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The posthumous cult of Henry VI: St Mary’s Guildhall and Coventry’s saintly king

April 28, 2023
Author: Laura Keep, Volunteer Blogger.

Henry VI is often considered one of England’s most ineffectual kings. Reigning during what became known as the Wars of the Roses, his absent style of rule, bouts of catatonic stupor and fostering of education and religion led to a violent civil war that would eventually see him deposed and possibly murdered by his Yorkist enemies. The adversity Henry experienced during his life would later become the foundation of a widespread and popular cult which viewed him as a saint capable of performing miracles. Let’s look further into this posthumous veneration and its link to St Mary’s Guildhall.

On the night of 21 May 1471, after over fifteen years of civil war, Henry VI died in the Tower of London. The Historie of the Arrivall of Edward IV comments that Henry died of ‘pure displeasure and melancholy’, a statement possibly intended to suppress the true cause of death – murder at the hands of his Yorkist enemies.[1] His body was displayed at St Paul’s Cathedral and Blackfriars, at which Warkworth’s Chronicle reports him to have ‘bled anew and afresh’.[2] He was then buried at Chertsey Abbey.  Soon after his death, reports of miracles performed by ‘Holy Henry’ began to circulate and pilgrims started arriving at his grave. Edward IV tried to stamp out the growing cult by having the Archbishop of York ban the veneration of images of Henry, but this had little effect. Richard III recognised this failure and decided to patronise the movement by having Henry’s body reinterred in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. Encouraging the veneration was of benefit to Henry VII, who could use his step-uncle’s saintly reputation and the medieval notion of sacred kingship to promote Tudor legitimacy and quash Yorkist sentiment. He even went as far as appealing to the Pope on the subject of canonisation, though this endeavour stagnated during Henry VIII’s break with Rome.

174 documented ‘wonders’ were attributed to Henry VI between his death and 1500. Pilgrims from as far as Calais, Cornwall and Northumberland journeyed to Henry’s tomb in thanksgiving for the miracles he performed. The records show that his veneration was widespread; people from all walks of life, whether rich or poor, rural or urban, claimed that Henry had saved them in various ways. It was written that he revived plague victim Alice Newnett, and cured the blindness of Katherine Bailey upon her bending a coin to him at mass. He saved people from fires, shipwrecks and death sentences, and cured afflictions including fever, insanity, scrofula and epilepsy. It is claimed that, by 1500, the most venerated images in England were Henry VI and the Virgin.

So, what does this posthumous cult have to do with St Mary’s Guildhall? Henry VI’s relationship with Coventry was long-standing. He visited in 1451, on which occasion he granted the city a charter naming it a county in itself, and moved the royal court to Coventry during the late 1450s, making it the de facto capital of England. It is therefore unsurprising that the Guildhall’s Great Hall is littered with images and iconography relating to Henry. The stained glass window features Henry along with his Lancastrian predecessors and several legendary kings, including King Arthur. Beneath the window sits the iconic Coventry Tapestry, which depicts two figures believed to be Henry VI and his wife, Margaret of Anjou, along with a crowd of renowned saints and holy figures. The ceiling is also decorated with antelopes, lions and swans, images used in royal emblems –such as the badges of Henry, Margaret and their son, Edward.

The late fifteenth century saw Coventry hit by plague, economic decline and adversity. Given that local historian, David McGrory, believes that the Guildhall is the best evidence of Henry’s posthumous veneration outside of London, perhaps the various images we can still see today are a sign that the city looked towards Henry to support them during troubled times. Perhaps they believed that the king who bestowed so much good fortune on the city could do so again.

The Guildhall’s dedication to Henry is evidence that his veneration reached the city. Whether this was encouraged by political motivations, in the sense that his step-nephew was sat on the throne at the time, or by local compassion and sympathy towards Henry, or a mix of both, the point stands that the building is a devotion to Coventry’s own saintly king.

Sources

Craig, Leigh Ann. ‘Royalty, Virtue, and Adversity: The Cult of King Henry VI.’ Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies 35, no. 2 (2003): 187–209. https://doi.org/10.2307/4054134.

Dockray, Keith. Edward IV: A Source Book. Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing Ltd, 1999.

Dockray, Keith. Henry VI, Margaret of Anjou and the Wars of the Roses: A Source Book. Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing Ltd, 2000.

Hanham, Alison. ‘Henry VI and his Miracles.’ The Ricardian: Journal of the Richard III Society 12, no. 148 (2000): 638.

Liddy, Christian D. ‘Urban Politics and Material Culture at the End of the Middle Ages: The Coventry Tapestry in St Mary’s Hall.’ Urban History 39, no. 2 (2012): 203–24. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26398135.

McGrory, David. A History of Coventry. Gloucestershire: The History Press, 2022.

Theilmann, John M. ‘The Miracles of King Henry VI of England.’ The Historian 42, no. 3 (1980): 456–71. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24445972.

Wilkinson, Greg. ‘Henry VI: Catatonic Stupor, and the Case Series of 15th-Century Psychiatric Miracles Attributed to His Posthumous Intercession – Psychiatry in History.’ The British Journal of Psychiatry 216, no. 4 (2020): 177–77. doi:10.1192/bjp.2020.15.

Footnotes

[1] Keith Dockray, Edward IV: A Source Book, (Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing Ltd, 1999), p.92.

[2] Keith Dockray, Henry VI, Margaret of Anjou and the Wars of the Roses: A Source Book, (Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing Ltd, 2000), p.134.

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