At the turn of the fourteenth century, Henry Bolingbroke was about to make the biggest decision of his life. Not only would he regain his Lancastrian inheritance, but the entire kingdom of England would be his – forever altering the course of history. All that stood in his way was his cousin, Richard II. To Henry, Richard was no longer his blood. The king had banished and stolen all his lands from him, sued for peace with France, and in his greatest act of tyranny trialed and executed the Lords Appellant. As Henry stepped upon English sand after the long years spent in France, he knew that it was do or die.
Well, it’s hard to say if Henry really intended to take the throne of England when he returned from his exile, so you must excuse my dramatic spin. But what is undeniable is that Henry’s decision to usurp his cousin was bold, reckless and dangerous. Even if he succeeded, he would be a usurper – generally politically unstable, particularly as Richard’s named heir, Edmund Mortimer, still lived. What I intend to examine here is whether or not all of the issues surrounding Henry’s reign resulted directly from that daring and spine-chilling decision.
The diplomatic situations with France and Scotland suffered at the hands of Henry’s usurpation to varying degrees. As mentioned, Richard had sued for peace with France, essentially stalling the Hundred Years War through better relations and a marriage to the child-bride, Isabella. Richard’s deposition certainly disrupted these terms, and additionally highlighted the fallibility of a king with such a ‘French’ style and attitude to his crown. Henry, unlike Richard, was also regarded suspiciously by the Gascons which meant that the ambitious duc d’Orleans could begin to wriggle into Aquitaine. Piracy was rife in the channel, unchecked by either government, and by 1403 French armies descended on Aquitaine and Calais. The cost of warfare weighed heavily on Henry’s already struggling government, approximately £1,300 per year, and A. L. Brown and H. Summerson relay an anecdote that the treasury could not even pay messengers to deliver urgent summons to bishops, earls, barons and knights across the realm. Ironically, the messages asked them to gather at Westminster to discuss finances. It is true that finance was an endemic problem for a medieval government, but the breakdown in diplomatic relations between England and France were at least exasperated by the usurpation. Similarly, Scotland suffered from the violent change of king. Richard had begun to improve on relations with Robert III of Scotland, whereas Henry (apparently) encouraged the encroachment of the ambitious Percy family into the borders. In both of these cases, the evidence is in favour of Henry’s usurpation directly causing trouble in the realm.
Another problem directly resulting from the deposition of Richard II came in the form of the Percy Rebellion. At one time they had been the most loyal of all the northern baronages to Henry’s cause, and the kingmakers were rewarded smartly for their pains with power and titles, including the position of Constable of England. But was this too much? Richard had recognised that they were a threat, but through Henry’s rewards the consolidation of northern power was dangerous. The relationship between the king and the Percy’s was rocky; amongst other grievances the exchequer rolls show that the Percy’s were only paid peace time wages for their involvement in the Scottish and Welsh conflicts. Teamed with a dispute over the custody of an influential hostage, things came to a violent climax at the battle of Shrewsbury in 1403. The Percy’s had turned their coats and declared for Richard II. This could have been devastating for the usurper who relied so heavily on his northern supporters, and his miscalculation of patronage helped to give them the power to threaten the crown. This was a mistake directly resulting from the usurpation.
The Welsh Rebellion (1400-1408) is a little harder to define. Above all else, it was opportunistic. The fall of Richard II caused a period of political instability which could be seized as a window of opportunity. However, the reasons for the rebellion ran much deeper than the events of 1399-1400. Harsh fiscal policies from the crown and resentment at English settlers had created unrest in Wales. As a considerable Welsh landowner, Henry required the stability of his Welsh estates to supplement his income (already stained by warfare) and therefore disruption in Wales could have been disastrous. This was something Glendower would surely have recognised, speeding the moves towards rebellion. Evidently the usurpation encouraged the problems in Wales but was not the sole cause of them.
In some respects, Henry’s failing health could be seen as the most dangerous threat to the new Lancastrian kingship, and it was a problem completely independent of the usurpation (despite the opinions of some contemporaries). Henry had been an active and warlike youth; a famous jouster, and he even went on a Lithuanian crusade with the Teutonic Knights in 1390. However, by June 1405 something had changed. Evidence suggests that the king may have suffered a stroke, and from then on he was never fully himself again. This could have been the end of the Lancastrian dynasty as a king’s health reflected his political strength, and Henry was still trying to consolidate and legitimise his power. The ‘Thirty One Articles’, closing tightly to support the king, as well as the increased use of the signet seal, show that Henry was absent from court. This created political tensions as power vacuums were fought over; factions even emerged between the princes, Henry’s two sons. However, the succession acts in 1406 secured Prince Henry’s place as heir, and as a result the Lancastrian kingship survived. Amongst other things, news of a physically weak king could have encouraged further rebellions such as those in Wales that relied heavily on opportunity.
So by way of conclusion, Henry IV’s reign was a turbulent one. Many other factors, omitted from this post for the purpose of brevity, can also be studied for a better understanding of this interesting king and his testing time on the throne. The usurpation undoubtedly caused come issues directly, such as the problems with France and the Percy Rebellion, whereas the Welsh Revolt under Owen Glendower was more opportunistic and had been building for years. Finance would always have plagued an already troubled mind, and then the failing of Henry’s health so soon after the usurpation undoubtedly caused tongues to stir. However, this great threat was not caused but the usurpation, and actually Henry ruled almost without opposition in his latter years. His parliament helped to ‘keep up appearances’ and in actuality, Henry V succeeded the throne to a strong and secure government, despite the violent and reckless nature of its conception.
Biggs, D., ‘The Politics of Health: Henry IV and the Long Parliament of 1406’, writing in Biggs, D. and Dodd, G., Henry IV: Establishment of the Regime, 1399-1406, (Suffolk, 2003), pp 185-202
Arvanigian, M., ‘Henry IV, the Northern Nobility and the Consolidation of the Regime’, writing in Biggs, D. and Dodd, G., Henry IV: Establishment of the Regime, 1399-1406, (Suffolk, 2003), pp 117-137
A. L. Brown, Henry Summerson, ‘Henry IV (1367–1413)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Sept 2010 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/12951, accessed 12 March 2012]
Mortimer, I., The Fears of Henry IV, The Life of England’s Self-Made King, (Vauxhall, 2008)