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Henry VI Part One (1592)

Henry VI Part One (1592)

Henry VI

Hundred Word Summary

The English army face defeat in France – triggered by the emergence of the inspirational Joan exploiting deep-seated divisions among the English nobility: Gloucester and Winchester compete over access to an ineffectual monarch, while Plantagenet and Somerset fall out over past quarrels, marking their dispute with symbolic roses.

The English general Talbot is released from captivity, to be joined by his son in the defeat at Bordeaux: both are killed.  Cowardice and further division are blamed for defeat, but Joan is eventually captured and executed, before Suffolk, pursuing his own agenda, saddles the king with a bride of his own choosing.


Table of Contents


“Henry VI Part One” was written in 1591, at the height of the war with Catholic Spain.  Memories of the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 were still green, and England’s proxy conflict with Spain in the Spanish Netherlands was ongoing.  So though the background to the play is England’s Hundred Years War with France, events are informed by contemporary considerations.

Which considerations are these? The play lays out two prominent themes in its opening scene: first, that where a ruling class is divided, it is incapable of successfully prosecuting a war on the continent; and second, that Catholicism cannot be trusted, because it is dishonest and destructive, the permanent enemy of Protestant England.  These two themes recur throughout the play.

In the process they are joined by a third, the question of leadership.  Despite the play’s title, Henry VI doesn’t appear until Act Three, and he appears in only five of the play’s 27 scenes.  By contrast, Joan appears in nine.  Marginal as Henry may be in the play, however, he is still more incidental in the kingdom he governs, where his high-minded but ineffectual and hapless leadership is wrong for the times.

It would be reassuring to suggest that Shakespeare is issuing a manifesto for the war with Spain, but that is to simplify a further question: of authorship.  It seems unlikely that this play had only a single writer, though modern scholarship suggests that Act Four in particular bears Shakespeare’s imprint.  Appropriately, then, a play about the need to work together is most likely the result of a literary collaboration.

Scene by Scene

Act One Scene One

Henry V is dead, and his son Henry VI is too young to rule, so Gloucester becomes Lord Protector.

Gloucester accuses the Bishop of Winchester of a failure to pray hard enough to save the late King.

Their squabbling is interrupted by a messenger announcing the loss of several French possessions.

The messenger reports that the frontline troops blame aristocratic divisions at home for the losses.

A second messenger reports the defection of key French aristocrats, causing further arguments.

A third messenger announces the capture of Talbot and the massacre of his army at Orleans.

With 6,000 soldiers, Talbot fought bravely against 23,000 French but was abandoned by Fastolfe.

Bedford pledges to win his release amid reports that the English at Orleans are weak and besieged.

Exeter heads to protect the young King – while Winchester will undermine him for his own benefit.

Act One Scene Two

The French King Charles recognises the English army’s weakness and attacks, but is beaten back.

The French nobles are shocked at the English soldiers’ bravery, and resolve to “leave this town”.

But the Bastard of Orleans reveals that “a holy maid” has had visions of driving the English back.

The King decides to test her powers of insight by exchanging places with Reignier, Duke of Anjou.

Joan rumbles the trick, then says that visions of the Virgin Mary inspired her to “free my country”.

Charles challenges Joan to a duel as “proof … of thy valour”, and is defeated by her.

Joan rebukes the French nobles for their weak wills, and Charles supports her: “we’ll fight it out”.

The nobles are persuaded and resolve to raise the siege of Orleans and drive the English out.

Act One Scene Three

Gloucester arrives at the Tower to review armaments, to be told that Winchester refuses him entry.

Gloucester accuses “arrogant” Winchester of conspiring to kill the late King, and attacks him.

Winchester accuses Gloucester of seeking “To crown himself king” amid further skirmishing.

The Lord Mayor establishes peace, but denounces Winchester as “more haughty than the devil”.

Act One Scene Four

The French soldiers prepare to shoot any English spies watching over Orleans from “yonder tower”.

Talbot tells how as a captive of the French he was first humiliated, then “exchanged and ransomed”.

Salisbury suggests observing the French positions from the tower, and is shot in the face and dies.

