Henry IV

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2245

Article abstract: Henry IV brought peace and national prestige to France within the structure of powerful monarchy after protracted strife, which had included eight civil wars. He settled the long-standing Catholic-Protestant conflict by embracing Catholicism while granting broad toleration to the French Reformed church. He is the most noteworthy of early modern rulers who made religious liberty the law of the state.

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Early Life

Henry of Navarre, first of the Bourbon line, was born in the castle of Pau in the Pyrenees Mountains to Antoine de Bourbon, Duke of Vendôme, and Jeanne d’Albret, Queen of Navarre. He was a direct descendant of Louis IX, one of France’s most illustrious rules. Although he was baptized a Catholic, Henry received instruction in the Calvinist (Reformed) faith at his mother’s direction, and he eventually joined the French Protestants, then known as Huguenots. In 1568, his mother placed Henry in the service of Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, the leader of the Protestant cause. As a soldier in the Huguenot army, he fought bravely and acquired a reputation as a skillful military leader. When Jeanne d’Albret died in 1572, Henry succeeded her as monarch of Navarre. That same year, he married Margaret of Valois, sister of King Charles IX of France.

Life’s Work

By the time Henry joined Coligny in 1568, France had been wracked by civil war for more than eight years. The death of Henry II in 1559 initiated a power struggle in which political and religious considerations were intertwined. Francis II and Henry II had tried to crush the Protestants, but the Reformed faith had made impressive gains nevertheless, especially among the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy. Calvinism gained adherents who could exert far greater influence than their numbers would seem to indicate.

Because the sons of Henry II were feeble rulers, nobles asserted their authority and rival factions competed for power. Antoine de Bourbon and Louis I de Condé, both princes of the blood, allied with Coligny to promote the Protestant cause. The family of Guise, with Duke Francis at the head, led the Catholic faction. When Francis II succeeded to the throne as a minor in 1559, the Guises obtained control of the government. After they executed some of their opponents, Protestants responded with militant resistance. Francis II died after one year on the throne, and Charles IX became king with his mother, Catherine de Médicis, as regent. She then became the pivotal figure in French politics for the next quarter century. Catherine had no deep religious convictions, so she tried to manipulate both sides and to create a moderate party loyal to the Crown. In 1562, however, the Guises seized power and forced the regent to resume persecuting the Protestants. France became the scene of all-out civil war.

The marriage of Henry of Navarre to Margaret of Valois occurred in 1572, as Catherine de Médicis tried to placate the Huguenots by marrying her daughter to one of their most popular leaders. The nuptial festivities, however, became the occasion for the Saint Bartholomew’s Eve Massacre, in which Coligny and some other Protestants were murdered. Although the assassins may have intended to kill only a few Huguenot leaders, word of the slayings soon led to the slaughter of thousands of Protestants across France. The civil war resumed with renewed fury.

The sickly Henry III became king in 1574, and soon a militant Catholic faction, now led by Duke Henry of Guise, organized the Catholic League without royal approval. The civil strife then became the War of Three Henrys, as Henry III, Henry of Guise, and Henry of Navarre fought for control of the kingdom. The eventual assassination of the king and the duke left the Protestant Henry of Navarre the legal heir to the throne. He declared himself King of France in 1589. Civil war continued, however, until the last remnants of the Catholic League abandoned resistance in 1596. The concurrent war with Spain did not end until 1598.

Although Henry IV had become king legally, he knew that his throne would never be secure so long as he remained a Protestant. His Huguenot supporters, only 10 percent of the population, were unable to cement their leader’s authority. Moderate Catholics urged the king to convert, but Henry delayed because he wanted his enemies to recognize his kingship first. When he became convinced that that would not happen, he announced his decision to become a Catholic. An old but probably apocryphal account relates that he justified changing religions with the remark “Paris is well worth a Mass.” Henry’s embrace of Catholicism shows clearly that this king was a politique, that is, one without strong religious beliefs who follows the course of action he deems politically advantageous. He had done this before, when he had joined the Catholic Church to marry Margaret of Valois, only to return to the Reformed faith in 1576.

In order to obtain papal approval for his succession, Henry had to seek absolution for his Protestant heresies, something the Vatican was in no hurry to grant. Pope Sixtus V had tried to block his path to the French throne and had declared him deposed as King of Navarre. The reigning pontiff, Clement VIII, chose to defer action on the royal request, even though French prelates had hailed the king’s return to the Church.

