I originally tried to write this as a single post, but I’ve had to split it in two. There are just too many twists and turns.
Henry VI Parts 2 and 3 are complicated enough. The reality was even worse. Looking at the historical record can highlight the playwrights’ selection and telescoping of historical events.
Apart from that telescoping and condensing, Shakespeare (and company) make two significant changes, both of which affect the characterization of Richard Duke of York. The first and most important is that they have Richard declare his desire for the throne from the very beginning. Warwick and Salisbury are convinced by his arguments that he’s the rightful king, and fight to bring that about.
In fact, there is no evidence that Richard of York claimed the throne until some time later, and when he did so, Warwick and Salisbury were, at least initially, appalled.
The second change is that the play omits any mention of the Madness of King Henry. Henry VI fell into a catatonic state in 1453 and remained unresponsive for over a year. During this time he had to be fed and cleaned by others, and he was unable to give any sign of recognition. It was because of this that Richard of York was appointed Protector of the Realm, and it was in his role as Protector that he filled administrative posts with his adherents.
During this period Margaret gave birth to her son, Prince Edward — timing that led to speculation about her son’s father. Was he really Henry’s son? or was he fathered by the Duke of Somerset? She had become pregnant before Henry shut down, which argues in favor of Prince Edward’s legitimacy; but it was a useful rumor for her enemies, and they made extensive use of it.
When Prince Edward was first presented to Henry, the king was unable to respond. But when Henry recovered his senses (in January 1455), he did acknowledge Prince Edward as his son, and he terminated York’s appointment as Protector. This is what gave Margaret and Somerset the opportunity to rebuild their own power base and begin isolating York from court. When York was summoned to a special meeting of the council, York — remembering the fate of Humphrey Duke of Gloucester, for whom a similar summons meant arrest, imprisonment, and death — took up arms. Hence the Battle of St Albans.
The play leaves out most of this: Henry’s incapacity is never shown and York’s Protectorship is never mentioned. The York character in the play doesn’t need fresh motivation for raising an army: he’s been angling for the throne from the beginning, and is only waiting for the right moment to declare himself openly. But in actual fact, even with an army at his back, the historical Richard of York still made no public demand for the throne, not before the Battle of St Albans and not after it. His intention was to force the removal of “the King’s evil councillors” — especially the Duke of Somerset.
(Another minor change: in the play, Richard of York has an angry confrontation with the King and the court party just before the battle. York calls for his two sons to appear. Edward and Richard enter, full of spit and ready to fight; from his first appearance on stage it’s clear that son Richard is a stone-cold killer. But in reality, Edward was elsewhere and Richard was only three years old. Shakespeare never hesitates to play games with ages and dates when it increases the intensity or speed of the action.)
In the play, Richard of York is victorious at the Battle of St Albans that follows his confrontation with the court. The Duke of Somerset is dead, and York marches to London to take the throne. He is met at Westminster by Henry, who calls him a traitor but ultimately compromises: he will name York as his heir (disinheriting his own son) if York will allow him to remain in power for life. Margaret’s outraged reaction to this surrender leads immediately to the Battle of Wakefield, where York and his son Rutland are killed.
This is a remarkably simplified and telescoped version of what happened. The Battle of St Albans occurred in 1455, and York did afterwards march on London, but he didn’t meet Henry there: he already had Henry in custody after the battle. When they arrived in London, York placed Henry rather than himself on the throne. There was a long and twisty road to travel yet before the opposing forces met at Wakefield.
With Henry back on the throne, and peace proclaiming olives of endless age, Margaret assumed leadership of the court party. She and York sniped at each other and maneuvered for influence. Henry lapsed again into catatonia and York was again made Protector; and Henry recovered again and York lost his office again. He left the court and returned to his base in the north.
We still haven’t gotten to Wakefield. Queen Margaret began mobilizing a new army against York. In 1459, she called for a special meeting of Parliament: the invitation didn’t include the Yorkists. It was too much like what happened to Duke Humphrey, and too much like what had happened 4 years earlier, leading up to the Battle at St Albans. York put out a call to Warwick and his other allies to join forces at Ludlow. Queen Margaret and the Lancastrian army rushed to meet them there. The Lancastrians met a contingent of the Yorkist army at Blore Heath, where the Lancastrians were roundly beaten. But it wasn’t decisive, and both armies continued converging on Ludlow. When they were finally drawn up in opposing camps, the Yorkists realized the odds were against them and the leaders fled — York to Ireland with his son Rutland, Warwick and York’s oldest son Edward to Calais. Their leaderless army surrendered, and Ludlow was sacked and pillaged.
When York fled, he left behind his wife, the Duchess Cicely, and her two youngest sons: false fleeting Clarence and crookback Richard. Those nicknames are a little premature, though: at this point Clarence was 12 and Richard was 9. (No tossing of Somerset’s head to the stage by the rapacious Richard after St Albans.) They were taken into protective custody by the Lancastrians and allowed to live with a relative; later Cicely, concerned that they might become hostages, sent them off to the continent.
York and his allies were down but not out: they were still planning a return. The next year Warwick invaded England from his base at Calais, bringing with him the 18-year-old Edward, York’s son. They entered London to cheering crowds, who had grown tired and bitter at Margaret’s mismanagement and favoritism. Warwick and Edward then moved against the Lancastrian army, which was gathering at Northampton. The Battle of Northampton was a great victory for the Yorkists, and they were able once again to “capture” Henry. But they assured Henry that he was in no danger from them; their first action upon finding him was to kneel before him and swear fealty.
