March 20th 2013 is the 600th anniversary of King Henry IV’s death. Originally named Henry Bolingbroke, he became king after usurping Richard II, as famously depicted in Shakespeare’s play. His reign, however, was marred by rebellion and disappointment and seems somehow epitomised in the melancholy nature of his death.

In Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Cardinal Wolsey, echoing the language of Richard II, speaks of  ‘the deaths of kings’, and ‘how the fourth Henry, the usurper, died of a leprosy which so scarred and contracted his body that it was the size of a mannequin or child’.[i]

Mantel deftly condenses Tudor images of Henry’s reign into a brief, unsettling vision. The truth of his illness and death, of course, is harder to come by:

… what little evidence we have points to some form of heart disease, accompanied by a horrible skin complaint … his intimates could hardly bear to look at him.[ii]

The chronicler Raphael Holinshed, from whom Shakespeare drew for Henry IV Part Two, records that Henry suffered recurring sickness and ruled ‘in great perplexitie and little pleasure.’[iii]

The play is saturated with the language of disease and decay, as if Henry’s illness has infected the kingdom. Prince Hal, so dynamic in Part One, complains upon his first entrance that ‘before God, I am exceeding weary,’ (II.ii.1). And Falstaff is so riddled with diseases that he can’t distinguish between them: ‘A pox of this gout! Or a gout of this pox! For the one or the other plays the rogue with my great toe’ (I.iii.244-6).

For many Elizabethans, King Henry’s bad health and the ‘little pleasure’ of his reign had genuinely infected the kingdom. They were symptoms of a curse that his usurpation of Richard II had brought upon himself and England, a curse that would lead to the Wars of the Roses and, ultimately, the demonic rule of Richard III. Even Henry, on his deathbed, hints at his own guilt:

God knows, my son,

By what paths and indirect crook’d ways

I met this crown, and I myself know well

How troublesome it sat upon my head. (IV.v.183-6)

Anyone watching Henry IV Part Two in its original performance around 1597[iv] would likely have been aware of the dark irony lurking beneath the apparently happy resolutions of the king’s deathbed reconciliation with his heir. Whilst Hal claims that ‘plain and right must my possession be’ (IV.v.221), we know that his reign as Henry V, crowned by his victory at Agincourt, will be a brief glory. Dead at 34,[v] his conquered territories would be lost within a generation, returning England to a cycle of usurpation and civil violence triggered, in many ways, by Henry IV.

Henry died in Westminster Abbey’s Jerusalem chamber; a deflating, ironic fulfilment of the prophecy that he would die in Jerusalem ‘which vainly [he] suppos’d the Holy Land’ (IV.v.239).

In 1832, Henry’s grave was opened, revealing a red-bearded face. But upon exposure to the air the flesh ‘fell away to dust’;[vi] a detail, whether true or not, that powerfully conjures the sense of disintegration that both Holinshed and Shakespeare associate with Henry’s reign and death.

By Kim Gilchrist  

[i] Mantel, Hilary, Wolf Hall, (Fourth Estate, 2009), p.94

Shakespeare, William, King Henry IV Part Two, A.R. Humphreys (ed.), (Cengage learning, 1981)

[ii] Norwich, John Julius, Shakespeare’s Kings, (Touchstone, 2001), p.155

[iii] Boswell-Stone, W.G., Shakespeare’s Holinshed, (Lawrence and Bullen, 1894), p.159

[iv] Gurr, Andrew, The Shakespeare Company, 1594-1642, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 139

[v] Norwich, John Julius, Shakespeare’s Kings, (Touchstone, 2001), p.201

[vi] Norwich, John Julius, Shakespeare’s Kings, (Touchstone, 2001), p.162