“Henry VI” by Mabel E. Christie, 1922 in the series Kings and Queens of England.
Ms. Christie's work was the first dedicated biography of the King and it remained the only biography for some 60 years until in the 1980s. In 371 paged Ms. Christie presents a very readable and quite sympathetic picture of King Henry's life and rule. Of course, her pioneer work has been superseded in many respects by later historical research and writings. It remains, nevertheless, an important basis for all interested in the last Lancastrian king. The book has been reprinted by electronic means in recent years, and the original volume can still sometimes be found in second hand bookshops or on the internet. I first read it in the 1960s when I borrowed it from a downtown library in Sydney. The book has a helpful itinerary of the King's movements down to 1471, although the itinerary (till 1461) offered by Bertram Wolffe in his 1981 biography is undoubtedly more accurate.
“Henry VI” by Bertram Wolffe, 1981 in the series English Monarchs.
Prof. Wolffe's biography was only the second dedicated to the King. Senior lecturer in history at Exeter University, Wolffe is very far from being a sympathetic biographer. Indeed, in the following years his views and interpretations have been widely criticised, not to say discredited by other historians of the period. His lack of joy in writing about King Henry is found in the Acknowledgements at the front of the book: “Writing a biography of such an insubstantial and unsuccessful king as Henry VI has been a long and sometimes dispiriting task....” In his contribution to the work “Fifteen-century England 1399-1509” (well prior to his biography) he opens his chapter on “The personal rule of Henry VI” with the line: “The reign of Henry VI has strong claims to be considered the most calamitous in the whole of English history.” His first chapter in this book is entitled “The Myth of the Royal Saint”. He spends pages trying to demolish John Blacman's Memoir “Henry the Sixth”, which he discounts as largely hagiography, questioning indeed whether Blacman is acually the author, and if so, whether he genuinely had such private access to the King. His objections were dealt with and refuted by Roger Lovatt in his essays “John Blacman: Biographer of Henry VI” in “The Writing of History in the Middle Ages” (1981) and especially in his “John Blacman Revisited” in “Property and Politics: Essays in later Medieval English History” (1984).
Wolffe sees Henry as key to the troubles of his reign, weak and even vindictive – a far cry from the merciful, well-meaning monarch. Despite this pronounced negative slant, his book has much on information to offer, although losing interest after Towton. His itinerary at the back is undoubtedly more accurate than that of Ms. Christie's 1922 version; a fact that he is careful to point out.
“The Reign of King Henry VI “ by Ralph A. Griffiths, 1981.
Prof. Griffiths as Reader in Medieval History at the University College of Swansea, is a generally recognised authority on fifteenth century history, and has produced an important work on the reign of King Henry of 895 pages of text. It is not a biography as such, but a detailed treatment of his reign at home and in France. As such it does not deal in any detail with the years following the Yorkist usurpation of 1461. It is however a major work and will undoubtedly remain a standard volume for years to come.
“Henry VI and the Politics of Kingship” by John Watts, 1996.
John Watts is a lecturer in history at Oxford. His book is not so much as a biography of the King as an investigation into the causes of the disasters that plagued his reign. In the Preface he writes: “I should stress, perhaps, that what follows is an attempt, an experiment. I think that, on the whole, I am asking the right questions, but it is difficult to be supremely confident about many of the answers. This is primarily a work of interpretation and discussion rather than a definitive summation of research....” The work is well researched and thought-provoking. Watts does not endorse the rather negative and harsh judgment of Wolffe, but tends to see the basic problem in Henry's “inadequacy”; his inability to assert the royal will in the interest of his subjects. Michael Hicks, professor of Medieval History at the University of Winchester, in his article “Henry VI: A Misjudged King?” (History Today, January 2011) wrote: “...so completely passive was Henry that he has been portrayed by the historian John Watts in his 1996 biography 'Henry VI and the Politics of Kingship', as simply absent – a vacuum at the heart of government.” Hicks very takes a different view.
“Henry VI” by David Grummitt, 2015.
The most recent and third biography of King Henry is by David Grummitt, head of the School of Humanities at Canterbury Christ Church University. It is published in paperback in the series: Routledge Historical Biographies. The author places Henry and his reign within what he sees as a wider 'Lancastrian legacy' in religion and politics. Grummitt's work on the whole is a balanced and generally positive view of the King, which does not ignore his shortcomings nor his virtues. It contains a useful chronicle at the front. His concluding chapter on John Blacman's Memoir and on Henry's postumous reputation and cult is detailed and well-grounded.
“Henry the Sixth. John Blacman's Memoir” by M.R. James, 1919.
Blacman had taken a bachelor's degree in divinity at Oxford before he became a Fellow of Eton college, where he was also the precentor or cantor. It was here that he undoubtedly became personally acquainted with the King during the period of the mid-1440s to about 1450. Blacman clearly admired King Henry and his 'Memoir' is an important collection of anecdotes and descriptions from a first-hand witness. Blacman may or may not have been a royal confessor, but he certainly was a spiritual adviser and discussion partner to the King.
