they simply repeating what they had been told? Judging from some of the howlers I’ve overheard teachers feeding their classes, I could well believe it: pointing to the Close around Salisbury Cathedral, ‘this is a ‘typical village green’; to a 20th century repro door, ‘see how well the wood is preserved’; or to a low doorway, ‘that’s because people in the Middle Ages were all very small’ (conjuring images of an England populated by hobbits). Again, very scary; teachers hardly better-informed than their pupils passing on rubbish. Or, worst of all, had they been deliberately lied to, emotionally manipulated to turn them into York partisans and bring their school into the media spotlight?

Whatever, this pile of total tosh has now been aired on a prime-time local news programme, and no doubt some non-history-buff viewers will believe it, perhaps now petition for a York reburial themselves – but for the wrong reasons. And while I’d be happy indeed to see the Lord of the North return to Yorkshire, I don’t want it to be on the back of such outrageous misinformation… God knows, we’ve had enough of that for the past 528 years.

History Matters: Richard III

I admit it – I’ve never got over 1066. I might love our Norman castles and cathedrals but I still wail and gnash my teeth over what they represent: the grinding of Anglo-Saxon England under William the Bastard’s boot-heel. Call it race-memory or barking madness, it still hurts… though I’m reconciled to the Norman kings by the 1400’s, a dyed-in-the-wool supporter of the House of York. Weird. When I started Wars of the Roses re-enactment, it wasn’t like choosing a football team to support; somehow, deep in my core, I just knew I was a Yorkist.

So recent events in Leicester have filled me with joy and amazement. Yes, from an obscure grave in a long-demolished friary under a car-park to global mega-stardom, it’s been a funny old week for Richard III – the last English king to die in battle and the first to be subjected to full analysis by modern forensic archaeology. Let’s hope it’ll put an end to the parade of ludicrous caricatures to lurch and hobble across the stage in Shakespeare’s notorious play. Richard III wasn’t a hunchback; he had scoliosis, which made his shoulders uneven but didn’t disable him – he was an active soldier from his late teens. And it’ll certainly end the ignominy of his resting-place – at last, he’ll join our other monarchs with a proper tomb we can visit to pay our respects.

But where should it be? Arguments wax hot and furious between re-interring him in Leicester versus ‘repatriating’ him to the old northern capital, York, where he was well-loved in his lifetime and deeply mourned at his death. Naturally, Leicester want to keep him. He’s been there for 528 years; he was the most famous casualty of the history-changing Battle of Bosworth that took place on the city’s doorstep in 1485; and now he’s the British archaeological find of the century, excavated and analysed by staff from Leicester University. No wonder the mayor and council are rubbing their hands in unconcealed and rather tasteless glee: Richard III has put their city on the map in a BIG way, and will boost local tourism tremendously. Well, hell, these are hard times, and as a former heritage professional I can see where they’re coming from. Even as I sympathise with the other camp – the folk for whom King Richard means far more than filthy lucre. Folk for whom his death, the dishonour of his physical remains and the trashing of his memory by the bloody Tudors remain an open wound; folk who want him back in Yorkshire for love, rather than his tourist-pulling-power. Folk who still mourn, half a millennium later – and that includes me.

So, what’s the answer? Well, it’s a pretty safe bet King Richard wouldn’t have chosen to lie in Leicester, a city with which he had no particular connection except the negative one of having died nearby. But the argument for York Minster is pretty thin: he made provision for a chantry chapel there. Big fat hairy deal. Endowing chantries where masses would be said for their souls was something kings and noblemen routinely did at that time; Richard made benefactions to many religious houses including the lost chapel of St Mary at Towton, and made provision for a collegiate church at Middleham, where perpetual masses would be said for his family – so the chantry at York is no proof of his wish to lie there. The truth is, without a will or definite statement of intent, we’ve got no idea where Richard III wanted to be buried (I suspect Westminster Abbey, alongside his wife Anne and fellow-monarchs). And I’m torn. My head says, keep him in Leicester near the battlefield where he fell and where, against all odds, the University archaeologists have rediscovered him to the great interest of many local people. But my heart says, please give the North back our late lamented King, and re-inter him in York where we love him…