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Henriad Averted

By Leo Welles

Posthumous portrait of Henry V by an unknown painter

Henry V is one of England’s most revered and celebrated kings. At the young age of twenty-six he ascended to the throne of England after his father, Henry IV, died of sickness. Within three years of his ascension, Henry V sailed to Normandy to renew England’s eternal struggle against her continental nemesis, France. Despite the large army which Henry V had raised for the campaign, the English struggled to conquer the port of Harfleur and lost thousands of men in the process to illness. Due to how long it took Henry V to capture Harfleur, he and his army had to return to begin their journey home after the conquest of that singular French port or risk being stuck in France during the winter. As the English army marched toward the English-held port of Calais it found itself outflanked by a much larger French army. Without any route of escape, Henry V chose to stand and fight at the small village of Agincourt.

That day, Saint Crispin’s Day, Henry V and Agincourt became forever immortalized in the annals of history when against all odds the English army withstood the French attacks for hours to win one of England’s finest victories. Just shy of thirty, Henry V had already ensured his place among the lists of warrior-kings with his triumph as Agincourt. However, Henry V’s exploits did not end with Agincourt. Within five years, Henry V became the first English monarch to occupy Paris, the capital of the French kingdom. An even greater success, however, was the Treaty of Troyes which Henry V signed with King Charles VI of France. By that treaty, Henry V married Catherine of France and became the regent and heir of the Kingdom of France. This was the ultimate triumph of the English Plantagents over the French Valois. However, this triumph was not to last as just two years later Henry V died of sickness, just as his father had. With Henry V’s death, his infant son, Henry VI, was proclaimed King of England and eventually king of France. From this abridged summary of Henry V’s reign, the reverence and idolization of him is easily understood. How many other kings were responsible for a victory as unlikely as Agincourt or were able to extract a concession from France as heavy as rights to the entire kingdom?

However, amidst historians and patriots lauding Henry V, the lives of both his predecessor and successor have been less explored. Indeed, while Henry V is the titular character of just one of the eight plays in William Shakespeare’s Henriad, there are more film adaptations of that play Henry V than of any of the other plays. The most recent adaptation, The King with Timothee Chalamet starring as Henry V, came out in 2019. This inattention to Henry V’s predecessor, Henry IV, and successor, Henry VI, is truly disappointing as both of their reigns are incredibly interesting, for their grim contrast to Henry V’s glorious achievements alone, if for nothing else. In fact, while Henry V largely enjoyed domestic stability and prosperity as he waged his victorious war against France, both Henry IV and Henry VI spent their reigns overseeing large amounts of turmoil which engulfed much of England.

During Henry IV’s time, England was eternally in unrest as various allies of Richard II, who Henry IV had overthrown, rebelled against Henry IV. Later, under Henry VI, England was subjected to its longest, bloodiest, and most chaotic civil war, the War of Roses. That war ultimately saw not only the death of Henry VI but also the extinction of the both opposing sides, Yorkist and Lancastrian branches of the House of Plantagenet. In the end, rather than either side of the Plantagenet family ruling England, a new dynasty arose, the Tudors.

What if, however, none of the above had ever occurred? What if England had been able to avoid the disastrous War of Roses but was also deprived of the triumphant reign of Henry V? What if Henry IV had never usurped the English throne from Richard II? How would the 15th century have gone if the Lancastrian line of Plantagenets had never become the Kings of England at all? This is the question I seek to answer in this essay: Henriad Averted.

Henry of Bolingbroke is pictured here claiming the throne in 1399. But what if he didn't?

There are various possible different points in history where events could have gone differently and Henry Bolingbroke, as Henry IV was known before usurping the English throne, could have died. And so the Lancastrians would have never become kings.

For example, during the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt of Wat Tyler, Henry Bolingbroke, was one of the individuals whom the peasants sought to hunt down and execute for misleading the youthful King Richard II. While many of the other individuals were caught trying to escape London and summarily executed, Bolingbroke managed to quite literally hide himself in a cupboard until he could safely make his way out of London. Later on, Bolingbroke participated in a military campaign alongside the Teutonic Knights in Lithuania, where disease or battle could easily have taken his life. Even just two years before usurping Richard II, Bolingbroke was challenged to a trial by combat by Thomas Mowbray, which could have ended up with Bolingbroke killed. However, at the last moment, Richard II cancelled the trial and exiled Bolingbroke.

Of course, a couple of years later Bolingbroke returned to take the throne from Richard II while he was campaigning in Ireland. The point of divergence I will use, however, is none of these. Instead, it is one which I chanced upon while reading about the Crusades. The point of divergence I have chosen is that Henry Bolingbroke chooses to go on the Crusade of Nicopolis of 1396.

