Henry VI in Coventry

This year marks the 600th anniversary of the birth of King Henry VI. As the monarch with the closest connection with Coventry our Committee Member historian Peter Walters tells us the story…..

On 29 September 1451, Michaelmas Day, King Henry VI celebrated high mass in St Michael’s Church, conferring his royal seal of approval on Coventry’s largest place of worship and its recently completed spire.

At his lodgings in the Benedictine Priory, the king had already granted a private audience to the Mayor, Richard Boys, assuring him that Coventry was the best-ruled town in his kingdom. And on his departure for Kenilworth some days later, he granted Coventry the right to call itself not just a city but a county too.

It was a triumphant beginning to a relationship that would continue throughout the 1450s, one in which Coventry became more closely associated with Henry than with any other monarch, before or since.

Born 600 years ago this year, Henry VI inherited a throne at nine months and was crowned king at seven years old, yet to many of his contemporaries he had a wondering, distracted air, ill-fitted for kingship.

Standing five feet nine and well-built, he had the physical stature of a king, but lacked the determination and drive of his warlike father, Henry V. Intelligent but pious to the point of obsession, he was described by one observer of his court as ‘a saint or a natural fool.’

But it was ill-health, some form of catatonic illness that incapacitated him for months at a time that truly left his reign in ruins as savage conflict raged between the houses of York and Lancaster.

Henry had already suffered one bout of the illness when he made his next appearance in Coventry, in the autumn of 1456.

Crucially, it was his queen, Margaret of Anjou, who decided that London was now so hostile that Coventry should become the centre of the Lancastrian cause and the de facto capital of England.

The arrival of the Queen and her two-year-old son, Edward, on 14 September prompted the city fathers to lay on an extraordinarily lavish welcome, featuring fourteen pageants in which the royal family’s virtues were favourably compared to saints and other notables down the ages.

Henry was there that day; he’d arrived in Coventry some weeks earlier. But he was a shadowy presence, barely mentioned in the pageants, while the queen was hailed as ‘empress, queen, princess excellent in one person all three’.

 And he may well have been ill again, for the actors expressed their concern for his health at least twice.

It was in Coventry that autumn that Margaret firmly set about taking the reins of government from her husband in the increasingly vicious war against the Yorkists.

Over the next four years the royal couple were to spend a good deal of their time in the city and it was from Coventry that in July 1460 Henry bid his wife and son farewell and rode out at the head of the Lancastrian forces to engage the Yorkists at the battle of Northampton, a brutal encounter in which a defeated Henry was captured sitting meekly in his tent as the battle raged around him.

Even though Henry was later restored to the throne, in name at least, he never returned to Coventry. Yet there is still one vivid reminder of him in the city.

More than forty years after his death, with a cult based on his piety and saintliness still exerting a powerful hold on many people’s imaginations, a tapestry was commissioned for St Mary’s Hall, showing Henry and Margaret, at prayer, surrounded by their court.

It was made for the north wall of the hall. And it hangs there still.

Tapestry in St. Mary’s Hall, depicting King Henry VI

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