Henry chose Jacques Davy Duperron as his emissary to Rome. Duperron, who had once been a Huguenot and had adopted Catholicism after reading Thomas Aquinas’ Summa theologica (1266-1273), supervised the religious instruction of the royal convert. Since Duperron was a learned apologist for Catholicism, he was an effective representative to the pope. As a reward for his services, the king made Duperron a royal chaplain and a councillor of state, and, in 1596, Bishop of Evreux. In order to convince the pope of his sincerity, Henry promised to rebuild monasteries destroyed in the civil wars, and he agreed to support the decrees of the Council of Trent (1563), the Counter-Reformation program to combat Protestantism. At the least, this meant that the king would maintain the Catholic religion in all areas of France that had supported the Catholic League. He promised similarly to prohibit Protestant worship in Paris, Lyons, Rouen, and other cities.

Moderate Protestants accepted Henry’s conversion and his concessions to Rome as necessary for the peace and security of France. Militant Huguenots, however, protested. The king had to deal with them cautiously to prevent them from deserting him. It is a tribute to Henry’s diplomacy that he was able to pay the price demanded by the pope without alienating his Protestant supporters completely. By 1598, Henry was convinced that his rule was secure, so he took a bold step to reassure the Huguenots of his goodwill. The king proclaimed the Edict of Nantes, a landmark enactment in the history of religious freedom.

The Edict of Nantes expressed the king’s wish for the eventual reunion of all Christians, but its provisions show that Henry knew that that would not occur. This law ratified concessions granted to Protestants earlier, and it recognized full freedom of belief and the right to public worship in two hundred towns and in many castles of Protestant lords. Calvinists could worship in private elsewhere, and they would be eligible for most public offices. The king also granted subsidies for a number of Protestant schools and colleges, and the edict created special sections of the parlements (royal courts) to try cases in which Protestant interests were involved. The king allowed the Huguenots to fortify about two hundred towns under their control. The policy of toleration satisfied the Protestants, and it contributed immediately to the achievement of national union. Its provisions, however, created almost a state-within-the-state, a condition which was to cause disruption at a later time, when subsequent monarchs tried to impose their authority upon those towns.

Catholic reaction to the Edict of Nantes was predictably hostile. Pope Clement VIII denounced it, and some parlements tried to obstruct publication of the royal decree. Militant opponents of toleration tried to reactivate the Catholic League, and the government discovered several plots to assassinate the king. Most Frenchmen, nevertheless, were too weary of strife to support another civil war, and news about the plots against the king caused an upsurge of support for his policy. His opponents could not find a single magnetic leader. Under royal pressure the Parlement of Paris registered the edict, and the other courts followed suit. Extensive, though not complete, religious freedom became the policy of Western Europe’s largest state.

Whatever satisfaction Henry derived from the success of his policy toward religion, it could not obscure the serious problems which confronted him as king. Foreign and domestic wars had brought France to a state of impoverishment approaching bankruptcy. The kingdom was almost impotent in foreign affairs. Henry faced the mammoth task of rebuilding with determination. Although he was an intelligent and energetic ruler, Henry was not a skilled administrator. He entrusted that responsibility to the Duke of Sully, a Protestant and a longtime friend. Under Sully’s competent direction, the government eliminated much corruption and inefficiency, reformed taxation, and gained solvency. Financial success made it possible to improve the army and to initiate public works for building canals, roads, and harbors to promote economic growth. The government sponsored the expansion of arable lands by draining swamps, and it developed new industries, including the production of silk. Henry founded the French colonial empire by sending the first French explorers and settlers to Canada.

In foreign affairs, Henry sought to protect France from the encircling power of the Habsburgs of Austria and Spain. Because he knew that France was vulnerable to Habsburg attack, he allied with Protestant states in Germany and with the Netherlands. Just when he was ready to strike at his enemies, however, an assassin struck him. He died on May 14, 1610, at the hand of François Ravaillac. The assailant seems to have acted on his own to slay a Catholic monarch who had decided to war against the Catholic Habsburgs, which would have aided the Protestant cause internationally. Although his enemies rejoiced at the death of Henry, the French people mourned the passing of a great, humane king.


Henry IV was a popular ruler because he truly cared for the welfare of his subjects. Most Frenchmen accepted his absolutism as the only alternative to the anarchy which had prevailed for so long. His pragmatic policies brought peace and prosperity with order.

Although Henry was a hero to the Huguenots, despite his defection to Catholicism his private life must have offended their stern Calvinist moral sensibilities. In 1599, he obtained papal dissolution of his marriage to Margaret of Valois and quickly took Marie de Médicis as his next wife. He was not faithful to either wife but had several mistresses and illegitimate children. He was not above practicing ecclesiastical corruption, as when he made one of his bastards Bishop of Metz at age six. Henry often coerced parlements and subjected provincial and local officials to forceful supervision. He controlled the nobles effectively and left his son Louis XIII a kingdom at peace, one where royal authority was supreme and prosperity was in progress.


