King Henry VI Part One | William Shakespeare | The Story

by Glenn on July 29, 2018

This is a pretty good explanation, save the spelling of Gloucester.

This is less helpful:




Things are bleak as the play begins. King Henry V has died in France and members of his court attempt to outdo one another with statements of how good Henry was..

Duke of GLOUCESTER offers hyperbole:

“England ne’er had a king until his time …
His brandished sword did blind men with his beams;
His arms spread wider than a dragon’s wings;
His sparkling eyes, replete with wrathful fire,
More dazzled and drove back his enemies
Than midday sun fierce bent against their faces.
What should I say? His deeds exceed all speech:
He ne’er lift up his hand but conquered.”

I’ve never been much for astrology. It’s fascinating to see how it is used to explain Henry V’s demise. Duke of BEDFORD declares that “bad revolting stars / … have consented unto Henry’s death.”

Duke of EXETER wants revenge: “We mourn in black; why mourn we not in blood?” Then he asks if we are to blame the alignment of planets or magic “contrived” by the “subtle-witted French.”

Bishop of WINCHESTER, representing the Church, borrows Biblical allusions: King Henry V “was a king blessed of the King of Kings” and fought “the battles of the Lord of Hosts.” He declares, “The church’s prayers made [Henry] so prosperous.”

So far, everyone has seemed united in grief, but now we get some indications of tension. GLOUCESTER doesn’t like what he has just heard from WINCHESTER:

“The church? Where is it? Had not churchmen prayed, [a play on “preyed”]
His thread of life had not so soon decayed:
None do you like but an effeminate prince,
Whom, like a school-boy, you may over-awe.”

This is a deep insult. WINCHESTER and GLOUCESTER engage in some back and forth until BEDFORD commands them to stop. He is concerned about civil war since Henry V’s son, the heir to the throne, is a child. (In real life, he’s nine months old, but the action compresses a number of years into the 2 1/2 hours of stage time and HENRY VI is presented as at least a teen.) Before the conflict developes, a series of messengers arrive with bad news from France.

The first MESSENGER brings “sad tidings … / Of loss, of slaughter, and discomfiture” and a list of cities which are no longer in English control.

EXETER asks for reasons and makes an assumption in the process: “What treachery was used?”

The MESSENGER describes a broad problem that includes lack of resources abroad and factions at home resulting in no clear strategy in France. His answer feels impertinent, but he says the generals in the field are getting mixed messages from the English leadership:

“One would have ling’ring wars with little cost;
Another would fly swift but wanteth wings;
A third thinks, without expense at all,
By guileful fair words peace may be obtain’d.”

A SECOND MESSENGER arrives to say that the Dauphin—the heir to the French throne and known in this play as CHARLES—has been crowned king.

A THIRD MESSENGER arrives “to add to your laments” the news that the great English warrior, Lord TALBOT, has been taken prisoner.

BEDFORD decides he needs to go to war. GLOUCESTER will get weapons together and announce the new king, HENRY VI. EXETER will head to the residence of HENRY VI to create a plan for his safety. WINCHESTER sees all this action and decides he needs to take control over HENRY VI so that he can control the government.


Things are looking good for the French, especially near Orléans. The English army, in siege mode, has weakened and the conflict with the English has become manageable because they attack so little. The French also favor the astrological explanation for things.

CHARLES (the Dauphin) says,

“Mars his true moving, even as in the heavens
So in the earth, to this day is not known:
Late did he shine upon the English side;
Now we are victors: upon us he smiles.”

No contemplation about why Mars has changed sides, but since things are going well, the French decide they might as well attack the English and break the siege on Orléans. This turns into a moment of comedy. (Remembering Shakespeare is not writing history; he is telling a partisan and patriotic story, which means it’s appropriate to make fun of the French.) As the French prepare to attack, Charles shouts,

“Sound, sound alarum! We will rush on them.
Now for the honor of the forlorn French:
Him I forgive my death that killeth me
When he sees me go back one foot or fly.”

In essence, “Let’s go; kill me if you see me retreat.” So then he retreats. The French lose the subsequent battle and CHARLES explains,

“Who ever saw the like? What men have I!
Dogs! cowards! dastards! I would ne’er have fled,
But that they left me ‘midst my enemies.”

