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Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this sun of York. As the historian Robert Tombs put it, no other country but England had, until the age of cinema, turned its national history into a popular drama, thanks to William Shakespeare’s series of plays. These seven histories chart the country’s dynastic conflict from 1399 to 1485, starting with the overthrow of the demented Richard II and climaxing with death of the hunchbacked villain Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. Richard II, known to history as being deliriously paranoid— although, as it turned out they were out to get him—was replaced by his cousin, the duke of Lancaster, who took the throne as Henry IV.

Then, over a period of thirty years starting in 1455, three more kings died violently, seven royal princes were killed in battle, and five more executed or murdered; thirty-one peers or their heirs also fell in the field, and twenty others were put to death. It ended when Henry Tudor, distantly related and with an extremely dubious claim, was able to take the throne as Henry VII, largely on account of still breathing.

Shakespeare wrote his plays, called the Henriad, under Tudor’s granddaughter Elizabeth, partly as a form of propaganda. In the bard’s telling, the overthrow of Richard II begins this chain of events, the Bishop of Carlisle warning that if the king is removed ‘the blood of English shall manure the ground.’ However, the conflict that later became known as the War of the Roses only began in the 1450s, following English defeat in France, which led to an enormous number of extremely violent men returning home with widespread anger at the way the country was being mismanaged.

The cause of this was the insanity of Henry VI, and his weak, financially-incompetent rule. In the absence of a strong king, power rested with ‘affinities’ of related aristocrats and their soldiers, a Mafia society in which the ordinary people had little legal protection. The richest aristocrats commanded vast armies and led them into battle under their banners—the White Lion of Mortimer, the Bear of the Earl of Warwick, the White Swan of the Duke of Buckingham, the Falcon and Fetterlock for Richard of York, or the Sun in Splendour for his son Edward.

Where their men would go drinking, the landlords began to display their symbols by the entrance, which is how English ale houses and taverns—and so many of today’s pubs—got their names. The title of the conflict gives it a romantic feel that probably wasn’t as apparent to those on the battlefield having swords shoved into their eyes.

Henry IV’s great-grandfather Edmund Crouchback, the brother of King Edward I, had been a crusader, and like many fighting the holy war, took the red rose as his emblem; much later Edward III’s son Edmund, the first duke of York, adopted the white rose as his. For this reason, the dynastic struggle in the following century is known as the War of the Roses, although neither side wore the emblems in battle, and the term wasn’t used at the time.

By Shakespeare’s period, it was known as the Quarrel of the Warring Roses and the War between the Two Roses, although the exact phrase ‘the War or the Roses’ is attributed to historical novelist Sir Walter Scott in 1829.2

However, the idea of the flowers representing the warring families went back to the fifteenth century, if not the exact wording. After Bosworth, Henry VII married the Yorkist Edward IV’s daughter Elizabeth and symbolized the end of the conflict by having a new emblem created that intertwined the red rose of the House of Lancaster with the white rose of the House of York.

By that stage there was barely anyone left to fight; between 1455 and 1471, twenty-six peers were killed in battle and thirteen were executed, while six of Edward III’s descendants in the male line had died violently in the conflict.5 Out of seventy adult peers in the period, fifty are known to have fought in battles ‘they had to win if they wanted to survive.’ Contemporary Philippe de Commynes wrote that ‘there have been seven or eight memorable battles in England, and sixty or eighty princes and lords of the blood have died violently.’

In 1460–61 alone, twelve noblemen were killed in the field and six were beheaded, a third of the English higher peerage; three dukes of Somerset died violently in a short space of time, while four generations of Percy heirs fell in battle, and four Percy brothers died violently within four short years; four members of the Courtenay family in the direct line also died between 1461 and 1471. Although by one calculation there was only twelve or thirteen weeks spent fighting spanning thirty-two years, it was enough to kill off many noble families.

