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Authors: Ian Mortimer

Tags: #Biography, #England, #Royalty

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For the historical biographer, the potential benefits of the sympathetic approach to history are obvious. On the one hand we may retain a firm grip on the source material and on the other we may build a coherent picture of a man’s life and character based on his actions, his priorities, his political decisions and alliances, and his defiance of (or compliance with) contemporary mores. This in turn leads us to ask why a biography based on a man’s actions should not be every bit as ‘biographical’ as a life based on his letters? Indeed, we delude ourselves if we think that letters prove a man’s feelings, or necessarily convey an accurate impression of his inner life. Men and women may misrepresent themselves and their feelings in their letters for any number of reasons, consciously and subconsciously, perhaps due to momentary depression or elation, or even due to their inability to express themselves. In a long summer of happiness, one may take a moment just to write down a single line of regret or bitterness, and what is left of that summer a hundred years later? But although men and women often deceive in what they write, it is rare that they deceive in what they do. A payment for a musical instrument for the lord’s personal use is good evidence of a fondness for music; orders for the design of a library to house the king’s books is good evidence of a high value placed on literature. The resetting of a medicinal stone to protect the wearer against poison when he is in fear of his life is no less telling. Given enough evidence of his decision-making, one may present a picture of a medieval leader which is as close, or nearly as close, to his actual character as a contemporary biography of a living monarch or prime minister.

It is now, in the present century, that the opportunities afforded by this new form of historical biography are becoming apparent. In the summer of 2003 a whole string of leading medievalists attended a conference at the University of Exeter on ‘The Limits of Medieval Biography’. Almost all echoed the conclusion of the keynote speaker: that biography was not only
of the most important approaches to the past, it might actually be
most important, for ‘only through biography could one argue why this had happened, or that had not happened’.

As soon as one accepts this way of seeing past lives, Henry emerges as a prime subject for study. He
changed the government of the country, and thereby he
persuaded the country both to shrug off its allegiance to Richard and to accept him as its king. This goes way beyond the mere changing of the head on which the crown sits. It marks the advent of a totally different form of kingship, for it proves the final failing of one form of rule (Richard II’s experiment in autocratic monarchy) and the beginning of another (a return to participatory government). It also demands answers to some very serious questions. What was it about
Henry that made him a preferable choice to the divinely anointed Richard? What was it about him which allowed him to sanction the introduction of the most repressive heresy laws? What was it that equipped him to weather the years of revolution and protest which followed? What was it that made him think he could rule more wisely than his son at the end of his life? When we start to consider these questions, the view of history as a slow socio-economic development is revealed to be just the rocky landscape of the past, as if seen through powerful x-ray glasses that eradicate the presence of every single individual in that landscape, with the loss of every emotion, every bit of pride and every cry of suffering. Take off the x-ray glasses and one is left in no doubt that the ‘revolution’ which Henry instigated in 1399 was one of the most important events in English history. Its legacy – the question of whether revolution itself can be justified, and, if so, might it be sanctioned by God – was the single most important political concern with which Shakespeare and his contemporaries had to wrestle two hundred years later. We might even go so far to say it remains to this day the ultimate political question: to whom does one owe the greater loyalty, those superiors whom one serves or those dependants for whom one is responsible? Understanding Henry’s circumstances and personality helps us to see how the previously accepted order of society (which assumed that one should always remain loyal to one’s superiors) could be questioned and found lacking. It helps us to understand the civil wars of the period as well as the Welsh and French conflicts, finance, parliament and sedition. What would have happened if Henry had lost the battle of Shrewsbury? Would we have had a Mortimer on the throne, the reluctant King Edmund? But Henry did not lose at Shrewsbury. So, historically, his survival matters, just as it mattered at the time.

Here, then, is the life of a man whose character profoundly affected the history of the English nation. It may not have been the most glorious reign, but one should not judge the man by the achievements of his reign alone. Unlike all his Plantagenet predecessors, it was an achievement for him simply to become king. Thus his life was certainly not without its moments of glory. He was the man who forced the door shut on the tyranny of Richard II and unlocked the one by which the Lancastrians – most famously Henry V – burst gloriously on to the scene. That he should have been a ‘usurper’ too (in Shakespeare’s eyes at least) has provided us ever since with something of an enigma. It is time to confront that enigma, and to try to understand the man behind it.


The Hatch and Brood of Time

There is a history in all men’s lives
Figuring the nature of times deceas’d;
The which observ’d, a man may prophesy,
With a near aim, of the main chance of things
As yet not come to life, which in their seeds
And weak beginnings lie intreasured.
Such things become the hatch and brood of time …

(Henry IV Part Two,
Act 3, Scene 1)

Their fires had been burning days, most fiercely in Kent and Essex. Maidstone was in flames. Canterbury was under attack. Thousands of rebels were on the march, and rumours were flying in and around London. In every village and town in the south-east people spoke of the outrages committed by royal tax collectors as they went from place to place demanding fourpence or more for the poll tax from every adult man and woman. They went armed, and they were a law unto themselves. They sought out potential evaders ruthlessly. John Legge was one of the worst. He would line all the inhabitants up in a village and inspect them. If told that a girl was under age, and thus exempt from the charge, he would lift up her skirts and find out in his own rough way whether she was ‘under age’ or not.
Most fathers would rather pay than have such an indignity forced on their daughters. The hostility was bitter, and it ran like a seam of anger from rural Essex and Kent right into the heart of the city.

The year was 1381. Henry of Lancaster – the future Henry IV – was fourteen, and in London. He may have been at his father’s great house, the Savoy Palace, he may have been at his own house in Coleman Street, or he may have come to London with the king. We do not know for certain. But what we do know is that he was in the capital during those fateful days in the second week of June. He was there when the full force of more than ten thousand aggrieved men tore into the city. The memory of those days would remain with him for the rest of his life.

