The Fears of Henry IV: The Life of England’s Self-Made King
Henry IV, in Ian Mortimer’s graceless (and sense-defying) words, is ‘the least biograph-ied English king to have been crowned since the Conquest’. No longer. Here is a full and richly detailed life. Not a deal more would need to be said were it not that Mortimer has invited us to look upon his book as representative of a new species of biographical history.
In his introduction Mortimer argues against the traditional view that a lack of documentary evidence (chiefly letters) places limits on medieval biography. His book is intended to demonstrate that not only is a ‘personality-based’ biography of Henry possible, but that biography is the most important approach to the past. Only biography can uncover ‘why this had happened, or that had not happened’. It can do this, however, only if historians throw academic caution to the winds and eschew ‘judgmental’ biography, Mortimer’s example of which is K. B. McFarlane’s chapters on Henry IV in his Lancastrian Kings and Lollard Knights (1972). McFarlane’s chapters are ‘too objective’ because ‘linked to a philosophy of history as a judgmental process — seeing Henry in the context of his peers’, whereas Mortimer’s biography is ‘a sympathetic one (seeing his peers through Henry’s eyes)’.
Historians’ distrust of biography is rooted in the biographer’s need to place historical events in the background while his subject struts his hour upstage. Mortimer drizzles cool water on ‘life and times’ biographies which spend too much time on the ‘rustling leaves’ of the period, rather than concentrating on the ‘roots, trunk and branches’ of the protagonist’s personality. Mortimer himself gives the political events of the time at least as much space as Henry’s personality. He is not so foolish as to believe that everything can be seen through Henry’s eyes; even so, those events are seen chiefly as they touched Henry’s interest. That makes for a romantic biography. What sort of history is it?
To write ‘sympathetic’ biography, when records of personal life are skimpy, requires, as Mortimer puts it, ‘looking for hints’. He admits the poverty of documentary evidence about Henry: down to his accession the only source is his account books. Mortimer does well to extract as much as he does from those accounts (they are, for instance, the basis for his convincing debunking of the long-held view that Henry and Richard were on friendly terms in the 1390s). The trouble is that very nearly everything that Mortimer writes about Henry’s thoughts, motives, feelings, reactions to political events down to his accession is conjecture and surmise. It is often shrewd, but it is still surmise. The prose abounds in ‘probablys’ and ‘must haves’. Historians have to exercise their imagination quite enough when there is evidence to consider, without having to do so when there is none.
So Mortimer conjectures a boyhood antipathy between Richard and Henry. He asks us to ‘imagine’ Richard II in his minority, rummaging in the Tower among chronicles for accounts of the deposed Edward II and, finding one, ‘closing the book and holding it tightly, having recognised a royal martyr in the man who had sought to maintain the integrity of the royal will above all his magnates, including Lancaster’. And when, at a critical juncture in 1387, the leading Lancastrians meet to discuss the possibility of overthrowing Richard and choosing a successor, Mortimer finds it ‘easy to imagine’ Henry’s line of argument.
The crisis of the drama (after which the battle of Shewsbury is climax and the rest of Henry’s 13-year reign dénouement) is the deposition of Richard in 1399. Henry’s decision to return from France in rebellion against banishment and disinheritance in order to lead a revolution of the people, or more narrowly the communitas regni, is justly described by Mortimer as an act of great personal courage. His musings on Henry’s imagined analysis of the situation facing him and England are persuasive. But the mix of motives — to restore his good name, to redeem the ancestral honour of the house of Lancaster and to advance Lancastrian political ambitions — may not have played in Henry’s head as they do in Mortimer’s.
There is a deeper consideration. Looking at events through Henry’s eyes leaves Mortimer with little good to say of Richard or his ministers — ‘favourites’ his opponents called them and so does Mortimer. A consequence is that in the great dynastic battle of one of the most significant reigns, constitutionally, in English history, Richard’s ultimate failure to establish a personal monarchy of absolutist stamp is viewed as the outcome of weakness of character. That Richard had a certain logic, a lot of historical tradition and most of the judges on his side is largely overlooked. What undid Richard was not simply his supposed unfitness for office, but a want of suppleness of mind combined with a high degree of amour propre, so that he was unable to weigh properly the mood of the nation as represented by the Houses of Parliament, which in the preceding century had steadily grown in self-confidence and self-assertiveness and which expected to be treated if not as full, at least as essential, partners in the conduct of the nation’s business.
Mortimer writes that Shakespeare, by seeing the monarchical crisis through the eyes of Richard II, the autocratic ‘king unking’d’, rather than those of the banished heir fighting for ‘natural justice’ against a ‘detestable tyrant’, was untrue to history. That may be beyond dispute, though Henry, after all, was fighting for the throne for himself. But what if Mortimer had himself chosen to write a ‘sympathetic’ life of Richard and to write it, as by his lights he would have had to, through Richard’s eyes? Where then would historical truth lie? History requires the weighing of evidence from all sides, looking at things through many eyes.
Mortimer has written a fine biography, but there is stamina yet in McFarlane’s contention that ‘the historian cannot honestly write biographical history’.