Guest Post: Was Henry IV A Usurper? By Michele Morrical

170px-king_henry_iv_from_npg_(2)Some medieval English kings have unfairly gotten a bad rap. Others are deservedly vilified (Richard III, I’m talking to you).

Our modern-day perception of English kings is largely constructed from only a few sources. Of course, we have the writings of Shakespeare which were generally based on the real events of English monarchs but had lots of extra drama added in to spice things up. We also have the writings of chroniclers who actually lived in the middle ages, but they aren’t always reliable. Just imagine if you were hired by Henry VIII to write the history of his reign. You would definitely write it in a way that reflected very well on the king. And we have modern-day historians who try to bring the past to life with new interpretations of English monarchs and their new explanations of their controversial actions.

One of the English kings who has received very little attention over the years is Henry IV, also known as Henry of Bolingbroke and Henry of Derby. The common perception is that Henry was a usurper, but was he really? Did he seize the throne from Richard II illegally or was he the rightful heir?

What was Henry IV’s claim to the throne?

To answer this question, we must go back a couple of reigns to Henry’s grandfather, King Edward III, a Plantagenet king that ruled England from 1327 to 1377. King Edward was also the nephew of King Charles IV of France through his mother Isabella. When Charles IV died childless, Edward asserted his right to the French crown as Charles’ nearest male relative. The French overruled him citing Salic Law which said inheritance could not be passed through a female line. So the throne went instead to Philip of Valois, Charles’ cousin through a completely male line. As if losing his claim to the kingdom of France wasn’t enough of a blow to Edward, Philip also confiscated Edward’s land in France. Edward was not one to take things lying down so he took military action against France and initiated the Hundred Years War.

One of King Edward’s best military commanders was his eldest son, Edward of Woodstock, also known as the Black Prince. The king’s son was raised and educated in preparation to be the next king and he was perfectly suited to follow in his father’s footsteps. However, there was a major problem. His repeated military expeditions around Europe caused him to become quite ill, including a raging case of dysentery. He died in 1376 at the age of 45. He had not outlived his father, therefore he never got the chance to fulfill his destiny as King of England.

After the death of the Black Prince, King Edward wrote his will and “Act of Entail” in which he named his heir. Rather than naming his eldest living son (John of Gaunt) to be the next king, he did something unusual. He instead named his grandson, Richard of Bordeaux, eldest living son of the Black Prince, to be next in the order of succession using a device called “Right of Substitution”. Essentially since the Black Prince died prematurely, his son Richard was accepted as a substitute.

After Richard, he named the next in line for succession to be John of Gaunt and the male heirs of his body, followed by his other living sons, Edmund, Duke of York, and Thomas, Duke of Gloucester. Interestingly enough, the “Act of Entail” document was kept secret from the public. The only people who knew about it were those named in the entail and the king’s closest confidants. It was never introduced to Parliament to put into law. Many rulers were hesitant to publicly name their heir because that gave any discontented subjects someone to rally around and overthrow the king.

If King Edward had followed traditional Salic Law rules, his eldest living son, John of Gaunt, would have been named his heir followed by Gaunt’s son, Henry of Bolingbroke, which would have left Richard completely out of the succession. Imagine how different the course of English history would have been if Edward had not made this decision to use the uncommon right of substitution. The inheritance would have been strictly through the house of Lancaster, cutting out the house of York. The Wars of the Roses may have never even happened.

Henry of Bolingbroke would have known about King Edward III’s act of entail and that he had been named third in line for the throne (after Richard and John of Gaunt) rather than second in line after Gaunt. Even so, being third in line to the throne wasn’t so bad for Henry. He lived a relatively comfortable life as a royal heir and spent his youth preparing to be a successful ruler like his grandfather. Henry became one of the most respected knights in Europe, he traveled abroad on crusades, and he learned it was better to work with the nobles and forge alliances rather than trying to control them. There was only one problem…Richard absolutely hated Henry. Richard was none of the things that Henry was. Richard was not strong and athletic, he did not joust, and he was not an experienced military leader. He was basically the antithesis of Edward III. Richard was terribly jealous of Henry and felt threatened that Henry or his father might one day try to wrestle the crown from his head.