Daumgartner, Frederic. “The Catholic Opposition to the Edict of Nantes.” Bibliothèque d’Humanisme et Renaissance 40 (1970): 525-537. This valuable study relates how Henry shrewdly overcame the criticisms of his opponents. A work of thorough research that propounds a convincing argument. The notes are rich in research data.

Dickerman, Edmund H. “The Conversion of Henry IV.” The Catholic Historical Review 68 (1977): 1-13. While others have concluded on the basis of appearances and superficial research that the king was a politique, Dickerman has made a penetrating examination of the sources to show how and why Henry regarded religion pragmatically.

Gray, Janet Glenn. The French Huguenots: The Anatomy of Courage. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1981. This decidedly partisan survey of the religious and political climate in France is vivid in descriptions and contains many perceptive interpretations. Places Henry’s career in the context of the French and European struggles for religious liberty.

Leathes, Stanley. “Henry IV of France.” In The Cambridge Modern History, edited by A. W. Ward et al., vol. 3. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1904. This substantial essay, despite its age, is indispensable to any serious study of the subject. An excellent source with which to begin one’s inquiry.

Russell, Lord of Liverpool. Henry of Navarre. New York: Praeger, 1970. For the average reader, this is probably the most enjoyable biography of the subject. Portrays the king as a humane ruler, licentious in life and a politique in religion. The author is an exceptionally talented writer.

Sutherland, N. M. The Huguenot Struggle for Recognition. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1980. This thorough study of the Huguenot movement and the issues which it raised for church and state in France is a model of research and writing by a truly erudite scholar. Not for beginners.

Wilkinson, Burke. The Helmet of Navarre. New York: Macmillan, 1965. This delightfully readable account of Henry should be of particular interest to juvenile readers. Contains nothing original in either fact or interpretation and so will be of no use to scholars.

Willert, P. F. Henry of Navarre and the Huguenots in France. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1893. Although more recent treatments have superseded this one and brought some of the author’s judgments into question, this work remains a useful and rather full account which features lucid style and interesting coverage.

Henry IV

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2575

Article abstract: Henry’s struggles with the German nobility and the Papacy had a decisive impact on the future constitutional and political development of Germany. Although his tenacious defense of the rights and prerogatives of the monarchy was largely unsuccessful, it still marked him as one of the greatest of the German kings.

Early Life

Henry IV was born on November 11, 1050, the son and heir of Henry III and his wife, Agnes of Poitou. Henry was well educated for the period: He could read and write, knew Latin, and had an interest in music and architecture. His childhood was very tumultuous and would have an inordinate influence on his personality and his later decisions.

In 1056 his father died. The German nobles accepted the five-year-old Henry as king only because his father had earlier forced them three times to swear allegiance to him. Control of the monarchy quickly fell to Henry’s mother, a weak, retiring woman thoroughly unsuited to the rough world of German politics. She did her best, but under her regency the interests of the monarchy were not advanced, royal lands were alienated to various princes, and the political situation in Germany began to unravel.

These problems became very clear when in April, 1062, Archbishop Anno of Cologne enticed the twelve-year-old Henry onto a gaily decorated boat on the Rhine River at Kaiserwerth and kidnapped him. Henry tried to escape by jumping over the side and he was rescued only with great difficulty. The conspirators’ motivation was simply to satisfy their own selfish desires while allowing Henry only a semblance of power. Probably relieved to be done with the responsibility of being regent, Agnes made no objection, nor did any other significant group in Germany, to the kidnapping; instead she fulfilled her long-held desire to enter a convent.

By 1066, when he was able to assume power for himself at the age of sixteen, Henry was a tall, attractive man, who despite frequent illnesses had an imposing physical presence. Lacking the piety of his father, Henry reacted against the restraints of his childhood by living a dissolute life. His experiences with the German princes during the regency had not only taught him trickery, deceit, and cunning, but had also filled him with an intense pride in the dignity of the monarchy and a burning desire to preserve and defend its rights. The protection of the monarchy would remain the constant goal of his reign; in 1066, Henry was ready to begin the arduous task of restoring the power and prestige of the Crown.