The French engage in some quality blamestorming. “Their” conclusion, once again noting the play was written by an Englishman, is that England has sent superior warriors to battle: “Samsons and Goliases,” an odd metaphor considering Goliath was killed in battle by a much smaller opponent, David. But there is some good news for the French. The BASTARD of Orléans says he has “a holy maid,” JOAN DE PUCELLE (Joan of Arc) who is going to change everything. CHARLES is skeptical,  so before she enters the room, he decides to put her to the test by changing roles with one of his men, who now acts like he’s the Dauphin.

JOAN figures it out immediately and explains she has a kind of omniscience: “Be not amazed; there’s nothing hid from me.” She, herself, is a type of Samson. Where Samson had great powers because of his long hair, JOAN has great powers because she is a virgin. CHARLES tests her strength in battle and tells her,

“Thou art an Amazon
And fightest with the sword of Deborah.”

JOAN’s explanation is that “Christ’s mother helps me.”

And now CHARLES is in love. But JOAN tells CHARLES she must remain pure to remain powerful.

Some of the French leaders talk about whether they should give up Orléans. JOAN says no. She is “to be the English scourge” and promises good things for the French with this word picture:

“Glory is like a circle in the water,
Which never ceaseth to enlarge itself
Till by broad spreading it disperse to naught.
With Henry’s death, the English circle ends.”


The action moves back to England where tensions are heightening. GLOUCESTER and his men have gone to the Tower to have a look around, but WOODVILLE, the chief officer of the Tower, won’t let him in because “The Cardinal of WINCHESTER forbids.” (This, incidentally, is a small error in the play. WINCHESTER doesn’t become a cardinal until the end of the play. He is currently a bishop. Sadly, “Bishop” can’t replace “cardinal” because it affects the poetry.) As GLOUCESTER’s and WINCHESTER’s men prepare to do battle with each other, the MAYOR of London has to break things up. Tensions haven’t eased, though, and WINCHESTER promises,

“Abominable Gloucester, guard thy head,
For I intend to have it ere long.”


Back to France and a short scene that is a puzzle for how you would present it on stage. Not only is there the choppiness of the action—England to France to England to France—but now we have this really short scene that features a French MASTER GUNNER and his son. The point of this brief dialogue is for the MASTER GUNNER to explain to his son that he’s discovered a place where the English are coming and going and has placed some explosives there. The son is to tell his father when he sees the English.

Immediately we jump to the English soldiers. I wonder to what extent these scenes of Shakespeare would be realized easier with a cinematic approach rather than sending groups of people on and off stage. Nevertheless, this scene is significant for the next.


Back with the English, they have some good news. TALBOT was released in a prisoner exchange. He is the counterpoint to JOAN and doesn’t mind telling you how much he frightened the French guards:

“My grisly countenance made others fly;
None durst come near for fear of sudden
death.In iron walls they deemed me not secure—
So great fear of my name ‘mongst them were spre
ad,That they supposed I could rend bars of steel.”

Now the English head to the place where the explosives have been set. SALISBURY and GARGRAVE are killed. And things get worse when the French attack.


The French attack is a rout because JOAN DE PUCELLE is scattering the English troops. TALBOT confronts JOAN. They battle long enough for TALBOT to learn what he is up against before JOAN announces, “Talbot, farewell thy hour is not yet come,” and departs.

TALBOT is overwhelmed: “My thoughts are whirled like a potter’s wheel.” There are more skirmishes. The result is that the English lose the battle and the French retake Orlèans.


It’s party time for the French. CHARLES is pretty happy with the outcome and has promised to share power with JOAN and make her a French saint.



French soldiers are in place watching for movement. TALBOT is planning an attack. The problem for the English is how to explain what JOAN has accomplished. BEDFORD insists that the French Army isn’t strong,

“Coward of France! [the Dauphin] how much he wrongs his fame,
Despairing of his own arm’s fortitude,
To join with witches and the help of hell!”

The English strategy is to attack the French from multiple directions while they are dissipated by excessive celebrations. TALBOT will attack in the name of SALISBURY, to avenge his death. The Dauphin barely escapes the attack. BASTARD thinks “this Talbot be a fiend of hell.” RENÉ replies, “If not of hell, the heavens sure favor him.” The blame is put on JOAN who complains that while things go well when she’s around, she’s not omnipresent. Another moment of comedy follows. An English soldier enters shouting, “A Talbot” (a euphemism for the English soldier). The French flee and the soldier takes what they leave behind.