The advisers with young Henry – his guardian, Thomas Burton, his military tutor, William Montendre, his clerk Hugh Herle and his young
companion Thomas Swynford, and possibly the family surgeon, William Appleton – knew that there was no force strong enough to defend their young lord from the rebels. Five hundred men armed with longbows could defeat ten times as many men-at-arms in battle. So what hope did Henry’s guards have against several thousand bowmen, roaming at large? As servants of Henry’s father, the duke of Lancaster, they were in particular danger. The duke was one of the most hated figures in the realm. He was personally blamed for many of the injustices which had sparked the revolt. Had he not imprisoned Sir Peter de la Mare, Speaker of the House of Commons, for daring to oppose him? Did he not command the council which directed the rule of the young king? Did he not parade in and out of the city in a haughty and conceited manner, squandering money in the pretence that he was the king of Castile? The crowd wanted the duke and all the chief officers of state destroyed. They wanted the nobility disempowered. They believed that they were now the greatest force in the realm. They had shown their strength on the battlefields of France in the service of the late king, Edward III. In return, Edward had shown them the virtue of being English, in their language, in their parliament, in resisting the power of the pope, and in their collective fighting power. That was the most frightening thing of all: these men were not just a rabble, they were an organised fighting force. Moreover, they had a firm belief that King Richard II would understand them, and that he was only prevented from helping them by his advisers. So they paraded the fact that they would have no other king but the fourteen-year-old Richard. They were armed, idealistic and frenzied with anger. Anyone who got in their way was killed, regardless of rank.

As the countrymen marched towards the city, Henry and his guardians went to the Tower of London, the strongest castle in the region. There too the archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Sudbury – who was also the chancellor – sought refuge, and the treasurer, Sir Robert Hales. The duke of Lancaster himself was in Scotland with an army, and so was in relatively little danger. King Richard II and his advisers came downstream from Windsor to the Tower on 11 June, believing they could talk their way out of trouble. But all attempts to persuade the peasant armies to disband failed. The Kentish rebels massed in their march from Canterbury, and although they paused to discuss terms with the bishop of Rochester on Blackheath on the 12th, they were set on demonstrating their destructive power. Likewise the Essex men. The two forces linked up, and coordinated their advance on the capital, as they had been trained to do in campaigns in France. There they had killed and destroyed mercilessly in order to exert political pressure on the government. They might have looked like a rabble
of peasants but they were capable of systematic devastation on a scale which London had never seen before.

On the morning of Thursday 13 June the armed countrymen reached Southwark, the suburb of London which lay directly to the south of the Thames. At that moment Richard II was sailing to a point between Rotherhithe and Greenwich to talk with their leaders. His advisers, including Archbishop Sudbury, prevented him leaving the royal barge. Richard called to the rebels from the safety of the river, asking why they had gathered. The leaders sent a list of men whose heads they wanted. First named was the duke of Lancaster, next the archbishop of Canterbury and the treasurer. They also wanted the heads of the keeper of the privy seal, the chief baron of the exchequer and ten other individuals. Obviously, Richard could not agree with such a request. The men of Kent watched the royal barge rowed slowly back to the Tower, their king unwilling to help.

Then the destruction began. Although the mayor of London had given orders for the gates to the city to be closed and the bridge defended, many of the poorer Londoners had every sympathy with the rebels. The men of Southwark did not want a violent mob to be trapped in the streets outside their houses; so they forced the men on the bridge to give way. The gates were opened. Early in the evening of the 13th, crowds of men broke into the city. They were joined by thousands of poor workers within the walls. Overwhelmed, the mayor gave orders that the wine cellars should be left open to the armed mob, hoping that they would drink themselves into a disorganised and confused rabble. But as they drank, half-demented in the heat of what had been a very hot summer’s day, the rebels sought out their hated targets. They broke down the gates of prisons, letting everyone go free and killing the custodians, or chasing them to sanctuary. One royal sergeant-at-arms, Richard Imworth, was found in Westminster Abbey, clinging to a pillar. They dragged him outside and cut his throat. The men of Essex ransacked the priory of St John at Clerkenwell, because its prior was Sir Robert Hales, the treasurer. The men of Kent destroyed the manor of Lambeth, which belonged to Archbishop Sudbury. Wherever the citizens pointed out the house of a hated public figure, torches were set to it, the contents were destroyed and the inhabitants killed.

None of the rebels needed any Londoner to point out the house of the duke of Lancaster. The Savoy Palace stood tall and proud in the Strand, halfway between London’s city walls and the Palace of Westminster. In the words of one contemporary, it was ‘a house unrivalled in the kingdom for its splendour and nobility’.
It was, in addition to a residence, the duke’s treasury and his wardrobe. Five cartloads of gold and silver were kept there, together with innumerable tapestries, woven cloths, armour, jewels
and items of furniture. Now the rebels gathered towards it, like moths attracted to a great beacon of Lancastrian power. In the chambers and hall they cut the rich paintings and tablecloths with their knives and smashed the furniture with their axes. They ripped the tapestries and crushed the gold and silver vessels and threw them into the Thames. They took one of the precious jewel-encrusted padded jackets belonging to the duke and set it up on a lance for the archers to use as target practice. Then the building itself was set ablaze. Those in the wine cellars drinking the duke’s wine were crushed to death as the burning building above them collapsed through the floor, probably helped by the barrels of gunpowder stored within. Two men caught looting were thrown into the blaze. It was a systematic destruction of the emblems and insignia of the duke’s status and authority.

BOOK: The Fears of Henry IV: The Life of England's Self-Made King
10.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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