Throughout Bolingbroke’s life he was known to be pious and he is said to have believed that his life would end in Jerusalem (in actuality, he died in the Jerusalem Chamber in Westminster Abbey). Furthermore, Bolingbroke had desired to liberate Jerusalem from Muslim rule as a young man. Given this background, Bolingbroke deciding to join the Nicopolis crusade is very much in line with his character. Additionally, the Nicopolis crusade was declared just after a truce was reached between England and France by Richard II and Charles VI. In fact, as part of this truce, both Richard II and Charles VI agreed to sponsor a crusade against the Ottoman Empire who at the time was blockading the Byzantine capital of Constantinople.

As a consequence, not only was there a state of peace to afford Bolingbroke the opportunity to join the crusade but there was a source of external motivation as England had agreed to send men to join the crusade. Historically, there is some debate as to whether Englishmen actually ended up joining the crusade or not. However, considering Bolingbroke’s background as a crusader in Lithuania, I think it is reasonable for him to decide to join the crusade even if no larger English contingent is sent.

Although Bolingbroke is a well-known figure in English history due to his reign as Henry IV and his fathering of Henry V, I strongly doubt that his presence in the Crusade of Nicopolis would have had any effect on the crusade’s outcome. At the very beginning, the crusade had numerous questions about its chain of command caused by the multinational nature of the crusade. King Sigismund of Hungary was recognised as the overall commander of the crusade due to him being the only king among the crusaders but below him the hierarchy was entirely uncertain. Since Bolingbroke at the time was only an earl he is unlikely to have been able to assert himself over the spirited French noblemen, the experienced Balkan rulers, or Sigismund’s trusted Hungarian vassals. For this reason, even with Bolingbroke’s involvement the crusade would probably have the same ending it had historically, the Battle of Nicopolis. In that battle, the French knights successfully argued their right to lead the opening assault against the Ottomans over the right of the Wallachians who had previously defeated the Ottomans during their invasion of Wallachia. The French assault went poorly as they charged up a hill into an organised formation of infantrymen behind a row of stakes. The failure of this assault allowed the Ottomans to counterattack and shatter the entire crusading army. In the process, most of the crusade’s leaders were either captured or killed.

Since Bolingbroke would be unable to prevent the more numerous and boisterous French noblemen from gaining the right to lead the attack, the Battle of Nicopolis would still end up as this incredible defeat. Let's assume that Bolingbroke would be among the many crusaders who ended up captured. Historically, months after the battle, many of the captured crusaders died of the plague as it passed through the Balkans. In this alternative timeline, Bolingbroke would be among the captives to die of the plague. With Bolingbroke’s death in the Balkans, he would never be able to go on to usurp Richard II, who will be the next subject of discussion in this essay.

Portrait of Richard II at Westminster Abbey

Richard II is typically remembered quite poorly by historians and even his contemporaries. In fact, some historians regard him as the worst or close to the worst King of England. The reason for this poor reflection of Richard II is that not only did he rule tyrannically but he also managed to get himself overthrown and ultimately died in prison. Other tyrannical English rulers such as Henry IV or Edward the Confessor were at the very least able to maintain their hold over the crown. However, Richard II very easily could have held on to his crown too had it not been for Bolingbroke. Around the time of point of divergence, in 1396, Richard II was about to embark upon a campaign of vengeance against the noblemen who had opposed him during his earlier reign. Historically, this campaign opened in July of 1397 when Richard II managed to arrest his three primary opponents, the Earl of Warwick, Earl of Arundal, and Duke of Gloucester, all in a single day. Soon afterward Richard II exiled all three of them.

With these men out of the way, Richard II was able to dominate Parliament and continue to pursue his enemies with appeals of treason. Later on in September of 1397, Richard II recalled the Earl of Warwick, Earl of Arundal, and Duke of Gloucester from their exiles so that he could punish them more strongly. The earl of Warwick was imprisoned for the rest of his life on the desolate Isle of Mann, the Earl of Arundal was publicly executed, and the Duke of Gloucester was murdered in Calais. After disposing of these men, Richard II was able to take their lands and redistribute them to his loyal followers, which created a strong group of loyalists around him.

Ultimately, Richard II’s downfall was initiated the very next year in 1398 when Henry Bolingbroke accused Thomas Mowbray of treason. This accusation led to a trial by combat which Richard II cancelled as it was beginning in a theatrical fashion. Instead of allowing Bolingbroke and Mowbray to settle their dispute, Richard II exiled both individuals to the dissatisfaction of much of the English court who felt the decision to be arbitrary. A year later when Bolingbroke's father, John of Gaunt died, Richard II refused to let Bolingbroke inherit his father’s lands. Instead, Richard II seized John of Gaunt’s lands for himself. This unlawful seizure again earned Richard II the ire of the English noblemen and encouraged Bolingbroke to return from his exile to depose Richard II while he was campaigning in Ireland. Months later, Richard II died of starvation in his cell, either by his own doing or as a form of execution.