The English rejoice. SALISBURY’s death has been avenged, but TALBOT wonders why they didn’t see CHARLES or JOAN. A messenger arrives from the COUNTESS of AUVERGNE to invite TALBOT over for a visit.


The COUNTESS of AUVERGNE is setting a trap and uses a rather obscure allusion in a simile,

“The plot is laid: if all things fall out right,
I shall as famous be by this exploit
As Scythian Tomyris by Cyrus’ death.”

(One wonders how this was received by Shakespeare’s audience. Were there people in the audience who understood the reference so that the comparison made sense? Or was it enough just to have the simile, with some irony in the fact that he would be as famous as something obscure?)

TALBOT arrives. The COUNTESS mocks him. “I thoughts I should have seen some Hercules.” She thinks she has trapped him, but he laughs. When he blows his horn, soldiers arrive. He was clearly too smart to fall for this. He knew what was coming and had planned accordingly. Subtext: The English are much smarter than the French. The COUNTESS apologizes. TALBOT says as long as there is food and wine, all is well; she won’t be hurt.


Back in England there’s a gathering and an awkward silence. The earlier conflict between Winchester and Gloucester was just the tip of the iceberg. This is a tough scene to visualize. It’s hard to know who’s one who’s side without some sort of chart. YORK is in conflict with SOMERSET. SOMERSET tells WARWICK to “Judge between us” and WARWICK asks, “How can I?” We have a complicated legal situation, but for YORK and SOMERSET it’s clear as day. This feels like a highly technical scene, with lots of legal language and genealogical references. This is the beginning of the Wars of the Roses, where two significant English families with claims to the throne of England, fought with each other. I once made a genealogy chart to try and track this, but that was several laptops ago and I’ve lost it to the digital abyss. The following is a pretty good chart:

The backstory for this scene and play is this: Everyone close to the throne is a Plantagenet, dating back to King Henry III. But with King Edward III that family line breaks into York and Lancaster lines (factions). Edward III had thirteen children. More accurately, his wife, Philippa of Hainaut, had the thirteen children. Of these children, four factor into this play.

Edward, the Black Prince died while his father was still in power. When Edward III died, the throne then went to the Black Prince’s son, who became King Richard II. Richard II didn’t have any children, therefore, the line should have followed a descendant of Edward III’s next son, Lionel, Duke of Clarence. That would have been eight-year-old Edmund Mortimer (not shown on the chart) who, eventually, would begin the Yorkist line.

But that didn’t happen. The reign of Richard II ended when he was deposed by Henry Bolingbroke, the son of Edward III’s third son, John of Gaunt. Henry Bolingbroke became Henry IV, the father of Henry V, the king who is dead at the beginning of this play. And now with a nine-month old baby on the throne (though, in this play, that infant is quite articulate), people are looking for strong leadership. So, on one side you have people (Yorkists) who believe the throne has been taken from them or people closely related to them.

On the other side are people (Lancasters) who have the throne and don’t want to give it up. (I think the principle of “possession is nine-tenths of the law” factors in here. In this scene everyone will choose sides. A white and a red rose bush are part of the scenery. The York family is symbolized by a white rose and the Lancasters are red. Those gathered around are going to pick roses to indicate what sides they are on.

On the York side, picking white roses, you have:

The Lancaster side is picking red roses:
SUFFOLK (William Pole)

SOMERSET lightens the mood somewhat as he tells VERNON,

“Prick not your finger as you pluck it off,
Lest bleeding you do paint the white rose red
And fall on my side so, against your will.”

But this is serious stuff and WARWICK makes a prophecy:

“this brawl to-day,
Grown to this faction in the Temple-garden,
Shall send between the red rose and the white
A thousand souls to death and deadly night.”


The scene shifts to the Tower of London and the death of MORTIMER, YORK’s uncle, who one may argue was the rightful heir to the throne, explaining why he is locked up in prison. We get a picture of his demise:

“These eyes, like lamps whose wasting oil is spent,
Wax dim, as drawing to their exigent;
Weak shoulders, overborne with burthening grief,
And pithless arms, like to a wither’d vine
That droops his sapless branches to the ground;
Yet are these feet, whose strengthless stay is numb,
Unable to support this lump of clay,
Swift-winged with desire to get a grave,
As witting I no other comfort have.”

