Saints, sex, and kings

Once upon a time there lived a king.

Ah, but there’ve lived a lot of kings, so we need to be specific about this.

Once upon a time, there lived a king named Henry.

Oh, hell, there’ve lived a good number of those as well. Eight in England alone. This particular king was Henry the Half Dozen, a.k.a. Henry VI. He was known for general incompetence and for presiding, in a vague sort of way, over the War of the Roses and that unpleasant business with Joan of Arc.

Also for becoming a saint. Or sort of a saint. A semi-saint. And possibly for not knowing what, other than sleep, he was supposed to do in bed.

Image result for henry vi dates

A rare relevant photo. Or picture, since the camera hadn’t been discovered, possibly because no one was looking for it yet. This is Henry VI, in all his glory.

But let’s start at the beginning. Henry became king of both England and France in 1422, before he was a year old, so he can be forgiven for not getting off to a strong start. As an adult, his main interests seem to have been religious observances and schools: He founded both Eton and King’s College, Cambridge. An essay in the Britannica sums him up as reclusive, generous, and pious. 

A different essay in the Britannia calls him simple minded and subject to spells of madness. Other sources add that he was kind. It all depends on who you ask, apparently. 

His vagueness as a leader allowed rivalries to flourish between his advisors and was matched by his vagueness as a subject for the artist who painted his portrait. The picture gives you–or me, anyway–a sense that in the time it took the artist to glance from subject to canvas he’d already forgotten what the man in front of him looked like.

I know he has a nose, you (or I, if we’re going to be accurate about this) imagine him thinking, but what shape is it anyway? Potato? No, those haven’t come over from the Americas yet. Carrot? No, that’s not it either.

And so on.

Even the shape of his head is odd. I mean, it’s definitely a shape, and what with the ears and the eyes and all it’s clearly a head, but there’s still something vague about it, as if the artist couldn’t figure out where the edges were.

Okay, I admit, in later portraits his nose looks more noselike and the edges of his head look more edgelike, as if he came to terms with himself as he got older. And his mouth doesn’t seem to be saying, “Oh, how did I get here?”

Never mind. The portrait was the least of his problems. During his reign, the English countryside was dominated by lawlessness and by powerful lords with private armies. The court was dominated by the Yorkists–followers of the Duke of York. That’s when it wasn’t dominated by the party of Henry’s wife, Margaret of Anjou, a powerful woman stuck in a position where, as the mere wife of a king, she had no power of her own.

She led the Lancastrians–the king’s party.

Both sides, Yorkists and Lancastrians, had a reasonable claim on the throne if you consider any hereditary monarchy reasonable. Of course, by then, half of England had a claim on the throne, although you won’t find any historians willing to say so. You see how these conspiracies work?

Grain of salt there, please, people.

The problem was that only one throne was available and the idea of job sharing hadn’t been introduced.

The only person who didn’t have a claim on the throne was Henry’s son, because he didn’t exist yet. For eight years Henry and Margaret had no child, male (desirable) or female (better than nothing but not half as useful). And here’s where that clickbait from the top of the post re-enters: Historian Lauren Johnson has been burrowing around in the archives and she’s found evidence that the happy couple was joined in the bedroom by “trusted courtiers” trying–she believes–to help them understand where babies come from.

“Was it,” she asks rhetorically, “because the famously chaste Henry–who was a virgin until he married–didn’t know what he was doing? I think it’s entirely possible that it had reached a certain point where it perhaps became necessary to make clear to him what he should be doing.

“That couldn’t be done in a public way at all. The king’s chamber is the most private place [where] you could be having this conversation or, indeed, checking what was going on.”

Although once you add trusted courtiers lifting the blankets to see if tab A has been inserted into slot B, it wouldn’t have been all that private. But better them, I guess, than the entire court.

Johnson also speculates that everyone’s collective efforts wouldn’t have been helped by Margaret fasting four or five times a week–which she did in hopes of producing an heir.

When at long last the couple triumphantly produced the heir everyone had been pestering them for, they were then plagued by rumors that the child, Edward, was a bastard. Or a changeling. Or a hedgehog.

Salt, please. I made up that bit about the hedgehog. I’ve learned not to take anyone’s sense of the absurd for granted. Including mine. I’ve stubbed my toe on other bloggers’ sense of humor in the past.

Anyway, war broke out over who should be king. And war ended. And war broke out again. Henry was captured. Henry was released. Assorted people went into exile, then came back, picked up the fight again, lost, won, and died.

Lots of people died. There’s your summary of the War of the Roses. Have you memorized it? It’s on the test. 

Why roses? Because each side used a different color rose as its symbol: Lancaster red, York white.

I’ve checked that three times and I still don’t trust that I’ve kept the colors straight. I’m sure it meant a lot to them, but to me it seems arbitrary as hell.

The whole thing ended up with a Yorkist king, Edward IV, who wasn’t the same Edward who’d been born after so much effort on his parents’ part. This was a different Edward, and he surrounded himself with his wife’s unpopular family, the Woodvilles, although whether that meant they were unpopular with the tiny circle of his aristocratic supporters, who were pissed off because the Woodvilles were getting the goodies that should rightly have gone to other aristocratic hangers on or whether it meant unpopular with that vast and powerless swathe of people who were his subjects is beyond me. No one did opinion polls in those days. Telephones hadn’t been invented. Neither had the royal mail, and not many people could read to fill out a survey anyway. Besides, who cared what the riff-raff thought? As long as they didn’t revolt, all was well.