Life’s Work

Because of the erosion of royal authority during the regency, Henry’s first priority was to create a firm economic foundation for the monarchy, enabling it to act independently of the desires of the German nobility. That required the reinstitution of royal properties in Saxony, making it the center of royal power. Such a program was certain to be opposed by the Saxon nobles, who would see it as a threat to the gains they had made during the regency, and by the free Saxon peasants, who correctly perceived any increase in the monarchy’s power as leading to servitude. Led by Otto von Nordheim and Magnus Billung, these groups rebelled in 1070. Although the Saxons had some success against Henry, the issue was never in serious doubt and on June 9, 1075, the imperial army decisively defeated a Saxon army of nobles and peasants at Langensalza on the river Unstrutt. Broken and crushed, Saxony appeared completely subjugated and Henry was poised to govern it directly through royal officials, ministeriales, with Goslar as his capital. Had this success proved lasting, there is little doubt that Henry would have completed the political program of the Ottonian and Salian kings: the creation of a German “state” like that of Norman England. At the very moment of his greatest victory, however, Henry was suddenly faced with an even more perilous enemy in the person of Pope Gregory VII.

Gregory, formerly the Cluniac monk Hildebrand, was elected pope in 1073 while Henry was preoccupied with Saxony. At first, relations between the two were quite friendly. Gregory followed ancient custom by informing the German king of his election and requesting Henry’s confirmation, which was granted. Had Henry understood the true aims and beliefs of Gregory, however, this approval would not have been forthcoming.

Within this short, pale, and plebeian fifty-year-old pope burned a revolutionary vision of the Church and its place in society. Essentially, Gregory saw himself called by God to free the Church from the chains of secular authority. He envisioned a Church, under the absolute control of the Papacy, having ultimate primacy over all society. All authority, secular and clerical, would serve the will of the pope. Indeed, Gregory attacked the German king and the German church precisely because it was the most organized and disciplined in Europe. It had been reformed by Henry II and Henry III and therefore was attached to the Crown and not to the Papacy. Thus, if absolute papal control of the Church and society were to become a reality in Europe, first the secular control of the German church had to be destroyed. His contemporaries were very aware that Gregory’s program was revolutionary, breaking with ancient custom and tradition.

Gregory carefully planned his move against Henry, choosing to strike just as the Saxon revolt was coming to its climax. At the Lenten Synod of 1075, Gregory, as part of a sweeping reform program against simoniac German clergy, forbade Henry to perform any lay investitures or suffer severe penalties—a mortal challenge to the monarchy’s ability to rule. The German kings had long used prelates as the chief officials of the kingdom and to deny them the power to appoint and to invest the bishops and the abbots of the imperial abbeys was to shred the Crown’s capacity to govern.

Henry ignored the pope’s decree and once the Saxons were reduced, he turned his attention to Milan, where he appointed an archbishop in direct opposition to Gregory, who had supported another candidate. The pope retaliated with his famous letter of December 8, 1075, in which he called Henry to penance and threatened him with the loss of his throne. He also ordered his messengers to berate Henry personally for his moral faults, making it clear that if the king did not submit, excommunication and deposition would follow.

Gregory had miscalculated. By taking such an extreme position, one that imperiled civil order in Germany, he drove the German bishops and Henry together; on January 24, 1076, they met at Worms. There Henry and his bishops approved a letter castigating the pope. It began “Hildebrand, no longer pope but false monk” and concluded by stating “We Henry, king by the grace of God, with all our bishops say to you: come down, come down!” This letter reached Gregory in February, 1076, but now it was Henry who had overreached. The pope immediately excommunicated and deposed the king and absolved all of his subjects of their fealty to him. Within months Henry found himself isolated, deserted by his former allies, and facing an increasingly more powerful opposition. In October, the German nobility met at Tribur to decide how to treat the excommunicated monarch. Henry had to agree to remove the excommunication within a year or the nobles would no longer consider him king. They apparently believed that Henry would be unable to fulfill this requirement, for they also invited Gregory to meet with them as a mediator at Augsburg on February 2, 1077. Henry realized that if the Augsburg meeting took place the monarchy was doomed.

At this juncture Henry performed a brilliant political maneuver. Secretly crossing the Alps, for all the major passes were blocked by nobles hostile to the monarchy, he appeared before Gregory at Cannossa on January 25, 1077; for three days Henry stood in the cold and snow wearing only sackcloth as penance. Gregory was reluctant to grant absolution, but he was a priest and a priest could not refuse forgiveness to a sincere penitent, as Henry well knew. As a result of this dramatic action Henry was absolved and restored to his throne.