Richard’s Revenge

For the first 10 years of Richard’s reign, it was assumed that Edward’s entail would be upheld by Richard but in the Parliament of 1386, Richard did something shocking. He threw out his grandfather’s entail and instead declared that his heir would be the twelve-year-old earl of March, Roger Mortimer, great-grandson of King Edward III. Roger’s mother Phillipa was the daughter and only child of King Edward’s second-born (yet deceased) son Lionel of Antwerp. Even though Lionel was deceased, Richard used the right of substitution in selecting Roger, just as Edward III had done in selecting Richard as the Black Prince’s substitute. However, it was highly unusual to name an heir through a female line, especially when there were plenty of other male heirs to choose from. Richard selected the Mortimers so that John of Gaunt, Henry of Bolingbroke, and the entire Lancastrian line would be excluded from the succession. He was putting them on notice that they better work for him instead of against him.

Richard’s declaration was met with great resistance from the lords of his realm who were already disgruntled from enduring years of his tyrannical treatment. They had been terribly unhappy about Richard’s style of kingship, lack of military experience, misguided attempts to negotiate with France, reckless financial spending, attempts to degrade the power of Parliament, and general misrule resulting from Richard’s circle of favorites. Threatening civil war and deposition, the Lords were successful in pressing Richard to exclude the minor Roger Mortimer from succession and to reinstate King Edward III’s entail naming John of Gaunt and his son Henry as the next in line to the throne.

Richard was a very spiteful and vengeful man. He would agree to a deal when he was face-to-face with the nobles, but behind their backs, he would plot to punish them for any sign of disloyalty. Over the next 10 years, he continually threatened the lords and nobles with arrest, confiscation of lands, titles, goods, and even exile if they didn’t bend to his every whim. Richard again changed the order of succession, throwing out John of Gaunt, Henry, and the Mortimers. He decided that the person who would be the least threatening to his reign would be Edward III’s fourth son, Edmund of Langley, Duke of York, who was an arthritic invalid.

Henry of Bolingbroke was always at the top of Richard’s hit list but since he was such a close royal relative, Richard couldn’t afford to take him out. His reputation would have been destroyed if he used force to get the likable, respected knight out of the picture. So instead of using force, he used a 1397 civil dispute between Henry and Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, as the mechanism to remove him. Richard ruled both men guilty and sentenced them both to exile: Henry for 10 years and Norfolk for life.

As if exile wasn’t punishment enough, just one year later when John of Gaunt died, Richard delivered the knock-out punch. Despite his promise to Gaunt, Richard revoked Henry’s entire Lancastrian inheritance and confiscated all of his lands and assets. Furthermore, Henry was to be considered a traitor to England. Henry of Bolingbroke had nothing left. To fall so far from being the heir to the throne down to a penniless vagabond was untenable for Henry. And there was only one person at fault: his cousin, King Richard II.

Henry’s Return to England

As Henry lived in exile, he thought about his situation and strategies for getting back what was rightly his. There weren’t many options. There was certainly no chance now at reconciliation with Richard, things had simply gone too far. The only way he would be allowed to return to England and be restored to his rightful inheritance would be if Richard was no longer the king of England.

Removing King Richard II from the throne is not something Henry could do by himself. Luckily, he had friends in high places who had also been unfairly treated by Richard. Together with several dukes and earls, Henry planned an uprising against Richard to protest his tyrannical rule. Henry landed in England on July 4, 1399, at Ravenspur in Yorkshire with only 300 men. As he traveled towards the safety of the Lancastrian stronghold, Pontefract Castle, his army grew into the thousands. Henry had become the leader of the revolution. He swore to his followers that his only intent was to defend England from Richard’s tyranny and to reclaim his Lancastrian inheritance. He promised that he would not take the throne for himself by force.

