There are a fair number of cases of madness in the European royal houses throughout history. There was a French king who thought he was made of glass, a Spanish queen who was never allowed to rule due to insanity, and a British king who had to wear a strait jacket to stop him from hurting himself and others. But of the many mentally ill monarchs, Henry VI of England possibly had the most negative affect on his country.
Henry VI, born in 1421, was less than a year old when he inherited the crown from his father, Henry V. He was crowned as both king of England and France because of his father’s successful war against the French. Advisors governed the country in his place until he was considered old enough to take over these duties himself in 1437.
Henry was a very devout and shy person, who did not really take to the pomp and spectacle expected of a king. He dressed “like a farmer” and did not like showy displays of power. Instead of enjoying sport and pleasure, he preferred to sit alone and read the Bible.
All of this was annoying to his courtiers, but was otherwise not a problem. However, his neglect of his duties and complete disinterest in his country’s war with France cost England all of their French possessions, except for Calais, in 1453.
This was a humiliating and devastating blow for the English and their king. The loss may have also precipitated what appeared to be Henry’s descent into severe mental illness later that year. He suddenly entered a catatonic state. He would not speak, feed or dress himself, and he did not seem to recognize anyone. When his wife gave birth to a son, named Edward, late that year after eight years of marriage, he did not acknowledge the child or his wife. In fact, he didn’t even appear to notice them at all.
Then, just as suddenly as he had sunk into madness, he recovered almost overnight. In January 1455, he returned to normal. He didn’t even remember anything that had happened during his catatonic state.
Henry’s madness and mismanagement of the country caused rivals to decide to challenge him for the throne. His cousin, Richard of York, and York’s allies actually started a war against Henry to try to take the throne away from him. When Richard was killed in battle, his son, Edward, took over the fight. This struggle for the throne became the years-long war known as the War of the Roses, which tore England apart for years. Henry, suffering recurring bouts of his strange mental illness, bungled the war and ended up captured and imprisoned by Edward of York.
Henry VI was eventually deposed and York was crowned as King Edward IV in 1461. This did not stop Henry’s wife and son from continuing to fight for their rights to the crown, eventually resulting in the death of Henry’s son in the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471.
Completely defeated and now permanently insane, Henry was quietly put to death in his lodgings at the Tower of London. To this day, no one knows how he died. It was a certainly a sad end to a sad life.