Ian Mortimer


The Fears of Henry IV
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Who was the only English king to set foot within the walls of Jerusalem? Not Richard the Lionheart: he went no further than Jaffa. Nor was it Edward I. Here is a clue: he was described by contemporaries as a sparkling musician, played the recorder and wrote choral music? No, not Henry VIII. Another clue: he was probably the greatest tournament knight the English royal family ever produced. Would it help to know that he was the king who authorised the burning alive of heretics? A highly literate intellectual, able to read and write in three languages, who was keen on morality debates? The founder of the Order of the Bath? The only king known to have designed his own cannon?

It is fair to say that Henry IV has been almost entirely eclipsed as a historical character. Any of the above points should have been enough to lend fame to a king, or at least provide a point of reference by which he might be known. Taken all together they illustrate a truly remarkable individual. Yet when people think of Henry they do not think of any of these achievements. Instead they think of him as one thing only: England's usurper king.

How do we begin to account for this blinkered denigration? After all, history is written by the victors, and Henry himself was nothing if not victorious. He won all three battles in which he took part, defeated the Welsh rebel Glendower, imprisoned the king of Scotland, survived no fewer than ten rebellions and attempts on his life and passed the Crown safely and peacefully to his son, Henry V, the victor of Agincourt. You would have thought all that would have been enough to guarantee lasting celebrity.

But no. No crowned monarch could ever admit that what Henry did was right. Whether you call it usurpation or justice, Henry took the throne away from an anointed king, Richard II. That fact alone was enough to strike terror into the heart of every subsequent monarch. That Richard was one of the most unstable, self-obsessed tyrants who ever sat on the English throne, who murdered one of his uncles, attempted to murder another and may even have tried to kill Henry, was neither here nor there. To later monarchs, Henry IV's memory undermined the right of all kings to rule absolutely. Not only did he set aside his loyalty and depose his sovereign lord, he showed that God would not necessarily punish him for it. It followed that a rebel might even benefit from divine sanction.

Exactly how shocking this was may be seen by looking at the main conduit by which stories of Henry IV and Richard II have come down to us. Shakespeare's plays Richard II, Henry IV pt 1, Henry IV pt 2 and Henry V together constitute the greatest cycle of historical drama ever written. And yet Henry, although he features as a key character in three of them, is almost wholly ignored. Almost no aspect of his personality is reflected in Shakespeare's writing. More importantly, Shakespeare asks the audience to sympathise with Richard II rather than the cold, faceless magnate who removed him from the throne. In short, Shakespeare deliberately distorted this part of our national heritage.

Why did Shakespeare, of all people, do this? Surely he was above such manipulation of historical reputation? Far from it. One of his contemporaries, John Heywood, decided to publish a book about Henry IV in 1599. Soon afterwards he was thrown in the Tower on a charge of treason. Queen Elizabeth, like many other monarchs, saw Henry as a threat to the divine right of monarchy. 'Know ye not I m Richard II?' she is supposed to have declared. Even though two hundred years had passed, men still could not even write about what Henry did. Instead Shakespeare wisely paraded Richard II as the victim of a usurper, and this tag has hung around Henry's neck ever since.

This book breaks from all this. It re-examines the evidence from Henry's point of view. After all, how can we approach the historical Henry IV unless we see what pressures he was under? How can we judge him before we understand why he did what he did? It is far too easy to see him as just Richard's enemy; and to do so is to fall into the trap of accepting centuries of royal propaganda.

As soon as we start to understand Henry's situation during Richard's reign the scales fall away from our eyes. Richard was not Henry's victim; quite the opposite. Henry was persecuted by his cousin. Richard believed kingship permitted him absolute authority; Henry believed it entailed responsibilities. Richard could neither joust nor sire a son; Henry's jousting was internationally famous and he sired four boys within five years. Richard bullied and threatened his subjects; Henry negotiated with his enemies in a level-headed manner, and more often than not forgave them. Henry was everything a king was expected to be while Richard was the opposite. The problem was that Richard was the one on the throne. As the king's cousin, Henry should have been given important positions of responsibility and authority. Instead Richard gave all such positions to his friends and left Henry with absolutely nothing. Eventually he exiled him and took away his birthright. Thus in the first half of this book Henry emerges not only as one of the greatest knights in Christendom but the victim of the king's bitterness towards him: a bitterness founded in envy and ending in murder.

The result is likely to reshape our ideas about the way we approach past leaders. The contrast between the image of Henry in this book and the traditional image of the 'usurper' is so striking that it is very possible that people will begin to see the traditional 'objective' approach to the middle ages itself as outdated. This understanding of a historical character as a living individual, not just a pile of dry documentary evidence, allows us to determine why people made the decisions they did. As the introduction to this book makes clear, the idea that we need bundles of letters and diaries to write a historical biography looks increasingly wrong. 'Men may lie in what they write,' the introduction says, 'but they rarely lie in what they do.'

But who was the man at the heart of this study? Will readers like him? The chances are that they will. They will certainly sympathise with the forbearance of a man unjustly persecuted by a bullying cousin. Henry's Prussian crusade and his pilgrimage via Venice to Jerusalem are likely to stand as high points, being vivid insights into the medieval world beyond the shores of England. Readers are equally likely to be amazed by the innovations which Henry introduced, from the first portable mechanical clock to the first known instance of a recorder and the earliest known close stool. There is humour too; at one point we even track Henry's whereabouts by payments for cotton with which he could 'wipe his nether end'. 'Historians must sometimes stoop to such levels', it is noted, as the narrative traces Henry from London to Pontefract and back 'by his droppings'.

Overall it is the enormous pressure on Henry throughout his life which is likely to leave the lasting impression. Hostility, fear and opposition turned one of the richest, cleverest and bravest men in medieval England into a murderer and a religious fanatic. There is no doubt that as a youth he was attractive. One Italian noblewoman, in accepting the hand of another suitor, made it clear to her betrothed that she would rather break off the engagement and marry Henry if he would have her, and that she would be happy to do this 'even if she should die three days after the wedding'. But by the time of his second marriage in 1403, he was a constantly worried man. That same year he fought the terrifying battle of Shrewsbury - the first English king to lead an army against the feared longbows - and won. That was in many ways his battle of Hastings. But even after his victory a succession of revolutions and attempts on his life worked away at his peace of mind. For the last seven years he suffered from a chronic illness. When he died, three weeks short of his forty-sixth birthday, he was a broken man. But he had achieved everything he set out to achieve - and not many English kings can claim that.