The German princes were furious with Gregory. The meeting at Augsburg had only been a week away, but now with the excommunication removed, they had no legitimate reason for rebellion. Nevertheless, they elected Rudolf of Swabia as antiking and Germany was plunged into three years of civil war. Henry knew that Rudolf was not a serious threat as long as Gregory did not recognize Rudolf as the rightful king. Gregory remained neutral for three years and then, possibly fearful that Henry was reconsolidating his power, excommunicated him again at the Lenten Synod of 1080 and declared Rudolf the legitimate king. Rudolf, however, was killed in battle the following October; this time, the German clergy and nobility stood by Henry, for they realized that Gregory posed as much a threat to their privileges as to the king’s. With this support Henry held a council at Mainz that deposed Gregory and established an antipope. It was now Gregory who was isolated, and in 1081, Henry invaded Italy. Gregory took refuge in the Castel Sant’ Angelo in Rome and, though faced with certain defeat, he refused to compromise. He was finally rescued by his Norman allies, with whom he retreated to southern Italy. Broken by this extraordinary conflict, Gregory died at Salerno on May 25, 1085.

It appeared that Henry had achieved his goals. Gregory had been driven into exile and Henry’s position in Germany never seemed stronger. In 1087, his eldest son, Conrad, was crowned the next king, and in 1089, after his wife Bertha’s death, Henry married Adelheid, the daughter of a Russian prince. Yet within a few years, Henry’s world began to collapse around him. In 1088 Bishop Otto of Ostia was elected Pope Urban II. Because of his political genius, Urban was a much more potent adversary than was his predecessor; he successfully exploited conditions in Germany to advance the papal program. Urban was aided by Henry’s family problems.

In 1093 the papal party persuaded the impressionable Conrad to desert his father and be crowned King of the Lombards. Simultaneously, Henry’s young wife, Adelheid, after being imprisoned for adultery, escaped and spread incredible tales about Henry’s moral corruption. The forces that Henry had opposed since 1066 once again arrayed themselves against him; from 1090 to 1096 he was trapped in a castle near Verona. In 1096, however, Henry was able to return to Germany and at Mainz he held a diet that deposed Conrad (who died in 1101) and crowned his brother, Henry, heir. Henry also tried to make peace with Urban, but the pope refused these overtures and renewed Henry’s excommunication. At this moment young Henry betrayed his father. Henry IV, who by now was understandably suspicious of his family, was nevertheless tricked by his son into leaving his armed escort and accompanying him to the castle at Böckelheim. There Henry became his son’s prisoner and was forced to confess his sins and to renounce his rights to the throne. Henry V had staged a successful coup; before he could mount a counterstroke, Henry IV died at Liège on August 7, 1106.


Henry IV’s reign was a turning point in German history. His political goal had been to continue the policy initiated by Conrad II of consolidating royal power at the expense of the German nobility and clergy. Henry’s vision was for a feudal monarchy whose every aspect would be inspired and controlled by the king. He was well aware of the strong opposition he would face in attempting to achieve this ambitious plan, but Henry was never dismayed by adversity and he did have some success. A royal capital was created, royal lands were extended, and for a period of time the nobility was held in check. Henry’s development of a bureaucratic government employing civil servants called ministeriales anticipated similar reforms accomplished under the Capetians in France and the Plantagenets in England.

The Investiture Conflict halted the evolution toward a strong, centralized monarchy, however, and started a steady dissolution of the Crown’s authority. With the monarchy preoccupied with its fight with the Papacy, developing noble families, such as the Zahringer of Swabia, were able to consolidate their own position. By the time of Henry’s death in 1106, the German nobility was already in the ascendancy and Germany had started down the long, tortuous path of feudalism just as the other monarchies in France and England were beginning to create new types of royal government and to extend their authority into increasingly broader areas of society.

It is not difficult to see the heroic character of Henry IV. He struggled mightily and with extraordinary courage to preserve and to expand royal power. In his mind’s eye, Henry had grasped the vague outline of the future course of government better than had any of his contemporaries. If it is true, as James Westfall Thompson states, that “a man is to be judged not by what he achieves, but by what he labors to accomplish,” then Henry IV was the greatest German monarch of the Middle Ages.


Barraclough, G. The Origins of Modern Germany. 4th ed. Oxford: Basil, Blackwell and Mott, 1962. This is a very impressive survey of Germany from 800 to 1939. Constitutional issues and the development of a central government are stressed. The period of 1025-1075 is seen as a time of royal consolidation, while the era from 1075, when the Investiture Conflict breaks out, to 1152 is perceived as a period of decline for the German monarchy.

Fuhrmann, Horst. Germany in the High Middle Ages, 1050-1200. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986. This work provides an outstanding summary of Henry IV’s reign and places it within the context of the history of medieval Germany. The discussion of the Investiture Contest and the Saxon rebellion is concise yet detailed. The bibliography is the best of any of the works cited here and details only those studies done in English.

