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Henry IV and personal piety: Debbi Codling looks at the beliefs and spiritual life of the man who usurped Richard II, an anointed king.

HENRY IV (r.1399-1413) HAS left only a faint imprint on the historical imagination. Despite being the subject of two plays by Shakespeare, he emerges clearly from neither. In the first play it is Hotspur who dominates, in the second it is the King's son. Yet Henry was a king whose character is more than usually central to an understanding of his reign. The enigma of his personality is closely connected to the matters of his faith and the validation of his kingship by God.

Henry Bolingbroke (1366-1413), grandson to Edward III, heir to the duchy of Lancaster and the future Henry IV, had been exiled by his cousin, Richard II in 1398 after a power struggle at court. The follow ing year, after Richard had confiscated his family estates, Henry returned--eventually seizing the crown. Richard's usurpation led, near-inevitably, to a series of risings against the new monarch. In 1403 the Percy family, in an alliance with Glendower and the Welsh, engaged in a bid to remove him and replace him with Richard II's legitimate heir, the Earl of March, only to suffer defeat at the battle of Shrewsbury. Three years later, they launched a second attempt, again unsuccessful. At the same time, Henry faced criticism in Parliament. Between 1401 and 1406 the Commons accused him of financial mismanagement, seeking for themselves new powers over royal appointments and expenditure. As these challenges to his position lessened, a greater one--that of his declining health--emerged. In the later years of the reign this led to renewed power struggles, now between the King's son, the future Henry V, and Henry IV's ally, Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury. After 1411, Henry was once again able to reassert his authority, dismissing his son from the council, and he died, peacefully, and still king, in March 1413.

Surprisingly little has been written on the personality of Henry IV, with most recent research focusing on the King's finances and the composition of his retinue. William Stubbs, writing in the 1890s, had raised the question of why Henry, as king, appeared to bear so little resemblance to the high-spirited, chivalrous crusader of his early years. He had also suggested that the King's 'unwavering' orthodoxy and consistent devotion formed a framework for both his kingship and personal life. Other biographers, such as K.B. McFarlane, J.L. Kirby and J.H. Wylie, have touched briefly on the issue of the King's personality and religious beliefs. McFarlane, writing in the 1970s, described him as vigilant, patient, tenacious and opportunistic, qualities that enabled him to retain the throne. 'Usually', wrote McFarlane, 'his acts of violence ... were the result of calculation, and he forgave more often than he punished.' However, the piety of Henry IV and the effect that this had on his kingship has never been fully addressed, largely because the evidence for it is difficult to find.

In the Middle Ages, the public and ceremonial uses of royal piety were intimately bound in the kingly office. For this reason Henry IV was faced with a unique dilemma. He was a sacral monarch, made such by the ceremony of anointing, with the mediatory powers and moral responsibilities that the chrism bestowed on him. Yet he was personally responsible for usurping another anointed ruler: his cousin, Richard II. Henry undoubtedly inherited a sense of committed religious observance from his parents John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster, yet it was perhaps the inner conflict resulting from Richard's death in Pontefract Castle in February 1400 that led him to a deeper and questioning sense of piety. God had appeared to have sanctioned his kingship by allowing the success of his 'revolution' in 1399, yet he must have felt that he was never truly forgiven for his cousin's death. Throughout his reign Henry strove to carry out a penitential crusade to the Holy Land, believing this might absolve him and his dynasty of the sin of Richard's usurpation, but the journey was never made, largely because of the ill-health that beset him from 1405.

As a young man, in 1390-91 and 1392-93, Henry had been on crusade to Prussia, where he assisted the Teutonic Knights in their campaigns against the Slavs, and on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This can be seen as evidence of his love of adventure rather than of his inherent piety, as it was not unusual for rich young noblemen to set out on crusade. Records of his lavish spending while on expedition show his lifestyle to be typical of a wealthy and successful European prince. But to what extent he was driven by spiritual integrity is a point on which scholars have failed to agree. Some see the alms offered by Henry to the various churches and religious houses that he visited as paltry in comparison with his opulent lifestyle. Others point to his 'unfailing industry' in visiting so many churches and religious sites. He was certainly the only English medieval king to visit the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem and to make offerings both there and at the Mount of Olives.

