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