In defence of Bolingbroke: Why Henry IV isn’t so bad

Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm from an anointed king;
The breath of worldly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord.

‘Richard II’ William Shakespeare

Poor, poor Henry Bolingbroke; the tenth Plantagenet king, legitimate relative to Edward III, father to a national treasure and wearer of iconic hats. Henry Bolingbroke who assumed the title King Henry IV, has had a relatively rough ride in history and is not best liked in popular opinion.

Henry IV: wearer of beautiful headgear
Henry IV: wearer of beautiful headgear

I think Henry’s deposition of his cousin Richard II plays a huge role in why he is so maligned as a monarch. It doesn’t matter that his predecessor Richard was weak, ineffective and rather selfish; that is all forgotten about due to way Richard’s reign ended abruptly. People are only human and it is easier to give poor Richard II the sympathy vote, I mean he was the ‘legal’ monarch before his nasty cousin so cruelly usurped him right? Well maybe, it’s true Henry was ruthless in the way he consolidated power and Richard did die mysteriously, but come on people, things can’t be that black and white. The problem that Henry IV and others who have claimed the English throne by force have,  is the inherit sense  injustice people feel towards stealing. By seizing the throne off Richard II Henry took what wasn’t his, yes he was related to Edward III but Richard already had an heir to take up his role as king when he passed away. But Richard was a hopeless king and one who often made poor and thoroughly rash decisions. It was Richard II who had to deal with the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381-bought on by the unpopular Poll Tax-failure to deal with the aftermath of the Black Death and invasion threats from the French due to the 100 Years War. It was all this and the mistake of banishing the wrong men, that led to Cousin Henry knocking at that door.

The period of 1397-99 is known as the ‘tyranny’ period for Richard II, the king had several high ranking lords (Gloucester, Arundel and Warwick) arrested all were either killed or imprisoned for life. Within this period Henry had been banished and his father, John of Gaunt, who’d been at the centre of politics for 30 years, had died. At Gaunt’s death- the man who had been the real threat- Richard extended Henry’s life sentence and pushed his cousin to the back of his mind. Somewhere along the lines it all goes wrong and Richard is deposed and Henry is crowned in October1399.

Now, this is not the disaster or treacherous act people believe it to be. Richard was a bad king, dragging the country to ruin, unpopular with many Henry was strong ambitious man, what England needed. Let’s not forget Henry spent much of his reign defending himself against numerous plots, life threatening illnesses and imposters to the throne-much like his descendent Henry VII-maybe this is historical karma, maybe it isn’t. Like him or not, England needed Henry IV to happen. That way we get Henry V and his iconic victory in Agincourt (go team GB) and then waaaaay down the line we get the Tudors claiming the throne.

David Tennant great. Richard II not so great?
David Tennant great. Richard II not so great?

The point I’m trying-badly-to get at is that just because a king deposes another king it shouldn’t be an automatic black spot on his personal history. Henry VII, again not particularly popular, saved England from a civil war, deposed a hunchbacked (that bit is true!) ineffective king and established a new dynasty. And even though this dynasty was the arguably one of the most influential royal families we’ve ever had, Henry VII is still pretty unpopular. Again it’s the situation of another Richard getting the sympathy vote; Richard was widely successful when he was in power as a duke but he could not replicate this success when crowned. He was popular and decisive, admittedly when your competition are an aging Edward IV and the recently deceased Duke of Clarence, it isn’t hard…But nevertheless, Richard as a Duke, great guy. Richard as a king not so great, like Richard II, Rich III befriended all the wrong people and alienated huge factions of his court i.e. southern England (whoops). That said, it wasn’t exactly easy for Henry Tudor to take the throne-actually that’s one of the few things The White Queen got right-the challenger to the throne lucked out when Lord Stanley rode to his aid on 22nd August 1485, before Stanley, the Welsh, whose support Henry had been banking on, were a no show and Tudor’s army was less than impressive.

Henry VII, like Henry IV was a necessity for England, the country was falling apart at the seams. Devastated after years of civil war and in drastic need of a make-over! One of the biggest criticisms volleyed at Henry VII is that he wasn’t even the most deserving of Lancastrian heirs and that his claim to the throne was shaky at best. Personally I believe this may be one of the best things about Henry, had he been the most legitimate choice of Lancastrian heir I think civil war may well have broken out again as supporters of the Yorks would have eventually, fought back. Henry was distant enough from the main house of Lancaster to bring a sense of newness to England. His rise marked the dawn of a new dynasty not just another king from the house of Lancaster. In fact Tudor was wise enough to marry the York princess Elizabeth and therefore bring the two family, in a sense together.

An entirely accurate likeness to Henry Tudor
An entirely accurate likeness to Henry Tudor

So really, if it’s needed are usurpers really all that terrible? If you believe in the ‘divine right of kings’ then yes, all usurpers are evil but let’s stop and think about this rationally this isn’t the 17th century. William I, father of the English monarchy as we know it, was a French nobleman who won the crown through force; his great grandson Henry II bullied King Stephen into making him his heir. Yes Henry II was Henry I’s rightful heir; but as Stephen’s reign had been approved by the Pope, surely his eldest son Eustace would have been the rightful king of England not Henry. After all, Eustace was the closest male heir to the current king. The Divine Right of Kings was to all intents and purposes a load of baloney, I mean look at the kings who vocally championed it- I’m talking to you Charles I- and think about just where they ended up-in a bucket under the executioner’s block that’s where! I’m not implying that Charles’s successor Oliver Cromwell was a great man, no he was a dictator, responsibly for the deaths of thousands of innocent Irish people, AND he cancelled Christmas! Cromwell was a scoundrel to say the least but somebody, anybody, tell me with a straight face, that Charles I was a good king who truly had the needs of the English in his heart. Of course he didn’t, like his father James I and his son Charles II, Charles was lazy, self interested and most importantly didn’t know how to handle a budget but he did love a good party! And think about it like this, had Cromwell not been so awful and loathed with a useless son lined up to take his place, we may never have got our monarchy back, royalists and cavaliers rejoice Charles I died for a reason!

Charlie I gone for the greater good?
Charlie I gone for the greater good?

Usurpers such as William I, Henry IV, Henry VII and-if you want-Henry II all in some ways restored order to England through taxes, a level head and some pretty tough decisions to make. Yes none of them were particularly popular, some of them could even be seen as ruthless, but in the world of medieval and royal politics sometimes a king needs to be more than just popular with his nobility. (Some of you) usurpers, I see your worth!

Over and out!

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