The Shadow King: The Life and Death of Henry VI
By Lauren Johnson
Pegasus Books, 2019
Historian Lauren Johnson follows up her very enjoyable 2017 book So Great a Prince with another foray into British Royal biography, here at nearly three times the length because it’s recounting the whole reign of a king rather than only that reign’s bright beginnings. So Great a Prince painted the glorious sunrise of King Henry VIII’s reign, when Henry was a handsome, wealthy young monarch with his entire reign before him. The contrasts couldn’t be sharper with the subject of this present book, Henry VI, who came to the throne as a child upon the death of his warrior-king father Henry V and whose reign is virtually one long uninterrupted tale of confusion, disarray, and disaster. Henry VI lost England’s foothold on France; he lost the peace and cohesion of his kingdom, which sank into the Wars of the Roses on his watch; and, perhaps most delicately of all, he lost his grip on himself. After the disastrous route of English forces by the French at Castillon in Gascony in 1453, Henry suddenly seemed to stop, and historians have wondered ever since what his subjects wondered at the time: what exactly was wrong with the King? Johnson briefly toys with the idea that Henry might have inherited some strain of mental disease from his deeply unbalanced maternal grandfather Charles VI, but in the end she wisely proposes a nuanced array of possible explanations:
Inherited schizophrenia is a satisfyingly neat explanation for Henry’s illness from the summer of 1453, but history is seldom neat. It may be that Henry was suffering from a particularly severe episode of depression, exacerbated by the traumatic events of recent years and his continuous physical exertion, and that this led to a psychotic break in summer 1453 when he received the terrible news from Gascony … It is also worth noting, for a man whose father had died soon after the birth of his first child in his thirties, that Henry’s breakdown coincided with his own approaching thirty-second birthday and imminent fatherhood.
This tactic of gentle but tough level-headed assessment of sources runs through this book, which is a wonderful addition to an admittedly small shelf of Henry VI biographies, joining studies like the one by Bertram Wolffe in 2001 and the much more recent one by David Grummitt. Johnson, for example, is equally skeptical about the multiple dark rumors that attended Henry’s long captivity in the Tower of London, where he eventually died. “It’s hard to believe the claims later made by Henry’s first biographer, John Blacman,” she writes, “that during his imprisonment Henry endured ‘hunger, thirst, mockings, derisions, abuse and many other hardships.’”
Ultimately, The Shadow King is the story of a multivalent failure. It’s the dramatically-told tale of an epic muddle. Johnson’s storytelling abilities are even stronger here than they were in So Great a Prince; this is exactly the kind of immensely readable popular biography of Henry VI that this king has mostly lacked, lost in the roster of his far more dynamic royal brothers and sisters. And Johnson’s account, although unsparing, is warmly sympathetic to the tormented figure at its center - a sympathy the man’s own contemporaries felt:
It is worth remembering that for a remarkably long time even those of Henry’s subjects who had seen, at first hand, that he was not up to the job refused to deprive him of his throne. In 1460, it was Henry’s own inertia that saw [Richard, Duke of] York triumph and even then, he was allowed to retain his crown for as long as he lived or could endure York’s intimidation. Exasperation with Henry’s rule was consistently tempered by affection for Henry himself.
It’s a question whether or not The Shadow King will manage to impart any of that affection to its readers. But they’ll know the man as well as any biographer has yet made possible.
—Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, The Washington Post, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.