Saturday, 7 March 2009

Henry IV - a valediction

It's almost time to say goodbye to Henry IV, and I do so with mixed feelings. One author passed lightly over his time as 'a sick king and a dull reign' whereas I think it was one of the most interesting periods in our history. How can a reign with Glyndwr and Hotspur in it be called dull?

Henry's tragedy was that he did not come to the crown by right - if he had, I think he might have been a great king. Instead his popularity - admittedly artificially boosted by the effect of the huge Lancastrian retinue who depended on his prosperity - dropped like a stone almost from the moment he was crowned.

Up until around 1408/9 he was forever grappling with one conspiracy or another, to say nothing of successive armed insurrections, notably the extremely persistent one in Wales. He also had to struggle with royal finances that were in total disarray, a problem that led to further discontent among his nobles.

It's a miracle he survived. He was almost killed at Shrewsbury in 1403, and if he rather than Hotspur had got an arrow through the head it would have been the end of his dynasty. In 1405 his enemies simply failed to get their act together. Had they been better organised he could not have defeated them in detail as he did.

All this broke his health, although historians are not sure what was wrong with him. Anything from ergotism to depression has been suggested. There were periods in his latter years when a virtual regency was in operation, with Henry little more than a figurehead, and there were rumours he was planned to abdicate. He was however able to take over the government once more, and towards the end of his reign the financial position improved and he began to take (and doubtless enjoy taking) an aggressive line with the French.

His achievement was, in fact, that he survived and died in his bed. But he was not much mourned, and a minority of his subjects still thought that their rightful King Richard II was alive and well and living quietly in Scotland.

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