Some of the chronicle accounts of Henry's return from exile in July 1399 offer a glimpse of the spiritual side of his personality. The Histoire de Roy d'Angleterre Richard, for example, describes Henry's entry into London from Chester. It says that the Duke entered the city at the hour of vespers and headed straight for St Paul's, where his parents lay buried. People cried after him in the streets, calling 'Long live the good Duke of Lancaster', blessing him and showing great joy, '... insomuch that I think if our Lord had come down among them they could not have shewn more'. At St Paul's, Henry dismounted and proceeded 'all armed' to the High Altar where he prayed quietly. Then he moved to the tomb of his parents, where he wept profusely, for this was the first time he had seen it since his father's death. Henry stayed at the bishop's palace by St Paul's for five or six days, and then passed on to the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem, outside the city of London. The chronicler concludes by saying that he and his companions went to Henry to ask if they might return to France, whereby the Duke readily gave his permission.

The Histoire du Roy d'Angleterre Richard H is a French chronicle, thought to have been written by Jean Creton, a staunch supporter of Richard II. A valet-de-chambre at the French court, Creton had been in England since spring that year and was with Richard, in Ireland, when news of Henry's return broke out. Creton's chronicle, written c.1401-2, was aimed at a French audience and put together to galvanize support among his countrymen for the idea that Richard might still be alive. Creton, therefore, had no love for Henry. Yet his account of the Duke's visit to the tomb of his father is so sensitively described, both in its simplicity and in its implied piety, that it must be based on the evidence of an eye-witness in Henry's entourage.

John Gower, a resolute promoter of the Lancastrian cause, recorded Henry's arrival in England in 1399 with even more poignancy, although his account is less likely to be grounded in truth:
   Disembarking first, the Duke placed
   his foot upon his own soil,
   worshipped God on bended knee,
   and first prayed with devotions of
   sincere intent, with palms
   outstretched to heaven, that he might
   win the palm of victory. In order that
   he might rise above the heinousness
   of war, he implanted a kiss upon the
   earth, and there the Duke made
   many devotions and pious prayers. He
   arose from prayer, and taking up his
   cross he found shelter for himself.
   And then what happy days began
   to enter upon: when his
   native land knew that the
   Duke had returned
   safe, everybody ran to
   him, rejoicing

This description, in Gower's Cronica Tripertita, contains everything that might be expected from effective Lancastrian 'propaganda'. Henry's deposition of Richard is presented in the form of a crusade and his intentions as those of a pious knight on a mission approved by God. But there is a sense, in the language and imagery used, that Henry already had a reputation for piety and chivalrous behaviour, even if Gower's account was primarily intended to promote the Lancastrian cause.

There are, of course, accounts of Henry's behaviour that do little to enhance his image as an upholder of chivalric values. The chronicler Adam Usk, a clerk from Monmouthshire, for example, records one such incident from August 1399. Usk is known to have been with Henry's forces when they reached Chester. He describes Henry's arrival in Hereford with his men on August 2nd, where they spent the night at the bishop's palace. The next day, the party set out en route for Chester:
   ... passing through
   Shrewsbury, the
   Duke tarried there
   two days; where
   he made
   that the host
   should march on
   Chester, but
   should spare the
   people and the
   country, because by
   mediation they had submitted
   themselves to him. Wherefore many
   who coveted that land for plunder
   departed to their homes.

On August 9th, however, Usk records that Henry and his army entered Chester. They set up camp in Coddington with little regard for the meadows and cornfields in the parish. They then pillaged the county and 'keeping strict watch against the wiles of the men of Chester ... passed the night'. Henry's men, searching through 'divers water-cisterns' and other hiding places with their spears, acquired much in the way of plunder.

Henry IV did not found monasteries as his son, Henry V, was to do. Instead, his piety comes across in other ways. A study of his confessors and favoured preachers and of his relationship with the friars indicates a keen interest in theology. From a relatively young age, Henry appears to have had an affiliation with the Carmelites or White Friars. This interest came from his parents, who had a long-standing association with the Order. His mother Blanche of Lancaster was the daughter of Henry of Grosmont, the close companion of John, Lord Grey of Codnor in Derbyshire, whose ancestor Richard had brought the Carmelites to England from Mount Carmel c.1242.

The Lancastrians felt a strong allegiance to the Carmelite Order, from Henry of Grosmont in the late 1350s who had appointed William de Reynham as his confessor, to Henry V and his brothers. Perhaps the Lancastrians were drawn by the Order's antiquity, as it traced its origins back to the prophets, Elijah and Elisha. Perhaps, too, the Carmelites' emphasis on contemplation, their vehement opposition to heresy and the strong Marian tradition made them appealing. The Lancastrians were an intelligent and educated family, and the Carmelites were known for the quality of their sermons. Carmelite preaching may have been a reason for their attraction. But above all, the Lancastrians held great store by dynasty and lineage. Henry's link with the Carmelite Order almost certainly owes something to this. All his father's known confessors were Carmelites.