King Richard was with the royal army in Ireland at the time of Henry’s invasion. The Keeper of the Realm during his absence was his 58-year-old heir, Edmund of Langley, Duke of York. Edmund knew that his nephew was a cruel despotic ruler and he instead threw in his lot with Henry. Edmund agreed to support his uprising and would not take measures to suppress his army. Edmund also believed that Henry had been treated unfairly and was perfectly within his rights to reclaim his inheritance.

So Henry’s army moved across the country unchallenged until he came to Conway Castle where King Richard was hiding. Rather than fighting, they negotiated. Henry demanded that he be allowed to return to England and that his lands be restored to him. Richard agreed but then shortly thereafter declared he had no intent to keep his promise. In fact, he was more determined than ever to see Henry dead. Henry’s army arrested Richard and took him into their possession.

While Richard was kept under lock and key in a variety of royal castles, Henry was working with English lawyers to legally reinstate his claim to the Lancastrian inheritance. They determined that the best course of action would be for Richard to sign a written resignation which would then be ratified by Parliament. After much resistance, the king finally relented and signed the document. In doing so, he stepped down from the throne and agreed to Henry’s accession, just as King Edward III’s act of entail had outlined nearly twenty-five years earlier.

The Rule of Succession in England

Was Henry right to overthrow Richard II in an attempt to restore justice to the kingdom of England? Or did he take advantage of the circumstances by claiming the throne for himself?

It all comes down to this. Were any laws broken when Edward named his grandson Richard as his heir instead of his eldest living son John of Gaunt? Likewise, did Richard break any laws when he bypassed Edward’s entail and named Edward of Langley as his heir? Did Henry break any laws when he accepted the crown for himself and deposed his cousin Richard? Should kings have to uphold entails from their predecessors or was it legal for them to change it to their own personal liking?

We cannot judge these decisions as morally right or wrong, rather we can only judge them in terms of the law or the absence of law. In England during the Middle Ages, there was no law that strictly defined the order of succession. Other European kingdoms, such as France, observed Salic Law which prohibited women from being crowned as well as their sons. Germanic kingdoms followed the semi-Salic rule which allowed a woman to inherit but only if all the men in the royal bloodline were dead.

England was a kingdom heavily influenced by their different European neighbors so England’s laws and customs were a mish-mash of the various customs immigrants had brought with them to England. Since England had never put the order of succession into a legal act, it was basically up to the current ruler to choose the next heir to the throne.

Is it any wonder England had so many disputes over control of the kingdom during the Middle Ages? With no legal rules governing the order of succession, it became open to interpretation and that’s when the royal heirs and nobility used it to their advantage. It made it much more possible to maneuver their own royal relatives into positions where they might someday have a shot at the throne themselves.

Was Henry IV a Usurper?

It is my judgment that Henry IV was not a usurper. To be a usurper, one has to either seize authority illegally or by force.

Although Henry did amass a sizable army, they did not resort to violence to solve the conflict. The army was merely a show of force so that Richard would take them seriously and understand the gravity of the situation.

Henry was careful to use lawyers to find a legal way to depose King Richard II and thus overturn his previous statute naming Edmund of Langley as his heir. With Richard deposed and all of his previous acts of Parliament voided, the order of succession had to revert back to the previous king. That would make King Edward III’s act of entail valid again and Henry of Bolingbroke next in line to the throne.

 About the Author

Michele Morrical is a writer, blogger, and amateur historian on all things Tudor and Wars of the Roses. She lives in Indianapolis, Indiana with her husband, son, daughter, and many pets. You can find her writings at michelemorrical.com.