Reports emerge the French under a “holy prophetess” are ready to fight, and Talbot swears revenge.

Act One Scene Five

Joan forces the English army back, and engages Talbot, who denounces her as “Devil or devil’s dam”.

Joan emerges unscathed for duties elsewhere but predicts “many more” victories in future.

Talbot reflects that a “witch” has defeated his retreating men, and his reaction is “shame”.

Act One Scene Six

The French nobles encourage Charles to “command” his subjects to celebrate their collective victory.

But Charles replies that it is Joan’s victory, and ordains that she “shall be France’s saint”.

Act Two Scene One

The English generals believe the French victory is the result of “sorcery” and “the help of hell”.

Talbot condemns the French to “converse with spirits” while he prefers to put his trust in God.

The English nobles are scaling the walls of Orleans when they are spotted, and the enemy aroused.

Charles turns on Joan, accusing her of “cunning” and deceit – Joan blames the “Improvident” guards.

With the intrusion of the English, the French nobles flee, abandoning their clothes in their panic.

Act Two Scene Two

Talbot suggests a monument to Salisbury be erected in Orleans to mark “his mournful death”.

The English nobles speculate that the Dauphin and “his trull” resemble “loving turtle-doves”.

A messenger arrives to invite Talbot (“Whose glory fills the world”) to visit the Countess of Auvergne

Act Two Scene Three

The Countess of Auvergne is disappointed that physically Talbot is a “weak and writhled shrimp”.

She threatens him with imprisonment but he laughs at her and calls in his armed soldiers.

She immediately apologises and Talbot forgives her and requests that his men “Taste of your wine”.

Act Two Scene Four

Plantagenet’s father was executed by Henry IV.  Now he pleads for support among his fellow nobles.

Opposed by Somerset, he suggests the nobles pick a rose – red or white – to reveal their loyalties.

Plantagenet picks a white rose, Somerset a red.  The weight of opinion favours the white at first.

Warwick recollects that Plantagenet is descended from Edward III, so he is no “crestless yeoman”.

Somerset counters that his father’s execution deprives him of his heritage, supported by Suffolk.

Warwick supports Plantagenet, but warns that this dispute will send “A thousand souls to death”.

Act Two Scene Five

Mortimer, imprisoned in the tower and musing on past injustices, is blind, weak and close to death.

Plantagenet arrives to tell him of his dispute with Somerset and to learn the historical background.

Mortimer was descended from Edward III’s third son while Henry IV’s ancestor was “but fourth”.

Attempts to recover the throne during the reign of Henry V resulted in his father’s execution.

Plantagenet is enraged but Mortimer counsels caution and restraint before he succumbs.

Plantagenet pledges an honourable burial for Mortimer and resolves to “be restored to my blood”.

Act Three Scene One

Continuing their dispute, Gloucester accuses Winchester of failing to live a Christian existence.

But Winchester accuses Gloucester of trying to stop anyone but himself having access to the King.

As the dispute widens, Henry VI intervenes to urge them to “join your hearts in love and amity”.

He is wise enough to recognise that “Civil dissension is a viperous worm” that divides the country.

But at that moment peace is disrupted by fighting between Winchester’s and Gloucester’s men.

Despite Gloucester’s instructions, his men say they will fight to the death to support his cause.

The King, rebuking Winchester for his unchristian spirit, draws attention to his “sighs and tears”.

Gloucester and Winchester agree to a truce but in an aside, Winchester admits “I intend it not!”

The King restores Richard Plantagenet to his birthright and creates him “princely Duke of York”.

But Plantagenet’s promotion only incites Somerset to fresh anger and division: “Perish, base prince”.

Alone on stage, Exeter regrets “This late dissension”, and foretells Henry VII’s eventual triumph.

Act Three Scene Two

Joan gains entry to Rouen with soldiers disguised as peasants in order to sack the city.

She signals to Charles where to gain entry, foreseeing “the happy wedding” of Rouen with France.

Talbot denounces Joan as “that witch, that damned sorceress”, the cause of “this hellish mischief”.

Talbot challenges the French to “meet us in the field” but his offer is rejected as the French depart.