Hampe, Karl. Germany Under the Salian and Hohenstaufen Emperors. Translated by Ralph Bennett. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1973. Originally published in 1909, this book is still regarded as one of the most readable and reliable accounts of eleventh and twelfth century Germany. Hampe sees Henry IV’s policies as reactionary with their object of restoring ancient rights of the monarchy. There are some excellent insights regarding Henry’s motives and character. Highly recommended.

Joachimsen, Paul. “The Investiture Contest and the German Constitution.” In Studies in Medieval History: Medieval Germany, 911-1250. Vol. 2, Essays by German Historians. Edited by G. Barraclough. 4th ed. London: Basil, Blackwell and Mott, 1967. Considered by some to be a classic in the field, this article succinctly discusses the constitutional issues of the Investiture Contest and maintains that the historical significance of Henry IV’s reign is the fact that he took issue with the Papacy’s view that the German monarchy was solely an electoral monarchy with no regard given to the rights of blood or heredity.

Thompson, James Westfall. Feudal Germany. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1928. This book was criticized when first published for not including the latest scholarship. It maintains that the root of Henry’s struggle with the Papacy was economic. Rome wanted to gain complete control of the Church in Germany and Henry IV could not allow this to happen. There is a very detailed description of the Saxon rebellion and some fine descriptions of Henry.

Henry IV

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2554

Article abstract: Henry IV usurped the throne of Richard II and placed his family, the Lancastrians, in power, initiating the dynastic struggle between the great aristocratic families of Lancaster and York known as the Wars of the Roses. The manner in which Parliament was allowed to depose Richard and accept Henry as the royal successor provided the opportunity for Parliament to gain more power than it had ever held before: The Lancastrian kings would rule by parliamentary title, and in the fifteenth century political theories would place great stress on the legal limitations of royal power.

Early Life

Henry of Lancaster—or Henry Bolingbroke, as he came to be known—was born in April, 1367, the only surviving son of John of Gaunt and his first wife, Blanche of Lancaster. Henry’s parentage in large part determined his destiny as England’s future king, for John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, was the third of five surviving sons of King Edward III, while Henry’s mother was descended from King Henry III. John was in possession of several earldoms, including Derby; from about the age of ten, his son Henry was known as the Earl of Derby, as well as being the nominal head of the Lancastrian estates. (John would secure other assurances for his son’s future as well, including a marriage, in 1380 or 1381, to the second wealthiest heiress in England, Mary of Bohun, when she was still a child.)

Upon the death of King Edward’s son, Edward the Black Prince, in 1376, and the death of the king himself a year later, the son of the Black Prince, Richard II, ascended the throne. Henry’s cousin was only ten or eleven years old—about the same age as Henry—and it fell upon John of Gaunt, the young king’s uncle, to lead the kingdom in function if not in title. John’s government was not a popular one; he was blamed for trying to secure the succession for himself and for unpopular policies such as poll taxes, and consequently, in 1381, while he was away in the north, rebellion erupted in London. Henry and Richard took refuge in the Tower.

It was in this setting that Henry was reared and in which he received the training that would lead him to stake his claim to the throne against Richard twenty years later. As a young nobleman, he led the itinerant life typical of those in his position—overseeing his lands and tenants, as well as his own, growing, household: Between 1387 and 1394, four sons and two daughters were born to him and Mary; the last birth proved too much for his young wife, and she died in childbirth. Henry also accompanied his father on expeditions abroad: to Flanders in 1383-1384 and to Scotland in 1385. In contrast to the physically weaker, if more imaginative and creative, Richard, Henry continued the Lancastrian tradition of physical prowess in knightly sport, gaining for himself a reputation as a crusader as well as a warrior. In 1390, he attended a great tournament held near Calais and, with an English contingent of three hundred knights, accompanied the Duke of Bourbon on the expedition that captured Tunis. Henry twice joined the Teutonic Knights on their military expeditions eastward along the Baltic coast. In 1392-1393, he visited the Holy Land, but he returned disappointed in his inability to visit the Holy Sepulchre. In September of 1396, he would command English knights against the Turks at the disastrous battle of Nicopolis along the lower Danube.

