Henry VI Part 1 simplified


Henry V, the play, ended with a touching scene.  Henry V had proposed to Katherine, the daughter of the French king, there in France, when the two of them could hardly communicate, her English no better than his French.  She had accepted his offer, conditioned on her father’s support, her father quickly agreeing to the union. The war with France was over. The French princess was beautiful.  Henry V was a hero.  Life was good.  But the next thing we know, we’re back in London, just as this play begins, and we learn that the king has died.  We don’t know how he died.  We had no reason to think he was ill.  We do know when the play begins that he and Katherine had had a son, named Henry, eight months old at the time of his father’s death.  The eight month old baby boy was the heir to the English throne. 

This play opens in August 1422 with the body of the late Henry V lying in state in Westminster Abbey. What we soon learn is that by naming the late king’s eight-month old son king (and king of France, as far as the English are concerned) England has created for itself a political vacuum, his being so young.  The king in fifteenth century England was considered an instrument of God, with all that associated power.  With the king being who he was, each noble in the king’s court began going his own way, seeking for the most part his own self-interest, leaving no central authority.  The Epilogue from Henry V in part read “Small time, but in that small most greatly lived this star of England.  Fortune made his sword, by which the world’s best garden he achieved and of it left his son imperial lord.  Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crowned King of France and England, did this king succeed, whose state so many had the managing that they lost France and made his England bleed.” 

Many of the nobles in this play are descendants of John of Gaunt; John of Gaunt, as we’ve said before, being the fourth son of Edward III, the patriarch of this fifteen century extended family of kings.  The three king Henrys in this series are descendents of John of Gaunt and Blanche of Castile, considered the Legitimate line.  As you will see, many of the others in this play are descendents of John of Gaunt and his second wife, Catherine Swynford. They are considered the Beaufort line.  A challenge for readers of Henry VI, Part 1 might be that it is hard to keep track of all the people in the play.

England lost the leadership of a commanding and heroic monarch with the death of Henry V.  The death of Henry IV’s second son, the Duke of Clarence in 1421 didn’t help matters, Clarence being Thomas.  Back in 1413, Henry IV had counseled Thomas to “prove a hoop of gold to bind thy brothers that the united vessel of their blood shall never leak.”

A messenger enters and reports to the English nobles in London that John Talbot, their principal military leader in France, has been captured by the French during England’s loss of Orleans, leaving them alarmed.  But the English forces in France soon retake Orleans.  Talbot escapes his captors.  The French are shaken by their re-loss of Orleans.  Charles, the Dauphin in Henry V, now King Charles VII (as far as the French are concerned) says “Who ever saw the like?  What men have I! Dogs! Cowards! Dastards.” He had been crowned king of France in Reims, but the English don’t recognize him as such. 

The Bastard of Orleans then enters, saying to Charles “A holy maid hither with me I bring.”  Charles says, “Go, call her in.”  The Bastard of Orleans then introduces Joan la Pucelle (Joan of Arc) to Charles, Reignier and Alencon. Pucelle says to Charles “God’s mother did come to me, calling me to leave my base vocation, to free my country from dire calamity, promising me her aid and assuring success.”  Charles challenges her to a duel.  She embarrasses him.  Charles appoints her as one to lead the French against the English.

Reignier, a close aide to Charles VII, cries out to Pucelle “Woman, do what thou canst to save our honors: drive them from Orleans and be immortalized.”  She takes charge.  The English forces are driven from Orleans, Talbot saying “A woman clad in armor chaseth them.” She leads the French forces and they temporarily retake Orleans. The earl of Salisbury, Westmorland’s only son and a key associate of Talbot, is fatally shot by cannon fire. But led by Talbot, the English then retake Orleans, once again claiming it as theirs.  Talbot receives very able assistance from John, Duke of Lancaster, the young Henry VI’s uncle, and from the Duke of Burgundy, the Frenchman who had married into English royalty, marrying a Neville, now fighting on behalf of the English.  Burgundy is the French noble who had represented the French at the peace conference with Henry V following the French defeat at Agincourt. 