He later entered the Carthusian order. It may have been during this period that he composed his work, which concentrates on the King's personal piety and devotions as a model for all lay Christians. His book was not composed as a hagiography, nor was it part of the Tudor push for King Henry's canonisation. Blacman appears to have died in January 1485, well before Bosworth and the accession of Henry Tudor. The dismissal of Blacman as a reliable source by writers like Wolffe has been convincingly refuted by the work of Roger Lovatt.
- "Henry VI. A Good, Simple and Innocent Man." by James Ross, The author is Senior Lecturer in Late Medieval History at Winchester University. It is a slim work of only 118 pages, of which 97 are text, and is published in the Penguin Monarchs series. Ross seems reasonably objective, being sympathetic to the King as a man, but very critical of his performance as a ruler. The subtitle he has chosen is a quote from chronicle known as The Brut. The author's own words at the end of the Introduction are the best indication: "This book cannot hope to give a detailed analysis or narrative of the events of Henry's reign. Instead the focus will be on Henry as a man and as a king: a biography of a man whose reign has been condemned as the 'nadir of the English monarchy', and yet a man who was admired during his lifetime for his piety, and who perhaps would have been England's royal saint had Henry VIII not broken with the papacy after 1529. It will show an 'occasional' king; a man who could, on occasion, assert his royal will and make decisions, but whose interests were not those of most medieval kings, being far more focused on his afterlife than his actual life, whose faith, piety and spirituality were far more important to him than the administration, warfare and politics that comprised the essence of late medieval kingship. His different priorities and only occasional engagement with the vital task of governance were directly, though not solely, responsible for the disasters that engulfed England during his reign." He sees Henry's great illness as weakening the King decisively, from which he thinks he never fully recovered. He rejects "recurring fits", but does later refer to the illness as 'the king's madness', which he sees as an inherited weakness from the House of Valois. Ross concludes: "It is hard not to feel sympathy for Henry VI. To be a king in fifteenth-century England when kingship was a difficult task taxed able men to the limit. Henry, however, was not an able king. He was manifestly a decent man placed by accident of birth in a role to which he was utterly unsuited...." This is a slim volume, but full of good and interesting information and views: well worth reading
- Edward IV. The Summer King by A.J.Pollard, 2016 Prof. Pollard's slim volume published in the series Penguin Monarchs is a very balanced and objective portrayal of the Yorkist king and his reign. While acknowledging Edward's strengths and "virtues", he does not hide his failings and vices. A handsome warrior as a young man, he could be brutal and vengeful, indulging in the execution of his enemies without charge or trial after battle. He was quite willing to bend or over-ride law and justice in his own interests and those of his family and close supporters. He was not above "judicial murder", as notably in the case of his own brother Clarence and, of course, King Henry VI. He was sexually promiscuous and was prone to gluttony, both of which led to his obesity and poor health at a relatively early age. Although he possessed considerable charm, he was prone to indolence. He loved luxury and Display in his court, but despite his increase in lands and finances and his reduction of the Household, his subjects continually complained of his taxes and his expenditures. Most of the criticisms levelled at King Henry's regime persisted. Lawlessness continued unabated. Edward also faced a series of rebellions and uprisings in various parts of his realm. He too was challenged by over-mighty lords, notably by the Nevilles. His foreign policy was often disastrous. Upon his early death just short of his 41st birthday, his brother Richard of Gloucester was to seize the throne and to incarcerate Edward's two sons and heirs in the Tower, from which they were never again to emerge. Edward IV was a usurper, and if he was a "Summer King", perhaps he was not entirely the "glorious sun of York" he has been dubbed.
- "Henry VI & Margaret of Anjou. A Marriage of Unequals." by Amy Licence A not overly long book (180 pages text) in which the authoress takes a sympathetic look at the relationship of the King and his Queen. She sees Henry as a much misjudged monarch, but decidedly subordinate to his strong willed wife. "History has been harsh to this royal couple." Needless to say the book concentrates more on Margaret of Anjou than on King Henry himself. (2018)
- "Shadow King. The Life and Death of Henry VI" by Lauren Johnson An impressive tome of some 566 pages text. It is one of the best researched and most detailed biographies of the King to date. Despite the title, however, the King does tend to come off as an almost secondary character to the period of his reign. In parts the authoress also indulges in descriptions more reminiscent of historical novels. Like the present writer, she disputes the myth of recurring bouts of insanity. She presents the King's health as severely weakened by his great year long illness, and his full recovery as hindered by the trauma of Battle of St. Alban's and his wounding there. Interestingly, in the appendix she questions the traditional site of the Wakefield Tower chapel as the true site of the King's murder. The "Shadow King" is an invaluable contribution to the study of King Henry VI and for a truer view of the Wars of the Roses. (2019)