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Reign of Henry IV page 11

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This was the last great operation of the reign of Henry IV. By a singular combination of tact, cool calculation, vigilant watchings of every movement around him, and a purpose which was delayed through no conscientious scruples, nor weakened by a single tender feeling, he had put down all his foes. He was at peace at home and abroad. Not a man was left alive who dared to tell him that he was a usurper, except the undaunted Glendower, who was too far off amid his mountains to be heard. He was the most sagacious and successful monarch in Europe, and perhaps its most miserable man.

Though by nature not peculiarly sanguinary or ferocious, the ambition of mounting a throne had led him into the deepest crimes and through torrents of blood. Had his title been good and his throne unassailed, he might have won the character of a mild and even excellent monarch, though it is not probable that he could under any circumstances have won the character of a generous or magnanimous one. But stung by the taunts and nerved by the determined hostility of his enemies, he defended himself with the vigour of a giant, and punished his fallen opponents with the deadly cruelty of the tiger. In the ardour of his active strife, called now here, now there, to encounter foes continually springing like the teeth of Cadmus from the earth, he seemed insensible to the feeling that his crown was a theft, and his throne was the tomb of his murdered sovereign and near kinsman. He received with a face smooth as the visage of a statue, unimpressed by a feeling, unclouded by a frown, the sharpest words of his many enemies, crowned and uncrowned, hissing murder at him between their teeth; yet all the while his very soul winced and withered within him, and the deadly hand of remorse pulled at his heart-strings. While youth remained, and rapid and incessant action engrossed him, he seemed to soar above all the feelings and fears of an ordinary man. He boldly replied to those who upbraided him with his criminal seizure of his cousin's crown and realm, that the successful issue announced the approbation of the Almighty. But his health decayed prematurely. His body had been overworked, his mind had been overtasked, his conscience had been overburdened. As his strength gave way, his stoicism gave way with it. In his youth he has been described as gay and agreeable, and in his most active years, even when overwhelmed with business and menaced by the greatest dangers, he was cheerful, affable, ready to converse with the people that he came amongst. As disease and debility announced a not distant end, he grew gloomy, retiring, ascetic in his devotions, and suspicious even of his own son.

His false position had forced on him every species of false conduct, and deeds which brought their certain punishment. There is every reason to believe that he sacrificed his sincere conviction of the truth of the Protestant doctrines, in order to purchase the powerful sanction of the Church for his unrighteous title; for before his usurpation he went along with his father in the protection of Wycliffe and the Lollards. To please the hierarchy he persecuted the Lollards, and was the first to give his sanction to the death of religious dissentients by the terrible means of fire. Yet, as if Providence would punish his apostacy by a striking antithesis, he was compelled, by the rebellion of an archbishop, to be the first in England to visit with capital punishment a prelate of the Established Church.

It is curious that soon after his execution of the Archbishop of York he was attacked by the most loathsome eruptions on the face, or, as it appears to have been, an inveterate leprosy. This the people naturally believed to be a judgment from Heaven upon him for that sacrilegious act, and probably some such conviction might haunt his own mind. Though in stature somewhat below the middle size, he was vigorously and finely formed. His features were regularly beautiful in his youth, and in some of his penitential communications he confessed to having been greatly proud of them. But, by the ravages of this repulsive complaint, they became so hideous that he was compelled at length to avoid appearing in public. To this were added attacks of epilepsy, which became more and more violent, so that he would lie in death-like trances for hours.

As Henry declined in health, he seems to have grown increasingly jealous of the popularity of his son, the Prince of Wales. The young prince had acquired great glory by his conduct at the battle of Shrewsbury, and in his warfare against Owen Glendower. He was free, jocund, fond of pleasure, and of mixing with all classes of the people. Shakespeare has made his life and character the most living and familiar of things. He has surrounded him by a set of jolly companions, the fat and witty Sir John Falstaff, Bardolph, "mine ancient Pistol," and the whole band of roysterers who haunted the Boar's Head, Eastcheap. He has drawn his inimitable portraiture of the merry Prince Hal from the chroniclers of the time, who describe him as the idol of the people. He was as dissipated as an heir-apparent generally is, but with his follies he displayed what his father never possessed - a generous temperament. No sooner was he on the throne than he offered terms of pacification to his most persevering enemy, Owen Glendower. The anecdote of his conduct before Judge Gascoigne has been represented as doubtful by some of our modern historians, but it is gravely related by Hardyng and Elm-ham, his contemporaries, and there is, therefore, no just right to question it.