Meanwhile back in London, Humphrey, the youngest brother of the late Henry V, and the Bishop of Winchester, the second son of John of Gaunt and Catherine Swynford, have a heated exchange over control of the weapons and armor stored in London’s Tower.  Both men are close to the Henry VI, challenging the young king to take sides.  Shakespeare adds this as a clear illustration of the internal conflicts among the members of the king’s entourage.  Henry VI can’t control events as his father, Henry V, certainly would have. But to be fair, he’s just a boy. 

In a historically significant moment, Richard Plantagenet, the grandson of the original Duke of York, and the First Duke of Somerset (a strong-willed grandson of the original Duke of Lancaster in the Beaufort line) have a serious verbal spat in a secluded garden in London.  Plantagenet picks a white rose from a nearby bush and encourages those who support him to do likewise.  Warwick and Vernon do.  Somerset picks a red rose, as does Suffolk.  The fifteenth century’s long War of the Roses has begun. 

Richard Plantagenet then visits the long-imprisoned Edmund Mortimer, the very ill great-grandson of Lionel, Edward III’s third son. Mortimer and Plantagenet have a beautiful conversation, Mortimer giving us a valuable history lesson.  Mortimer soon dies. Humphrey and the Bishop of Winchester have another intense argument; out in the street, the supporters of each man fighting among themselves.  The young king, being a mild, modest and religious man, having no ambition to be a king, is seriously dismayed, seeking not much more than peace among his family and aides.  The king names Richard Plantagenet the Duke of York, hoping that that title, a title that belongs in his family, will bring some peace among these feuding factions of the Plantagenets. But Exeter, John of Gaunt’s and Catherine Swynford’s third son, the uncle who was very close to Henry V, lets us know that he believes the appearance of family harmony is superficial. 

At Rouen, French troops, led by Pucelle, sneak into the city and confront the English, but the French are quickly frightened and scatter.  It is here where Henry V’s brother John dies.  John was a hero in the second history and a valuable ally to his brother in the third.  With control of Rouen, the English forces leave for Paris.  But the ever resourceful and determined Joan of Arc ably defends herself over the loss of Rouen and for the glory of France persuades Burgundy to end his support for Talbot and the English forces.

John Talbot is honored in Paris by Henry VI.  Winchester and Humphrey place the French crown on Henry VI’s head.  The nobles learn to their dismay that Burgundy has left them and joined the French forces. The Duke of York (Richard Plantagenet---with a white rose) and the First Duke of Somerset (with a red rose) continue their spat. The king remains unnerved, now appointing Richard Plantagenet the Regent of France, to replace his recently deceased uncle John.

Later at Bordeaux, Talbot and his troops are at the city’s walls, but soon find themselves surrounded by French forces. Separately, York and Somerset pout and blame each other, each having been instructed to supply and support Talbot.  Through their inactions, they fail the English cause, the War of the Roses continuing.  Talbot knows he’s in trouble and says to his son “O young John Talbot!  Come, dally not, be gone.”  The son responds “Is my name Talbot?  And am I your son?”  Here Shakespeare offers perhaps his most inspiring conversation between a father and a son. Both Talbot and his son die at Bordeaux. 

The known leaders of the world are encouraging Henry VI to come to peace with the French.  On balance, the French are on the losing end of most of these battles.  The king’s uncle Humphrey lets the young English king know that “The Earl of Armagnac, near knit to Charles, proffers his only daughter to your Grace in marriage, with a large and sumptuous dowry.”  France’s Reignier, a key aide to the French king, lets us know he has plans to offer his daughter, Margaret, as a prospective wife to the young Henry VI.  At this point, William de la Pole, the Earl of Suffolk, known as Suffolk, enters the story in an active way. Suffolk, having captured Reignier’s daughter Margaret, says “Be what thou wilt, thou art my prisoner.” Suffolk instantly falls for her, saying “O fairest beauty, I will touch thee but with reverent hands,” charming the young princess.  The dashing Suffolk figures that if he can convince the young king to marry her, he can through her influence both the king and England’s public policy. He has it figured out pretty well.