My journey into Tudor history began about 10 years ago with the TV show “The Tudors” from Showtime. As I watched the show, I wondered how much of it was really true because the storylines were more dramatic and shocking than any soap opera I had ever seen. I picked up Margaret George’s autobiography of Henry VIII and I was hooked. I’ve since read over 100 books on the Tudor period and I’m currently writing my own book about the Wars of the Roses

Biography: Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham

Henry_Stafford(Born September 4, 1454- Died November 2, 1483). Son of Humphrey, Earl of Stafford and Margaret Beaufort, daughter of Edmund Beaufort 2nd Duke of Somerset. Married to Catherine Woodville, the sister of Queen Elizabeth Woodville. Father of Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham, Elizabeth Stafford, Henry Stafford, 1st Earl of Wiltshire and Anne Stafford. Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham would become one of Richard III’s most trusted advisors, but he would switch sides and side with Henry Tudor, leading to his ultimate execution.

Henry Stafford was born on September 4, 1454 to Humphrey Earl of Stafford and Margaret Beaufort, the daughter of Edmund Beaufort, 2nd Duke of Somerset. Henry’s father, Humphrey Stafford, was killed at the first battle of St. Albans in 1455. His grandfather Humphrey the 1st Duke of Buckingham was killed at Northampton in 1460. Both men were fighting for the Lancastrian cause. His grandfather, the 1st Duke of Buckingham, gained his title from his mother and was the son of Edmund, 5th Earl of Stafford, and of Anne, daughter of Thomas, Duke of Gloucester, youngest son of Edward III. His mother was Margaret Beaufort (not to be confused with Margaret Beaufort mother of Henry Tudor), daughter of Edmund Beaufort, 2nd Duke of Somerset, grandson of John of Gaunt. When his grandfather passed away, the title of Duke of Buckingham passed onto Henry at the tender age of 4. With the royal blood on both sides of his family plus his title and inheritance, Henry’s future was very important to Edward IV.

In 1466, Henry Stafford married Catherine Woodville, the sister of Queen Elizabeth Woodville, and became the brother-in-law to the king Edward IV. Henry and Catherine had four children; Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham, Elizabeth Stafford, Henry Stafford, 1st Earl of Wiltshire and Anne Stafford. In 1474, Henry was made a Knight of the Garter and in 1478, he was a high steward at the trial of George, 1st Duke of Clarence. After Edward IV’s death on April 9, 1483, Henry decided to join forces with Richard Duke of Gloucester.
It was Buckingham who helped Richard obtain possession of the young King Edward V. For helping Richard, he was rewarded with the offices of Justiciar and Chamberlain of North and South Wales, and Constable of all the royal castles in the principality and Welsh Marches. According to Sir Thomas More, it was Buckingham who gave a speech at Guildhall on June 24, 1483 to the people to make Richard Duke of Gloucester king.

Richard Duke of Gloucester became King Richard III and Buckingham served as chamberlain and later Constable of England. Richard III thought that he could trust Buckingham as one of his right hand men, but he was sadly mistaken. In early August, Buckingham withdrew from court to Brecon, a town in Wales. Some say that he withdrew because he believed that he deserved more for his services to Richard III, others believe that he became disgusted with Richard III, or that he had his own desire for the crown since he did have royal blood in his veins. What we do know is that he began talking with a man name John Morton, who was a prisoner in the custody of Buckingham. Morton told him about a young Henry Tudor and Buckingham decided to support Henry Tudor and his mother Margaret Beaufort to have Henry Tudor replace Richard III as king of England.

A widespread plot was soon formed, but Richard had early warning, and on October 15, 1483, he issued a proclamation against Buckingham. Buckingham, as arranged, prepared to enter England with a large force of Welshmen. Buckingham’s troops were stopped by a massive flood on the Severn and he himself took refuge with a follower, Ralph Bannister, at Lacon Hall. Bannister betrayed him for a large reward, and on the November 1, 1483, Buckingham was brought to the king at Salisbury. Buckingham never saw Richard III and right after his trial on November 2, 1483, a Sunday, he was beheaded in the courtyard between the Blue Boar Inn and the Sarcen’s Head Inn near the marketplace at Salisbury. He died at the age of 29 and his titles and honors were forfeited.

