Jonathan Sumption

Reign of the Usurper

Henry IV

By Chris Given-Wilson

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Henry IV has had a bad press. He usurped the throne of England in 1399 and is generally thought to have murdered his predecessor, a poor start in an age of strong legitimist sentiment. The Church would remember him as the first king since Henry II to have had an archbishop executed. To the Victorian advocates of English constitutional exceptionalism Henry was the king whose weakness and incapacity happily inaugurated a golden age of parliamentary government. To the Welsh and Scottish, he was the determined enemy of their nations. In the Protestant tradition, Henry was the king who, a century before Luther, snuffed out the abortive reformation of the Lollards. To liberals of our own day, he was the enemy of freedom of conscience, the man who introduced to England the practice of burning heretics at the stake. To generations of history students, Henry IV’s reign has been a mere interval between the dramatic upheavals of Richard II’s reign and the glorious wars of Henry V, a dreary succession of violent and incomprehensible rebellions. Only a decade ago a panel of historians assembled by the BBC voted Henry’s Lord Chancellor Thomas Arundel as one of the most wicked Englishmen in history. But the abiding image of the king is, as always, Shakespeare’s. In the playwright’s eyes he remained throughout his reign the man of 1399, racked by guilt and self-hatred. ‘God knows … By what by-paths and indirect crook’d ways/I met this crown,’ says the dying king in Henry IV Part II, ‘and I myself know well/How troublesome it sat upon my head.’

Donmar Warehouse


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