In October 1560, following this victory — five years after St Albans — York finally returned from Ireland and appeared before Parliament to argue his claim to the throne. Parliament didn’t give in right away; even the Earl of Warwick was shocked by the claim. (So no long genealogies thrashed out in the Temple rose garden. But more on that when we come to Henry VI Part 1.) There was a long and torturous process of negotiation and bureaucratic wrangling before Parliament finally announced their compromise: York was to be heir to the throne, but Henry would remain King for the rest of his life. Note, however, that he was still in the custody of the Yorkists.
Margaret refused to accept the compromise and marched south, gathering forces as she went. York marched north to meet her: and they met at Wakefield.
So we finally got there.
With a stroke of his pen, Shakespeare (or whoever laid out the plot) eliminated 5 years from the story and created a direct path of cause and effect: St Albans to York’s claim to the throne to Margaret’s armed response to Wakefield. The Battle of St Albans ends Henry VI Part 2, and York’s appearance before Parliament begins Henry VI Part 3. Wakefield follows immediately after, and York is dead before the end of the first act. As the play indicates, Wakefield ended badly for the Yorkists, with both Richard Duke of York and his son the Earl of Rutland dead. (Rutland is shown as a child, trying to escape the battle with his tutor; but he was 17 and a fighter at the time of the battle. Shakespeare was never averse to juggling dates and ages to achieve a more dramatic effect.)
York’s son Edward became the new Duke of York and took up his father’s cause. He met Margaret’s army at Mortimer’s Cross and defeated them in a terrible massacre. (A footnote: the Lancastrian army was led by Jasper Tudor and his father Owen Tudor; Owen was captured by the Yorkists and later beheaded. Why is this significant? Because Owen had children with Katherine, the Queen Dowager, widow of Henry V — she of “de bilbow” and “de fingres”. His sons — one of them Jasper — were half-brothers of King Henry VI. Owen’s grandson Henry Tudor, the young Earl of Richmond, later became King Henry VII, partly on the basis of this extremely tenuous connection. But that needs to wait for another play.)
Shakespeare puts Edward at Mortimer’s Cross, but not for a battle, which is never mentioned: he dramatizes Edward’s witnessing the appearance of three suns in the sky, a phenomenon explained in more recent times as the effect of ice crystals. In the play, his brother Richard (the Crookback) stands beside him, having fought valiantly in his and their father’s cause. It’s a great scene, made even better by directors who bring in brother George as well, so the three sons see the miracle of the three suns. Too bad the two younger brothers were still in France.
Meanwhile Warwick had attacked the Queen’s army at a second Battle of St Albans and lost, running away to fight another day. In the play he appears at Mortimer’s Cross after the three suns and narrates the tale of his defeat; and Richard makes various insulting remarks about his retreat. Warwick notes almost as an afterthought that one result of the retreat is that Henry, who’d been under Yorkist control all this time, was left behind on the battlefield and was now back with the Queen.
On the basis of his victory at Mortimer’s Cross, Edward marched to London once again and entered the city in triumph. This time he was proclaimed king by the citizens of London and then by Parliament: he was now King Edward IV.
He raised another army and went after Henry and Margaret, who were camped near the town of Towton. The Battle of Towton was bloody and snowbound, picturesque in its horror — one of the bloodiest in English history, at least in terms of the rate of slaughter. (The casualties have been compared to those of the Battle of the Somme.) Shakespeare spreads the action across several scenes filled with alarums and excursions. This is the battle where Henry wishes he were a shepherd and watches the grief of a son who has killed his father in battle and a father who has killed his son. More about that in another post.
The battle put paid, at least for the time being, to the Lancastrian cause. Margaret and Henry fled to Scotland and Margaret continued on to France, where she hoped to enlist the French king Lewis in Henry’s cause.
I’m not complaining about the changes made in the play. In fact I think they’re a brilliant arrangement, driving home the intensity of the conflict and the horrors of civil war, while keeping the actual movement of chess pieces to a minimum. I just think it’s interesting and useful to explore what actually happened, as a way of highlighting the patterns in the play.
In the next post: the second War of the Roses.
Shakespeare and French names
Shakespeare was a practitioner of the traditional English habit of Anglicizing foreign names. This usually gets lost in modern editions, where the editors have “corrected” them. In the original printed texts, the French king’s name is spelled Lewis, and that’s how it was pronounced. Calais was spelled and pronounced Callice, Rousillon was Rosillion, Orleans was Orleance, Rouen was Roan, and believe it or not, Dauphin was Dolphin.
As far as I know, there are only two recent editions of Shakespeare that try to preserve the original spelling of these names, because they tell us something about the pronunciation and line scansion. One is the one-volume Riverside Shakespeare, with the text edited by G Blakekmore Evans; and the individual volumes in the New Folger Shakespeare, with texts edited by Paul Werstine.
It’s a dilemma for productions — or at least it could be, if the director is as obsessed with details as I am. Do you pronounce the names as they were originally written, and risk sounding ignorant? or give them correct French pronunciation and risk throwing off the rhythm? The Folger notes that Dauphin should be pronounced with the accent on the first syllable: DAW-fin. At the very least it will make some of the puns work better.