It also saw the complete abandonment of chivalry, the old law regarding warfare which stated that although you could basically kill the common soldiers as much as you liked, horsemen—chevalier—were supposed to spare aristocratic prisoners. This code had begun to break down in the fourteenth century and, by the time of the War of the Roses, the likes of Edward IV would order their troops to ‘spare the commons, kill the gentles,’ a reverse of traditional rules. After the battles, countless noblemen and knights were executed, part of a cycle of revenge in which the common soldiers didn’t feature as targets.

The fourteenth century Flemish chronicler Froissart wrote of the English: ‘They take delight in battles and slaughters.’ And for aristocrats that might have been true, but for most of the population, who weren’t caught up in the feuds, life went on pretty much as normal. There was no ideological or religious meaning to the war, and civilians were never targeted; in fact, life was pretty good for most. Military leaders made sure armies did not damage the countryside, since there was nothing to be gained from it, and private house-building continued as before. Direct taxation, which normally shoots up during war, actually decreased during this conflict. In fact, a better analogy than the mafia might be soccer hooliganism—an entirely consensual activity in which groups of violent men beat each other up just for the fun of it.

The conflict is sometimes very hard to follow, largely because almost every man involved is called either Henry, Richard, or Edward, which makes it terrible as soap opera; secondly, most of the combatants are also referred to by their titles, such as York or Warwick, some changed titles during the course of the conflict, and to make things even more confusing, sometimes the battles would take place near to the town after which a one of the players is named (York was killed near York alongside Salisbury and Rutland, while his son was in Salisbury). Warwick’s actual name was Richard Neville, also the name of his father, the earl of Salisbury, who was also killed near York, alongside York. There were also three different earls of Warwick during the period, all completely different in character, and several Somersets.

Also, to make it more confusing, the families involved had such a heavy death toll that one aristocrat would be killed and then his son or brother, often with the same title, would die in a battle a couple of years later, leaving the reader to wonder if he hadn’t just been killed on the previous page. And thirdly, since this was a war among the inbred descendants of Edward III’s five sons, all the participants were related to each other at least twice over, making the family tree utterly baffling. For that reason I tend to refer to people by their best-known titles, unless to distinguish between two brothers.

It all begins in 1399 with a dispute between two cousins, grandsons of King Edward, called Richard and Henry.

Chapter One
Heavy is the head that wears the crown

The story begins with Edward III, probably the greatest warrior in English history, who was hugely popular for leading the country into an almost never-ending war with France in 1337; later called the Hundred Years’ War, although it was even longer than that. Centuries earlier Edward’s ancestor Henry II had, through inheritance and marriage, ruled over a huge but incoherent group of territories including England and the French regions of Normandy, Anjou, and Aquitaine, an entity since called the Angevin Empire.

Unfortunately, his hopeless and drunken coward of a son King John, famous in English history for issuing Magna Carta, had lost almost all of his continental possessions in 1204, leaving only Gascony, the southern portion of Aquitaine. However, the French claimed even this and when France’s King Philippe VI invaded Gascony in 1337 Edward could not make war on him because, as duke of Aquitaine, he was a vassal of the French monarch. To declare war against an overlord would risk excommunication by the pope, and so Edward instead claimed the throne of France, through his mother Isabella, the daughter of a previous monarch, Philippe IV.

By today’s rules of succession Edward had a better claim, but at the time inheritance was not so simple, and the French reasoned that the throne could not pass through the female line. The war saw some stunning English victories, at Crecy (1346) and Poitiers (1356), won respectively by King Edward and his eldest son Edward, the Black Prince. Although France was far larger and in most ways more advanced, the English had longbows, a new weapon that had originated in Wales and which could fire up to twelve arrows a minute at great speed and force.

Before Poitiers the medieval order was built on cavalry, which ensured aristocratic power, since being a knight was expensive; however, anyone could fire a bow and arrow, so long as they were prepared to give themselves spinal injuries through years of practice (which the English king made compulsory). For three decades France was devastated by marauding armies, but for the English Edward III seemed the greatest king of all time; he was unconditionally supported by the Lords and Commons despite the huge cost in both lives and money for the war. With five surviving sons and three daughters, most of them married to heirs and heiresses from among the sixty families that comprised the English aristocracy, he seemed to have laid the foundations of a great dynasty.

