King Henry IV of England

by Susan Flantzer

Credit – Wikipedia

King Henry IV of England, who usurped the throne from his first cousin King Richard II of England and became the first Lancaster king, was the eldest surviving son of John of Gaunt (third surviving son of King Edward III of England) and his first wife Blanche of Lancaster.  He was born at Bolingbroke Castle in Lincolnshire, England, and was called Henry Bolingbroke.  The date of his birth is not certain, although April 15, 1367 is generally the date used.  However, various sources list his birth date as  April 3, April 4, April 15, and May 30 and the years 1366 and 1367.  Historian Ian Mortimer wrote an article about this topic.  The abstract of the article says, “The date of Henry IV’s birth has proved problematic for two key reasons. The failure of any contemporary chronicler to note the date is one. Another is the assumption that medieval people assigned their birthdays to a specific calendar date. This note argues that Henry IV was born on a movable feast – Maundy Thursday 1367 – and celebrated his birthday accordingly. In addition, it suggests that the origin of the custom of the sovereign’s age-related donations, on Maundy Thursday, lies in Henry’s own attempt to draw attention to the fact that he, like Richard II, was born on a religious feast day.”  In 1367, Maundy Thursday was April 15.

Henry was the sixth of his parents’ seven children and their only surviving son:

Henry had two half-siblings from his father’s second marriage to Constance of Castile:

Henry had four half-siblings from his father’s relationship with Katherine Swynford.  John of Gaunt married Katherine in 1396, and their children were eventually legitimized.

When Henry IV was still a young child, his mother Blanche died, possibly of the plague, at age 23, on September 12, 1368.  On July 27, 1380, at Arundel Castle, 13-year-old Henry married an 11-year-old heiress, Mary de Bohun. Mary was the second daughter of Humphrey de Bohun, 7th Earl of Hereford, 6th Earl of Essex, 2nd Earl of Northampton. Upon his death in 1373, his estate was divided between his two surviving daughters. Henry and Mary had six children, but Mary died giving birth to their last child at the age of 25.

In 1377, Henry’s grandfather King Edward III died and he was succeeded by another grandson, King Richard II, the only child of King Edward III’s eldest son Edward, Prince of Wales (the Black Prince), who had predeceased his father.  In 1387, Henry participated in the rebellion of the Lords Appellant,  a group of nobles who wanted to restrain some of the King Richard II’s favorites from the power they held.  The Lords Appellant were successful for a time until John of Gaunt’s support (Richard’s uncle and Henry’s father) enabled Richard to regain power.

In 1398, Henry quarreled with Thomas de Mowbray, 1st Duke of Norfolk, who accused him of treason.  The two men planned to duel, but instead, King Richard II banished them from England.  Henry went France, and on a visit to the court of Brittany, he met his future second wife Joan of Navarre, the widow of Jean V, Duke of Brittany.  John of Gaunt died on February 3, 1399 and Richard confiscated the estates of his uncle and stipulated that Henry would have to ask him to restore the estates.  Henry returned to England while his cousin Richard was on a military campaign in Ireland and began a military campaign of his own, confiscating land of those who had opposed him.  King Richard II eventually was abandoned by his supporters and was forced by Parliament on September 29, 1399 to abdicate the crown to his cousin Henry.  King Henry IV was crowned in Westminster Abbey of October 13, 1399.  Richard was imprisoned at Pontefract Castle in Yorkshire where he died on or around February 14, 1400. The exact cause of his death, thought to have been starvation, is unknown.

Henry of Bolingbroke, flanked by the lords spiritual and temporal, claims the throne in 1399. From a contemporary manuscript, British Library, Harleian Collection; Credit – Wikipedia

Joan of Navarre had not forgotten Henry.  Apparently, Henry had made a good impression on her and she became determined to marry him if the opportunity should arise. In 1402, after Joan’s son came of age and could rule Brittany on his own, she sent an emissary to England to arrange a marriage with Henry.  Henry was agreeable to the marriage and a proxy marriage was held on April 3, 1402 with Joan’s emissary standing in for the bride.  Joan left France for England in January of 1403 with her two youngest daughters and then traveled to Winchester where Henry met her and they were married at Winchester Cathedral on February 7, 1403. They eventually traveled to London where Joan’s coronation was held at Westminster Abbey on February 26, 1403.  At the time of their marriage, Henry was about 37 and Joan was about 35, but they had no children together. Joan got along well with her stepchildren especially Henry of Monmouth, Prince of Wales, the future King Henry V of England.

During much of King Henry IV’s 13-year reign, he was occupied with war.  Owain Glyndŵr‘s fight for Welsh independence took 10 years to put down.  The French attacked along England’s south coast and the Scots kept Henry’s armies busy in the north.  The Percy family, led by Sir Henry Percy (Hotspur), and their supporters made three attempts to overthrow Henry.

In his last years, Henry suffered from a disfiguring disease (possibly leprosy, syphilis, or psoriasis) and had severe attacks (possibly from epilepsy or a cardiovascular disease).   On March 20, 1413, while in prayer at the shrine of Edward the Confessor at Westminster Abbey, Henry suffered a fatal attack, possibly a stroke.  He was carried to the Jerusalem Chamber, a room in the house of the Abbey’s abbot, where he died at age 45.  Henry was not buried at Westminster Abbey, but instead requested that he be buried at Canterbury Cathedral, presumably because of an affinity towards St. Thomas Becket whose shrine was there.

Tomb of Henry IV and his second wife Joan of Navarre in Canterbury Cathedral; Photo Credit: Susan Flantzer, March 2008

Wikipedia: Henry IV of England