In Angiers, York captures Joan of Arc; the other French soldiers escaping.  He takes her to Anjou where they meet her father, where she disavows him, claiming she is of royal blood.  She’s taken away.  Soon the Dauphin Charles, Alencon and Reignier enter.  Charles accepts the peace terms offered by the English, believing he can later easily break the contract’s terms.  Suffolk presses Henry VI to commit to marry Margaret.  But Humphrey, the king’s remaining uncle from the Legitimate line, reminds the king that he had earlier agreed to marry the daughter of the Earl of Armagnac.  Suffolk is the more convincing.   Henry VI marries Margaret.

Principal Characters

Burgundy.  Burgundy is Charles, duke of Burgundy, a French nobleman who marries Margaret, the younger daughter of Richard Plantagenet and Cicely Neville.  Burgundy supports Talbot and the English when fighting the French; that is until Joan of Arc calls him to task, when he shifts his allegiance to the French. 

Dauphin.  Early in the play, the Dauphin Charles, the heir to the French crown, the young man who played such a visible role in Henry V, is named by the French as Charles VII.  However, the English never recognize him as France’s king.  In this play, he is called Dauphin Charles or Charles VII.  His sister Katherine had married Henry V.  The Dauphin’s father, the King of France in Henry V, does not have a role in this play.  He may be deceased. 

Duke of Lancaster.  The duke of Lancaster is John of Lancaster, also known here as the duke of Bedford or Bedford, and is a grandson of John of Gaunt, the original duke of Lancaster.  He served his father well in Henry IV Part 2, and his brother well in Henry V.  Early on in this play he was appointed the Regent of France.  Late in the play he turns ill and dies, “his soul happy,” during an English victory at Rouen. He is one of the Henry VI’s Legitimate line uncles. 

ExeterExeter is Thomas, Duke of Exeter, the oldest son of John of Gaunt in the Beaufort line.  Exeter had played an important role in the success of Henry V.  He is this young king’s great-uncle. At some point he was appointed the king’s Governor, the king being so young.  He is a reliable and trusted aide to the king, just as he was to the king’s father.

Humphrey.  Humphrey is Gloucester, duke of Gloucester, the youngest of Henry IV’s four sons.  He is the other young Henry VI’s Legitimate line uncle, the duke of Lancaster being the king’s other.  He has been named the Protector of the realm.  In the third history, Humphrey had lacked confidence, saying “The people fear me, for they do observe unfathered heirs and loathly births of nature.”  However, he is a loyal confidant of the king, with a big role in this play. 

Joan of Arc.  Joan of Arc is Joan la Pucelle, also known as Pucelle.  She is talented, clever and proud.  She leads the French forces better than it seems the men can.  She is a shepherd’s daughter, but late in the play denies her father, claiming to be born of royal blood.  She was praised early for her heroics, but later is used as a scapegoat, and finally burned at the stake by her English captors.

Mortimer.  Edmund Mortimer, the 5th Earl of March, is the grandson of Philippa, Lionel’s daughter, Lionel being Edward III’s third son.  Henry V had Mortimer imprisoned, fearing he was a threat to his crown.  Mortimer dies in prison in Act 2, Scene 5, finding peace, so it seems, having provided Richard Plantagenet with significant historical insight, having waited long to deliver his message. 

Plantagenet.   Plantagenet is Richard Plantagenet, a grandson of Edmund Langley, Edward III’s fifth son, and the original, at least in this series, duke of York.  Plantagenet’s father, Edmund Langley’s son, Richard, the Earl of Cambridge, was hanged by Henry V for treason.  His mother was Anne Mortimer, the great-granddaughter of Lionel, Edward III’s third son; the granddaughter of Philippa, Lionel’s only daughter; the daughter of Roger Mortimer, Philippa’s son.  Anne Mortimer is the sister of the imprisoned Mortimer. Plantagenet married Cicely Neville, the daughter of Ralph Neville (Westmorland) and Joan Beaufort, John of Gaunt’s only daughter.  It can be said Richard Plantagenet is in the middle of things, related as he is to Edward III on three sides: his father, his mother and his marriage.  Late in the play he is named Regent of France following the death of John, the duke of Lancaster.  Late in the play, the king names him duke of York.  He then becomes known as York.  He is an initiator of the War of the Roses, leading the white rose faction.  The king calls him his cousin, but then these kings called a lot of their relatives “cousin.”   Plantagenet has big roles in Henry VI Parts 2 and 3.  He’s ambitious, figuring that his blood-line connection to Edward III’s third son on his mother’s side gives him an edge over the king’s family, descendents of Edward III’s fourth son.  He and his wife Cicely are the parents of two future kings.