However, a peace treaty in 1360 failed and the war dragged on, with ever more pointless raids by the English getting nowhere; the Black Prince fell ill and Edward III had a series of strokes, dying in 1377 a gibbering imbecile, a year after his eldest son. To top off a fantastic century for France, while all of this was going on, Europe was hit by the Black Death, a ghastly, agonizing disease which killed between one-third and one-half of the continent’s population after days of lingering agony; this was after one in ten people had starved to death in the Great Famine of 1315.

Edward’s successor, the Black Prince’s son Richard II, had what we’d today call a few personal ‘issues.’ When he was born in Bordeaux he just happened to be attended by three kings, of Castile, Portugal, and Navarre, and this seems to have given him a few ideas. He commissioned paintings of himself standing next to John the Baptist and St. Edward the Confessor, and claimed to have discovered a vial of oil given by the Virgin Mary to St. Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury whose head was smashed in by Henry II’s men.

Richard favored peace with France, because war was expensive and compromised his power by forcing him to ask Parliament for money. He believed in a new idea coming from Italy: the divine rights of kings, which suggested that monarchs were no longer just the strongest warlords, but also chosen by God Himself. His opponents weren’t so keen on the idea, especially not if God had chosen Richard.

The king insisted on being addressed not as ‘my lord,’ as was traditional, but with more extravagant titles such as ‘your most puissant prince,’ and would sit for hours in silence with courtiers who were forbidden to make eye contact with him. His most powerful subject was Edward III’s middle son John of Gaunt, but after Richard’s uncle went off to Spain to try to become king there, a dangerous rift opened between Richard and his opponents, led by his youngest uncle Thomas of Woodstock. Woodstock and four other powerful lords became known as the Lords Appellant, because they were appealing against the king. It came to a head in 1387 when Richard’s crony Robert De Vere, the earl of Oxford, was defeated in battle by the five Appellants and the following year their ‘Merciless Parliament’ vindictively had a number of the king’s followers and friends put to death or exiled.

Richard was still barely out of his teens and was scarred by these events; he would later become totally deranged. However, some relatively good years followed, and the chronicler Thomas Walsingham was able to write in 1397: ‘That year, the kingdom seemed to be on the verge of enjoying a period of great stability, partly because of the Royal marriages and the riches accumulated in aid of that, but also on account of the long truce with France, and the presence of so many noblemen, more numerous and higher in rank than any other realm could produce.’ One of those predictions political pundits are subsequently embarrassed by.

That year Richard’s three main enemies, Thomas of Woodstock, Warwick, and Arundel, were summoned to a banquet, but only Warwick accepted: he was immediately arrested. Richard, upon taking full control as an adult in 1388, had proclaimed that he had put all bitterness behind him, but in fact the king had waited a full nine years before getting his revenge. His uncle Thomas was strangled, Arundel was beheaded, and Warwick, after pleading for his life, according to Adam of Usk ‘wailing and weeping and whining, traitor that he was,’ was banished to the grim outpost of the Isle of Man where he was harshly treated by its governor, William le Scrope.

However, Richard then made a mistake in exiling his cousin Henry of Derby, called Bolingbroke by Shakespeare. Henry, along with the earl of Mowbray, was one of the two more moderate Appellants and so had escaped punishment; however, Mowbray, the son-in-law of Arundel, apparently warned Derby they were ‘on the point of being undone’ by the king; he told his father, who informed Richard. The two men accused each other of lying, and to resolve it Richard ordered them to fight a duel. However, at the last minute he called it off and exiled Mowbray for ten years and Derby for five, promising to allow his cousin to return when his father John of Gaunt died.

