“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/”

Henry VI, Part 1

An Introduction

By Dennis Abrams


We’ve done two comedies and one tragedy – now it’s time to begin Shakespeare’s first historical play – Henry VI, Part 1.  It’s the first in what is commonly referred to as the “first tetralogy” – the four plays the cover the turbulent period (that’s putting it mildly) of English history through the life and death of Henry VI, his usurpation by Edward IV, and the murderous succession of Edward’s brother, Richard of Gloucester, known to history as Richard III.  (The second tetralogy, written later but covering an earlier period of history, includes Richard II, Henry IV Parts One and Two, and Henry V.   Interestingly, Henry VI begins with the death of Henry V, thus making it in actuality, a complete cycle through English history.)

Date of composition:  Again, as with most of the early plays, the exact date is unknown, but it is believed to have been a highly popular success on the London stage from 1592 onwards.  It is also believed by many (I tend to go along with this) that it was actually written after Parts 2 and 3 as a kind of prequel (more on this later).

Sources:  Raphael Holinshed’s 1587 Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland and Edward Halle’s Union of the Two Noble and Illustrious Families of Lancaster and York (1548) provide the backbone of the story.  Some scenes also derive from Robert Fabyan’s New Chronicle of England and France (1516).

Texts:  The 1623 Folio is the only authoritative text – unlike the other two Henry VI plays, which were published in quarto.


A starting point:  Although it was written up to seven years after Henry VI, Part One, the closing lines of Henry V, give an eloquent and moving description of what will follow the miraculous victory of the English at Agincourt.  The omens are not favorable, the Chorus comments:

Thus far with rough and all-unable pen

            Our bending author hath pursued the story,

In little room confining mighty men,

            Mangling by starts the full course of their glory.

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

Which oft our stage hath shown – and, for their sake,

In your fair minds this acceptance take.

The Chorus’s words muse not just on the historical facts – that England will ‘bleed’ with civil strife following Henry V’s unexpected death – but give the ‘bending author’ pause to look back at his early work.   Henry VI, Part I, which tells of the origins of the War of the Roses, was one of Shakespeare’s first triumphs, and part of the series of three plays that made his name.  His colleague (and possible collaborator) Thomas Nashe wrote admiringly of the play and it’s effect on “ten thousand spectators at least (at several times)” – all were apparently moved to tears by the tragic death of English soldier John Talbot in Act Four – and the series as whole did much to cement Shakespeare’s reputation as one of the best and most adventurous dramatists (or ‘playmakers’ as they were then called) in all of London.  (Perhaps surprisingly, Nashe’s estimate of the side of the crowds was, if anything, too low.  According to the accounts of Philip Henslowe, the owner of the playhouse where it was first performed, many more than ten thousand spectators crowded in to see it.)

At this point in his career, Shakespeare was clearly making a name for himself.  No one had written English history plays on this kind of scale before, although Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine (11587-90) began a fashion for writing multi-decker drama.  Shakespeare’s Henry VI sequence is the only three-part play from that period.  That being said, as I previously noted, many critics think that Henry VI Part One was the last of the trilogy to be written, taking advantage of the success Shakespeare had already achieved with his plays The First Part of the Contention of the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster (now known as Henry VI Part Two), and The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York and the Good King Henry the Sixth (Henry VI Part Three)  If this is true, the young playwright’s decision to write a prequel (is it good to know that such a thing existed even then?) dramatizing the origins of the York-Lancaster conflict was logical enough, both artistically and commercially.

John Heminges and Henry Condell, the actor-editors of the 1623 First Folio placed the (numbered) Henry VI plays in historical order, and by doing so, invited readers to interpret them as a real or intended sequence – a kind of national epic with an internal cohesion reinforced its continuity with the Elizabethan present.