Biography: Richard Neville,16th Earl of Warwick

62624506_129166816586Also known as “the Kingmaker”. (Born November 22, 1428- Died April 14, 1471). Son of Richard Neville, 5th Earl of Salisbury and Alice Montacute, 5th Countess of Salisbury. Married to Anne Beauchamp, 16th Countess of Warwick. Father of Isabel, Duchess of Clarence and Anne, Queen of England. Warwick “the Kingmaker” was the man who helped put Edward IV on the throne, but it was his greed for power and a broken alliance with Edward IV that would lead to his downfall.

Richard Neville was born on November 22, 1428 to Richard Neville, 5th Earl of Salisbury and Alice Montacute, 5th Countess of Salisbury. His father had gained his title of Earl of Salisbury through his marriage to Alice Montacute. We don’t know much about Richard’s childhood except that he was betrothed to Anne Beauchamp at the age of six. She was the daughter of daughter of Richard de Beauchamp, 13th Earl of Warwick, and of his wife Isabel Despenser, making Richard not only the heir to the earldom of Salisbury, but heir to a large part of the Montague, Beauchamp, and Despenser inheritance. With the death of Beauchamp’s son Henry, who was married to Richard’s sister Cecily in 1446 and the death of Henry’s daughter Anne in 1449, Richard found himself the new Earl of Warwick. This was disputed by Edmund Beaufort, 2nd Duke of Somerset, who married another one of Beauchamp’s daughters from Beauchamp’s first marriage, not because of the titles since the daughters were barred from the line of succession, but because of the land. Richard Neville was now the 16th Earl of Warwick.

Warwick became a knight probably at the coronation of Margaret of Anjou on April 22, 1445. He and his father helped to calm the unrest in the north. They may have helped in the war against Scotland in 1448-1449. When Richard, Duke of York, rose against the king in 1452, Warwick and his father sided with Henry VI and York’s revolt ultimately failed.

In June 1453, Somerset was granted custody of the lordship of Glamorgan, which was part of the Despenser inheritance. This made Warwick upset and a conflict started between the two men. Unfortunately, Somerset was an ally of Margaret of Anjou and was a favorite in the court of Henry VI so Warwick had no choice but  to align himself with York. When York became the Lord Protector when Henry VI fell ill, Warwick and his father decided to fully support York. York’s first protectorate would not last long and Somerset fell back into favor, which angered York and Warwick. Warwick rallied an army with York and Warwick’s father and met Somerset at the First Battle of St. Albans, where Somerset was killed. This battle was the start of the Wars of the Roses.

After the First Battle of St. Albans, Henry VI fell ill again and York became Lord Protector for a second time. It didn’t last long, but after York was removed from his position of Protector, Warwick was granted  the title of Constable of Calais, which would become a valuable position during the conflict of the Wars of the Roses. He was able to gain military experience, as well as gain important allies Charles VII of France and Philip the Good of Burgundy. In  September 1459, Warwick was able to help lead a Yorkist army to victory against the Lancastrians at the Battle of Blore Heath. In 1459, at the battle of Ludlow, the Lancastrians won and sent the Yorkists into hiding. York fled to Ireland with his son Edmund Earl of Rutland, while Warwick took Edward Earl of March with him to Calais. The Yorkists came back with a vengeance at the battle of Northampton, where Henry VI was taken captive.

In 1460 York officially declared his claim to the throne. After much discussion, it was agreed that after the king died, York and his sons would be the heirs to the throne, removing Edward of Westminster from the line of succession. Henry VI seemed to have been okay with this arrangement, but Margaret was beyond upset. She led the Lancastrian forces to face off against York at the battle of Wakefield on December 30, 1460. York and his son Edmund, Earl of Rutland, were killed in the battle. Edward was 18 at the time of his father’s death.

