The Curious Cult of King Henry VI

The year is 1471. You are a tired, sad, poor peasant (or a royal guard with confused loyalties, whichever you like) mourning the death of an absolutely mad king. The point is, your life, whoever you are in late 15th century England, is hard. Battles are being fought continuously, and your King couldn’t even hold onto his wits. In fact, Henry VI was a demonstrably terrible ruler, and you probably could have done better yourself.

 

Fast forward to 1485, however, and Henry VI is being popularly worshipped as an extremely powerful Saint. You might well be thinking, how could a totally inept, weak, and mentally insane ruler become an influential miracle worker? Did the English people suffer from collective memory loss?

 

The great mystery of Henry VI’s posthumous popularity has been grappled with for centuries. Many distinguished historians have dismissed the cult as a purely political phenomenon, and at first look this explanation is rather appealing. At the time of Henry VI’s oddly suspicious death from “pure displeasure” in that most hospitable of structures, the Tower of London, England had been embroiled in a bloody civil war for twelve long years [1]. The War of the Roses was fought between the House of Lancaster (represented by poor Henry), and the House of York, led by King Edward IV. Likely killed at the hands of his York cousins, rumors quickly spread of Henry’s murder by the creepiest of English uncles, Richard III. Most significantly, the supposedly violent homicide of Henry VI saw him reimagined in popular medieval culture as an innocent martyr. And political martyrdom, in late medieval England, was a particularly transformative process. It turned the unsuspecting victim into an impressively sacred figure, and bestowed the deceased monarch with a legitimacy denied him in life. As such, the initial impetus for Henry’s cult did rely upon his sacred political martyrdom.

 

Henry VII, who was the Lancastrian King’s half nephew, reinforced and strengthened the political nature of Henry VI’s posthumous cult. Defeating Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, Henry Tudor shamelessly manipulated his uncle’s growing cultic popularity to legitimize his own claim to the throne. Not only was the long reigning “Martir by great Tormernting” continuously referred to in Henry VII’s inaugural pageants [2], the Tudor King also aggressively patronized the widespread cult, and petitioned three successive Popes to have his uncle canonized as a Saint. While Henry VI’s canonization was never secured, the process did produce a remarkable work titled The Miracles of King Henry VI [3].  This 1500 AD compilation of 174 miracle stories left out a staggering 300 accounts, and strongly suggests that Henry’s saintly popularity went much deeper than political manipulation.

 

As suggested by the detailed miracle stories, the mad King’s remarkably widespread posthumous veneration was firmly anchored in lay piety, also understood as popular religion. The Cult of Saints dominated medieval lay religion, and was particularly receptive to gentle and charitable “new saints” appearing in the 14th and 15th centuries. An especially gentle and kind Saint, Henry VI’s cultic adoration was geographically widespread and his Windsor shrine received pilgrims from Wales, Manchester and even Calais. Rapidly rising in rural and urban eminence in the late 15th century, could London’s most favoured Saint have really been a purely political creation?

 

The Miracles suggests not, as the English people worshipped Henry for his remarkable gentleness, compassion and leniency. Although odd qualities for a medieval King to possess, Henry’s renowned mercy and benevolence in life rendered him an extremely accessible royal figure. The late monarch was generous to the poor, commonly exempted dangerous criminals, and abhorred violence of any kind. As a Saint, he consequently appealed to those in great need of divine charity, which in bleak medieval times happened to be the majority of the English population. Saintly Henry aided criminals, madmen, plague sufferers, innocent children, lowly servants and stricken noblemen. The common theme in all his miracles was that his followers found themselves in critical emergencies, and yearned for divinely sympathetic intervention.

 

Henry VI posthumously provided such divine sympathetic intervention, and emerged as the patron saint of tragedy and all worldly suffering. During his catastrophic reign, Henry himself experienced extended bouts of mental illness, physical incapacitation and visible torment. His patent suffering invested the Lancastrian King with a unique saintly power, that of empathy. In The Miracles, Henry saves individuals from fatal fires, cures the terminally blind, and amazingly resurrects children from the dead. As a tormented monarch, Henry embodied both sacred power and profane suffering. His embodiment of sacral power and worldly misery explains much of his posthumous popularity, as Henry VI was never far from the minds of those in serious need.

 

Cultivating an immensely broad following, it is no wonder that the disastrous monarch was such a powerful and popular saint. Political explanations alone cannot account for Henry’s widespread cultic adoration, which lay in his enormous accessibility as a tormented yet sacred saint.

References:

[1] – McKenna, J.W. “Piety and Propaganda in the Cult of Henry VI” in Rowland, B (ed.) Chaucer and Middle English Studies in honour of Rossell Hope Robbins (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1974)

[2] – John Leland, De Rebus Britannicis Collectaena, ed. Thomas Hearne, vol. IV (London: 1977)

[3] – Ronald Knox (transl.) The Miracles of King Henry VI: Being an Account and Translation of Twenty-three Miracles taken from the Manuscript in the British Museum (Royal 13 c. viii) with Introductions by Father Ronald Konx and Shane Leslie. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1923)

Further Reading:

Craig, L. A. “Royalty, Virtue, and Adversity: The Cult of King Henry VI” Albion, vol. 35, issue 2 (2003), pp. 187-209.

Duffy, E. The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, C. 1400-C. 1580 (Yale University Press, 1992).

 

Advertisements

3 comments on “The Curious Cult of King Henry VI

  1. melstephens says:

    Hello! I really loved your post as it gave me some great context to the period I wrote about for my essay. I enjoyed the way you wrote this as you made it very informative without getting too bogged down in detail (which I know is very easy to do in such a complex era!!). I didn’t realise the extent to which Henry VI was revered, all I knew was that Henry VII had to work hard to fix many aspects of the monarchy after his reign!
    I realise you touched on it in your post, but I would be really interested in your thoughts on the extent to which Henry VII’s propaganda and quest for legitimacy played in propagating the cult? In comparison to the other factors you discussed?
    Thank you for such an interesting read 🙂

    • elstearne says:

      Thanks Mel!! So nice to have a positive and encouraging review 🙂 So from the research I did, it was clear that Henry VII’s propaganda stimulated already existing devotion, while also serving to emphasise the sacredness of Henry VI. I believe this functioned to reinforced his uncle’s heavenly/divine Kingship, and may have boosted Henry VI’s saintly ‘power’. However, the people did not worship Henry because of his Kingship, but because of the misery and adversity he suffered during his lifetime. And this is quite a striking theme throughout the miracle stories, as most individuals call upon him in terrible terrible circumstances and seem to believe that he understands them. So comparing the political component of his cult with his following in lay piety, I think the latter was more significant for his enduring worship, which continued into the well into Reformation despite being long abandoned by Henry VIII.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s