Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The suicidal demonstration of John Harries

Henry VI was arguably England's most incompetent king, although he was not alone in that category. He was born in 1421 and succeeded to the throne as an infant after his father's untimely death in 1422. During his minority the kingdom was competently governed by his uncle John, Duke of bedford and his great uncle Cardinal Henry Beaufort, bishop of Winchester. Once he attained his majority the government of the country began to slip away from the centre. Foreign policy was a disaster and the legacy of his father was entirely undone. At home, there were serious grumblings about the men around the king who were unfairly enriching themselves at the expense of others; in many instances the law was being subverted.

Henry seems to have been incapable of making consistent decisions and it later became apparent that he did not have the mental capacity to grapple with complex issues. Eventually his mind went altogether, but by the time people around him realised this the damage had been done and the country was in a state of civil war. 15th century men and women had difficulty in imagining that their king could be questioned, so even when he made decisions which were plainly barmy, the men around him, by and large, shrugged their shoulders and tried to make the best of it. Even after he had plainly lost his mind there were people who chose to believe that he had become a holy man. This was a myth that persisted until the 20th century.

By 1450 the people of England had become fed up. The French dominions had been lost, taxation was arbitrary, and the economy was in a poor state. Rebellion erupted in Kent and Essex in a mirror of the Peasants' revolt of 1381, except that these rebels were largely landowners and merchants. It was, in the end, the respectability of these rebels that made them desist from attacking the king and the rebellion was quieted with assurances that new advisors would be appointed to key posts in the king's household. Henry had failed to show much leadership during this revolt. While the rebellion was at its peak he scampered off to the safety of Kenilworth castle and left his lieutenants to handle the problem. When it appeared safe he returned to London on the 28th July. However, indications of further unrest prompted him to make his way north again in September. This brought him on the road through Stony Stratford and to the event I will describe, but first a brief word about Richard, Duke of York.

Richard of York could claim descent from Lionel Duke of Clarence, the older brother of John, Duke of Lancaster, whose eldest son Henry became Henry IV. It was this connection which gave rise to the later Yorkist claim that their line of descent held precedence. In 1450 this was not argued, but it was increasingly apparent to many that Richard, who had proved himself a competent general and leader, would make a better king than his cousin.

John Harries certainly believed this and while the king was processing down the street of Stony Stratford he jumped out in front of the king waving a flail and enacted a charade to show the king how Richard of York would get rid of all the evil counsellors surrounding the king. Harries was either out of his mind or so consumed with rage at the thought of the constant misgovernance of England that he could not control himself. Possibly a mixture of both. He was quickly arrested and hanged as a traitor.

Curiously, Harries is described as a sailor and it is somewhat odd to find him this far inland. With a name like Harries he could have been a Wolverton or Stony Stratford native, but also he could have come from anywhere.

The incident at Stony Stratford was a demonstration of the huge problems that Henry's government should have been facing up to. John Harries was a lonely demonstrator but he most likely expressed the rage and exasperation that many people felt. The aftermath was Civil War, known to history as The Wars of the Roses.

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