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Authors: Ian Mortimer

Tags: #Biography, #England, #Royalty

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The king after Edward III was foretold to be another lamb. The land would be at peace at the start of his reign. Within a year of his accession he would found a great city, of which all the world would speak. But then there would be a civil war, and the lamb would lose the greater part of his kingdom to a ‘hideous wolf’. Eventually he would recover these lands and give them to ‘an eagle of his dominion’, who would govern them well until overcome by pride. At that point the eagle would be murdered by his brother, and the lamb would die, leaving his lands once more at peace. He would be succeeded by the next king, a mole, under whose reign the kingdom would be wrenched apart and plunged into civil war, between three warring factions.

The next king a
? In the 1360s this seemed ridiculous, as no one doubted that the next king would be Edward’s son, Edward, the Black Prince. How could he be described as a lamb? He had won one of the
most extraordinary battles in European history at Poitiers, capturing the king of France in the process. He had fought in the front line at the battle of Crécy in 1346 and carried on fighting when on his knees. No one on earth was less lamb-like than the Black Prince. To Englishmen this suggested that the prince would not inherit. There would be some calamity and he would die before his father. His successor – whoever that might be – would be the lamb. That in turn gave rise to rumours. Variations on the prophecy sprang up. In late 1361 the chronicler Froissart was at Berkhamsted, immediately after the prince’s marriage. Seated on a bench in the hall he overheard Sir Bartholomew Burghersh say to some of the queen’s ladies that ‘there was a book called the
which many say contains the prophecies of Merlin. According to its contents, neither the prince of Wales nor the duke of Clarence [Edward III’s second surviving son] will wear the crown of England, but it will fall to the house of Lancaster.’

It is quite possible that the seeds of Richard and Henry’s rivalry lie within this ancestral antagonism between their two houses, and that it was exacerbated by the prophecies of political turmoil between them. In later years, Richard certainly took such prophecies very seriously.
Obviously this does not mean that their actual hostility to one another was a result of prophetic writing: personal issues such as their shared royal identity were of an even greater importance. But even before they were born, prophecies were circulating about the house of Lancaster supplanting the line of primogeniture, and there was an ancestral precedent for just such a revolution. All of this adds up to a tension which could have gone one of two ways. Either Henry and Richard would be content to share the royal stage, and support each other, or they would look for separate identities of their own, reflecting their maternal ancestries and personal alliances. In short, the ancestral, moral and prophetic rivalry into which they were born was something which only a genuinely close personal friendship could have transcended, and that was something Henry and Richard never shared.


Henry and Richard did have one obvious thing in common: they were both grandsons of Edward III, the man regarded in the late fourteenth century as ‘Edward the Gracious’, the greatest king England had ever had.
In life Edward had modelled himself on the legendary King Arthur, the paragon of chivalry, and after his death the enhanced character of the literary King Arthur was based on him.
Although in his later years, in declining health, he had to weather some terrible criticism for his steadfast loyalty to his mistress (Alice Perrers), before the age of fifty he had
earned the respect of the whole of Christendom. He had taken on the Scots and French in battle and defeated them both, capturing the kings of Scotland and France in 1346 and 1356 respectively. He had overseen the development of a method of fighting which for many years proved unbeatable, earning the nation a pre-eminent position in Europe. He had resisted papal intervention, recognised English as the language of the nation, overseen the development of parliamentary representation and introduced the modern system of local justice. Most of all, he had developed a new form of demonstrative nationalist kingship, in which the unity of nation and royal government was expressed through the king commanding nation and army alike, through building castles and palaces, living in splendour, directing taxation and fighting conflicts on foreign soil to protect the homeland. Perhaps the most eye-catching manifestation of this civil and military kingship was his position as head of the Knights of the Garter, the chivalric order which he had founded at Windsor Castle in 1349.
Henry and Richard were not just the grandsons of a king: they were the grandsons of the most successful king Christendom had ever known.

One of the reasons for the phenomenal success of Edward III as a military leader was his ability to command and inspire a band of knights who themselves were able to inspire men to run extraordinary risks. Foremost of all these knights was the man after whom Henry was named: his other grandfather, Duke Henry of Lancaster. In 1337 this Henry was created earl of Derby in a ceremony in which King Edward dramatically created six earls at once. In the early 1340s he became the king’s most respected friend and trusted commander. In 1345, having inherited the Lancastrian title, he set out for Gascony and began the campaign which was to change his life. He was stunningly successful. Battles at Montcuq, Bergerac and Auberoche secured him fame which was both lasting and far-reaching. His friendship with King Edward catapulted him even further into prominence. He became the chief English diplomat as well as the principal English commander in war. His piety and sincerity won him widespread admiration: he wrote a book of religious devotion –
The Book of Holy Medicines –
and once, having taken a solemn vow not to depart from the siege of Rennes until he had placed his standard on the battlements, refused to withdraw even when the king himself ordered him to do so. Instead, he negotiated with the garrison to let him into the castle alone so he could put up his standard on their battlements for a minute or two, in fulfilment of his vow. He was the very epitome of the chivalric knight, and it was quite possibly his garter which became the symbol of Edward’s great chivalric order.

