Born at Windsor Castle, Henry VI succeeded to the thrones of England and France before the age of one, when his father Henry V and his grandfather Charles VI of France died within months of one another. Henry was crowned King of England in 1429 and, in 1431, King of France.
His minority was dominated by his uncles Cardinal Beaufort and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester (who opposed one another). Another uncle, John, Duke of Bedford, was Regent of France; his death in 1435, combined with Burgundy breaking the alliance with England, led to the collapse of English rule in northern France.
The dual monarchy proved too difficult for the king and England to maintain; the successes of the Dauphin and Joan of Arc began to weaken England's grip on its French possessions and Normandy was lost in 1450.
Henry's cultural patronage and genuine interest in education (as shown by his foundation of Eton College and King's College, Cambridge) were outweighed by his patchy and partisan interest in administration. Failure in France and domestic unrest (for example, the Cade rebellion of 1450) encouraged factionalism.
In 1453 the King became ill. Richard, Duke of York, was made Protector in 1454. The King recovered in 1455, but civil war between the Yorkist and Lancastrian factions broke out, which was known as the Wars of the Roses. For the rest of his reign, Henry's queen, Margaret of Anjou, was determined to fight for the Lancastrian cause of her husband and son rather than negotiate a compromise.
Pitted against Henry was Richard, Duke of York, asserting his legitimate claim to the throne descended as he was, through his mother, from Edward III's second surviving son Lionel, Duke of Clarence (Henry VI was descended from Edward's third surviving son John, Duke of Lancaster). The Wars of the Roses were therefore a struggle to decide if the succession should keep to the male line or could pass through females. The Duke of York was killed at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460.
In 1461, his eldest survivng son, Edward, an able commander, defeated the Lancastrians at the Battle of Towton. Of the 120,000 men who fought, 28,000 died. London opened its gates to the Yorkist forces; Henry and his queen fled to Scotland. An unsuccessful military campaigner, Henry was captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1465, but was restored to the throne in 1470 by an alliance of the Earl of Warwick and Queen Margaret.
His brief period of freedom ended in the spring of 1471 when Edward IV returned from the Low Countries and defeated the Earl of Warwick at the Battle of Barnet. He then defeated the troops accompanying Queen Margaret and Edward, Prince of Wales, at the Battle of Tewkesbury, in which the Prince was killed. Soon after that battle, Henry was put to death in the Tower of London.