Johnson traces Henry’s life story in vivid detail so that we see Henry’s character and kingship unfolding and then disintegrating. This allows her to show, for example, that, had it not been for Henry’s catastrophic breakdown in 1453, his reign and subsequent reputation could have taken a different direction. For immediately before this event there is evidence that Henry was finally “growing into” kingship. The threat of his cousin, Richard, Duke of York had been neutralized the year before and Henry had expressed his determination to lead an army at last in the defence of Calais, to which parliament responded enthusiastically, granting significant financial support. And early in 1453, after eight years of marriage, Henry’s Queen, Margaret of Anjou was finally pregnant. In this light, Henry’s illness becomes a turning point, rather than essentially enhancing his existing traits.
Henry’s place of death in the Tower of London remains unknown, though tradition situates it in the Wakefield Tower, where on 21 May every year lilies and roses are placed in memory of him by representatives of two of his foundations, King’s College, Cambridge, and Eton College. In an appendix, one of the most interesting parts of the book, Johnson argues that it most certainly was not the Wakefield Tower where he died. Henry remains a shadow king, but Lauren Johnson has done her best to provide the first popular account of his reign, even if it is overpowering in length.
In her new life of Henry VI, the pious and luckless last Lancastrian king of England, the historian Lauren Johnson aims to capture him as “an evolving individual struggling in an extraordinary situation”. If, despite her efforts, Henry VI remains the “shadow king” of her title, this has not stopped Johnson from producing an involving account of a still undersung saga... Where Johnson excels, perhaps as a result of her employment with Historic Royal Palaces, is in her sense of place. Her more venturesome readers will yearn to seek out Beaumaris Castle in North Wales or Sandal Castle in West Yorkshire, while even City wage-slaves will be given good reason to reconsider the ghosts and shadows of Barnet, Islington and the Tower itself
In her excellent biography of the luckless king, Lauren Johnson is cautious about any glib modern diagnosis of Henry’s malady. [...] Johnson has written a long, scrupulously researched book, but an eminently readable one. Even her imaginative purple passages read convincingly, and whether she is describing battles, diplomatic wrangling or medieval courtship she makes us see familiar facts in a new light. Honourable mention should also be made of her publishers, who have produced a richly illustrated book. Together, they have rescued Henry from the shadows.
Henry VI has remained in the shadows ever since, with biographers choosing bigger and bloodier characters in Henry’s Yorkist rivals and Tudor heirs. Johnson is to be commended for doing something different, putting him back where he belongs. It is Henry’s character, scrupulously and sensitively drawn by Johnson, that did most to shape the extraordinary and dramatic events of his reign.