One of the prince's associates had been arraigned for felony before Chief-Justice Gascoigne, the upright magistrate whom we have seen refusing to execute his father's illegal acts at York. The prince appeared before the magistrate, and peremptorily demanded the release of his boon companion. The chief-justice refused, when Henry drew his sword upon him, and swore that he would have the man liberated. The judge coolly ordered the prince to be committed to prison himself as a greater offender, since he was, by his position, bound expressly to be a maintainer of the laws. Henry at once, in the innate nobility of his own nature, felt and admired the lofty virtue of the magistrate. He submitted quietly to his order, and it is related that when the fact was mentioned to his father, he said, "Happy is the monarch who possesses a judge so resolute in the discharge of his duty, and a son so willing to yield to the authority of the law."

But, however happy Henry might express himself in such a son, it seems clear from cotemporary writers that he kept him as much as possible from any participation in the affairs of state, and it is probable that this want of fitting employment threw him amongst his dissolute associates in order to pass his time. In the excited and unguarded hours of wild merriment, there were not wanting those who gathered up his thoughtless expressions against the conduct of his father, and bore them to the royal ear, coloured as malice or sycophancy dictated. It is certain that Henry entertained grave suspicions of his son. Knowing how he had offended in respect to the crown himself, he was more ready to believe it possible that his son might tread in his steps. The prince made repeated endeavours to disabuse his father's mind of these unworthy ideas, but in vain. According to Otterburn, he wrote to many of the lords letters justifying his allegiance to his father, and even went with a numerous train to demand an explanatory interview with him. Yet the Earl of Ormond, an eye-witness, says that even on this occasion the prince could not lay aside his eccentricities. That "he disguised himself in a gown of blue satin or damask, wrought full of oylet-holes, and at every oylet the needle wherewith it was made, hanging still by the silk; and. about his arm he wore a dog's collar, set full of SS. of gold, and the tirets of the same of fine gold."

He was received by the king in his closet, attended by four friends, and the prince, throwing himself on his knees before him, begged that he would take his life, seeing that he had withdrawn from him the royal favour. Henry passed the last Christmas of his life at his favourite palace of Eltham. So complete was his seclusion, owing both to his illness and the awful disfigurement of his person, that he scarcely saw any one but the queen; lying frequently for hours without any sign of life. After Candlemas, he was so much better as to be able to keep his birthday, and he then returned to his palace at Westminster. He was at his devotions in the abbey, at the shrine of St. Edward, when his last fatal fit seized him. He was removed into the apartments of the abbot, and laid in the celebrated Jerusalem Chamber. The fit lasted so long that Prince Henry, who was present, knowing the plunder which often takes place at the deathbeds of kings, and which was remarkably the case at that of Edward III., ordered the crown to be removed to another and securer apartment.

On coming to himself Henry asked where he was, and being told in the Jerusalem Chamber, he regarded his last hour as come, for it had been predicted to him that he should finish his days in Jerusalem; and he had vowed, in expiation of his crimes, to make a pilgrimage thither. The days of the crusades were over, but a remarkable visit made to him soon after he ascended the throne, by Manuel Palaeologus, the Emperor of Constantinople, when seeking aid against the Saracens, probably impressed his mind with this idea. He then requested that the Miserere should be read to him, which contains an especial prayer for forgiveness of "blood-guiltiness." Then looking round he missed the crown from its place, and demanded to know where it was. The scenes which followed have been faithfully and beautifully copied by Shakespeare.

"Ah! fair son," said the dying king; "what right have you to the crown, when you know that your father had none?"

"My liege," answered young Henry; "with the sword you won it, and with the sword I will keep it."