In this alternative world in which Henry Bolingbroke goes on the Crusade of Nicopolis and dies in the Balkans, Richard II’s reign and life would not have ended so tragically. Before Bolingbroke’s dispute with Mowbray and Richard II’s seizure of Gaunt’s lands, Bolingbroke was actually an ally of Richard II. Despite being an ally of Richard II, Bolingbroke did not play a leading role in Richard II’s campaign vengeance. Instead, Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt factored in more prominently through his position as lord high steward. Even though Bolingbroke is a major figure in English politics, his lack of direct involvement in the Richard II’s campaign, especially his lack of involvement in the initial arrests of Warwick, Arundel, and Gloucester, means that his absence from English politics likely will not have a major effect on this campaign. Instead, Richard II would likely still seek revenge against his enemies in and still find success. Much like in real history, Richard II would dominate England by the end of 1397 as a tyrant.

John of Gaunt, here painted by Lucas Cornelisz de Kock, had a crucial role in the politics of this scepter'd isle

Unlike real history, however, Richard II would be able to maintain his position as tyrant. Since Richard II already killed or imprisoned most of his opponents, Bolingbroke’s death means that there is no prominent figure around whom the opposition can rally behind. Additionally, although Richard II’s tyranny will never be loved, the absence of Bolingbroke in 1398 and 1399 will result in Richard II aggravating the established noblemen of England less. Without Bolingbroke, Bolingbroke and Mowbray’s trial by combat will never be dramatically cancelled by Richard II, which removes a major escalatory event in Richard II’s downfall. It can not be overstated how much Richard II’s decision to call off the trial by combat and exile both combatants was disdained by the noblemen as it violated their sense of honor and justice.

Additionally, Richard II historically seized all of Gaunt’s lands to prevent those lands from going into the hands of Bolingbroke, an adult threat to Richard II’s throne. However, if Bolingbroke predeceases Gaunt then Gaunt’s successor will be Bolingbroke’s son, Henry of Monmouth (who historically became Henry V). Since Henry of Monmouth would be a minor upon the death of Gaunt, Richard II does not have to be concerned about Henry posing an immediate threat to his reign. Additionally, Richard II is the leader of the House of Plantagenet which Henry is a part of, for which reason Richard II can make Henry his ward. With Henry as Richard II’s ward, Richard II may reap the benefits of Gaunt’s land without outright seizing them for himself. This slightly more subtle maneuver will result in less aggravation among the English nobility. Thus as a result of both the English nobility not having a person to rival Richard II and through Richard II not upsetting the nobility as much as he did historically, Richard II is likely to be able to hold onto his control of England. So what would said control look like? What would an extended Richard II reign entail?

Richard II ascended the English throne in 1377 at the age of ten and ruled over it, first with the help of various advisers and later on his own, for more than two decades before being deposed in 1399. The last few years of his reign during which he ruled entirely in his own right have already been described in some detail. Domestically, Richard II seemed to be concerned mainly with self-aggrandisement and the diminishment of any potential threats to his sovereignty. These policies were aptly illustrated by Richard II’s decision to seize John of Gaunt’s land and exile, murder, or execute opponents to his rule such as Warwick, Arundel, and Gloucester. Regarding Richard II’s domestic governance there is not all too much to say outside of that. Except that Richard II was prone to pageantry and was a patron of the arts. Given more time, Richard II’s rule would probably see him continue to aggressively and harshly attack any perceived threat to himself. However, he would probably settle down somewhat as his enemies are cowed and as his loyalists grow in relative strength. Still, Richard II’s rule would be harsh and tyrannical.

Regarding foreign policy, Richard II unlike previous English kings was rather disinclined toward war with France. In fact, as mentioned before, in 1396 he negotiated a truce with France and suggested military cooperation with France as part of a crusade. Additional terms of this truce were that Richard II was wed to the Isabella of France, Charles VI’s daughter, in 1396. However, at the time of Richard II’s wedding, Isabella was just seven-years-old. If Richard II had reigned longer, due to both his marriage with Isabella and his distaste for fighting France, the Anglo-French peace would have continued on. Thus not only would Agincourt not happen due to Henry V never becoming king, there would be no possibility of anything close to Agincourt happening at all. Rather than France, the main foreign target of Richard II’s military aggression was Ireland.

Historically in 1394, Richard II had overseen a very successful campaign against the native Irish lords who constantly harassed the Anglo-Saxon settlers in the Pale of Dublin, Ulster, Ormond, and Desmond. Later on, in 1399, just before Bolingbroke landed in England to begin his campaign to unseat Richard II, a similar Irish campaign had begun. Without Bolingbroke, Richard II would have been able to go on a similar Irish campaign in either 1399 or the early 1400s. Given the success of Richard II’s first campaign, an unimpeded second campaign would probably also be victorious for Richard II. Such a victory would result in an expansion of English or English-aligned holdings in Ireland and probably be followed by other successful campaigns against Ireland. Although Ireland surely would not be conquered fully in Richard II’s lifetime, the earlier English success against Ireland could result in Ireland falling to English dominion earlier than historically. While the Irish would be hurt by a longer-ruling Richard II, the Welsh would do better.