Both men had trained quite extensively for the event and, for his combat, Derby had special armor made in Milan, but Richard’s logic was that as people regarded victory in battle as divine favor, whoever was able to knock the other off was by definition telling the truth—and if this was Mowbray it would suggest Richard was plotting against them. However, if Henry of Derby won then he would be innocent of treason and would be more popular than ever.

In 1399, Mowbray died in exile, as did Derby’s father. William Shakespeare has Gaunt in his last days making a moving and patriotic speech to his nephew in which he speaks of:

This royal throne of kings,
this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty,
this seat of Mars,
This other Eden,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea

One of the best passages in the English language, although near contemporary Thomas Gascoigne has a slightly less romantic account of the meeting between uncle and nephew, writing that one of Gaunt’s last acts was to expose his ‘pox-ridden genitals’ to the king. He claims Gaunt ‘died of a putrefaction of his genitals and body, caused by the frequenting of women, for he was a great fornicator.’

Gascoigne was a theologian and might not have approved of Gaunt’s famous penchant for the ladies. When his uncle died, the king went back on his word and had Derby’s lands confiscated and so, in 1399, while Richard was in Ireland trying to resolve one of the country’s numerous aristocratic feuds, Derby landed in Yorkshire. He claimed he only returned to win back his personal lands, but at some point he decided he may as well become king instead; soon everyone had deserted Richard, including his dog, who licked Henry in the face when the two men met, and the king’s attempt to raise a loyal army amounted to just one hundred men.

According to the kangaroo court established by the new king, Richard was overthrown on account of thirty-nine crimes, among them his ‘perjuries, sodomitical acts, dispossession of his subjects, reduction of his people to servitude, lack of reason and incapacity to rule.’ He was locked up and, after an inept attempt to free him by his last remaining followers, was probably murdered.

Although Richard was childless — his wife was only ten years old, in fact — by the generally accepted laws of succession Derby was not next in line to the throne, since Edward III’s second son Lionel had living descendants through his only daughter Philippa. She had married a Mortimer, a powerful Welsh border family whose men were unfortunately always getting killed in fights; four generations had died young, the latest being in 1397 when Roger Mortimer was stabbed to death in Ireland, and Roger’s heir Edmund was only eight.

Richard’s downfall would become the start of the great Shakespearean tragedy, and it immediately became the subject of a propaganda war, which the Bard was to continue. After Henry became king, he sent letters to all the abbeys and major churches ‘instructing the heads of these religious houses to make available for examination all of their chronicles which touched upon the state and governance of the kingdom of England from the time of William the Conqueror up until the present day.’ He obviously destroyed many records, and the chronicles of the city of London were cut with a knife, with two and a half folios from the period taken out. As a result, history has probably been too kind to Henry.

Derby, unlike his slightly odd and pale cousin, had been a heroic figure who loved traditional regal activities like jousting and crusading, and had spent time with the Teutonic Knights, a Catholic military order, fighting against pagans in northeast Europe. But almost as soon as Henry became king he turned into a tragic figure cursed with ill-health and bad luck, and begun to think God had it in for him. At his coronation, as he was about to be crowned, it was discovered that his hair was covered in lice, and the special investiture ring slipped from his finger and fell down a crack, never to be seen again. The following year the plague returned, the first time since 1369.

King Henry seemed to be permanently troubled by rebellion from supporters of the deposed king, who could be identified by the white hart (a sort of deer) they wore on their coats. After one attempt to assassinate Henry and his sons, three rebel lords were lynched and twenty-six executed; another plot, in September 1401, involved placing a medieval weapon called a caltrap, with three poisoned spikes, in his bed. These uprisings were kept going by increasingly implausible rumors that the old king was still alive, often encouraged by Henry’s enemies.

The king of Scotland awarded a pension to a man called ‘Mummet’ who claimed to be Richard but clearly wasn’t; he had been found on the Hebridean Isle of Islay in 1402 and was recognized by a local woman who claimed to have seen Richard in Ireland. All in all, a rather unconvincing story, and Mummet was later revealed to be a Cambridgeshire man called Thomas Warde, one of numerous wandering charlatans who occasionally turn up in medieval history.

