Henry himself was a gentle, devout and kindly man, but he was said to have been "unsteadfast of wit". He did not appear to enjoy wearing the magnificent clothing expected of a sovereign and often dressed simply "like a farmer". Unlike his warlike father, Henry possessed a strong aversion to violence and was deeply, even obsessively, devoted to religion.Does that sound like the sort of person you would want to lead your country in a time of war? The royal family's own web site says,
Henry's cultural patronage and genuine interest in education (he founded Eton and King's College, Cambridge) were outweighed by his patchy and partisan interest in administration.I have been thinking about this because I am listening to an ok historical novel about the period, which depicts people desperately trying to get King Henry to make any decision. Sometimes he simply will not, leaving them floundering. But when he does, they treat it as a royal pronouncement. As if he weren't a moron who should not have been trusted with running a farm, let alone a kingdom.
In the late Middle Ages, Europe settled on a model of kingship that we now think of as normal: the eldest son inherits the throne, regardless of whether he is in any way suitable. He is the king, and that's that. But this rigid succession is very unusual in history. In many more societies, the new king had to be a capable leader. He was usually drawn from the royal family, but there might be many claimants: all the old king's sons, along with his brothers, nephews, and even cousins. The decision of which man to crown was made in various ways. The old king might try to settle the throne on his favorite heir before he died, or the aristocrats of the kingdom might get together and choose one of the potential claimants, or there might be a civil war with the last man standing becoming he king. But the people of the realm would not sit back and watch the throne pass to an idiot or a weakling.
How Europeans came to arrange things this way is a mystery. It wasn't just kingship; all the noble families adopted similar policies, and it came to be more and more the rule that properties passed intact to the eldest son, rather than being divided among all the children, or all the sons. It may have grown out of a longing for stability, bred by centuries of disorder. But however it happened, it led us into a crazy world of mature men and women bowing down to babies, and lunatics holding power over great kingdoms.