Sean Mcglynn

Pox-ridden and power-crazed

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

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’.

Already a subscriber? Log in

Keep reading with a free trial

Subscribe and get your first month of online and app access for free. After that it’s just £1 a week.

There’s no commitment, you can cancel any time.


Unlock more articles



Don't miss out

Join the conversation with other Spectator readers. Subscribe to leave a comment.

Already a subscriber? Log in