Nipissing University

History 2425 -- Medieval England

Henry IV

Steve Muhlberger

Richard II had been deposed because he had been arbitrary, but also because he ran a narrow government rather than a broadly based one, because he won no profitable and inspiring victories, and because he taxed the country heavily.

Under Henry IV, England soon found itself with another king who ruled mainly through a small circle of friends, who launched no popular foreign wars, and who taxed England very heavily, without even being able to keep order in the kingdom.

In the years between 1399 and 1406, Henry came close to losing his throne several times.

Henry's basic problem was his doubtful claim to the throne. Henry had returned to England to vindicate his hereditary right to the duchy of Lancaster, and most of his support had been support for that popular cause. When he then claimed to be the true king of England, he seemed to contradicting the hereditary principle that he had earlier relied on.

In the parliament of 1399, several arguments were advanced to justify the usurpation

Most of these were weak arguments.  So at the very beginning of the reign, there was room for doubt and even opposition.  In 1400, an attempt by friends of Richard to restore him led to their deaths and his murder in captivity.  Even after this, however, there was a strain of popular pro-Richard feeling, promoted by Franciscan friars.

There was another claim to the throne that was more dangerous to Henry. He himself was the heir male of Edward III, the senior man whose descent from that king was solely in the male line. By normal English feudal custom, however, there was an heir general, whose descent through a senior line would have been enough in other circumstances to claim any lordship. The heir general was Edmund, Earl of March, grandson through his mother of Lionel, duke of Clarence, an elder brother of John of Gaunt. In 1399 he was only eight years old. But he remained to make the Lancastrian line uneasy; and there was also his uncle, Edmund Mortimer, an adult whose claim might also be preferred to Henry's.

In the circumstances, Henry was doomed to be a suspicious, insecure king.

His other problems:

England once again had a cliquish government of royal favorites. And thus England was quickly dissatisfied with the new king.

Dissatisfaction gave rebels against Henry an unusual latitude.

The first of the important revolts, that of Owain Glyndwr (Owen Glendower in Shakespeare), blew up seemingly out of nowhere. Owain Glyndwr was a Welsh lord of northern Wales of princely descent. To his ancestors in previous centuries, he might well have seemed almost English. But there was a great deal of dissatisfaction simmering under the surface. When Lord Grey of Ruthin, a Welsh marcher lord and a member of Henry IV's council, exploited his royal connections to harass Glyndwr, Glyndwr and his relatives (one of whom had the very English name of Philip Hanmer), saw or at least presented their grievance as a matter of English tyranny in Wales.

This struck a chord all through Wales, and soon a significant part of the country was united behind Glyndwr, who took the title of Prince of Wales. The Glyndwr revolt was successful for some years. After failing to get an early pardon and settlement from Henry IV, Glyndwr went all out for Welsh independence. He attempted a grand Celtic alliance with the Irish chiefs and the King of Scotland, and achieved one with France (which sent a small expedition to Wales).

 In 1404, he called the first and only Welsh parliament, in an attempt to solidify a Welsh political community behind him.

One of the reasons for his amazing success record was Glyndwr's ability to exploit weak points in Henry's political position.

Early on, in 1402, Glyndwr captured Edmund Mortimer, the uncle of the young Earl of March. Henry, who had just bought Ruthin of Grey out of Welsh captivity, refused to pay more more money to Glyndwr to ransom this potential rival. This looked bad, especially to Mortimer. He made common cause with his captor and ended up marrying his daughter. Thus the Welsh national revolt paradoxically gained the color of an English legitimist revolt.

In  1403 the Percies turned on Henry. You will recall that their power as wardens of the northern marches had made them the key element in Henry's coup. Since 1399, their power had only increased. But they -- Henry Percy, earl of Northumberland and his impetuous and warlike son, Henry Hotspur, were unhappy with King Henry because he didn't give them even more.
They decided that if they had made Henry king they could unmake him.

In the summer of 1403, Harry Hotspur raised a revolt on the Welsh border, and his father began collecting forces in the north.  They claimed that the king had defrauded the Earl of March of his inheritance, and his rule since had seen ruinous taxation.

