What changed the course of history?

If assassination really never has changed the history of the world, as Disraeli claimed, it’s not for want of trying. And with World War I much on my mind as I finish up a book on it, I’m thinking the assassination of Franz Ferdinand certainly triggered events that even if they were more or less waiting to happen do seem to have been unleashed by his assassination even though he wasn’t likely to do anything worthwhile had he lived. But I also think it’s something of a historical finger in the eye of various assassins to reflect on the ways in which disease has done what they could not.

Take Henry V. Please. I mean, he is dead. Take him and bury him. He died on August 31, 1422 while campaigning in France, of… dysentery. And really, why not? Lots of people did. Kings don’t have some special dispensation to die only of elevated-sounding or elegant maladies. So yes, the hero of Shakespeare’s play (or plays if you count the two where he’s a wild child as well as the one where he grows up) with that Agincourt speech ended up not victorious and reigning happily ever after nor even dying heroically in battle but instead… how shall I put this tactfully?... kind of pooped his guts out.

Ugh. But that’s more or less what it amounts to.

OK. So he’s dead. And dead young, just 36, after just 9 years on the throne, before he could fulfil his promise as a king if any.

Much as I love Shakespeare, his judgement in such matters or at least his publications are not to be relied on. He was a propagandist for the Tudors who had taken the throne by killing off the last reigning Yorkist king Richard III and helping dispose of any other potential claimants not wiped out in the Wars of the Roses between Yorks and Lancasters. And thus he, or his patrons who might have caused him to perish if he’d gotten out of line, had a vested interest in making the Lancasters look good to make the Yorks look bad. (His negative portrayal of Richard II, predecessor to the Lancasters, is by contrast entirely justified, even insufficiently harsh.) But were they?

I don’t mean were the Yorks bad. I’ve addressed that elsewhere and the answer seems pretty clearly to be no, not even Richard III whose reputation was blackened by Shakespeare on his way to the parking lot under which he was recently found buried. I mean were the Lancasters good?

There were only three of them so it should be easy to answer. And crucially, Henry VI was not. I’ve heard his character praised. But he was a weak king and mentally unstable and his inability to rule contributed to the Yorkist rise to power, or lunge for it by some accounts. And he was also handicapped by coming to the throne very young because his father died early. That being, of course, Henry V. All the Lancasters were Henrys.

I can’t really tell if Henry IV was a good king. Shakespeare portrays him as such, with Henry V growing into a worthy heir throughout the cycle of plays. But his reign was marked by endless troubles, revolts and plots. And if he showed skill and even judgement in surviving them, he didn’t have much chance to establish a domestic record before dying of some unidentified disease or diseases that caused disfigurement, seizures and his early demise at age 45 after just 13 years on the throne.

As I’ve said before, if he’d just admitted he wasn’t king of France and gone home, he would have done his kingdom considerable good. And himself, as it turns out, because war is always a risky business and poor sanitation in those days sure didn’t make it safer.

Thus Henry VI took over, in name at least, at age nine. Months not years. So he was a pawn, puppet and object of a tug of war for the first 15 years of his reign, and never developed a strong character.

Had his own father lived even to the same age that his father had, Henry VI would at least have been nine years old when he took over, and presumably had a more stable childhood with at least some guidance and certainty from his father. Had Henry V lived to be, say, 60, then Henry VI would have come to the throne in 1446 in his mid-30s.

Of course he might still have been an awful king, harsh and greedy, weak and treacherous or just lazy. He might have been an OK king. He might even have been a good one. And if he had been good, or really bad, the Wars of the Roses would probably have been avoided altogether or, alternatively, been less destructive because the Yorkist cause would have been more obviously just and commanded greater support.

Either way, the end result, with the Tudor usurpation and subsequent brutally cynical break with Rome, would have been highly unlikely. We cannot know what would have happened, naturally. Possibly something even weirder or more outrageous. Maybe something worse for the future rise of England and the Anglosphere with its unique liberty under law.

My crystal ball tends to cloud over in such cases. But before doing so, it says to me that Henry V’s ignominious death did help destabilize England with far-reaching consequences in ways that your average assassin can only envy. And envying a bacterium, virus, worm or amoeba (dysentery is a syndrome not a disease and can have various causes) is exceptionally ignominious too.