He pays tribute to “this dying prince” Bedford, who insists on remaining with his soldiers to die.

Sir John Fastolfe anticipates his near-namesake Falstaff by abandoning Bedford and fleeing the field.

But victory is won and the town recovered before Talbot and Burgundy head for Paris and the King.

Act Three Scene Three

Joan reveals her plan – to divide Burgundy from Talbot and bring him over to the French side.

The chance arises when they spot the English marching on Paris with Burgundy lagging behind.

Joan calls on Burgundy to show France the compassion of a mother towards her dying child.

She warns him that once France is defeated, the English will “thrust [him] out like a fugitive”.

Burgundy relents, persuaded by her words, and is welcomed by Charles with renewed vigour.

Act Three Scene Four

In Paris, Talbot reviews his conquests (“Twelve cities and seven walled towns”) for Henry VI.

As a reward for his exploits, Talbot (much admired by Henry V) is promoted Earl of Shrewsbury.

Meanwhile, Vernon (wearing a white rose) hits Basset reflecting the ongoing English divisions.

Act Four Scene One

In Paris, Winchester crowns Henry VI as King, and the governor of Paris is told to remain loyal.

Fastolfe appears fresh from his desertion at Patay, with a letter for the King from Burgundy.

Talbot is offended at his appearance and tears off the Garter decoration from Fastolfe’s leg.

Talbot recounts the details of Fastolfe’s cowardice and Henry agrees he be exiled on pain of death.

Burgundy’s letter confirms that he has deserted Henry, and Talbot is sent to challenge “his treason”.

Basset and Vernon ask the King for permission to continue a petty dispute about “the rose I wear”.

Henry denounces their dispute as “madness” and Gloucester declares them “presumptuous vassals”.

Henry reminds the English to present a united front in France, and plucks a red rose at random.

Plantagenet is promoted as regent in Paris while Somerset is in charge of cavalry and foot soldiers.

Both are instructed to forget the quarrel, to focus on the enemy and to deliver reports of victories.

Plantagenet, though unhappy that the King wore the red rose, accepts that there are new priorities.

Exeter’s soliloquy believes power is “in children’s hands” and predicts “envy breeds unkind division”.

Act Four Scene Two

Talbot at Bordeaux calls upon the inhabitants to throw open the gates and pledge loyalty to Henry.

But told that he is surrounded with no escape he calls upon his followers to prepare to die bravely.

Act Four Scene Three

Plantagenet aims to send reinforcements to Talbot at Bordeaux but Somerset has delayed “supply”.

Cursing Somerset as a traitor, Plantagenet learns that Talbot’s son is joining “his warlike father”.

Sir William Lucy concludes that Henry V is being betrayed by the “sedition” of the English generals.

Act Four Scene Four

Somerset says he cannot send reinforcements as the attack on Bordeaux was “too rashly plotted”.

He accuses Talbot of being “over-daring” and believes he was set up to fail by Plantagenet.

Sir William Lucy calls on Somerset to forget his “private discord” when he should be helping Talbot.

But Somerset blames Plantagenet (now York) before offering to “dispatch the horsemen straight”.

But it is too late, says Lucy, and though Talbot’s name will live on after death, Somerset is shamed.

Act Four Scene Five

Talbot hoped to train his son in the feats of war, he says, but now the boy must make his escape.

But his son refuses to flee, and encourages his father to do so as being a much greater loss.

But his father is equally determined not to “shame” his reputation, and they will die side by side.

Act Four Scene Six

Talbot in the midst of battle rescues his son and so can be said to have given him life twice over.

He recollects his encounter with the Bastard of Orleans before again encouraging John to escape.

But once again his son refuses, leaving Talbot no choice but to let him “fight by thy father’s side”.

Act Four Scene Seven

Talbot describes his son’s death, first guarding his father, then driving alone into the French ranks.

Cradling his son’s body in his arms as his “grave”, he reflects on his own broken spirit and dies.

Charles arrives to speculate that, had reinforcements been in place, the English would have won.

Joan reports that young Talbot had time to denounce her as “giglot” before engaging the enemy.