The king moved quickly and caught Hotspur at Shrewsbury, where in a hard- fought battle, the rebels were defeated. Hotspur was killed in the battle and his uncle executed for treason afterwards.

Surprisingly, Hotspur's father, the earl of Northumberland, was not punished for his part in the revolt. He was let off on the grounds that he had not actually fought the king. His pardon was a miscalculation on the king's part.

In 1405, the earl was in communication with Glyndwr and Mortimer. They struck a deal that looks like purest fantasy. England and Wales were to be divided into three parts. Glyndwr was to rule Wales and the border counties; the Percies were to get the north country and most of the midlands and East Anglia. Mortimer, a man with royal ancestry but no independent forces, was to have the remainder of the south and east.

If the settlement was fantastic, the alliance was potentially formidable, since other peers and the French and Scots were willing to support it.

But again, the Percies' ambitions were greater than their forces. The earl of Westmoreland, a member of the Neville clan, the Percies' rivals in the north, dispersed their forces. Percy himself was forced to flee to Scotland.

After the second Percy revolt, Henry was able to breath just a little bit easier. Percy, after some years in exile invaded England from Scotland in 1408, but this time he was killed, which ended one threat to the Lancastrian dynasty. Glyndwr was slowly beaten back into the mountains, and after 1409, he was a fugitive rather than a dangerous foe.

Earlier,  in 1406, two events abroad distracted Henry's foreign enemies.

Nevertheless, Henry IV never had a really easy time of it. There were several reasons for this. As Maurice Keen has said, "in an age when so much revolved about questions of inheritance, people had to be troubled by what had happened in 1399."   There were plots in favor of the Earl of March independent of the Percies, and rumors that Richard II was still alive.

Besides such doubts, there was the simple dissatisfaction and the disappointment in Henry's rule that I refereed to before.

This manifested itself in a most interesting way, in parliamentary criticism of the king's policies. In was in this period that Parliament and the commons within parliament were in the strongest position vis-a-vis a king that they ever were in the Middle Ages. Everyone had hoped that Henry would "live of his own," that is, run the government on his hereditary revenues and the customary royal export taxes, without further extraordinary grants from parliament. This had proved impossible.

Eventually he went to parliament to ask for subsidies. Right from the beginning of the reign, the commons were stubborn, and throughout the reign they used their leverage to get petitions granted by the king, to have auditors appointed to supervise royal spending, and to attempt to limit royal pensions and largess.

Finally the commons did not hesitate to voice some opinions on matters of high politics. The pardon of the earl of Northumberland in 1403 was partly a matter of pressure from the commons.

Throughout the fourteenth century, the importance of parliament as a forum where the most important business of the realm was done had grown. Now, in the first decade of the fifteenth century, it had achieved some independent power in the decision-making process. The prominence of the commons, which claimed for the first time the sole right to introduce money bills, was greater than ever.

This prominence was not, however, to be permanent. As we shall see, when political rivalries between the great nobles got nasty, the commons would back away from state affairs as too dangerous to meddle in.

Henry IV's final tribulation was to be his own son. The young Henry of Monmouth, Prince of Wales, was not the playboy of Shakespeare's plays.  He acquired such a following that he aroused the jealousy of his father and his brother Thomas.

In 1411, there was a serious division in the government. The two competing French factions were each bidding for English support. The Prince of Wales favored the duke of Burgundy, who controlled Flanders and thus England's chief trading partners. Another party, including Thomas, supported Burgundy's rivals, the Armangacs. In 1411 an English force allied with Burgundy entered Paris. But before the campaign was over, Thomas had got his father to fire the Prince of Wales from the council and make a new alliance with the Armangacs, so that he, Thomas, could take his own expedition to France.

The dismissal of the Prince of Wales was a scandal. The House of Commons gave the prince a vote of thanks, which was something of rebuke to the king. The whole matter emphasized the continuing unpopularity of Henry IV. When King Henry died in 1413, it must have been a relief to many of his subjects.

This site has been visited times since September 1, 1998.

Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.