Captured at Clitheroe: The Wisdom of King Henry VI

Many of us know well the pretty road between Clitheroe and Waddington. Crossing the River Ribble by Brungerly Bridge, one stands at the scene of some adrenaline-fuelled excitment, played out 550 years ago. The Wars of the Roses were being fought, and Henry Plantagenet, Lancastrian King of England, had been defeated at the Battle of Hexham. Having fled the fighting, he sheltered with supporters at Bolton Hall in Bolton-by-Bowland, before moving on to Waddington Hall (above, 2019). The actual building, with some alteration, still stands. Opposite is the parish church of St Helen. This has been largely rebuilt and the oldest part, the tower, dates back to 1500. Henry was living at Waddington in July 1465, so he wouldn’t have known this building. As a deeply religious man, I dare say he’d have frequented its predecessor, disguised. 

St Helen’s Tower (2019)

On the night of the 13th July, The Talbot family of Bashall Eaves and Sir John Tempest burst in to Waddington’s ancient manor house to arrest him, being in the pay of York and having been tipped off by a ‘black monk of Addington’ of Henry’s whereabouts. Interrupted at his dinner with Dr Manning, the Dean of Windsor, the King escaped. Fleeing to nearby Clitheroe, he perhaps intended to seek refuge at Whalley Abbey. He crossed the river using the Hipping Stones- what we’d call stepping stones- close by the present Brungerly Bridge (below, 2019). They no longest exist, but the shortest crossing is just a few yards downstream.

Having crossed, he ascended the hill of what is now Clitheroe cemetery. It was then called Christian Pighill; the current Pig Hill Cottage partially retains this name, though it was then entirely wooded.

There, in Clitheroe Woods (above, 2019), the Talbot men caught up with the fugitive monarch. They probably held him overnight at Clitheroe Castle, before tying his feet to a horse’s stirrups and leading him prisoner to his capital. The Yorkist Edward IV reigned there and Henry was incarcerated in the Tower, having been paraded through London in a straw hat with the word ‘rebel’ attached.

The Tower (2018)

While imprisoned, historian Anthony Cheetham says he wrote the following poem, which I find rather moving: 

Kingdoms are but cares

State is devoid of stay,

Riches are ready snares,

And hasten to decay.

Pleasure is a privy prick

Which vice doth still provoke;

Pomps, imprompt; and fame, a flame;

Power, a smoldering smoke.

Who meanth to remove the rock

Owst of the slimy mud

Shall mire himself, and hardly scape

The swelling of the flood. 

Henry was not the best of kings. Even making allowance for his serious bouts of mental illness, he was never ruler material- one of the pitfalls of hereditary monarchy. Still, he’d have made a good bishop, if not a poet. I’m not sure whether his verse has been edited, but there’s something quite powerful about its meaning. He reflects upon the transient nature of power and the dangerous allurement of wealth and fame. And well he might: five years later he was back on the throne. And six months after that, he was once more deposed by Edward. When the latter arrived at the palace to unseat him a second time, the chronicler Warkworth reports Henry saying:

“My cousin of York, you are very welcome. I know that in your hands my life will not be in danger.”

Was this the naivety of a simpleton or an ironic observation of his pending doom? Shortly afterwards, he was almost certainly murdered in the Wakefield Tower in London. When his body was dug up centuries later from its resting place at St George’s, Windsor, dried blood was visible on the surviving light-coloured hair. 


St Thomas’ Chapel above (2018), where he was probably stabbed to death whilst praying. 

Though a poor king and mentally ill, I wonder if he understood far more about power than those who followed him. He is not without his admirers today- there’s a society dedicated to his memory: In an age of compulsory religious devotion and Papal darkness, it’s unclear where a sincerely pious man like Henry Plantagenet stood with regards to the gospel. Was he trusting in all those masses and works of charity to save his soul, or the finished work of Christ on the cross? Time will tell. But let him speak to you from the grave, either from his prison poem or the bard’s attribution to his captor, Lord Warwick:

“Why, what is pomp, rule, reign, but earth and dust?

And, live we how we can, yet die we must.” 

― William Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part 3

All our worldly success and reputations will one day wither and fade. Only that which we do for Christ will survive time’s passing and judgement’s fire.