Medieval kings are often painted as strong, colorful figures in history. They were warriors who fought to protect their families and countries. Often, we tend to think of men like King Henry V and King Edward IV when it comes to the late medieval kings of England. However, there was a man who was sandwiched between these two pillars of strength. He was the son of Henry V, the king who came before Edward IV, and the man who started the conflict known as the Wars of the Roses. Unlike these two men, Henry VI was a pious peacemaker and is often viewed as a mere man in the background who never measured up to the standards his famous father left behind. His story is often incorporated into other biographies of people of his time; Henry VI has not had a solid biography about his life in a long time. That is until now. Lauren Johnson has taken up the challenge of exploring the life of this often-overlooked monarch in her latest biography, “Shadow King: The Life and Death of Henry VI”.
When Lauren Johnson announced she was writing this book, I knew that I wanted to read it. As someone who finds the Wars of the Roses fascinating, I have wanted to read more about the Lancastrian side of the conflict, especially about Henry VI, to understand the conflict completely. This remarkable tome delivered everything that I wanted in a biography about Henry VI.
As the only son of the great warrior king Henry V, Henry VI had enormous shoes to fill, especially when his father died while Henry VI was just a baby. To add to the complicated situation of a baby king in England, with the death of the king of France, Henry VI was also the king of France. Until Henry became of age to rule both countries, he relied on the men around him to rule, while he continued his studies to become a strong ruler. Many books on the Wars of the Roses tend to skip over these informative years of Henry VI’s minority, but by delving deep into this time, Johnson gives the reader an understanding on why he made the decisions that he did later in life and why he was more of a pious scholar who wanted peace rather than a warrior.
Johnson meticulously goes through every decision and every flaw of Henry VI’s rule to show why the Wars of the Roses began and the toll that it took on Henry’s health. Her reassessment of Henry VI’s mental health and its deterioration over the years is eye-opening and gives an entirely new perspective into his reign. His peace-loving nature explains the actions that he took while he was king and also when he was an exile on the run from Edward IV while his wife, Margaret of Anjou was trying to stage a comeback that would fail, resulting in the death of her son and husband. Johnson’s exploration into Henry VI includes the afterlife that presented him as a holy man.
It has been a while since I have read a biography with such vivid descriptions and was so meticulously researched that it leaves me speechless. It was a sheer delight to read this masterpiece. I did not want it to end. I truly felt sympathy for King Henry VI. Lauren Johnson’s magnificent biography, “Shadow King: The Life and Death of Henry VI” is an absolute must-read for anyone who wants to know more about the Wars of the Roses and the peace-loving king who started it all.