The depressed Scottish monarch Robert III, who described himself as ‘the worst of kings and most wretched of men in the kingdom,’ had good reason to oppose Henry, since the English king had declared war on Scotland almost immediately upon taking the throne because they refused to recognize him. Scotland was in chaos at the time, a ‘den of thieves,’ according to Walter Bower’s Scotichronicon; Robert’s brother the duke of Albany had seized power while another brother, Alexander, had gone on a rampage by burning down Elgin Cathedral, becoming known as the Wolf of Badenoch. Then the English invaded, Henry becoming the last English king to do so. Nothing was achieved and while in Scotland, Henry heard about an uprising in Wales.

In 1400, a nobleman called Owain Glyndwr had proclaimed himself prince of Wales. Glyndwr was portrayed by Shakespeare as a wild man living in a world of magic and pixies, as that was how people viewed the Welsh at the time, but in real life he came from mixed English-Welsh gentry from the border and was a true European prince, as well as a skilled diplomat. He spoke French, Latin, and English and had studied law at the Inns of Court in London under the patronage of the earl of Arundel, and had fought on campaign for Richard II in Scotland.

But he was also heir to the princes of Powys, his father Gruffydd Fychan II having been ‘hereditary Tywysog of Powys Fadog,’ (a sort of prince) and kept their traditions, employing bards and harpists, and believing in ancient Welsh prophecies about the expulsion of the Saxons from Britain (the Welsh always believed each uprising would be the one that finally defeated the English after one thousand years, despite all evidence to the contrary). Owain was persuasive and charming, and he won over not only the French and leading churchmen, but several English barons who became sympathetic to his cause.

Glyndwr defeated an English army in 1401, which they blamed on ‘the evil arts of Franciscan friars’ who had ‘forged links with demons.’ Again in 1402, Glyndwr won a victory against the English, at Bryn Glas in Powys, and captured Edmund Mortimer, a great-grandson of Edward III and one of the leading landholders in the border area. Mortimer’s own Welsh troops had changed sides and so the English prisoner was led into Wales. Despite Mortimer being the king’s cousin, Henry refused to pay the ransom, so instead he married the Welsh leader’s daughter and joined him.

Henry’s miserliness also helped alienate Mortimer’s in-laws, the Percys, who happened to be the most powerful family in the North. The Percys had arrived in England alongside William the Conqueror in 1066 and, as earls of Northumberland, they controlled the border with Scotland. The Percy family had supported Derby when he’d arrived in 1399, and they may have felt a bit mislead, although they had been rewarded. The king had appointed Henry Percy, the earl of Northumberland, as Constable of England and Lord of Man, while the earl’s eldest son—also Henry—became justiciar of north Wales, responsible for enforcing English law in that region; meanwhile Northumberland’s brother Thomas, earl of Worcester, was made steward of the royal household.

But they were discontent nonetheless. The earl’s son, who was known as Harry Hotspur by the Scots because of the speed in which he rode into battle, was a particularly belligerent individual who had first experienced battle at the age of nine, something not considered especially odd (although child psychologists today don’t normally recommend it).

In September 1402, a Scottish force led by Archibald, earl of Douglas had rolled over the border, only to be defeated by the Percys at Homildon Hill. The king demanded that their prisoners, including Douglas, be sent to London for ransom, which the Percys took as an insult, further aggravated when he refused to ransom Mortimer. Hotspur was persuaded to join the Welsh and marched south, the plan being to capture the king’s heir Prince Henry in Shrewsbury and then join Glyndwr and proclaim Mortimer’s thirteen-year-old nephew, confusingly also called Edmund Mortimer, as king. (This younger Mortimer was the earl of March, and heir presumptive to Richard II.)