Art Mór Mac Murchadha Caomhánach, as depicted in Jean Creton's Histoire du roy d'Angleterre Richard II, was Richard's Irish nemesis and would undoubtedly suffer if Richard was able to devote more time to fighting him

Historically, the Welsh were supporters of Richard II. That support for Richard II, alongside other issues, ultimately led the Welsh to rebel against Henry IV only to be seriously defeated by Henry of Monmouth. With Richard II still ruling them rather than Henry IV, the Welsh would not rebel in the early 1400s saving the lives of several Welsh nobles such as Owain Glyndwr and Maredudd ap Tudur (an ancestor of the Tudors). Outside of military affairs, Richard II also had agreed to help the French bring an end to the Western Schism, between competing Popes in Rome and Avignon in 1396. Richard II’s death in 1399 and Henry IV’s aggression toward France meant that no meaningful joint Anglo-French effort to resolve the schism was ever made. But, given Richard II’s piety and friendliness with France, if he ruled longer he might attempt to resolve the schism alongside France. Perhaps they could bring about an earlier end to Western Schism, however, it is unlikely. Although national politics played a large role in the schism, the divisions between opposing clergies played a larger role. Richard II being alive will not resolve those clergical divisions by itself.

Ultimately, Richard II would probably die in the 1430s as those of family members who were not violently killed (Edward III and John of Gaunt) typically lived into their sixties. Despite spending the first three decades of his life without a son to pass the throne to by the 1430s Richard II would have produced an heir with his wife Isabella. Although Richard II had a wife before Isabella, that wife came from a family of poor fertility which actually died out in the 15th century. Overall, Richard II’s extended reign would see further efforts to destroy any internal threats. Abroad, Richard II would continue to maintain his peace with France whilst releasing England’s martial impulses on Ireland instead, Despite Richard II and Charles VI’s commitment to bring the Western Schism to an end, they alone will not resolve the schism. In the end Richard II would die peacefully and be succeeded by his own son.

With Richard II continuing his rule as King of England and having a son to succeed him, there remains the question of what would happen to Henry of Monmouth or Henry V as he became known. Likely Henry of Monmouth would have grown up under the careful watch and supervision of Richard II. Given Henry’s youth at the time of the divergence he probably would have grown up to fear or tolerate Richard II’s power or perhaps Henry would become a staunch loyalist of Richard II in an effort to gain full control over the lands he would have inherited from John of Gaunt. As an English nobleman, Henry would take part in Richard II’s Irish campaigns and gain some renown for himself as a good soldier. Historically, Henry was proven to be a good soldier well before Agincourt when he was combating the rebellions against his father, Henry IV. As an adult, Henry would probably marry a member of English nobility rather than French royalty as Richard II would view the latter marriage as a threat to his authority. All in all, Henry would live a good life as an English soldier but nothing approaching the legendary life he had as the conqueror of France in the woods of Agincourt.

In the world, where Henry Bolingbroke never overthrows Richard II and brings the Lancastrian Plantagenets to the English throne, England would ultimately be better off. Yes, Richard II will rule on for up to three decades as a complete tyrant who abuses the nobility and kills anyone who threatens him. However, Henry IV’s reign was plagued by rebellions which killed thousands of Welsh, English, and Scots, both commoners and noblemen. Under Richard II, that level of civil instability is unlikely thus saving thousands of lives and preventing incalculable property damage. Likewise, Richard II will not go to war with France and win some Agincourt-esque victory as Henry V did. And it should be remembered that the Lancastrian Phase of the Hundred Years War which Henry V began ultimately ended in the defeat of England, cost thousands of English lives, and depleted the English treasury.

Instead of England fighting this prolonged and expensive war, Richard II’s England would see a period of unprecedented peace, prosperity, and amity between England and France. This period would probably see England’s economy recover from decades of war and Channel trade thrive. Finally, through Richard II and a smooth transition to his son and heir by Isabella of France, England would avoid the chaotic and bloody War of the Roses which consumed England for three decades. Although Henry V led England to victory at Agincourt, his early death led to the creation of a fragile political regency for Henry VI. Ultimately, Henry VI’s inability to rule meant that England never recovered from the early fragility of Henry VI’s reign. Instead, England was shattered by a civil war which wiped two noble families from history. This is the history England could have seen had only Bolingbroke gone on the Crusade of Nicopolis and died never having deposed Richard II.



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