MORTIMER offers an interesting image of death as “Just death, kind umpire of men’s miseries.” YORK tells his uncle about how he is despised. MORTIMER tells his own story of being locked up trying to take the throne. Then MORTIMER dies.



In court there is more conflict. WINCHESTER and GLOUCESTER have it out. WARWICK and SOMERSET join the fray. YORK remains silent. KING HENRY VI may be young, but he shares a profound simile:

“Civil dissension is a viperous worm
That gnaws the bowels of the commonwealth.”

There’s a fight outside that gets the MAYOR OF LONDON involved. WARWICK’s and GLOUCESTER’s men were forbidden to carry weapons so now they’ve been throwing rocks at each other. (WARWICK’s men wear tawny-colored clothing; CLOUCESTER’s men wear blue.) Three members from the melee are hauled in and it’s clear they are committed to open hostility. HENRY VI begs for peace and once the principals agree to calm down, the SERVINGMEN have a brief comedic moment:

First Serving-man: “Content: I’ll to the surgeon’s.”

Second Serving-man: “And so will I.”

Third Serving-man: “And I will see what physic the tavern affords.”

HENRY VI thinks he resolves the RICHARD of YORK problem by restoring his title and lands. (GLOUCESTER is on the White Rose—York—side of things.) WARWICK and WINCHESTER agree. RICHARD of YORK is restored and there is a unison proclamation,

“Welcome, high prince, the mighty Duke of York!”

But SOMERSET isn’t happy about this development and in an aside says,

“Perish, base prince, ignoble Duke of York!”

GLOUCESTER says the KING should go to France. EXETER sees that a fire is still smoldering and that competition among the nobles in court means that things don’t look good for HENRY VI’s reign.


Back to France. JOAN is in disguise and sneaks into Rouen to find a way in for the Dauphin. It’s amazing how many little aphorisms pop up in Shakespeare. Here’s one uttered by RENÉ:

“Defer no time: delays have dangerous ends.”

TALBOT enters the stage fighting while he curses JOAN. TALBOT, BEDFORD, and BURGUNDY are trapped. The French appear on the walls of the town and taunt the English. TALBOT tries to persuade BEDFORD to go rest. FALSTAFF runs away to save himself. Somehow the English are victorious (that’s how great TALBOT is!), though BEDFORD dies. Now it’s on to Paris to install HENRY VI as king in France.


JOAN is not concerned about the loss of Rouen. She is playing a longer game:

“Let frantic Talbot triumph for a while
And like a peacock sweep along his tail;
We’ll pull his plumes and take away his train,
If Dauphin and the rest will be but ruled.”

Her plan is to get BURGUNDY to change sides. CHARLES asks for a parley with BURGUNDY. JOAN pleads with BURGUNDY on behalf of France,

“Strike those that hurt, and hurt not those who help.”

BURGUNDY changes sides. Again, JOAN is portrayed as evil. BURGUNDY says,

“Either she hath bewitch’d me with her words,
Or nature makes me suddenly relent.”

He suggests JOAN’s words have extraordinary power:

“I am vanquished: these haughty words of hers
Have battered me like roaring cannon-shot
And made me almost yield upon my knees.”

Again the Englishness of this depiction of Frenchmen is pretty obvious. JOAN says,

“Done like a Frenchman, turn and turn again.”


TALBOT speaks to the English court that has arrived in France. He recounts how he has retaken 50 castles, twelve cities, and seven walled towns, and taken 500 significant prisoners. VERNON is wearing a white rose and he and BASSET, who is loyal to SOMERSET get into it. BASSET insults VERNON who, then, strikes BASSET. There is a plea to settle things once and for all. BASSET would have drawn his sword, except that there is a law against dueling.



HENRY VI is crowned king of France. FALSTAFF shows up with a letter from BURGUNDY. TALBOT confronts FALSTAFF and rips off his symbol of Knight of the Garter. HENRY banishes FALSTAFF. Then the letter from BURGUNDY, where he announces he has changed sides, is read aloud. TALBOT goes to confront BURGUNDY. VERNON and BASSET ask for permission to duel, which HENRY doesn’t like. HENRY puts on a red rose and heads back to England. WARWICK and YORK try to make peace with the fact that the king is not wearing a white rose. EXETER thinks a child king makes for rancor and a power struggle.