Reignier.  Reignier is the duke of Anjou, the King of Naples and the King of Jerusalem.  He is a confidant of the Dauphin Charles.  On the condition that he may “enjoy free of oppression” the French counties Maine and Anjou, he accepts as part of the English-French truce Henry VI’s offer to marry his daughter, Margaret; she becoming the Queen of England.  Queen Margaret plays a major role in Henry VI Part 2.  His control of France’s Maine and Anjou counties becomes a real issue for the English.

Salisbury.  Salisbury is Thomas Montagu, the Earl of Salisbury.  He was the only son of Ralph Neville (Westmorland) and Joan Beaufort, John of Gaunt’s only daughter.  Westmorland doesn’t get into this play, important as he was in the lives of the two King Henrys that preceded the present king,.  Salisbury has a daughter, Alice, who marries Richard, who, after his father-in-law’s death, becomes the Earl of Salisbury.  Alice and Richard are the parents of the powerful Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, known later as “The Kingmaker.”  This Salisbury, Thomas Montagu, dies at Orleans, in Act 1, Scene 4.

Somerset.  Somerset is a grandson of John of Gaunt in the Beaufort line.  He is the First Duke of Somerset, the son of the late Earl of Somerset, John of Gaunt’s third son in the Beaufort line.  Somerset’s daughter, Margaret, marries Edmund Tudor.  Their son, Richmond, becomes King Henry VII, known as the first Tudor king.  Somerset was John Beaufort Jr., but Shakespeare never used the Jr.  Somerset, a Lancastrian by blood-line, was the other initiator (along with Richard Plantagenet) of the War of the Roses, a red-rose-wearer, supporting the Lancastrians as the rightful holders of the crown.

Suffolk.  Suffolk is William de la Pole, the Earl of Suffolk.  Suffolk picks a red rose during the initial “rose” confrontation between Somerset and Plantagenet in Act 2, Scene 4.  Somehow, late in the play, he captures Margaret, Reignier’s daughter, and instantly falls for her. Being married he recognizes the peril of paying too much attention to her.  As his best option, he suggests she become Henry VI’s wife; therefore the Queen of England.  He has interesting plans.  At the end of the play, as his offer is accepted by Reignier and Henry VI, he says to himself, “Margaret shall now be Queen and rule the King; but I will rule both her, the King and realm.”  He has a major role in the next history play. 

Talbot.  John Talbot is England’s military leader in France.  Late in the play, in Paris, Henry VI names him Earl of Shrewsbury; this Paris ceremony being where the king first meets Talbot.  Talbot dies late in the play during the battle for Bordeaux, just after his son dies, a most poignant moment in all of Shakespeare.  He’s the one leading the English forces in France while most of the English nobles remain back at home squabbling. 

Warwick.   Warwick is Richard de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick.  He had married Isabella, the granddaughter of Edmund Langley, the late, original duke of York.  He has a limited role in this play.  However, significantly, his daughter, Anne de Beauchamp, married Richard Neville, a great-great grandson of John of Gaunt, a great-grandson of Gaunt’s daughter, Joan Beaufort.  Richard Neville inherits his father’s title, the Earl of Warwick, becoming known as “The Kingmaker.”  Richard Neville has a huge role in future plays, having ties to both Edward III’s fourth and fifth sons. 

Winchester.  Winchester is Henry, the Bishop (and later Cardinal) of Winchester.  He is the second son of John of Gaunt and Catherine Swynford, another great-uncle in the Beaufort line of the young king.  Winchester doesn’t make life any easier for Henry VI, believing he doesn’t have the power he deserves.  He is also known as Beaufort.  He and the king’s uncle Humphrey, in the Legitimate line, often “cross swords” in the play.

The Play