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Did Henry VI have a sex coach in his marriage bed?

The Guardian logo The Guardian 17/02/2019 Dalya Alberge
Painting of King Henry VI of England (1422-1461) at Chichester Cathedral, England, 20th century. Henry VI was King of England (1422-1461) and again from (1470-1471). He inherited a long-running conflict in France, known as the Hundred Years War (1337-1453)  and was disputed King of France from 1422-1453. (Photo by CM Dixon/Heritage Images/Getty Images) © CM Dixon Painting of King Henry VI of England (1422-1461) at Chichester Cathedral, England, 20th century. Henry VI was King of England (1422-1461) and again from (1470-1471). He inherited a long-running conflict in France, known as the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) and was disputed King of France from 1422-1453. (Photo by CM Dixon/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

For more than eight years, Henry VI and his queen struggled to produce an heir. Now it has emerged that the couple were not alone in their endeavours in the royal bedchamber.

The historian Lauren Johnson has unearthed evidence showing that when Margaret of Anjou visited her husband’s bedroom for marital relations, they were sometimes joined by trusted courtiers.

Johnson told the Observer this was very unusual, adding: “Was it because the famously chaste Henry – who was a virgin until he married – didn’t know what he was doing? I think it’s entirely possible that it had reached a certain point where it perhaps became necessary to make clear to him what he should be doing.

“That couldn’t be done in a public way at all. The king’s chamber is the most private place [where] you could be having this conversation or, indeed, checking what was going on.”

Royal marriages were once consummated with “bedding ceremonies”, in which newlyweds were put into the marital bed by their guests on their marriage night. The earliest English record dates back to Henry V in the 1420s, when ceremonies involved “the wine cup and the blessing of the bed”. King Henry VI of England and his Queen Consort, Margaret of Anjou - Henri VI d'Angleterre (1421 - 1471) - Marguerite d'Anjou (1429 - 1482) - engraving from 'Usi e Costumi di Tutti i Popoli dell'Universo. Ovvero Storia del governo, delle leggi, della milizia, della religione di tutte le nazioni dai piu remoti tempi fino ai giorni nostri'. (Photo by Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images) King Henry VI of England and his Queen Consort, Margaret of Anjou - Henri VI d'Angleterre (1421 - 1471) - Marguerite d'Anjou (1429 - 1482) - engraving from 'Usi e Costumi di Tutti i Popoli dell'Universo. Ovvero Storia del governo, delle leggi, della milizia, della religione di tutte le nazioni dai piu remoti tempi fino ai giorni nostri'. (Photo by Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images)

Johnson said: “While royal ceremonies could involve public blessings and perhaps processions to the bedchamber on the wedding night, after that point no one was in the royal bedchamber when the king and queen were having their marital relations.” She added that what Henry VI and Margaret experienced was different: “This was not just their wedding night. It’s an ongoing thing.”

Johnson found documentary evidence in the National Archives and royal household accounts, among other sources. The Ryalle Boke of court protocol, for example, records that once the king was in bed, “the king’s chamberlain or a squire for the body [should] come for the queen, and with her two gentlewomen and an usher”. Another witness, describing when “the Kinge and the Quene lie together”, noted his chamberlain lay “in the same chamber”. Johnson suggests that it may have been the Duke of Suffolk, chamberlain of England, or Ralph Botiller, chamberlain of the household.

Marriage of French king Henry VI to Margaret of Anjou.  (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images) © Time Life Pictures Marriage of French king Henry VI to Margaret of Anjou. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Johnson observes: “The Ryalle Boke does not make it clear at what point they left, leaving open the intriguing suggestion that they remained to make sure the marriage bed was being properly used.”

She recalled that, in reading the documentary evidence, her “eyes and ears pricked up”: “The evidence that there are people staying in the king’s bedroom potentially some years after he is married… is very odd.”

'Henry VI', 1935. Henry (1421-1471) was King of England from 1422 to 1461 (though with a Regent until 1437) and then from 1470 to 1471. Henry was the only child of King Henry V of England and was his heir, and therefore great things were expected of him. From Kings & Queens of England - A Series of 50. [John Player & Sons, London, 1935] Artist Unknown. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images) © The Print Collector 'Henry VI', 1935. Henry (1421-1471) was King of England from 1422 to 1461 (though with a Regent until 1437) and then from 1470 to 1471. Henry was the only child of King Henry V of England and was his heir, and therefore great things were expected of him. From Kings & Queens of England - A Series of 50. [John Player & Sons, London, 1935] Artist Unknown. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

Complaints about royal sterility undermined Henry’s masculinity and even his authority.

Lauren Johnson

This is among discoveries that will feature in her book, Shadow King: The Life and Death of Henry VI, to be published by Head of Zeus next month. Johnson writes: “The reign of Henry VI is rightly remembered as a nadir in national history – and the king’s shadow fell across his realms for years after he was deposed. This was the age of England’s defeat in the hundred years war and the Wars of the Roses. Conflict was to be Henry’s principal legacy. Yet Henry himself, the child king who became a martyred holy man, was no tyrant. He loved peace before war. He treated his wife and child with affectionate respect.”

Henry VI’s enemies smeared him as weak for taking so long to produce an heir, and spread rumours that the couple’s eventual only child, Edward, was a changeling or bastard. Johnson’s research has also led her to believe that, part of the reason Margaret and Henry took so long to conceive was that the queen had an eating disorder.

She points to a 1467 document that records Margaret “fasting four or five times a week” during her marriage and enduring weak health – “ironically, probably to fulfil religious vows in the hope of getting pregnant,” Johnson suggests.

She writes that lack of an heir led to concern over the succession: “As the first duty of a queen was to bear children, this had a serious impact on her popularity. Infertility was usually blamed on women, but complaints about royal sterility undermined Henry’s masculinity and his authority.”

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