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Henry IV: unsightly usurper and megalomaniac

The chronically diseased Henry IV, generally eclipsed in history by his glamorous son, is finally given the full treatment by Chris Given-Wilson

19 March 2016

9:00 AM

19 March 2016

9:00 AM

Henry IV Chris Given-Wilson

Yale, pp.608, £30

Poor old Henry IV: labelled (probably unfairly) as a leper, but accurately as a usurper, he has been one of England’s most neglected monarchs. He is best known through his Shakespearean starring roles — which little resembled the real man, according to Chris Given-Wilson — and as the father of the ultimate warrior-king, Henry V, rather than in his own right. Ian Mortimer began redressing the balance in 2007; now Given-Wilson has produced this meticulous and definitive life of the troubled king for Yale’s ‘English Monarchs’ series.

Though he was the son of John of Gaunt and his heir to the Duchy of Lancaster, England’s richest estate, Henry was not guaranteed an easy life of privilege. Already a successful soldier by the age of 21 (being victorious at the battle of Radcot Bridge in 1387), he exposed himself to the dangers of life among the Teutonic Knights on their harsh Baltic crusade in the 1390s; he enhanced his religious (and political) reputation further with a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Inevitably, given his family’s status, he was drawn into the intrigues of the state; as a result, he was exiled for treason in 1398. His father died when Henry was abroad and Richard II, a self-aggrandising and insecure king, grabbed the Duchy of Lancaster for himself. So reviled was Richard that when Henry returned the following year with only a minuscule force he was able to raise the country, regain his duchy and win the kingdom. Before long, Richard, in that established tradition of imprisoned English royalty, disappeared, murdered by the new king. (He certainly did not expire from ‘melancholy’, as official sources put out.) Henry had little hereditary claim to the throne, but might made right. Ever the soldier, his ‘initial instinct had been to claim the kingdom by conquest’.


Like most usurpers, Henry was extremely sensitive to criticism of his imposed regime, as the Cheshire scribe William Clerk discovered when he was sentenced ‘to have his tongue cut out for speaking ill of the king, his hand severed for committing his thoughts to parchment, and his head cut off because he was unable to prove his allegations’. As Given-Wilson drily adds, this ‘was one way to tackle the problem’. A no less brutal but cynically clever stratagem was to win the church over by the statute De heretico comburendo of 1401, which decreed the burning of heretics. There was a problem with the Lollards, but this law enabled Henry to threaten political enemies as heretical ones, against not just the king but God. Conveniently, it also helped him to secure taxes from the Church.

Having gained the ultimate prize, Henry must have wondered if it had been worth the effort. As Given-Wilson lucidly describes, for seven exhausting years Henry had to battle against those who tried either to usurp him in turn or to undermine his rule: the earls of the Epiphany Rising; the Percys, those ‘kings of the North’, who felt insufficiently rewarded for helping Henry to the throne (their leading light, Hotspur, was killed in the bloody battle of Shrewsbury in 1403); the sermonising tirades and rebellion of Richard Scrope, Archbishop of York; the huge revolt of that perennial Welsh folklore hero Owen Glendower; and, as always, the hostility of the Scots and the French.

But perhaps his wretched health was his greatest challenge. A severe skin condition so disfigured him with ‘great pustules’ that many deemed it a leprous punishment from God for being the first king to execute an archbishop (the insurgent Scrope in 1405). Severe psoriasis has been suggested, but, as Given-Wilson sensibly notes, this cannot have been the whole story. Pox and coronary thrombosis added to his woes, as did a prolapsed rectum.

By his early forties, the kingdom was secured while his body fell apart: he was plagued by gangrenous necrotic ulcers, and contemporaries described him as ‘all sinews and bones’, ‘cruelly tormented with festering of the flesh’, ‘completely shrunken and wasted by disease… his flesh and skin eaten away’ and ‘all his innards laid open and visible’. Historians make much of John F. Kennedy’s debilitating maladies when president, but even his own ‘ragged rectum’ (as he described it) and other afflictions do not compare to Henry’s. Despite his ‘putrefaction’, Henry refused to relinquish power (ignoring the earnest behests of his ambitious heir) and soldiered on to the end, for a soldier he was to his core.

Given-Wilson argues cautiously: ‘On the scale of the possible for a usurper, Henry IV’s achievements ranked high.’Although he usurped King Richard, clung tenaciously to the throne, and established the Lancastrian dynasty for 60 years, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that it was power for power’s sake. Given-Wilson’s belief that, under different circumstances, Henry might have been a great king holds the realistic promise of unfulfilled potential. But, even then, it is likely that history would direct him to the wings, with Owen Glendower and Henry V still taking centre-stage.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £25.00. Tel: 08430 600033


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