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Authors: Ian Mortimer

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But what of him as a man? What of his character? This question echoes away into the darkness, and no answer comes. Astonishingly, Henry IV is the least biographied English king to have been crowned since the Conquest.
The only monograph wholly devoted to him by a writer familiar with the relevant primary sources is J. L. Kirby’s
Henry IV of England,
published in 1970. This is not a biography. Biography means a study of a life and there is no life in Kirby’s book. Of its 247 pages of text (excluding the ten-page introduction), only fifty deal with Henry’s existence up to August 1399. In other words, just twenty per cent of the book is given over to the first seventy per cent of his life, including his inheritance, childhood and half his adulthood. The remainder is a discussion of the politics of his reign. Kirby shows no understanding of Henry’s development from a child into a man and then a king. Yet to ignore the early part of Henry’s life and to concentrate on the last fourteen years is dangerously misleading, if only for the reason that Henry was not born or bred to be a king. Moreover, Kirby shows no feeling for some key events in Henry’s life. In describing the tragic deaths of the summer of 1394, he says simply ‘Anne of Bohemia, Richard’s queen, died on 7 June and Mary Bohun, Henry’s wife, a few weeks later’.
That is all. Heavens above! The coldness is like an experimental scientist noting the deaths of two rodents in a laboratory cage. What about Henry’s devotion to his wife, and his shock at the sudden loss of his supportive partner? Even though the evidence is minimal, we cannot assume his feelings were equally slight. Similarly, in describing Henry’s decision to invade England in 1399, Kirby does not consider for a moment how much this must have weighed on Henry’s mind. There is no suggestion of worry or optimism. There is no discussion even of the cultural context for fearing the removal of a legitimate monarch. Henry just did it, as if he was following a script from which he could not deviate and which guaranteed him success. Kirby’s work remains useful as a political guidebook to the reign, but it is little more than that.

Fortunately for Henry IV, and for us, K. B. McFarlane had a far more rounded vision of the king’s personality. His six chapters on Henry in the first part of
Lancastrian Kings and Lollard Knights
are the nearest thing to a biography yet to be published. These chapters were originally devised as a series of six lectures which McFarlane delivered at Oxford in the 1930s and rewrote in the 1940s, and which G. L. Harriss edited for publication
in 1972. In McFarlane at last we have an intelligent yet humane writer who engages with the man and his problems, and who tries to understand what forces shaped him. He understood that history is the study of living men and women, not merely names in desiccated documents, and that those men and women were individuals. As he himself stated, ‘while it is a part of the historian’s business to analyse the great impersonal forces at work in society, he must take account of the human instruments, those who held power, through which those forces had in part to find expression’.

One of the most significant aspects of McFarlane’s lectures on Henry IV is his understanding of the greater possibilities of a biographical approach as opposed to ‘sterile antiquarianism’ (as he himself called it). Consider the question of Henry’s rivalry with Richard II. There is no evidence of any hostility between the two men until 1386, when they were both nineteen. However, should we presume therefore that they were amicable up to this time? An evidence-based methodology suggests we should, or that we should at least keep an open mind. But McFarlane approached the subject of Henry’s youth on the understanding that simple repetition of the evidence (or lack of it) is not enough, and that to understand the relationship between Henry and Richard one has to go beyond the direct evidence and look for hints that they may have distrusted one another long before 1386.
In this way McFarlane started to tackle the difficult questions about Henry’s personality: questions which up to then had been dismissed as unfathomable depths.

Erudite, well informed and well written as McFarlane’s account most certainly is, it still falls short of what we would like to see in a historical biography. Obviously it is too brief and incomplete. It is also too objective, in the sense that it is inextricably linked to a philosophy of history as a judgemental process – seeing Henry in the context of his peers – as opposed to a sympathetic one (seeing his peers through Henry’s eyes). There is therefore little attention to emotional development. Also it is significant that McFarlane’s Henry IV lectures lack a conclusion. In
Lancastrian Kings,
it is Henry V's achievements which appear to be the conclusion. This, of course, was not McFarlane’s intention, for he wrote the lectures on Henry IV and Henry V for different audiences; but even so, one suspects that McFarlane did look back on Henry IV through the distorting lens of Henry V's reign. He was in awe of the younger Henry, declaring that he was ‘the greatest man that ever ruled England’.
He does not qualify this statement, even though he must have been well aware that Henry V's road to glory was far easier than his father’s narrow path of mere survival. Like a race between two sprinters, one of whom attempts the 100 metres hurdles in Wellington
boots while the other covers the ioo metres flat in more suitable footwear: if the flat runner is consistently faster than the hurdler, we ought not to be surprised. As a result, McFarlane’s book does not reward the reader who picks it up to find out about Henry IV, for despite all the king’s efforts in the face of adversity, he does not receive commensurate praise.

Since McFarlane, books about Henry IV have been very few and far between. Two small-press studies appeared in 1986 and 1994, but neither is ground-breaking.
The only major contributions are a political study of the reign,
Heresy and Politics in the Reign of Henry IV: the Burning of John Badby
by Peter McNiven (1987) and a volume of essays,
Henry IV: the Establishment of the Regime, 1399–1406,
edited by Gwilym Dodd and Douglas Biggs (2003). The former is, as its title suggests, primarily concerned with the relationship between the political and religious forces of the time. The latter includes a number of important pieces of research but, being a series of contributions to an academic conference, cannot provide the integrated personal story which we look for in a biography. The scholarly overview of the reign suitable for a wide audience is still lacking. It was thought for a long time that A. L. Brown would provide this, and in 1995 it was noted that it was nearing completion.
He fell ill, however, before it was finished. It looks as though we must wait a little while yet for the specialist academic overview of the reign of Henry IV.

