The mysterious murder of England’s ‘Mad King’, Henry VI

Henry VI, the real 'Mad King' of England
Henry VI, the real ‘Mad King’ of England

One of the main inspirations for the plot of Game of Thrones is the Wars of the Roses, a late 15th-century dynastic struggle that was fought between the houses of Lannister and Stark—no, sorry, Lancaster and York. The wars began during the reign of the Mad King Aerys Targaryen—no, sorry, the Mad King Henry VI, whose mysterious death in 1471 continues to befuddle historians…

Henry VI was king during the final years of the Hundred Years War between England and France. The war concluded with a French victory in 1453, which caused Henry to go completely bananas. For more than a year, he suffered hallucinations and was unresponsive to everything around him, including the birth of his son.

Historians believe that he may have been suffering from a form of schizophrenia. It’s also possible that he inherited the illness from his grandfather, Charles VI of France, who experienced intermittent bouts of insanity in the last 30 years of his life (as did his own mother, Joanna of Bourbon).

Henry VI was a Lancastrian. It was during his breakdown that the rival House of York gained power, after years of growing discontent throughout England. In 1460, civil war broke out. Three major battles culminated in Henry being kicked off the throne by Edward of York, who became Edward IV. By this point, Henry’s madness had returned. Apparently, at the Second Battle of St. Albans on 17th February 1461, Henry was singing and laughing hysterically as the battle raged around him.

Henry VI was eventually captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London by Edward IV. Henry’s wife, Margaret of Anjou, was determined to win back the throne for her husband, so she forged an alliance with Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. They were eventually successful in forcing Edward IV into exile and freeing Henry from the Tower, and in 1470, Henry VI was king again.

Unfortunately there was very little left of Henry’s mind. It’s said that he was too mentally feeble to rule unaided and had to be led by the hand when he paraded through London.

And his days were numbered. The Mad King was back on the throne for less than 6 months before Edward IV returned to England with an army and defeated the Lancastrians at the Battle of Tewkesbury on 4th May 1471. He threw Henry VI into the Tower once again, but what happened next is up for debate.

Henry VI breathed his last on the night of May 21st 1471. At Tewkesbury, Henry’s son Edward was killed in battle, and official records say that Henry died of “pure displeasure and melancholy” because of his son’s death.

Mmmm. Sounds suss to me. As it happens, a number of people were unconvinced by the official story even then, let alone now. It was rumoured that Edward IV had arranged the former king’s assassination, hoping the Lancastrian cause would die with him. Apparently they kept him alive the first time because he was technically the leader of the Lancastrians—and was weak. If he died, his much more formidable son would become the new Lancastrian leader, and the Yorkists didn’t want that. So when his son was killed at Tewkesbury, there was no real reason to keep Henry alive.

So what exactly happened to the Mad King? In 1910, Henry VI’s remains were exhumed. Archaeologists found that the bones of his head were “much broken” and there was some hair still attached to his skull that was “apparently matted with blood”. This suggests he was bludgeoned to death.

However, these suggestions aren’t conclusive. It’s been argued that the archaeologists who dug up Henry’s bones weren’t qualified to identify the substance they found in his hair, and that the bones may have broken over time. They might not actually be evidence of a violent cause of death.

But while the jury’s still out on cause of death, the verdict’s in on murder. And while most agree that Henry VI was assassinated by or on the orders of Edward IV, some point the finger at his brother, Richard III (who’s alleged to have plenty of blood on his hands, including his own nephews, the Princes in the Tower).

I suspect if we dug up Henry VI’s bones again and took another look using much more sophisticated technology than would’ve been available in 1910, we’d finally find out what happened to the Mad King…

Next week: The Shining and the big Apollo hoax

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