Henry’s entrance into politics came in 1386, when, along with his close associate Thomas Mowbray, Earl of Nottingham, he joined with three other lords who opposed the king: the Dukes of Gloucester, Arundel, and Warwick. Together, the five men, who came to be known as the five lords appellants, joined their forces and took London in late 1387 (the year of the future Henry V’s birth). Richard was effectively deposed, but he was allowed to keep the throne upon relenting to the five lords’ demand that Simon Burley, his tutor and confidant, be executed. Nevertheless, the lords dominated rule of the kingdom until 1389, when Richard, now a young man, rebelled against the officials who had been placed in power by the five lords and insisted upon his right as king to rule. Henry’s arstocratic combine floundered, and over the next few years, troubles in the north which required the attention of the Duke of Gloucester and John of Gaunt, as well as internal jealousies and suspicions, effectively defused the opposition as Richard took more personal control over his kingdom. His hold on the throne would remain a weak one, however, ensured primarily by the iron hand of John of Gaunt; in 1394, Richard’s last friend, his wife Queen Anne, died. John of Gaunt was often out of the country conducting foreign negotiations, and Richard himself went to Ireland to quell unrest there. Henry remained in London, attending Parliament and sitting on the council that ruled the country.

In 1397, the Duke of Gloucester initiated a scheme to seize the throne and the power behind it: the Dukes of Lancaster (John of Gaunt) and York. Henry, it is believed, was invited to join the conspiracy, but it came to nothing: Richard discovered the plan. The outcome was the deaths of Gloucester and Arundel, and the banishment of Warwick. Henry’s part in the affair remains uncertain, as the plot would have involved his going against his own father. It appears, however, that he was reconciled with Richard, for, in a sweep of housecleaning, the king replaced his old enemies with a host of new dukes, among them Henry, as Duke of Hereford.

Life’s Work

The events which led to Henry’s conspiracy against Richard II began in 1398. Henry brought an accusation against a royal favorite, his old colleague Thomas Mowbray, now the Duke of Norfolk. The aristocratic quarrel ended when the king banished both dukes. Henry chose Paris for his exile. John of Gaunt, the power behind Richard’s throne, died in the following year. Richard, in the face of both law and a special promise to his cousin, declared the vast Lancastrian estates forfeit. The seizure of his lands gave Henry an excuse to return to England. When he landed in Yorkshire in June of 1399, he protested that his return was occasioned only by his wish to restore his family holdings. However sincere Henry may have been, his return marked the beginning of a rebellion. England was rife with the discontent that had plagued Richard’s entire reign: The nation had been overtaxed, the aristocracy was afraid of the Richardian absolutism, complaints had arisen about the king’s counselors, and the king had been out of the country for several weeks.

Once in England, Henry’s strength grew; most of the great nobles rallied to his side: They feared a king who could attack the estates of the most powerful family of the realm. By the time the king returned from Ireland, royal support had almost completely evaporated and Henry’s rallying forces had become a flood tide. Richard surrendered and placed himself at his cousin’s mercy. From his prison in the Tower of London, the king was perhaps hopeful that time would, as it had in 1388, provide an opening for him to regain power. Richard approved an abdication statement on September 29, 1399. That “pure and free resignation” was presented to Parliament the next day, and Parliament acted effectively to depose the king.

The following events were to prove extremely consequential for England. Having determined to seize the throne, Henry had to struggle with plausible arguments for his right to do so. The only attempt to prove his legitimate rights was tortured, fantastical, and unacceptable. His thought of claiming the throne by conquest, which was how he had achieved his control, was disturbing. A conqueror could erase existing laws and reshape the kingdom to his desires, but Henry’s supporters did not want to destroy the legal traditions that benefited them. In the end, Henry simply claimed the vacant throne before the parliamentary session that had deposed the king. He held his coronation on October 13, 1399. The former King Richard was kept alive until a rebellion in his name proved too much of a threat to the new king and he was murdered in his prison at the Lancastrian castle of Pontefract, in Yorkshire.

The circumstances of Henry IV’s usurpation offered excuses for rebellion against him and caused him to be cautious and conciliatory toward both his opponents and his parliaments. His throne was insecure and Parliament—as well as his political enemies, among whom at times would be his eldest son, Henry—would take advantage of the inherent difficulties of his claim to the crown.

The Crown’s inability to finance its governmental needs placed Henry IV at the mercy of the House of Commons. Forced to rely on monies raised through taxation, Henry had to make concessions which allowed the Commons to demand that he curtail governmental expenses, to appoint councils designed to supervise his administration, and to criticize his military policies. If Parliament could create a king, it was better able to control his reign: Parliament eagerly took advantage of a weakened royalty.