Sir William Lucy arrives to learn the English losses, Talbot in particular, and to recover their bodies.

Act Five Scene One

The King believes it is “unnatural” for Christians in England to be fighting Christians in France.

Gloucester informs Henry that the Earl of Armagnac has offered his daughter as his wife.

Henry thinks his time would be better spent in study but will marry if the country will benefit.

The English nobles greet news of Winchester’s elevation to cardinal with surprise and mistrust.

But the King’s consent to marry reflects her “virtuous gifts, / Her beauty and … her dower”.

Alone with the Papal Legate, Winchester pays his bribe, and looks forward to future triumphs.

Act Five Scene Two

News comes to the French leadership that Paris has rallied to the patriotic cause.

Meanwhile, news also emerges that the English army is now united and “means to give you battle”.

Act Five Scene Three

On the battlefield, with the French on the retreat, Joan invokes her “familiar spirits” to her aid.

But they are silent and hang their heads, despite her offer of her blood, implying French defeat.

Plantagenet (York) captures Joan as she curses her fate, and denounces her as an “enchantress”.

The Earl of Suffolk appears with Margaret in his care, daughter (she tells him) of the King of Naples.

She is reluctant to stay in his custody but he desires her and is equally reluctant to let her go.

But as he is already married, he resolves to win her, despite her lack of means, for the King.

Suffolk offers Margaret the hand of the King, an offer she accepts with her father’s consent.

Suffolk, who has his own self-interested agenda, is graciously thanked for his services by Margaret.

Privately Suffolk wishes she was his, but is content to “Solicit Henry with her wondrous praise”.

Act Five Scene Four

At her trial, Joan is confronted by her peasant father, but claims she has “gentler blood”.

Distressed at her denial of his paternity, her father calls for her to burn: “hanging is too good”.

Joan claims she was inspired by “celestial grace”, and will “cry for vengeance” in Heaven.

But she is condemned to burn, though barrels of pitch will ensure “her torture may be shortened”.

Desperate, she now claims to be pregnant, but her claims are dismissed and she is led away.

Winchester conveys the King’s desire for what Plantagenet denounces as an “effeminate peace”.

Charles is told that the price of peace will be his loyalty and submission to Henry as Viceroy.

Despite his misgivings he is persuaded to accept Henry’s terms and “swear allegiance”.

Act Five Scene Five

Henry, encouraged by Suffolk, is enthusiastically anticipating the arrival of Margaret from France.

Suffolk claims she has “humble lowliness of mind” and will be “content to be at your command”.

The marriage will mean abandoning his previous engagement, but this move can be justified.

Suffolk, committed to Margaret for his own reasons, is not concerned that she brings no dowry.

He argues that Henry will value the marriage and beget children who will prove “conquerors”.

The King, whose “tender youth was never yet attaint”, accepts Margaret as his “anointed queen”.

Alone, Suffolk intends that the Queen will rule the King, and he will govern her – “and realm”.

Thinking Aloud

Shakespeare has two central objectives in the opening scene: to illustrate the divisions in the English governing class – splits that threaten defeat in France – and (second) to show that the rank and file soldiers are aware of these divisions, and blame them for their losses.  Meanwhile, the Bishop of Winchester emerges as a cunning and self-interested deceiver, representative of this schism in the ruling elite.

But Winchester’s representation in 1.1 reflects not just a divided English ruling class but also a venal Roman Catholic hierarchy, since the events being depicted occur a hundred years before the Reformation.  His representation would have been welcomed by the Elizabethan establishment as accurately reflecting their view of the Catholic church: untrustworthy, secretive, unpatriotic, self-serving, etc.

The ordinary English soldiers are characterised in 1.1 as (to coin a more recent phrase) lions led by donkeys.  This is reinforced in 1.2 by the Duke of Alencon, who describes the English army as comprising “Lean, raw-boned rascals” and he asks “who would e’er suppose / They had such courage and audacity?”  Whatever the shortcomings of the English ruling class, then, the ordinary soldiers are presented as being beyond reproach.