Nevertheless, research on the period continues to be produced in quantity. Attention to the tyranny of Richard II and the revolution of 1399 has been especially intense. The revolt of the earls in 1400, the Welsh rebellion, the Percy revolt and Henry’s parliamentary and financial predicaments have all been subject to detailed scrutiny. However, despite the weight of academic research, the focus is rarely biographical. Except for isolated areas of interest, such as Henry’s health, the attention is not on Henry himself but on the political, financial and constitutional aspects of his reign. Even his relationships with his children are examined for political – rather than personal – reasons. Stubbs’s constitutional romanticism may have fallen by the wayside, but his view that the most important historical questions of the period are abstract ones concerning the relationship between the monarchy, parliament and the exercise of political authority continues to provide the framework for early fifteenth-century scholarship to this day.


This lack of biographical attention is extraordinary and it is difficult to explain why no one has concentrated on the character of a man who was the first of only four Englishmen since the Conquest to break into the
sacred circle of legitimate royal succession (Edward IV, Richard III and Henry VII being the others).
He might be enigmatic but that is no reason to ignore him; quite the opposite. It is even more surprising, however, when we reflect that scholars habitually point to Richard II’s personality as being the key to his downfall, and have made great efforts to understand him as a man, while not considering what it was about Henry’s character which provided the antithesis to this failure. Of course, most scholars have noted Henry’s knightly virtues, his intelligence, wit and politeness; but there has not been a single personality-based study of Henry to compare with the many for Richard II. Henry’s character has been seen as incidental to his political career whereas Richard II’s has been seen as the key to his.

Such a lack of a biographical perspective is one of the reasons for this book. Another reason is that Henry is the obvious next subject in this series of biographies which collectively tell the political history of later medieval England. Following on from
The Greatest Traitor: the Life of Sir Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March, Ruler of England 1327–1330
and its successor,
The Perfect King: the Life of Edward III, Father of the English Nation,
this book continues to trace the thread of political power in England. Through this longer temporal framework, it is possible to show how Henry’s life connects with both his Lancastrian ancestry and long-term political developments. For instance, the previous two volumes illustrate in greater detail than is possible here the examples of both the Lancastrian rebel Thomas of Lancaster – executed in the reign of Edward II – and the hugely successful first duke of Lancaster, Edward III’s most brilliant commander and best friend (he and Edward III both being Henry’s grandfathers). Similarly, the earlier books describe the deposition of Edward II, and the awareness in the royal family of his secret survival after his supposed death. These two events have particular resonance in this book, the first in the process whereby Henry IV oversaw the deposition of Richard II and the second in the rumours that first Thomas of Woodstock and then Richard II were kept alive after their deaths.

A third reason to write about Henry IV is to explore what may be termed ‘the limits of medieval biography’. There was for many years a general perception that biography was too populist a medium for serious consideration. ‘It is despised by the hard and practised by the soft in one discipline after another’, wrote a correspondent in the
Times Higher Educational Supplement
in 1987.
Sixty years earlier K. B. McFarlane had declared that ‘the historian cannot honestly write biographical history; his province is rather the growth of social organisations, of civilisation, of ideas’. One could talk about a king’s reign, or the interactions between a king and his people, but biography
itself was seen in a negative light on account of its sympathetic (as opposed to objective) approach, or, as other critics have said, because biographical authors ‘opt for narrative rather than analysis’.
Thus, for most of the twentieth century, academic historians tended to write history books about individuals, not biographies, and justified this on the grounds of the intellectual superiority of the objective, analytical approach. At the same time, there was a widespread belief in literary circles that a ‘proper’ biography could not be written for a character living before 1500, as personal letters do not normally survive to attest to what the subject thought or felt. This view was seized on by the anti-biographical academics and used as a justification for why it was essential to avoid the biographical medium when writing about medieval political figures: the whole exercise was impossible, they said, ‘for the sources to permit such a study have not survived’.
For decades no one exposed the weaknesses of this view. It depends on a double assumption: that there is (1) a definite thing called ‘a biography’, with an established form which a writer could not modify, requiring certain types of primary sources as a
sine qua non,
and (2) that there is a distinction to be made between those whose personal letters are available in large quantities (who are suitable subjects for biography) and all the other people who have walked the planet (who are not). This is surprising, for these assumptions are and were obviously wrong. It is even more surprising when we reflect that, throughout the twentieth century, diversity and experimentation were being encouraged in other forms of serious literature (poetry and fiction, for example) but not biography.

Slowly, things began to change. Historians writing about individuals began to realise that, in order to analyse the past, first one must understand it, and in trying to understand it, issues of character have to be viewed with a degree of sympathy, not complete detachment. For example, in order to understand Roger Mortimer’s actions against Edward II in 1322–6, it is necessary to understand his earlier loyalties, disappointments, military experiences and political awareness from
his own
point of view. An analogy with architecture may be made: however much we may hold to the view that it is the external, objective view of an architectural masterpiece which matters most, we cannot properly appreciate a building’s merits unless we also see it
from within.
Similarly, the hoary idol of ‘biography’ began to crack, with dramatic innovations from writers such as Ann Wroe (whose
is about a reputation rather than a man, and whose
has as its central theme the idea that a man might not know who he actually is) and Peter Ackroyd (whose
The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde
is written as an autobiography, and whose
London: the Biography
stretches our understandings of ‘biography’ to include the ‘life’ of a city).

BOOK: The Fears of Henry IV: The Life of England's Self-Made King
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