To make matters more confusing, Earl Douglas had also now joined the Percys, after all the trouble he had caused in the first place. The king reacted quickly and reached the border town of Shrewsbury with fourteen thousand troops. Because he fully expected to be a target, the monarch had two rather unfortunate men dressed in royal surcoats as lookalikes, and predictably both of them were killed in the ensuing battle. The earl of Douglas is supposed to have exclaimed ‘Have I not slain two king Henries with my own hand?’ At one point, the sixteen-year-old Prince of Wales was hit in the face with an arrow, but survived. Hotspur was less lucky and after he was struck by an unknown archer, the king shouted ‘Henry Percy is dead’ and the rebels ran off.

After the battle Thomas Percy was captured, hanged, and quartered, while Hotspur’s corpse was dug up, salted, and put on show in the Shrewsbury pillory, after which his head and intestines were displayed in the North. The day cost five thousand lives, and like much of this story ended up immortalized in Shakespeare’s plays, although Prince Henry didn’t kill Hotspur, and the two men were not the same age as the play suggests, Percy being thirty-nine.

Although Harry Hotspur was defeated, his name lives on, and not just in theater. The Percy family owned land in north London and so, in 1882, when a group of grammar schools boys wanted a name for their new soccer club they named it after the local pub and called it Hotspur Football Club, which two years later became Tottenham Hotspur, today one of the biggest names in English sports.

King Henry responded by invading Wales and passing Acts of Parliament that barred the Welsh from senior positions and confiscated lands; in the border towns of Chester and Hereford, the prince of Wales issued city ordinances in 1403 stating that it was legal to kill any Welshman after dark with a bow and arrow. This law has never actually been repealed, but would-be assassins should note that the more relevant law against murder would still be applied were anyone to try it. A similar law was passed regarding Scotsmen in York, except you couldn’t shoot them on a Sunday.

The spring of 1404 brought the sixth attempt to topple Henry since he seized the throne, this time led by the countess of Oxford, mother of Richard II’s former crony Robert de Vere, who was somehow convinced that Richard was alive, despite all evidence to the contrary, and wrote to the duke of Orléans in France asking him to meet with Glyndwr at Northampton. Nothing came of it. Four years later there was yet another, more serious uprising, when the duke of Northumberland raised an army in the north under the banner of Richard II, aided by Lord Bardolf, a baron from Norfolk; however, they were soon defeated.

Northumberland was killed and Bardolf died of his wounds, and his head was stuck on a pike on London Bridge. Glyndwr was beaten in 1410, and the following year the king was finally spared interference from France when the country’s court descended into civil war. Although inevitably doomed to defeat, Glyndwr remained a romantic figure, and in 1415 he did what all great rebels do—simply disappearing—evoking the end of King Arthur, and ensuring that the romance and legend of the last Welsh Prince of Wales would live on. A Welsh chronicle says, ‘Very many say that he died; the seers maintain that he did not.’ But the seers were probably wrong.

On top of these various wars, the king, who was short and angry to the point of appearing to be always on the verge of a seizure, also had disputes with parliament, and especially its lawyers. Henry hated lawyers so much that the October 1404 assembly at Coventry was known as the ‘Unlearned Parliament’ or ‘Parliament of Dunces,’ because the king ruled that no legal experts could be elected to the Commons, because they were ‘troublesome.’
There was a huge increase in lawyers at the time, part of a wider economic boom that saw the city of London emerge as an important European financial center, with an increasingly wealthy commercial elite. Henry IV was the first king to invite merchants, as well as barons and bishops, to sit on the royal council, one of them being Sir Richard Whittington. Whittington was the three-time mayor of London, and built the first large public toilet (for men and women together, no privacy).

He also campaigned against the scandal of watered-down beer, always a vote-winner in England. However, he is probably among the best-known figures in English history simply because he became the subject of a play in the early seventeenth century and then morphed into the star of a popular pantomime. ‘Panto,’ as non-UK readers may not be aware, is a strange British custom where every December minor celebrities appear on stage in comical roles in plays performed with a knowing wink to the audience and references to current popular culture.