It is striking how keen Shakespeare is to associate Joan with Catholicism in 1.2.  For example she claims it was a vision of the Virgin Mary that inspired her to step forward, and after her duel with Charles, she reveals that “Christ’s mother helps me”.  Shakespeare invests her with supernatural powers (rumbling the identity trick played by Charles for example) of a kind that would have seemed superstitious to his contemporary – Protestant – audiences.

A similar project underwrites 1.3, in which the Bishop of Winchester is repeatedly associated with Catholicism: reference is made to “Thy scarlet robes”, and Gloucester threatens, “Under my feet I stamp thy cardinal’s hat: / In spite of pope or dignities of church …”. The effect is to connect Winchester with the French enemy and to reinforce the impression left in 1.1, that Winchester is a traitor.

Schisms of a slightly different type flourish on the French side, as revealed in 1.6, in which Reignier and the Duke of Alencon proclaim a collective French relief in response to their victory at Orleans, only to be rebuffed by Charles: this is Joan’s victory, he reminds them, and her part in it will be recognised and remembered. 

At first Joan is denounced as a witch.  Next it is her sexuality that is impugned.  Despite her name (la Pucelle means “maid” or “virgin”), Burgundy calls her a “strumpet” (1.5) and Talbot denounces her as a “trull” (2.2).  She is, of course, a woman in a man’s world, and the role assigned her by the playwright – for example, in 2.1 – is to speak sense and prove a better leader than her male counterparts. 

The character of the Countess of Auvergne is among Shakespeare’s earliest depictions of powerful women who are not to be trusted.  It will be another ten or twelve years before he presents characters as forcefully double-dealing as Goneril and Regan in “King Lear”, Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra.  These formidable female characters are a reminder that this was the first era in English history in which absolute monarchs – Bloody Mary for example, or her younger sister Queen Elizabeth – anticipate the truth of Kipling’s dictum that “the female of the species is more deadly than the male”, and Shakespeare’s plays are invariably alive to this.

The rose-tinted dispute between Plantagenet and Somerset in 2.4 is perhaps the right moment to remind ourselves that following defeat in the Hundred Years’ War (the result, as we have seen, of domestic squabbling), the Wars of the Roses consolidated this aristocratic schism behind the symbolism of red roses for Lancastrians and white roses for Yorkists.  Curiously, this colourful dichotomy prevails to this day in, for example, badges for sports teams. 

The events described by Mortimer in 2.5, covering the forcible replacement of Richard II on the English throne by Henry Bolingbroke, serve as the raw material of Shakespeare’s second historical tetralogy (“Richard II”, “Henry IV Parts One and Two” and “Henry V”), written some six or seven years later.  These four plays, which dramatise the deposition of Richard and the doubts harboured by Henry as to whether his actions were justified, were exceptionally controversial, and required some confidence on Shakespeare’s part that he would not follow Mortimer into the Tower.  In the event, it was a close thing.

An emerging theme in 3.1 is the naiveté of Henry VI in trying to resolve the divisions in the ruling elite.  Henry had a reputation in Shakespeare’s day (well over a century after his death) as a saintly if impractical monarch, whose reign was blighted by the Wars of the Roses. Here Shakespeare portrays him as well-meaning – and right about the dangers of division – but ineffectual and routinely disrespected by his nobles.  For example, no sooner has he elicited a promise from Winchester to make peace with Gloucester than the promise is privately abandoned.  As is often the way in Shakespeare’s plays, the villain informs the audience of his plans while keeping his intended victims in the dark.

Whatever schisms may undermine the English war effort in this play, the French governing class is presented in equally critical terms.  Loyalty, for example, is shown as being (for the French) contingent and temporary: in 3.2 the Duke of Burgundy is a whole-hearted supporter of Talbot and the English.  In 3.3 he is abruptly persuaded to change sides.  Readers may also feel that the speed with which Joan is abandoned by the same governing elite and left to her fate does the French little credit.

The petty dispute between Vernon and Basset in the closing lines of Act Three is a reminder that the divisions among the English cannot be confined to their home island but have crossed the channel and now threaten prospects in France.  Vernon (sporting the white rose of the Yorkists) is presented as the aggressor; Basset, representing the red rose of the Lancastrians, presents a more restrained persona – appropriately so, perhaps, given that the house of Lancaster remained the governing elite in Shakespeare’s England.

