Death of Henry VI

On 21st May 1471 King Henry VI died in the Tower of London. The cause of his death is not known. Following the death of his son in the Battle of Tewkesbury his kingship was all that remained of the Lancastrian claim to the throne. That, and his captivity in the Tower, lead many to believe that the king was killed on the orders of Edward IV.

The Yorkist account of Henry VI’s death is found in Historie of the arrivall of Edward IV in England, and the finall recoverye of his kingdomes from Henry VI. This account, which was commissioned by Edward IV, states that Henry Vi died of, ‘pure displeasure and melancholy.’

Death of Henry VI

The offucial version of Henry VI’s death was questioned at the time. The Milanese State Papers reveal that their agent in England was of the opinion that Edward had ordered the death of Henry VI.

Milan State Papers on the Death of Henry VI

King Edward has not chosen to have the custody of King Henry any longer, although he was in some sense innocent, and there was no great fear about his proceedings, the prince his son and the Earl of Warwick being dead as well as all those who were for him and had any vigour, as he has caused King Henry to be secretly assassinated in the Tower, where he was a prisoner…

‘Milan: 1471’, in Calendar of State Papers and Manuscripts in the Archives and Collections of Milan 1385-1618, ed. Allen B Hinds (London, 1912), pp. 145-162. British History Online [accessed 29 March 2022].

The Croyland Chronicle also notes the death of Henry VI. It also suggests that Henry’s death was due to foul means.

Croyland Chronicle on the death of Henry VI

I would pass over in silence the fact that at this period king Henry was found dead in the Tower of London; may God spare and grant time for repentance to the person, whoerer he was, who thus dared to lay sacrilegious hands upon the Lord’s anointed! Hence it is that he who perpetrated this has justly earned the title of tyrant, while he who thus suffered has gained that of a glorious Martyr. The body was exhibited for some days in Saint Paul’s church at London, and was carried thence by the river Thames to the conventual church of the monks at Chertsey, in the diocese of Winchester, fifteen miles from the city; a kind of haige having heen solemnly prepared for the purpose, provided with lighted torches. How great his deserts were, by reason of his innocence of life, his love of God and of the Church, his patience in adversity, and his other remarkable virtues, is abundantly testified by the miracles which God has wrought in favour of those who have, with devout hearts, implored his intercession.

The Warkworth Chronicle recorded the death of Henry VI as being ordered.

Warkworth Chronicle account of the death of Henry VI

“King Edward came to London, King Harry, being inward in prison in the Tower of London, was put to death, the 21st day of May, a Tuesday night, between 11 and 12 o’clock, being then at the Tower the Duke of Gloucester, brother to King Edward, and many others…”

Tudor Accounts of the manner in which Henry VI died

Polydor Virgil

Writing in the Tudor era, Polydor Virgil asserted that Richard Duke of Gloucester killed the deposed king with s sword:

“Henry the sixt … was put to death in the tour of London. The contynuall report is, that Richard Duke of Gloucester killyd him with a sword”

Sir Thomas More

Virgil’s account is supported to a degree by another famed Tudor writer, Sir Thomas More. Though More does note that it is ‘as men constantly say’ so rumour rather than presented as hard fact. More’s brief reference reads:

“…slew with his own hands King Henry the Sixth, being prisoner in the Tower…as men constantly say”.

Cult of King Henry VI

In death King Henry VI became more popular than he had been in life. His piety led to a Cult emerging, with miracles being put down to his influence. It led to many pilgrims visiting the King’s resting place, which in turn led to his remains being moved to Windsor. This cult was tolerated by both Edward IV and Richard III. Under Henry VII it flourished. Henry VI’s tomb ranks second to only that of Thomas Becket as a place of pilgrimage in England: based on known visits, which has been calculated by researchers looking at pilgrim badges.

Following the death of Henry VI his tmb became a place of pilgrimage
Following the death of Henry VI his tmb became a place of pilgrimage

Posthumous accounts of Henry VI’s life

John Blacman

He was a simple man, without any crook of craft or untruth, as is plain to all. With none did he deal craftily, nor even would say an untrue word to any, but framed his speech always to speak truth…Against the pest of avarice with which so many are infected and diseased, even princes of the earth, this king Henry of whom we speak was most wary and alert… to the confusion of avarice he was very bountiful with his gifts, as his former servants bore witness… The same prince when in the end he lost both the realms, England and France, which he had ruled before, along with all his wealth and goods, endured it with no broken spirit but with a calm mind, making light of all temporal things, if he might but gain Christ and things eternal…

John Blacman A Compilation of the Meekness and Good Life of King Henry VI,

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