They are mainly for children, but also contain lots of weird and inappropriately-sexual humor for the parents forced to attend. You probably have to be British to understand. In the panto, which traditionally centers around jokes about his name being ‘Dick,’ Whittington is portrayed as a poor man who is about to give up on London, but is persuaded to return by the sound of the city’s Bow bells. The real Dick Whittington did not come from poverty, but was a well-born exporter of woolen cloth, as well as royal dressmaker. In one year, he sold £3,500’s worth of goods to the crown, and also made a fortune as moneylender to the king, although he once lost the royal jewels he’d taken as security, and had to forfeit the huge loan.

Henry IV was so troubled by money worries that he encouraged alchemy, the art of turning base metal into gold, as a way of paying off the national debts; amazingly, it didn’t work. Adam of Usk wrote in 1404: ‘When the Duke of Lancaster seized the crown he can have had little notion of the financial burden which was to weigh upon him for the rest of his life.’ Who would have thought being king of England was such a difficult job?

He also appeared to be cursed. In May 1405, there had been further signs of discontent when Archbishop Scrope of York gathered eight thousand armed men in York to protest taxes and the treatment of clergy, and to support his cousin Northumberland. Scrope had papers pinned to the doors of each church in York denouncing Henry as ‘usurper, wastrel and a breaker of promises,’ which didn’t go down well.

The king ordered Ralph Neville, the earl of Westmorland and a rival of the Percys, to intercept the rebels; he persuaded Scrope and his allies to disband their army and said their grievances would be addressed. Then he arrested them, and Henry arrived in York and had the men immediately tried and condemned to death, the archbishop made to ride a mule backwards on his way to his execution. Soon there were reported miracles on the spot where Scrope had been killed, and also at his tomb, while it was also said that five strips of plough land lying in ruin on the day of his execution were now producing huge quantities of grain.

And on the very evening Scrope was executed, Henry was struck down by a sudden illness near Ripon and afflicted with ‘horrible torments;’ he screamed that traitors were throwing fire at him, and his hands and face were covered with large red pustules. Henry’s illness may have been leprosy, caught on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, although alternative explanations are gangrene or syphilis, and although historical diagnosis is a lively field we can never be certain.

By May 1406, Henry was so sick he asked for a permanent council of seventeen men to help him run the country. Adam of Usk described his disease as ‘a rotting of the flesh, a drying up of the eyes and a rupture of the intestines;’ he had ‘tumors, rashes and suppurating flesh.’ He grew heavily disfigured and would cry that he was on fire; there were swellings and rashes on his skin, and rumors abounded in France that his fingers and toes had fallen off, while the Scots got it into their heads for some reason that he had shrunk to the size of a child.

Then in 1408, on the third anniversary of the killing of Scrope, the king suffered a stroke, after which he found speech difficult; the king ordered that it be a crime to spread rumors of his poor state, which most people attributed not to a brain condition but to divine retribution for the regicide of Richard, a view shared by Henry himself.

Many people also believed his second wife, Joan of Navarre, to be a practitioner of witchcraft. The king now became a chronic invalid. Sometimes he couldn’t speak, and at times the king thought himself dead and what he was experiencing must be hell. Henry felt haunted by the killing of his cousin, and famously said: ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown’ (well, Shakespeare has him saying it). At one point, everyone thought that Henry had died, and the king awoke to find his son Henry already wearing his crown, which must have made him feel appreciated. ‘What right have you to this crown when I have none?’ he asked him. It had been foretold that Henry would die in Jerusalem, so he thought that as long as he avoided the place and didn’t go on crusade he would be safe.

Visiting the shrine of St. Edward in Westminster Abbey in 1413 he had a seizure and was carried to the Abbot’s chamber, where he regained consciousness and was told he was in the Jerusalem room. ‘Now I know that I shall die here in this chamber,’ he replied, and did. Haunted by the killing of his cousin, the king’s last words were, ‘God alone knows why I wear this crown.’

What do you think?