It has been a very long wait for the Yale English Monarchs volume on Henry IV, but Chris Given-Wilson has now supplied historians with a masterful biography of this often overlooked king. The early years of the reign, 1399-1406, have generally attracted historians' attention, with the second half of the reign neglected--in part due to a paucity of sources and in part due to its perception as merely a prelude to the reign of Henry V--but that balance is redressed here and Henry IV emerges as a surprisingly strong and steady leader.
Given-Wilson divides his biography into five parts; the first, "The Great Duchy 1267-1399," provides the Lancastrian background to the revolution of 1399. Henry himself was born in April 1367, but little can be said about the future king before 1381-1382, when the survival of his first household account begins to provide insights into his lifestyle, tastes and interests, which even at this early age included jousting. He had by then been knighted and made a member of the Order of the Garter (by his dying grandfather Edward III in 1377), and he spent considerable time at court in the early years of the reign of his cousin Richard II. In February 1381 Henry married Mary de Bohun, one of the heiresses of the late earl of Hereford, and in June of that year he was present when rebels broke into the Tower of London during the Peasants' Revolt; his life, as the son and heir of John of Gaunt, was certainly at risk. It may well be from this point that his growing estrangement from the royal court and his royal cousin began. In 1387 Henry famously joined the Lords Appellant. Given-Wilson suggests that Henry received excessive credit for his role in the defeat of Robert de Vere at Radcot Bridge, but nonetheless this episode helped to shape his lasting image as a great warrior. As an Appellant, Henry opposed the execution of Simon Burley, which may have made a difference in 1397 when Richard II had his revenge. In 1387 Henry began to attend court again for the first time since 1382, intermittently attending the king's council and witnessing royal charters. Still, he never held a military command in the royal service, any administrative or household office, nor undertook any ambassadorial responsibilities during the reign of Richard II.
Prior to the revolution of 1399, Henry was best known as a paragon of chivalry. His involvement at Radcot Bridge was the initial stone in this edifice, followed by his participation at the St-Inglevert jousts of 1390, and then his performance, likely exaggerated, in the Prussian reyse or crusade against the pagans in Lithuania. His planned second crusade in Prussia in 1392 was abandoned when the campaign was cancelled by Prince Vitold, grand duke of Lithuania, and so instead he embarked on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land that added a patina of piety to his otherwise martial chivalric reputation, while also allowing him to make acquaintance with many of the crowned heads of Europe and building a tight-knit body of companions who would be his most trusted supporters for the rest of his life. When Richard II struck against the Appellants in 1397, Given-Wilson argues that Henry was complicit, lodging at the royal court for the first time in fifteen years, and denouncing the earl of Arundel at the parliament of September 1397. But the pardon and elevation to ducal rank that Henry (and Thomas Mowbray) received in the aftermath of Richard's coup could not save him from the king's machinations against the house of Lancaster, or from his exile in the aftermath of his abortive judicial duel with Mowbray. Given-Wilson provides a thorough analysis of the perennial question of exactly when Henry decided to seize the crown and the mechanics of his subsequent efforts to legitimize his usurpation. Although the Epiphany Rising turned out to be a damp squib, it nonetheless signaled that Henry was not entirely secure upon his throne even though his revolution had been largely bloodless and he had used parliament as the vehicle to try his opponents, to whom he initially showed considerable leniency; it also undoubtedly settled the fate of the former king.
Part two, "A King at War 1399 to 1405," illustrates the many obstacles posed by dynastic change. In the early years of the reign Henry IV was reluctant to commit resources, limited at best, to defense of his dominions. By 1401, faced with rebellion in Wales, and potentially Ireland, as well as a renewed French threat to Guyenne, he turned to his family--his sons Henry and Thomas as well of his half-brother John Beaufort, and his cousin the earl of Rutland--to find lieutenants to lead the royal cause. These would eventually give way to deputies, especially in Ireland and Gascony. Despite his defeat of Hotspur at Shrewsbury in 1403, Wales continued to present a serious challenge to Henry's somewhat tenuous grip over his kingdom, and this was even further strained in the summer of 1405 when the king ordered the execution of Archbishop Richard Scrope of York for treason followed a month later by that of the earl of Northumberland. Although the Percy threat to the throne was thereby finally eliminated, the power vacuum thereby created in the north posed yet another challenge to his rule.
