Thursday, December 22, 2011


A review of Ian Mortimer’s The Fears of Henry IV: The Life of England’s Self-Made King (2008)

(Rating 5 of 5)

Ian Mortimer tells the tale of a tragic prince who lead an incredible life but has been unappreciated throughout history. Some of the lack of appreciation is understandable because his warrior son had left such an incredible legacy that his own suffers from want. The rest of it is due to an unsuccessful reign and the judgments of his time period. It is a great book filled with excitement but told with historical professionalism.

(King Henry IV)

Henry is born the son of the Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt, his paternal grandfather is King, and his maternal grandfather was the great warrior, Duke Henry. Throughout his life Henry would try to live the life a prince was expected to. He was a knight, he jousted, he went crusade where he fought holy battles, and he had even traveled to the Holy Land setting foot in Jerusalem. Henry had the potential to be great asset for to his cousin, the King.

(John of Gaunt, Henry's father, the Duke of Lancaster)

Unfortunately, for both Henry and his country, they had King Richard II as their monarch. Many monarchs that have been overthrown were not themselves, bad people. More often than not they were just incapable of doing their jobs and suffered the consequences of it*. Richard, however, was a pure tyrant king who created a climate of fear for his people. King Richard who had come to the throne at the age of ten was often insecure, jealous, and paranoid. He always seemed to make enemies where he could have friends. The King never understood that the rebels in the peasant revolt were actually pro-monarchist, against noble power as much as he. He did not understand his uncle, the Duke of Lancaster, was actually trying to help him. Even his mother tried to get him to see reason but King Richard II really believed that his uncle was out to get him, even though he never acted against him.

(Richard II, a tyrant king)

Through no fault of his own Henry finds himself banished from England forced into exile, unable to attend his own father’s funeral, and is disinherited. Much like Julius Caesar, Henry finds himself forced into an impossible position and acts in a similar manner. He returns to England in head of an army that grows the further he gets into the country (showing clear dislike for the people to Richard) and easily captures his rival.

Henry quickly encounters a problem. He had promised not to take England by conquest only to fight against a perceived injustice. In later ages it would be accepted that rulers who are tyrants can be overthrown, but what Henry was going to do to Richard violated all morals of the day. He took the throne from his cousin and through Parliament had himself proclaimed King Henry IV.

The revolutionary act of disposing of a king and taking his place would condemn Henry to a difficult rule. When King Edward II (great-grandfather to both Henry and Richard) was overthrown he was replaced by his own lawful heir, King Edward III, who did not partake in his father's overthrow. Edward III would avenge his father by killing the man who deposed him, Roger Mortimer, the Earl of March. This allowed King Edward III to rule with legitimacy. Henry was the man who deposed King Richard and replaced him as king. Henry was not Richard’s lawful heir as had been Edward III to Edward II; there were multiple people who had better claims than Henry regardless of which method of succession was used**. Yet Henry deposes a king and becomes one at the same time, under the justification that Richard was a bad king. This makes the new King Henry IV vulnerable because the same standard could be used on him! In addition, as W. L. Warren pointed out in his book on King Henry II often times powerful nobles who become king, such as King Stephan, have a difficult time making the transition from nobleman to king. Henry learned the hard way that running a kingdom was not the same as running a duchy.

(Henry's famous son, King Henry V)

It has often been said that great leaders are judged by the circumstances that they faced. This is not true for King Henry IV, although he saved the kingdom from a tyrant and handled all crises that came to him rather well. His legacy was tarnished by what he had to do to become king. During his life he went unrecognized by his peers the Kings of Scotland and France. After death, he would unappreciated by his own successors, even his own son. He was Henry the Usurper and no king could glorify a usurper and remain safe on his own throne. Unlike his ancestor, William the Conqueror, he was never able to pull a show of legitimacy that the public could at some level accept.

Ian Mortimer did a great job telling the tale of a tragic figure not even the great William Shakespeare was able to give justice. I would highly recommend this book to anyone it is a great read.

*Henry's own grandson, King Henry VI, is a good example. Others were King Louis XVI of France, and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia.

**As Mortimer points out there were many entails but none of them could be used to create a successful argument that Henry had a hereditary right to be king.

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