Gaunt's affection for the Carmelites is significant, given the highly critical line that the Order took to Wyclif's teaching, and Gaunt's attraction, during the 1370s, to the anti-clerical teachings of Wyclif and the Lollards (He offered particular encouragement to the heretical priest William Swinderby (fl.1382-92). In 1382, Gaunt accepted the post of principal founder of the Carmelite friary at Doncaster. In the entry referring to this in his Register he records the 'grande especiale affeccion' that he held for the White Friars in general. Although his will makes no mention of the Carmelite house at Doncaster, Gaunt did request that if he died outside London, his body be taken to the Carmelites in Fleet Street to receive the sacraments before interment at St Paul's. Henry IV's mother too appears to have maintained a close relationship with the Order. When she died in 1368, the Carmelite John Swaffham, Bishop of Cloyne, was present at her funeral. Like most of the friars who attended Gaunt as confessor, Swaffham had a reputation for the excellence of his preaching.

Henry IV's first recorded confessor as a young man was Hugh Herle. Herle, a Carmelite from Ludlow, remained in Henry's service for nearly twenty years. As well as confessor, he frequently acted as both almoner and chaplain and accompanied Henry to Prussia and the Holy Land in 1390-91 and 1392-93.

By September 30th, 1399, Robert Mascall, another Carmelite, had taken over as confessor to Henry, now King of England. Like the friars who had attended Henry's father, Mascall was highly regarded for his sermons and had preached before Richard II in 1396. Born in Wales, he had also joined the Order at Ludlow, where he made his first profession c.1366. By 1393, he was 'magister' and prior of Ludlow. A document of 1401 records a grant made to Mascall for the maintenance of his companions, servants and horses, totalling 69 [pounds sterling] 10s 6d. The grant was to be received yearly for as long as Mascall remained in the King's service 'as William Syward, confessor of Edward III had'. By February 1404, however, the Commons in Parliament had called for Mascall's resignation, along with three others. The reason given for this request was partly financial--the Commons wanted Henry to reduce his household expenditure. But there was also a suggestion that these men were an undesirable influence at court, perhaps commanding too intimate a relationship with the King. Henry, undoubtedly mindful of similar criticisms of Richard II, agreed to the request and, in July 1404, Mascall took up a new post as Bishop of Hereford. Evidence of the high regard that Henry held for his former confessor can be seen in a letter written to the Duchess of Burgundy in September 1404 begging for the safe return of his newly appointed bishop, following his capture by Flemish pirates.

After Mascall, Henry appointed Philip Repingdon, an Augustinian canon, who had been Abbot of Leicester since 1393. In spite of an early affiliation with Wyclif and the Lollard movement, Repingdon's later career had been respectably orthodox. Like Mascall and Gaunt's confessors, his reputation for preaching was well-known. Repingdon seems to have been well liked by Henry, in spite of a forthright letter written to the King in May 1401. In this he had voiced his disappointment in Henry's kingship, lamenting the lack of law and justice in the land and begging Henry to open his heart to God. While the content of the letter could be interpreted as indicating a frank relationship between the King and Repingdon, the latter's appointment as royal confessor between 1404-5 suggests a self-effacing side to Henry's personality not often evident. In 1406, when Henry visited Bardney Abbey with two of his sons, he received Repingdon as a personal friend, and the two shared a brief period of respite as Henry perused the abbey library. J.H. Wylie, Henry's nineteenth-century biographer, also notes the special friendship between the two men, describing how, following the battle of Shrewsbury in 1403, Henry removed a ring from his finger to be sent to Repingdon as a sign that all was well.

Around 1406 Henry appointed a secular, Roger Coryngham, as his confessor. Coryngham had been a royal clerk since c.1400 and had steadily risen from Prebendary of Gillingham, in Shaftesbury Abbey in 1399, to Archdeacon and Canon of York in 1405 and Canon of Lincoln and Prebendary of St Martin's in 1411. Coryngham remained with Henry until at least 1411, when he was replaced by John Tille, a Dominican friar who had preached before Richard II at Sheen in 1393 and before Henry IV at Eltham on March 18th, 1403. Tille was with Henry in the final years of the King's life and Capgrave, a fifteenth-century chronicler, records that as he approached death it was Tille who was appointed to 'induce the Kyng to repent' and to do penance for the three major sins of his life: the usurpation of Richard II; the ultimate sanction of his death; and the execution in 1405 of Archbishop Scrope, after his involvement in Northumberland's rebellion. Henry, according to Capgrave, replied that for the deaths of Richard and Scrope he had written to the Pope who had given him absolution after assigning a suitable penance. For the 'wring titil of the crown', Henry answered that 'it is hard to sette remedy; for my childirn will not suffir that the regalie go oute of oure lynage'.

