Monday, 25 August 2008

Henry IV's claim to the throne

If you read some of the Lancastrian accounts, Richard quite cheerfully abdicated; however even mainstream historians nowadays recognise this as propaganda, and it's pretty much accepted that he had to be 'persuaded', a process of wearing-down that took some weeks and apparently included such treats as visits from the Duke of York and his son, Edward. (If the account of this meeting is to be believed Richard was far from 'cheerful' and gave them a large piece of his mind.)

Richard tried to save the 'mystic' side of his kingship, which he claimed he could not resign if he wanted to, but eventually had to settle for the sole concession of being allowed to keep the lands he had earmarked as a source of funds for continual masses for his soul after his death.

In addition the Parliament was persuaded to depose him. This seems a tad superfluous given that he had supposedly abdicated 'willingly' but I suppose it gave the MPs something to discuss. A long list of his 'crimes' was drawn up, the overwhelming majority of which could have been offered as justifications to depose any medieval king. A commission was appointed to inform him of his deposition and withdraw homage.

Those of you who studied Chaucer at school may remember that Henry had a threefold claim to the throne - by conquest, inheritance and 'free' election. The greatest of these was inheritance.

You may think that he had definitely conquered England, and so he had, but if this had been accepted it would theoretically have put everyone's property into Henry's gift. Chief Justice Thirning pointed out this small detail to Bolingbroke, and said something in lawyer-speak that amounted to 'bog off'. Nor was there any election, and Henry wouldn't have wanted one either, as it would have implied he could be unelected.

So that left inheritance. You may recall from an earlier post that Edward III had issued an entail that supposedly gave the crown to John of Gaunt after Richard II, assuming the latter had no heirs. I just can't believe Gaunt did not mention this little gift to Bolingbroke one evening while they were roasting chestnuts together at Kenilworth. It's not the sort of thing that's likely to slip your mind, is it? The inheritance of a crown? People in families remember what Aunt Maud said in 1956 about which cousin should have her gold watch!

In the 1390s it was increasingly common to entail estates and titles on the heir male, and Bolingbroke was undoubtedly Richard II's heir male. If Henry had put this claim forward it would have been respectable, and at least arguable. The odd thing is he didn't. Instead (and apparently reading from a prepared statement like a modern politician) he claimed through his mother and her line back to Henry III.

It is usually said that this trumped the claims of Richard II and the Mortimers. Well so it does, if you really believe that Edmund, Earl of Lancaster was Edward I's elder brother. Otherwise it's pretty weak and (apart from implicitly discarding England's claim to France via Edward III's mother, Isabella) also recognises that the Crown can be inherited through a woman!

In other words, knowing what we know, Henry was declaring that the Mortimers were the rightful heirs to Richard II! It's incredible, but that's effectively what his claim implies.

Why on earth was Henry so chary of claiming through John of Gaunt? Well, some of you may know that back in the 1370s Gaunt had been slandered as a changeling - he was said to be the son of a Flemish butcher. It's an incredible tale, and let me be the first to say that I think it's total nonsense. However this tale was still remembered in the early 1400s. The equivalent, I suppose of the modern conspiracy theories, Diana killed by the Martians and so on. Is it just possible that Henry believed it himself? Surely not!

Yet it would explain why he came up with an hereditary claim that was a nonsense when he had a perfectly reasonable and viable alternative he could have used. It might also explain why he went to the trouble of explicitly excluding his Beaufort half-brothers and sister from the succession.

I apologise to the sane among you for the extreme speculation in this post. Alternative explanations for Henry's bizarre hereditary claim are welcome.

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