The young King’s attempts in 4.1 to resolve the growing dispute between the red rose and the white are well-intentioned but hapless. He randomly chooses to wear a red rose in order to show how meaningless such symbols can be.  Sadly, they’re not meaningless to people who invest them with meaning, and the red and white roses symbolise the coming divisions in the kingdom that will cost Henry his throne and life.  Nonetheless, though he inadvertently mishandles this confrontation, the King (in Shakespeare’s account) is confident in denouncing the division as having “so slight and frivolous a cause”. Shakespeare’s purpose throughout the play has been to show Henry as well-meaning and humane but unlucky in his handling of the coming civil war.

The touching scenes that close Act Four, in which Talbot remonstrates with his son to flee and his son nobly refuses, are conveyed in rhyming couplets to add an affecting tone to the sequence of events.  This sombre spirit is intensified by the appearance of the King of France at the moment of Talbot’s death (cradling his son as Lear cradles Cordelia) to speculate that, had Plantagenet (York) and Somerset sent reinforcements, defeat would have been avoided.  Whether or not this is true, Shakespeare’s decision to record this conclusion is as much as to say (with Mercutio) “a plague on both your houses”. 

The opening scene of Act Five reveals two contrasting views of patriotic duty.  On the King’s part (alongside an altruistic take on faith and war), there’s a readiness to marry if it is in the country’s interest. On the Cardinal’s part, there’s a willingness to bring the country and its government to its knees if his own ego isn’t a high priority.  This representation of pre-Reformation Catholic values, while it may have its roots in reality, is essentially propaganda, and serves perhaps to challenge biographers who believe Shakespeare may have harboured residual Catholic sympathies. 

Shakespeare’s History plays have a distinctly male-dominated spirit, and Henry VI Part One is no exception.  But in 5.3, two prominent female characters dominate as they anticipate their contrasting fates in English hands.  On one side, Joan, captured and certain to be imprisoned, perhaps executed; on the other, Margaret, soon to be trapped in a gilded cage as Henry’s wife and Queen of England.  It is worth remembering that all female parts were played by boys (or men) in Shakespeare’s day.

In one sense, Joan’s performance at her trial does her little credit: she rejects the shepherd who appears to be her father, and she claims to have slept with a number of entirely innocent men in order to save her own skin. To her credit, and by contrast, she issues a fierce denunciation of the English invaders, “Stain’d”, she claims, “with the guiltless blood of innocents”. Indeed, this speech is so fluent and persuasive that one might almost imagine that it was easier for Shakespeare to write than the lines which damage her reputation.  There is no shortage of those.



Among the earliest of Shakespeare’s villains, a brief soliloquy at the end of 1.1 reveals a mix of secrecy, cunning and self-interest common to many of his later creations, from Lady Macbeth to Iago. Denounced by the Lord Mayor in 1.3 as “more haughty than the devil”, Winchester is repeatedly presented as unChristian.  In 3.1 for example he is rebuked for hypocrisy by the young King, who asks of him “will you not maintain the thing you teach?”

His response is to agree to a truce with Gloucester which he has no intention of obeying. In 5.1 he is revealed to have bought his promotion to Cardinal – thus reinforcing late Elizabethan prejudices that in any contest between God and Mammon, the Catholic Church would choose Mammon – and he pledges to “sack this country with a mutiny” if he is not esteemed equal to Gloucester.


Her first appearance in the play suggests that Shakespeare intends her to be seen as possessing supernatural powers, since she immediately rumbles the trick played on her by the French King.  As the play progresses she is presented as a thoughtful, spirited and at times inspirational leader, though (for better or worse) she is routinely associated with the Virgin Mary: a reminder of the play’s anxiety about Catholicism. 

Her report of her encounter with John Talbot at Bordeaux is wonderfully self-deprecating, as she praises the boy for his arrogant refusal to esteem her as worth killing.  Her final appearance at her trial in 5.4 does her little credit – she rejects her father and claims pregnancy by a number of men to save herself from the stake – but in her speech denouncing the English invasion of France, she makes a number of unarguable points.

