No Kissing, Please! Henry VI Lived Through a Lip-Lock Lockdown
In a bizarre turn of events, the English Parliament supposedly asked for permission to abstain from kissing the less-than-beloved King Henry VI of England in the late 1430s. The intriguing question arises: what prompted this unusual request?
Henry VI's time as king is remembered as one of the worst in British history. Having inherited the throne from his celebrated father King Henry V, who passed away when Henry VI was an infant, the young monarch never achieved his father’s popularity. In fact, his reign was plagued by civil wars and marked by the loss of England's territories in France.
As a result, Henry VI is primarily remembered for the territorial setbacks that occurred during his rule. Despite being a quiet, devout and peace-seeking king, his sensitivity and subsequent mental breakdown were not well received by his subjects. However, it is important to note that Parliament's peculiar plea had no direct connection to these events.
The Black Death, also known as the bubonic plague, of the mid-14th century is well known for the suffering it caused in its wake. A lesser-known fact is that isolated surges continued over the following centuries and, even today, there are still outbreaks, although modern medicine has made it easily treatable with antibiotics.
According to The History of Parliament, a new outbreak of the bubonic plague in England between 1438 and 1439 was particularly serious. By this point, while some people still believed that the Black Death was a form of divine punishment sent by God, a growing portion of society had made the connection between the spread of the disease and interpersonal contact.
King Henry VI on his throne in medieval miniature from the Shrewsbury Book. (Public domain)
Nevertheless, there were pressing issues concerning England’s war with France. After a lengthy absence, Parliament convened at Westminster in 1439. In spite of being crowned king in 1429—at just seven years of age—Henry only assumed the reins of government in 1437. The 1439 session marked the first chance for MP’s to perform the ceremonial kiss of homage to the now-adult King.
The "kiss of homage" is a traditional way of demonstrating respect and loyalty to the king or queen. It's somewhat akin to a special handshake, except that subjects have the opportunity to plant a kiss on the monarch's hand or cheek, often accompanied by a spoken oath or pledge of loyalty. However, engaging in ceremonial kissing during a pandemic was probably not the best idea!
Worried about the repercussions of such an event, members of Parliament drafted a rather long-winded letter to the king asking they be able to avoid risking his life through kissing. In a precursor to modern ideas of social distancing, they suggested they show their respect in writing instead.
Top image: Representational image of Henry VI. Ahead of the 1439 session, members of Parliament requested that the ceremonial kiss of homage be avoided due to an outbreak of the bubonic plague. Source: Public domain