The third part of the volume, "Recovery and Reform 1404-1410," traces Henry's efforts to move from what can only be called ad hoc financial measures to a more systematic approach to crown finances. If in 1405, as Given-Wilson contends, the tide finally turned in Henry's favor as the last of his internal opponents was broken, he nonetheless continued to face dire financial straits which threatened his regime every bit as much as his various armed adversaries. A first step to recovery came as a result of the extraordinary generosity of the so-called Unlearned Parliament of 1404, which granted the king two full fifteenths and tenths, extended the wool customs as well as tunnage and poundage, allowed him to take one year's profits from all royal lands granted out since the accession of Richard II (1377), and 5% of the value of all estates valued at more than £333 per year. Henry also made concessions, agreeing to the principal of parliamentary audit of ministerial accounts to assure them that the funds they had granted were being appropriately spent. Archbishop Arundel, as chancellor, was a mainstay of Henry's administration along with John Tiptoft, the keeper of the wardrobe, and Nicholas Bubwith, bishop of London and treasurer. Along with financial stability, Henry sought political and diplomatic stability in these years, not only with his longstanding military adversaries in Wales, Scotland, and France, but also with the Church, both at home in England and in seeking solutions to the Schism. But during these same years Henry's health began to break down, a variable factor that would have an unpredictable effect on events and policies for the remainder of the reign.
Part Four, "Lancastrian Kingship," examines the unique strengths and weaknesses occasioned by the elevation of the duke of Lancaster to the throne. Henry IV took the burden of kingship, and it was a burden, very seriously. As a particularly powerful example of his personal involvement in the governance of his kingdom, Given-Wilson highlights the period from October 1404 to August 1405 during which Henry ordered some 1,500 letters issued under the great seal and hundreds more under the privy seal and signet, while addressing 2,500 petitions, presiding over a parliament that lasted six weeks, and holding at least three great councils. During the same period he also spent June and July in the north putting down the risings of Archbishop Scrope and the earl of Northumberland, and in August he confronted a French expeditionary force in Wales. His energy and effectiveness compare favorably with those same qualities admired in Henry II, although the two are not often linked in accounts of medieval kingship. One of the major tasks of the reign was to transform the Lancastrian affinity into a royal affinity, and given the various rebellions for the first half of the reign, the king necessarily placed continuing reliance on both his family and his Lancastrian retainers, the expense of whose maintenance was frequently criticized both inside and outside of parliament. Henry did prove himself successful in cultivating the support of civic leaders, but with the consequence of providing an increasing political voice to urban merchant oligarchies. Henry's dealings with the aristocracy were marked by remarkable firmness and consistency, as well as a genuine sense of partnership. Something similar might be said of his diplomatic aims and outcomes.
Part five, "The Pendulum Years 1409-1413," covers the final years of the reign. Prince Henry had begun to play a prominent role in the politics of the reign as early as the parliament of 1406, and by 1410 he had emerged as a dominant figure. He immediately sought unprecedented taxation from parliament, along with a moratorium on the payment of annuities and distraint to knighthood, all of which proved unpopular. Another fiscal measure, a recoinage of both gold and silver coins at lower weights, was sought by the prince, although not implemented until after his council had been dismissed in November 1411. The years of the prince's ascendency also saw an effort to reign in disorder throughout the kingdom, much of which clearly resulted from the unchecked aggression of some of the members of the Lancastrian affinity. One of the strains that separated the king and prince in 1411 was generated by the civil war between Armagnacs and Burgundians in France. Given-Wilson presents a sophisticated explanation of the aims and assumptions of both the king and the prince. In the end, though, Henry IV was vindicated in his focus on Guyenne, and Given-Wilson argues that this was an important, but often overlooked, reason why Henry V was able to place his own military focus in the north.
Given-Wilson's division of the reign into four chronological and one, overarching, thematic, units is well conceived. Yet even though there might be clear delineations between the military demands of the initial years and the fiscal and administrative priorities of the later years, Given-Wilson's Henry IV emerges as a man with clear notions of kingship that he consistently followed. Simply holding onto his crown was a considerable achievement, given the circumstances under which he gained the throne, and the detailed examination of his reign presented here leads one to agree with Given-Wilson's concluding sentence: "Unlike his son, he is not remembered as a great king, but it is not impossible to imagine that, given different circumstances, he could have been."