Edward was now in charge of the Yorkist faction and with the help of Warwick, he was able to defeat the Lancastrian army at both the battle of Mortimer’s Cross and the Second Battle of St. Albans in February 1461. On March 4, 1461, Edward declared himself king of England, a move that his father never attempted to make. Three weeks later at the Battle of Towton on March 29, 1461, the bloodiest battle on English soil, Edward  and Warwick were able to decisively beat Henry VI’s forces and secure Edward’s claim to the throne. Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou fled to Scotland to seek the aid of James III.

Edward was declared Edward IV and  was welcomed to the throne. Edward owed a lot to his cousin Warwick, also known from that point on as  “the Kingmaker”, and he rewarded him greatly. He was made the Chamberlain of England , High Admiral of England and Steward of the Duchy of Lancaster, along with several other offices. Warwick was considered the second most powerful man in England. Warwick’s  brothers also benefited: John Neville, Lord Montagu, was made Warden of the East March in 1463, and the next year created Earl of Northumberland. George Neville, Bishop of Exeter, was confirmed in his post as chancellor by King Edward, and in 1465 was promoted to the archbishopric of York. In the summer of 1462, Warwick was able to negotiate a truce with  both Scotland and France, which allowed Warwick to be granted Lancastrian properties.

Warwick and Edward were considered close. However that would change very quickly. Warwick knew that Edward would have to marry well and so under his own initiative, he set to secure an alliance with the French King Louis XI by marrying Edward IV to the French king’s daughter Bona of Savoy. Edward wasn’t really thrilled about an alliance with France; he had actually prefered an alliance with Burgundy. Edward decided to take the issue of  his marriage into his own hands. In May 1464, he secretly married Elizabeth Woodville, the daughter of the 1st Lord of Rivers and Jacquetta Rivers, and the widow of Sir John Grey. They were able to keep the marriage a secret for over four months and when it was announced, there was an uproar. Her family was always supporters of the Lancastrian cause and there was a rumor, that we cannot confirm or deny as of right now, that Edward entered into a similar marriage contract with Lady Eleanor Butler a year or two before he married Elizabeth.

Warwick was obviously the most upset about this marriage because he had spent so much time setting up an alliance  with France to be thwarted. With the rise of the Woodvilles, Warwick feared that they would overthrow his title of the second most powerful man in England. Edward thwarted Warwick’s plans to marry his family with the king’s and the final straw for Warwick was when Edward married his sister Margaret to Charles duke of Burgundy, cementing an alliance between England and Burgundy, which was not what Warwick wanted. Warwick realized that the gap between him and Edward was too large.

Warwick decided to side with Edward’s power hungry younger brother George Duke of Clarence, and Louis XI of France, who promised Warwick land in France if he overthrew Edward. Warwick’s plan was to depose Edward and  place George on the throne. In July 1469, Warwick successfully married George to his daughter Isabel, which was something that Edward did not approve of. Warwick then started a series of uprisings in northern England; Edward was a popular king but his marriage with Elizabeth Woodville sullied his image a little while Warwick was seen as a national hero. Edward did employ an army, but when he saw that he was outnumbered, he dispersed his army and allowed himself to be captured by Warwick. Warwick had Edward imprisoned in the Tower, but when his reputation began to suffer, he released Edward in October 1469. Warwick and George both  decided to reconciled with Edward but Edward never truly trusted either of them ever again.

Warwick knew that if he was going to restore his power, he had to discuss matters with Louis XI and Margaret of Anjou, which meant that he had to defect to the Lancastrian cause, which he did. In September 1470, Warwick and his rebellion made its way to England. John Neville switched sides, which left Edward unprepared and it forced him to leave England on October 2 and seek aid from his brother in law the duke of Burgundy. Warwick removed Henry VI from the Tower and restored him to the throne. Warwick made a mistake and decided to take Louis XI’s advice and declare war on Burgundy. This forced the duke of Burgundy, who had stayed on the sidelines this entire time, to help Edward IV raise an army. Edward returned to England on March 11, 1471. His army defeated Warwick’s army at the Battle of Barnet, where Warwick and John Neville were killed.