TALBOT tells BORDEAUX he should surrender, or else. I love TALBOT’s picturesque language, here:

“You tempt the fury of my three attendants,
Lean famine, quartering steel, and climbing fire;
Who in a moment even with the earth
Shall lay your stately and air-braving towers,
If you forsake the offer of their love.”

The General of BOURDEAUX tells TALBOT his reading of the situation is wrong. 10,000 French soldiers have just taken communion with the oath to kill TALBOT. TALBOT realizes that he was too hasty to go to battle and includes a graphic image of an English hunt, metaphorical for his own situation.

“How are we parked and bounded in a pale,
A little herd of England’s timorous deer,
Mazed with a yelping kennel of French curs.
If we be English deer, be then in blood;
Not rascal-like to fall down with a pinch
But rather moody-mad: and, desperate stags,
Turn on the bloody hounds with heads of steel
And make the cowards stand aloof at bay:
Sell every man his life as dear as mine,
And they shall find dear deer of us, my friends.”


YORK learns the situation is dire for TALBOT. He was supposed to send supplies/reinforcements. He blames SOMERSET. LUCY tells him that TALBOT’s son is headed to be with his father. YORK assesses the situation:

“Alas, what joy shall noble Talbot have
To bid his young son welcome to his grave?”


SOMERSET blames YORK for a “too rashly plotted” plan—this is why he isn’t supportive of the attempt to help TALBOT.


TALBOT tells his son,

“O malignant and ill-boding stars!—
Now thou art come unto a feast of death.”

He warns his son to leave, but his son will not go. They realize they are going to die. TALBOT says,

“Come, side by side together live and die.
And soul with soul from France to heaven fly.”


TALBOT tries one more time to send his son away. JOHN TALBOT returns and resolves to die with his father.


JOHN TALBOT is dead. TALBOT says, touchingly,

“Now my old arms are young TALBOT’s grave.”

LUCY comes to take their bodies and prophesies,

“But from their ashes shall be reared
A phoenix that shall make all France affeared.”


Act Five


Back in England, HENRY is dealing with a letter from the Pope calling for peace between England and France. GLOUCESTER says it’s the way to go plus the French Earl of Armagnac has promised his daughter to HENRY, which will be great for an alliance. WINCHESTER is now a cardinal. They send a jewel to the French girl.


Word comes to CHARLES that the Parisians are fighting against the English. The English army is preparing for battle. JOAN isn’t concerned:

“Command the conquest, Charles, it shall be thine!”


JOAN attempts to consult spirits, but the spirits aren’t cooperating. YORK captures JOAN.


SUFFOLK has taken Margaret, a beautiful, French girl, as his prisoner. He thinks she would make a great queen for HENRY VI, but he’s also attracted to her, so he decides she should be both his mistress and the queen. He is playing a dangerous game and knows it:

“O, wert thou for myself! But, Suffolk, stay;
Thou mayst not wander in that labyrinth;
There Minotaurs and ugly treasons lurk.”

There’s a funny moment in this scene where SUFFOLK has a number of asides. Clearly MARGARET can’t quite hear what he is saying, but he appears thoroughly distracted and can’t engage with her. Then she does the same thing.


JOAN has been captured and is going to be burned at the stake. Her father, the SHEPHERD insists she was born out of wedlock. She insists she is highborn. Then, to try and get out of the burning, she says she is with child. WINCHESTER shows up to share the plan for peace. YORK wonders what it was all for. A truce is arranged. Initially, CHARLES doesn’t like the terms, but in conversation with RENÉ decides that peace is better than war.


SUFFOLK tells the king how great MARGARET is. He is smooth. GLOUCESTER reminds HENRY that he is betrothed to another French girl. He argues that the daughter of the Earl of Armagnac is a better match because she is more closely related to the Dauphin. There are arguments over dowries. SUFFOLK says the king should marry for love, because

“For what is wedlock forcèd but a hell,
An age of discord and continual strife?
Whereas the contrary bringeth bliss,
And is a pattern of celestial peace.”

SUFFOLK gets permission to go back to France and ask Margaret if she will marry the king. He gets the last two lines of the play, which set up a sequel.

“Margaret shall now be queen, and rule the king;
But I will rule both her, the king and realm.”