‘From Hevyn to Helle’: The Mysterious Death of Henry VI

Daniella A. Novakovic

The Death of a King

On the night of 21/22 May 1471, an anointed King of England died at the Tower of London, where he had been intermittently imprisoned for over five years. This ‘sillie weake King’ was the Lancastrian Henry VI, whose largely ineffective reign was riven with violent dynastic conflict and marred by periodic episodes of mental instability. Deposed by Yorkist forces, Henry was succeeded by the pleasure-loving Edward IV and, although briefly restored to the throne in 1470-1, was later captured and installed in the Tower of London—this time permanently. It was in the shadows of this forbidding mediaeval fortress, the site of endless intrigue and bloodshed, that 49-year-old Henry VI died, having famously ‘lost his wits, his two kingdoms and his only son’. News of the King’s sudden death raced across Europe and baffled even his staunchest of opponents, birthing one of the most fascinating mysteries in English history. Although most certainly a violent one, the exact cause of Henry VI’s death remains elusive, fueled by conflicting reports and a tumult of speculative rumours that were disseminated soon after his passing. No sooner had Henry exhaled his final breath did news begin to circulate that he was murdered on the orders of the newly-restored Yorkist regime. Murmurs of foul play began to hum across Europe, attempting to fill the yawning gaps of uncertainty with seditious theories about what, or more specifically who, had killed the former King. One of the earliest contemporary accounts of Henry’s death, written in July 1472, asserted that on the same night that Edward IV and his party returned to London, King Henry was ‘put to death […] betwixt 11 and 12 of the clock’. Warkworth’s Chronicle contended that the killer was Edward’s younger brother ‘crookt-backt Richard’, though there is no evidence to implicate Richard of Gloucester (later Richard III) in Henry’s death, other than the fact that he, like many other members of the court, was likely present at the Tower on the same night that Henry died.
‘From Hevyn to Helle’: The Mysterious Death of Henry VI
16th-century portrait of Henry VI of England by an unknown artist, Wikimedia Commons

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‘From Hevyn to Helle’: The Mysterious Death of Henry VI
Earliest known portrait of the notorious King Richard III, Wikimedia Commons

A Killer King?

Allegations that Richard III killed Henry himself would gain wide currency after his defeat at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, but their roots can be traced to shortly after Henry’s death. According to Fabyan’s Chronicle, it was widely believed that Henry VI was ‘stikked [stabbed] with a dagger by the hands of Richard of Gloucester’. The voluble Philippe de Commines, a Burgundian diplomat writing in the early 1490s, seconded this notion, stating, ‘if what was told me be true... the Duke of Gloucester slew this poor King Henry with his own hand, or caused him to be carried into some private place, and stood by himself, while he was killed’. This violent and ‘pitiable’ act, we are told, was carried out on Edward IV’s orders. During the reign of the notorious Tudor dynasty, Henry VIII’s statesman Sir Thomas More alleged that it was Richard who ‘spoiled [Henry VI] of his life, and worldly felicity’ while the former King languished as a prisoner at the Tower of London. This accusation echoed in the works of other Tudor-era authors, who boldly maligned Richard as ‘that thirster after human blood’, specially dispatched by Edward IV ‘to butcher Henry’. Only one contemporary chronicle refrained from implicating Richard in Henry’s death—the Yorkist History of the Arrivall of Edward IV—which asserted that Henry died of ‘pure displeasure and melancholy’ upon hearing that his only son, 17-year-old Prince Edward of Westminster, had been slaughtered at the Battle of Tewkesbury. Although written by a contemporary eyewitness to Edward IV’s military campaigns, the Arrivall is noted for its deep Yorkist sympathies and must therefore be regarded with some scepticism. It is nevertheless clear that Henry VI’s sudden death puzzled both his peers and later authors, whose works drew from contemporary accounts of dubious credibility and diverse political persuasions. Writing sometime after May 1471, the Sforza ambassador to England informed the French King that Edward IV had ‘secretly assassinated [Henry VI] in the Tower, where he was a prisoner’. An act of political expediency, the ambassador remarked that Edward had believed the former King to be largely innocent but, because he was determined ‘to crush the [Lancastrian] seed’, decided to orchestrate the deaths of both Henry and his wife, Margaret of Anjou, to preempt the possibility of future mutiny. Although Margaret had indeed been committed to the Tower on the same day as her husband’s death, the claim that Edward ordered her assassination is unfounded—Shakespeare’s infamous “she-wolf [...] whose tongue more poisons than the adder’s tooth” died in France in 1482. She survived both Henry by over a decade, but lived out her remaining years in impecunious exile—mourning the loss of both her son and her crown. In a labyrinth of conflicting reports and blatantly inaccurate information, discerning the true cause of Henry’s death at a distance of more than 500 years seems, if not impossible, highly improbable. While it is not inconceivable that Henry VI succumbed to a sudden heart attack upon learning of his son’s tragic death, the news exacerbated by years of privation and humiliation, the account bears something of a fabled quality. By far, the prevailing notion leans towards the likelihood of regicide—the killing of a King.
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Forensic Evidence

Popular legend hints that the King died at Wakefield Tower, assailed by armed henchmen while he knelt in characteristically pious prayer, but this, too, is unsubstantiated (originally constructed as a suite of royal apartments for Henry III and his son Edward I, Wakefield was used primarily for storage at the time of the later Henry’s death). It has also been theorised that Henry was smothered in his sleep, an ironic end for a King whose reign had been plagued by periods of stupor and catalepsy. What, then, can forensic evidence tell us about Henry VI’s death? When the former King’s remains were exhumed in 1910, the English antiquary W. H. St. John Hope reported that there was still some hair attached to Henry’s skull, which in certain areas was ‘much darker and apparently matted with blood’, implying that his death had indeed been violent—most probably the result of a fractured skull. Nevertheless, Hope was not formally trained in forensics, and historians since have questioned his ability to conclusively identify the substance clotted on Henry’s remains as blood. Additionally, the assumption that Henry’s remains were abnormally thin and fragile has not enjoyed credibility in the century since Hope’s discoveries. A professor of anatomy who was also present at the exhumation documented that ‘the bones of his head were unfortunately much broken’, although it is also possible that they were simply mishandled when Henry’s corpse was exhumed in 1484 (during the reign of Richard III) and re-deposited at Windsor. Even with forensic examinations, the mystery surrounding Henry VI’s death endures. It is possible that we will never know for certain what transpired on the night of the 21st of May, 1471, except that Henry VI died, almost certainly on Edward IV’s orders, somewhere within the Tower of London’s vast and forbidding keep.
‘From Hevyn to Helle’: The Mysterious Death of Henry VI
Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou in the Talbot Shrewsbury Book, Wikimedia Commons
‘From Hevyn to Helle’: The Mysterious Death of Henry VI

Daniella A. Novakovic

Daniella is a freelance writer and life-long history enthusiast. She is a research student, with a focus on Anglo-Spanish diplomatic relations during the 15th and 16th centuries, and the editor behind TudorExtra.com.
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