“Woe to thee, O land, when thy king is a child”
Henry VI was born on 6 December 1421 at Windsor Castle. He was the only child of Henry V and Catherine de Valois, youngest daughter of Charles VI of France.
Henry VI would never get to meet his extraordinary father.
Henry VI would become England’s youngest ever monarch when his father died of dysentery while fighting in France, and at just 9 months old was king of the English realm at its greatest extent.
In codicils added to his will on 26 August 1422, just five days before he died, Henry V made provisions for the minority years of his son. Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, was to have ‘the principal safekeeping and defence of our beloved son’ (tutela et defensionem nostrii carissimi filii principales). The Duke was learned, widely read and scholarly, which may have influenced the young Henry’s interests in the field of education.
Shortly afterwards, Henry VI became King of France when his maternal grandfather also died.
Henry VI was crowned King of England on 6 November 1429, and of France on 16 December 1431. He is the only monarch to have been crowned king of both realms.
Portrait of Henry V, King of England, 1387-1422. Artist unknown, c.1606.
Henry comes of age
From 1435, Henry VI became more involved in the running of the country, following the death of his uncle, the duke of Bedford, who had acted as regent in France. When his mother died two years later, Henry was free to rule. He was 16 years old.
One of the first projects undertaken on assuming the reins of government was the foundation of Eton College. It was to be “the first pledge of his devotion to God”. King’s College Cambridge was founded a year later, and the two have been described as the only positives to come out of his reign.
Eton College was a project of immense personal importance to Henry. Henry was born on the feast of St Nicholas, patron saint of children, and a school for poor scholars would honour this. Unlike institutions founded by other monarchs, Henry’s would focus on education and youth. The site chosen was close to his birthplace of Windsor Castle, also his favourite residence. Siting it there would mean he could keep a close eye on the proceedings.