Henry's affection for those who served him as confessors, and the emphasis he placed on appointing men with a sound reputation for preaching is evident. It points to a keen interest from the King in theological matters and, although there is no direct evidence for this, he may even have entered into debate himself on occasion.

Unlike those of his father, Henry's confessors came from a variety of backgrounds. Had Mascall not been ousted by parliament, the dynastic leaning towards Carmelite confessors may have been upheld. Perhaps, after the criticism levied at Mascall, Henry felt it prudent to appoint someone different from his predecessor. Repingdon, as Abbot of Leicester, a stronghold of Lancastrian allegiance, was an obvious choice. By 1405, Henry had begun to weaken from illness. It is possible, then, that confessors appointed after this time reflect the influence of the King's advisers. In 1413, when Henry V succeeded his father, Carmelite confessors returned to the royal household with such notable friars as Stephen Patrington and Thomas Netter.

Henry's interest in preaching is further attested by payments to preachers in the household accounts for 1402-3. Here again the Carmelites feature prominently, with five out of the fifteen recorded preachers for that year coming from this order. Of the remainder, six were Dominicans, three were from the order of Augustine and one, John Smith, was Prior Provincial of the Friars Minor.

Ten of the seventeen recorded sermons were given at Eltham. Eltham was one of Henry IV's favourite royal residences and details of the substantial alterations made there shortly after his coronation afford a further insight into his personal piety. The new chamber, built for the King's use, had windows displaying the arms of St George, along with the usual Lancastrian badges and symbols. Figures of the Trinity, beloved by Henry's uncle the Black Prince, and of the Salutation of the Virgin were placed at its entrance. In the study, the room likely to afford the closest indications of the King's personal preferences, seven windows depicted St John the Baptist, St Thomas, St George, the Salutation of the Virgin, the Trinity and St John the Evangelist. Rather surprisingly, no dedication is mentioned to St Edward, on whose feast-day Henry was crowned and after whom his chantry chapel at Canterbury is named. St John the Baptist and the images relating to the Virgin follow, again, the interests of his father, while St Thomas is a saint known to have been favoured by Henry himself. Henry had been anointed with oil reputedly found by his maternal grandfather, Henry of Grosmont, which, according to legend had been given to St Thomas of Canterbury by the Virgin Mary. Details of New Year gifts given by Henry as a younger man also reflect his interest in St John the Baptist and the Virgin. In 1393 and 1394, for example, the Countess of Hereford was given gold altar panels depicting the Blessed Virgin. Similar panels featuring St John were given to the Duke of Gloucester in 1394 and to Richard II in 1397. On the end panels to Henry's tomb at Canterbury, the depiction of the Crowning of the Virgin and the Martyrdom of St Thomas recall not only the Holy Oil legend, but the saints that featured in the King's study at Eltham. Henry IV's public and private associations with the saints appear to have been important to him. He was crowned on October 13th, feast-day of the translation of St Edward, and his burial was postponed for more than two months in order that it could take place on Trinity Sunday. The decoration of his study and the many personal items recorded in both the Duchy of Lancaster accounts and those of the Royal Household show that sacred images featured prominently in his private, as well as the more public areas of his life and kingship.

Henry IV was a monarch whose faith went beyond merely conventional piety. Although the private aspects of his devotions are not easily demonstrated, a sense of his inner spirituality does come across. Henry's public piety was inextricably linked with the consolidation of his dynasty. His personal religion showed the influence of his parents and many of its manifestations were passed on to his children. In some respects his faith was hidden from public view--he often came across as ambitious, worldly and, sometimes, manipulative in his handling of those who crossed him. The execution of Scrope in 1405, for example, caused great controversy and is hardly what we would expect from a pious ruler. Henry IV differed from Richard II in that he did not see himself as the dispenser of divine favour; instead, he saw himself as one under a burden of divine responsibility. Though he can often seem a man of conventional character, nonetheless his personal piety plays a major role in his exercise of the kingly office.


M. Bennett, Richard II and the Revolution of 1399 (Stroud, 1999); G. Dodd & D. Biggs, Henry IV; the Establishment of the Regime, 1399-1413 (York, 2003); J. L. Kirby, Henry IV of England (London, 1970); K. B. McFarlane, Lancastrian Kings and Lollard Knights (Oxford, 1972); W. Stubbs, The Constitutional History of England (3 vols, Oxford, 1875-8); J. H. Wylie, History of England under Henry the Fourth (4 vols, London, 1884-98).

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Author:Codling, Debbi
Publication:History Today
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:4EUUE
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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