In general, the English treat Joan with contempt: in 1.5, Talbot denounces her as a devil, a witch and a strumpet, and in 4.7, his son John attacks her as a “giglot wench” – i.e. lascivious.  These are the two lines of criticism: her alleged spirituality and her alleged sexuality.  In 2.2, she is denounced as a “trull”, in 3.2 as a “courtesan”, and elsewhere as a “callet” – all sexual insults.  Conversely, in 3.3, Joan is praised by the French on the very opposite pretexts: a “Sweet virgin” and a “blessed saint”.

Henry VI

His first speech in the play resonates with good sense: despite his “tender years”, he says, “Civil dissension is a viperous worm / That gnaws the bowels of the commonwealth”. Moreover when the various “serving-men” get into a brawl, the King is clear in his instructions to desist, and he rebukes Winchester that “holy churchmen take delight in broils” before calling on him to “maintain the thing you teach”.

But his weakness is also on show in this scene: when he extracts a promise of civilised behaviour from Winchester, the cardinal reveals he has no intention of keeping his word. True, when the King is asked in 4.1 to give an opinion on the gathering dispute between Plantagenet and Somerset, he rightly denounces it as “madness” got up by “brainsick men”.  But his attempts to show that symbols are empty backfires, and he inadvertently fans the flames he meant to dampen.

Henry’s reputation in Elizabethan England saw him as a saintly man ill-suited to the challenges of the throne at a time of civil war.  Shakespeare’s presentation of his marriage plans in Act Five suggests that he be seen as a patriotic but weak individual, keen to do his best for the country but held in contempt by characters who, like Suffolk, are driven by self-interest.


Cunning and cautious in bringing a considerable bodyguard with him on his visit to the Countess of Auvergne, he denounces Joan as “that witch, that damned sorceress”.  Loyal to the King and beyond participating in the kind of schism that divides the English court, he meets his end at Bordeaux where, in affecting scenes believed to have come from Shakespeare’s quill, his son also dies.

Quick Quiz

  1. At which battle was Talbot captured, as reported in 1.1?
  2. Who pretends to be the French king in order to test Joan in 1.2?
  3. Which English lord is shot in the face while observing the French defences?
  4. To which female French aristocrat does Talbot pay a visit in Act Two?
  5. Which prisoner in the Tower informs Plantagenet of his family’s recent history?
  6. To which dukedom does Henry VI elevate Plantagenet?
  7. To which French city does Joan gain access disguised as a peasant?
  8. Give the name of the French aristocrat who abandons his alliance with the English.
  9. Why does Somerset say he cannot send reinforcements to Talbot at Bordeaux?
  10. What is Joan’s father’s occupation?
  1. Orleans
  2. Reignier, Duke of Anjou
  3. Salisbury
  4. Countess of Auvergne
  5. Mortimer
  6. Duke of York
  7. Rouen
  8. Burgundy
  9. The English attack was “too rashly plotted”.
  10. Shepherd

Last Word

The quarrel between Plantagenet and Somerset, as Mortimer explains in 2.5, has its roots in the remote past: the conflict that brought the young King’s grandfather Henry IV to the throne, the deposition of Richard II and his subsequent killing.

For his part in these events, Plantagenet’s father was executed, and his title of Duke of York was forfeited.  So it is possible for Somerset to patronise him, telling Suffolk “We grace the yeoman by conversing with him”.  By now, the two sides have selected the roses that come to symbolise their quarrel.

The young King does his best to repair the breech, promoting Plantagenet to “be our regent in these parts of France”, and instructing Somerset to “unite / Your troops of horsemen with his bands of foot”.  But in the event, there is no unity, and as a direct result (according to the French King), Talbot is defeated and killed at Bordeaux.

The effect of the quarrel is to imply that historical grievances are inclined to fester and poison the present tense.  The Wars of the Roses have their roots in this soil, described by Henry as “so slight and frivolous a cause”.  Paradoxically, perhaps one of the themes of this, one of the earliest of Shakespeare’s history plays, is to suggest how hard it can sometimes be to put history to one side.

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