Henry was faced with constant warfare and rebellion. The Scots had taken advantage of the northern English earls’ involvement in internal politics to wreak havoc on the border areas. The Scottish invasion was finally stopped by the Percy family, the leading aristocratic family of the north. The king, however, was unable to reward the great northern family adequately, either for their aid in his rebellion or for their defending of the border. The elder Percy, the Duke of Northumberland, angrily renounced his oath of allegiance to Henry. The family revolted and launched an armed uprising against the king. Almost simultaneously, Owen Glendower, a northern Welsh landowner, became the leader of Welsh discontent. The Welsh felt exploited by the government of the English marcher lords. Glendower sparked a revolt throughout Wales. The rebellion fused with anti-Henrician English factions. It was joined by Sir Edmund Mortimer, who had been captured by Glendower but was not ransomed by the king, and then by the Percies as the Duke of Northumberland’s son Henry Percy (the “Hotspur” of William Shakespeare’s plays), Mortimer’s brother-in-law, sided with the rebels. The king defeated the Percies: Henry Percy was killed in battle in 1403, and the Duke of Northumberland was finally captured and executed in 1408. It was not until 1410, however, that the Glendower rebellion was effectively ended.

Adding to Henry IV’s military complications were England’s relations with France. Following the death of Richard II, the French had demanded the return of his widow, Isabella, the daughter of the French king, and her dowry. Denied his chance to continue peaceful relations with France by marrying his son to Isabella, and denied her use in negotiations once she and her dowry were returned to her homeland, Henry discovered his relations with France worsening. The French began to send military assistance to the Glendower rebellion, raided the southern coast of England, and troubled English merchants in the Channel. Popular English hostility toward France increased. The merchants wanted reprisals, and the magnates longed for a renewal of the plundering expeditions into France. Henry, however, had no plans to become involved in a war against France. His policy of siding with first one and then another French faction unfortunately appeared to be a policy of vacillation and pleased no English faction.

Difficulties within the royal family also hampered Henry’s effectiveness toward the end of his reign. His ambitious, dashing, pushy, and impatient son Henry of Monmouth, Prince of Wales (the famous Prince Hal of Shakespeare’s Henry V), for a time in 1411 became king in all but name. Prior to that, the prince had quarreled with his father over governmental policy, supported his father’s political opponents in France and led an unauthorized invasion of France, resisted an attempt to inquire into the Lollard heresy, and opposed the king’s ministers. The prince twice moved troops to London as if he intended to overthrow the government. There were also indications that the Beaufort branch of the royal family, the king’s half brothers descended from the marriage of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford, were allied with Prince Hal.


Henry IV spent his last years in dismal disillusionment. His health, never good, was now broken, as was his spirit. Feeble, trembling, itchy with a skin disease rumored to be leprosy, and hardly able to walk, he may well have wondered what had gone wrong with his life. In his youth he had been accustomed to riches and magnificence; as king, he had scarcely enough money to provide for his government. As a young aristocrat he was known for his martial skills and his earned military glory; as king, he was eventually able to achieve domestic military success but it apparently resolved little and bestowed no fame. His refusal to engage in military expeditions against France cost him valuable public opinion. He began his reign as a successful usurper of a throne; he ended it troubled by those who wished that his son would usurp the father. He had been well liked as Henry Bolingbroke; as Henry IV, he was unpopular. Shakespeare wrote the line “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” for Henry IV—Shakespeare’s interpretation was insightful.

Henry’s last thoughts were of plans that might have been successfully conceived and carried out in his aristocratic youth. A bewildered old man—old before his time, even in the fifteenth century—the king spoke of invading France, of leading a new crusade to recapture the Holy Land, of making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Instead, he suffered a seizure in 1413 while praying in Westminster Abbey. He was carried into the Jerusalem Chamber, where he died. His trip to Jerusalem was appropriately ironic: Not much of his life was as he thought it would be.


Brown, A. L. “The Commons and the Council in the Reign of Henry IV.” English Historical Review 79 (January, 1964): 1-30. Brown attributes the actions of the Commons in the reign of Henry to a desire for good and economical government; the book argues against any constitutional program established by the first of the Lancastrian kings.

Jacob, E. F. The Fifteenth Century, 1399-1485. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961. Chapters 1-3 are basically a chronological account of Henry IV’s reign dominated by political history. A good introduction to the political problems of the reign.

Kirby, J. L. Henry IV of England. London: Archon Books, 1971. A scholarly political biography that adequately covers Henry and his problems—a rather conventional account.

Wilkinson, Bertie. “The Deposition of Richard II and the Accession of Henry IV.” English Historical Review 54 (April, 1939): 215-239. Wilkinson sets forth an argument that Parliament did not grant Henry Bolingbroke a parliamentary title. Henry’s failure to obtain such a title revealed one of his major political weaknesses.

Wylie, James H. History of England Under Henry the Fourth. 4 vols. London: Longman, 1884-1898. Reprint. New York: AMS Press, 1968. Wylie’s work is diminished by more recent interpretations, although it is still of value for its coverage of the politics of Henry’s reign and, more important, for the sources it contains.

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