""Well," replied the king, faintly, "do as you think best. I leave the issue to God, and may He have mercy on my soul." And then followed that beautiful address so finely rendered in Shakespeare -

"Come hither, Henry; sit thou on my bed," &c.

Henry IV. was in the forty-seventh year of his age, and the fourteenth year of his reign, when he died. Perhaps no king by the troubles of his reign, the corroding remorse of his soul, and wretchedness of his last days, ever presented a more striking warning from Providence against guilty ambition. Had he resolved, in the days of his cousin Richard's misgovernment, to exert the influence which his eminent position - foremost in the realm, next to the throne - and his distinguished talents gave him, to check that monarch's arbitrary extravagances, and support him in the right, he might have won one of the most honoured names in history - the patriot of the age, and the father of his country. He yielded to a meaner ambition - that of wearing a pilfered crown; and the consequences were fatal to him, fatal to his family, and fatal to his nation. "We shall yet have to wade far through the blood he caused to flow, and in another generation see his line driven from the throne he so unwisely usurped.

It is carious that as Henry usurped the throne of Richard II., he also usurped, as far as in him lay, his tomb. The body of Richard he sent to be buried at Langley, instead of permitting it to rest with the ashes of his father, the Black Prince; but there his own body was ordered to be conveyed, for he had expressed a superstitious desire that he should lie near the shrine of Thomas a Becket. Yet the fact that he really does lie there has been called in question by a very extraordinary relation by a contemporary. It is given in the following "Testimony of Clement Maydestone," translated from a Latin manuscript in the library of Bennet College, Cambridge, 1440: -

"Thirty days after the death of Henry IV., Sept. 14th, 1412" (this should be March 20th, 1413), "one of his domestics came to the House of the Holy Trinity, at Hounslow, and dined there. And as the bystanders were talking at dinner - time of the king's irreproachable morals, this man said to a certain esquire named Thomas Maydestone, then sitting at table, ' Whether he was a good man or not, God knows: but of this I am certain, that when his corpse was carried from Westminster towards Canterbury by water, in a small vessel, in order to be buried there, I and two more threw his corpse into the sea between Berkenham and Gravesend; for,' he added with an oath, 'we were overtaken by such a storm of winds and waves that many of the nobility who followed in eight ships were dispersed so as with difficulty to escape being lost. But we, who were with the body, despairing of our lives, with one consent threw it into the sea, and a great calm ensued. The coffin in which it lay, covered with a cloth of gold, we carried with great solemnity to Canterbury, and buried it. The monks of Canterbury, therefore, say that the tomb, not the body, of Henry IV. is with us, as Peter said of holy David.' As God Almighty is my witness and judge, I saw this man, and heard him speak to my father, T. Maydestone, that all the above was true.

"clement maydestone."

This singular account being published by Peck, it was thought desirable to ascertain the truth of it by opening the coffin of Henry, which was done on the 21st of August, 1832, in the presence of the Bishop of Oxford, Lady Harriet and Sir Charles Bagot, and others. It was found in sawing away part of the lid of the wooden coffin that there was also a leaden coffin within it, but so small that the outer coffin had been filled up with haybands, which were very sound and perfect. The leaden coffin appeared moulded to the body within it, and on cutting that open the face of the corpse was discovered in perfect preservation; the nose elevated, the cartilage even remaining, though, on the admission of the air, it rapidly sank away. The skin of the chin entire, of the consistence, thickness, and colour of the upper leather of a shoe; the beard thick and matted, of a deep russet colour; the jaws perfect, and all the teeth in them, excepting one fore-tooth.

Though there was a body, the question still remains, was it the body of Henry IV.? Was it likely that an outer coffin would be made so large as to require packing? and if so, would that packing for a royal corpse be of haybands? There was a very small cross found lying on the haybands, not such, surely, as would be laid on the breast of a sovereign, for it was formed merely of two twigs tied together. Is it not the probable explanation of the affair that the attendants robbed the corpse of the cloth of gold in which it was wrapped, and then threw it into the river, replacing it by another corpse in lead procured for the occasion? It has been well observed that the perfect state of the skin of the supposed Henry's face does not accord with the fearful leprosy with which Henry was afflicted.

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