Edward died and was followed by his brother, Richard–the one Shakespeare didn’t like; the one who may or may not have killed his brother’s sons. Richard was eventually defeated by Henry Tudor, which put an end to the whole sorry episode.

But if you go back to the title, you’ll notice that we’re still short a saint. How did Henry the Vague become a saint? People began attributing miracles to him, that’s how. I doubt anyone will ever fully know why, but political martyrs (he was Edward’s prisoner when he died and we might as well assume he was killed on Ed’s orders) had a habit of undergoing a medieval transformation into innocent and sacred martyrs. Think of it as a metaphorical political statement by people who had no other outlet for their grievances.

Henry’s schtick as a saint was coming through for ordinary people in adversity. He was the guy to talk to if you were about to be hanged, or if you were already dead and being sewn into your shroud, both of which strike me as fair examples of adversity.

What’s more, if you put his hat on your head it would cure migraines.

Or give you cooties.

When Henry Tudor became king, Henry the Half Dozen’s cult was politically useful–it weighed against any lingering Yorkist sentiment–and Henry T. pushed Rome to formally be-saintify Henry the H.D. That was still in the works when the next Henry, Mr Eighth, broke with Rome, which ruined Henry the Half Dozen’s chances. No sainthood for you, boychick. Rome forgot all about him and so, after a time, did the people of England.

It’s an open question whether there are any saints the half-sanctified can pray to if they want to get their sainthood finalized. 

As far as I know, no one lived happily ever after.

63 thoughts on “Saints, sex, and kings

  1. If Henry and Margaret needed help in the – ahem – bedchamber department, they weren’t alone amongst the crowned heads of Europe. I can’t remember which one it was (although it was undoubtedly a Louis), but a French king and his wife had similarly not shown any signs of producing an heir after several years of marriage. His mother (a Medici I think) somehow discovered that they weren’t doing things properly and got some people in to help them. It solved the problem.

    In retrospect, it seems something of a shame that Henry and Margaret did produce an heir, as said heir was killed in battle at a young age.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I hadn’t thought of it that way, but you’re right. I’ve been reading a book called An Utterly Impartial History of Britain, or 2000 Years of Upper Class Idiots in Charge. It backs up your point, and it’s a good read with an even better title.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I am a huge anglophile and watch any movie or series I can on these going-ons. You have done such a great and really humorous job of writing about Henry the Saint. I am your newest fan!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Didn’t little bits and girls hang out behind the gym and talk nasty back then lack normal people?

    You blog did not show up on my word press again. Twice in three or four weeks. Bad Atlantic crossing?

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s Brexit. They’re going to have to negotiate an entire separate treaty just to get my blog to your inbox. And they’re so busy not knowing what they’re doing that they’ve let that slide.

      Two suggestions: 1, Unsubscribe and resubscribe. It may not help but it’ll give you the illusion that you’ve done something. 2, Try following it via email instead. I assume that means hitting the Follow button. It might also mean hitting the RSS button. It all seemed to make sense when I put the thing together. It makes less sense now. Personally, I hate the WP reader and never do get around to looking at it.

      And finally, to start (or end, more accurately) from the top, they didn’t have gyms yet, but that was okay because none of the information that’s passed along there is accurate anyway.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. So, Henry was generous, pious, simple minded and subject to spells of madness. I think all those attributes can coexist, if you’re not to strict about pious. If you’re collecting test papers – Lots of people died – I remember.

    As for Henry’s looks, I think he looks a little like Mark Zuckerberg. Seriously, (he says, hoping I can add a link here) check this out –

    Do I get extra credit for using a BBC-sourced article?

    Liked by 3 people

    • When they didn’t have kids, it was a problem. When they did have kids and they were rivals, it was a problem. When they weren’t rivals but weren’t kingship material, it was a problem. The system was made for drama.

      Too bad the soap opera hadn’t been invented yet.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for this marvelous account, Ellen. It’s quite a fun romp and a genuine interest-piquer. The coincidence of saints, sex, and kings set me searching for more, of course. And more is what I found :-)
    Here is a nice nugget from 6 October 2000: “Political aristocrats waiting in the wings.” Ponderings on what another decade (2010) might find, now available on the internet nearly 20 years later. A Henry VI redux that includes some disquietingly familiar characters.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Here it is first thing in the morning (or third, but never mind) and you have me doing higher mathematics? That’s a hell of a way to start the day. I’m grateful that your third mention included something that didn’t involve subtraction. Anyway, the writers of the song were Fred Murray and R P Weston. The band members were a bunch of other guys. So someone else wrote the song, although that doesn’t answer the question of how ‘Enery got them to do it. Messages from beyond the grave?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sorry. I remember a student once asking why we still teach Roman numerals when the only people who use them are the movie industry and bird collection stations (statues). I had to agree with him, we spend so much time teaching things that just aren’t relevant anymore.

        Liked by 1 person

        • My mother liked to tell me that she’d taken four (I think) years of Latin and couldn’t even read an inscription on a building. I think she was kind of proud of that. The only reason I can think of for learning Roman numerals is so we can figure out which king is which.

          Liked by 1 person

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