Young Henry of Lancaster therefore could be very proud of both his grandfathers. Unlike Richard, whose maternal grandfather had died under the executioner’s axe in 1330, Henry’s maternal grandfather was no less a hero of the golden age of English chivalry than the king himself. He had been of royal blood too, being a great-grandson of Henry III. This gave young Henry a feeling of complete royalty: his lineage was royal on both sides. Moreover, being named after the great Duke Henry of Lancaster meant he did not need to draw attention to this other, maternal line of distinction; it was evident in his name. For this reason, although Henry and Richard were both grandsons of Edward III, this in itself does not fully explain their respective royal standings. It was not what they had in common which mattered; it was what made each of them unique.

The varying degrees of royalty and dignity were equally to be noted in the boys’ respective parents. Richard’s father was the famous Black Prince, a great warrior – something to be proud of, one would have thought, except that Richard was so unlike his father that the associations may well have been a burden to him. His mother, Joan, ‘the Fair Maid of Kent’, was renowned for her colourful marital career. This involved having been married to two men at the same time in the 1340s, neither of whom was Richard’s father. Richard II himself in later years seems to have been very concerned by his legitimacy, for he kept a strongbox with all the papers and documents relating to his parents’ marriage, as well as his mother’s divorce documents.
It was not just that his mother had already been bigamously married before marrying the prince, and had four surviving children by one previous husband, Sir Thomas Holland; the dispensation for her to marry the prince had not been properly formulated.
It could be said that they had married illegally. Both of Richard’s parents’ legacies were burdensome, the one highlighting his distinct lack of military prowess, the other casting a shadow over his birth.

Henry’s mother, in contrast, was popularly regarded as one of the most lovely adornments of the English court. She was Blanche, one of the two daughters of the great Duke Henry. In describing her and Queen Philippa (wife of Edward III), Froissart said, ‘I never saw two such noble dames, so good, liberal and courteous, as this lady [Blanche] and the late queen of England, nor ever shall, were I to live a thousand years’.
This was praise indeed for Blanche, as Philippa was considered the perfect example of womanly virtue. Henry cannot have been unaware that he alone was the grandson and son of the two most ‘noble … liberal and courteous’ women to have lived in recent times. Chaucer famously paraded Blanche’s many virtues in his
Book of the Duchess,
written in her memory. If ever Henry read this poem, or listened as Chaucer read it to him, he would
have heard line after line referring to his mother’s beauty, and her whiteness ‘that was my lady’s name right’, and her ‘goodly sweet speech’. Chaucer likened her to ‘Penelope of Greece’, called her ‘the fairest and the best’, and remarked that, when they argued and he was in the wrong, she would always forgive him. In one his most famous passages he described how

I saw her dance so comely
carol and sing so sweetly
laugh and play so womanly
and look so debonairly
so goodly speak and so friendly
that certain I am that evermore
Ne’er has seen so blissful a treasure.

And he went on to talk of her golden hair, and her wide eyes, ‘good, glad and sad’, her honesty in everything, her kindness and her wonderful beauty.

Henry thus had every reason to be as conscious of his mother’s and grandmother’s virtues as his grandfathers’ glorious deeds of arms. With such a background, we might regard him as lucky in the extreme. But no. For he never knew his royal grandmother, nor the glorious grandfather after whom he was named, nor his maternal grandmother, or even his mother. The duke of Lancaster died in 1361, in the second wave of plague to hit England. The duke’s wife, Isabella Beaumont, died at the same time. Queen Philippa died in 1369, when Henry was just two. And, most tragic of all, Blanche of Lancaster, Henry’s mother, died the year after he was born.
He would have been reminded in songs and poems of his mother’s and grandmother’s grace and liberality, their kindness and beauty, but he never saw their faces, except in unfocused babyhood, nor heard their ‘sweet voices’. These deaths, and the infant deaths of two of Henry’s brothers, Edward and John (both of whom died before he was born), are a sad reminder that in the fourteenth century to be a member of the richest, most celebrated and most powerful family in England was no safeguard from personal tragedy or physical suffering.


Henry was born at Bolingbroke Castle, Lincolnshire, in April 1367, almost certainly on Maundy Thursday (15 April). He was placed in the care of a nurse, Mary Taaf of Dublin.
His father was out of the country at the time, fighting alongside the Black Prince on behalf of King Pedro of Castile. He did not return to England to see his newborn son until October.
Even this would have been nothing more than a brief visit; John was constantly travelling on royal business and usually stayed at his London residence, the Savoy Palace. In 1369 he took charge of the army at Calais for six months. In 1370 he sailed to Gascony, and remained there for over a year. By the age of four, Henry had probably spent no more than three or four weeks with his father. It is very unlikely that he would have recognised him on his return to England in 1371.

With his mother dead and his father absent, Henry’s infancy was not spent in a close family environment. All Henry’s grandparents except the king had died by the time he was three. So had all but three of his uncles, and all but one of his aunts. Of these uncles, one, the Black Prince, was resident in Gascony. The prince’s sons, Edward and Richard, had never been to England. The elder son, Edward, never came, as he died in Bordeaux in 1371. Following that, the Black Prince did return but by then he was a severely disabled, dying man. Similarly, the king was practically confined in his old age to his palaces, cared for by no fewer than seven physicians and surgeons, the royal household servants, and his mistress, Alice Perrers. Henry’s upbringing must therefore have been a little strange. A modern equivalent might be sketched by imagining a boy growing up as the grandson of people like Winston Churchill, President Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe, the son of Princess Diana and the nephew of Field Marshal Montgomery, and to hear people talk about them everywhere – yet never to have seen them or to have known them except by the conversation of adults, and through poetry, chronicles and art.

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