So before we take the plunge, courtesy of Tony Tanner, a crash course in British history from 1399-1485:

“Shakespeare wrote ten English history plays.  Leaving aside King John and Henry VIII, the remaining eight plays cover the period from 1399 (the deposition of Richard II) to 1485 (the death of Richard III at the hands of Bosworth and the accession of Henry VII).  They fall into two tetralogies – in terms of historical chronology they run Richard II, Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, Henry Vi, and Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 and Richard III.  Oddly, Shakespeare wrote the second tetralogy first (1590), and the first one second (1595-9).  But perhaps not so oddly.  Out of the chaos of the Wars of the Roses between the Lancastrians and Yorkists  had emerged the Tudor dynasty, bringing much needed peace and stability (relatively speaking) to England.  By the 1590s the Elizabethans were becoming increasingly worried about who would succeed their childless queen – and how the succession would come about.  The troubles had all started when Richard II died, also leaving no son and heir, thereby triggering nearly a century of contesting usurpations and the nightmare of prolonged civil war.  It is perhaps not surprising that Shakespeare should first choose to make a dramatic exploration of how that nightmare came about, and how it ended with the establishment of Tudor order.  These were comparatively recent events for Shakespeare and his contemporaries, [MY NOTE:  Perhaps, similar to the U.S. Civil War and its continuing impact on our lives in America.] and questions of succession were matters or real urgency.  Shakespeare’s first tetralogy could be seen as dramatizing a warning and concluding with a hope.  In the event, the accession of James VI of Scotland to Elizabeth’s throne was peaceful enough – though of course the nightmare duly returned with the Civil War of 1642-9.  But that is another story.

Before considering how and where Shakespeare found his ‘history’, and what sort of historiography was available to him, I intend to set down some basic historical details for those who, like myself, have some difficulty in getting, and keeping straight some of the whos and whens and whys involved in the historical period he is dramatizing.  More securely grounded historians may safely skip the next few paragraphs.  It is worth remembering that, after Roman Britain, the country fell into a number of kingdoms with many ‘kings.’  (It is possible that in AD 600 English kinds could be counted in dozens.)  Alfred the Great (871-99) was more truly ‘king of the English’ than any ruler before him.  (He was the first writer known to use the word ‘Angelcynn’ – land of the English folk.  ‘Englaland’ does not appear for another century.)  From the time of the Norman Conquest there was a line of legitimate and legitimated kings until the deposition of Richard II.  Richard II, it is important to remember, was the last king ruling by undisputed hereditary right, in direct line from William the Conqueror – ‘the last king of the old medieval order,’ Tillyard calls him.  (In 1327 Richard II was deposed, thus breaking the inviolability of anointed kingship; but his son was crowned in his place, thus maintaining the hereditary principle.)  Of course, what ‘legitimated’ William was primarily successful conquest.  If you follow ‘legitimation’ far enough back, you will invariably come upon some originating or foundational act of appropriating violence which, once in position and in possession, seeks means (call them mystifications if you will) of retrospective self-legitimation.  But that is too large a matter for consideration here.  Suffice it to say that, for the Elizabethans, Richard II was the last truly legitimate king, to be followed by over a century of more and less successful usurpers who ruled de facto rather than de jure,

Not surprisingly, then, the fifteenth century was a particularly turbulent one.  War and murder were seldom far astray.  ‘Towards the end of the fifteen century,. French statesmen were noting with disapproval Englishmen’s habit of deposing and murdering their kings and the children of kings (as happened in 1327, 1399, 1461, 1471, 1483, and 1485) with a regularity unmatched anywhere else in Western Europe.’ (Morgan, p. 192).  There was a growing emphasis on the king’s sovereign authority which was reinforced by the principle (from 1216) that the crown should pass to the eldest son of the dead monarch.  The centralization of power with the king was at the expense of the feudal, regional power of the great landowners – those barons and magnates who are forever jostling around the throne in Shakespeare’s history plays.  If there was intermittent uneasiness and struggle in the court, there was more serious trouble further afield for, under Edward I (1272-1307), England entered into an era of perpetual war.  ‘From Edward I’s reign onwards, there was no decade when Englishmen were not at war, whether overseas or in the British Isles.  Every generation of Englishmen in the later Middle Ages knew the demands, strains, and consequences of war – and more intensely then their forbears’ (Morgan, p. 194)  With France alone there was what has been called the Hundred Years War (1337-1453), never mind problems with the Welsh, Scots, and Irish.  Following on from that was the period of dynastic struggle known as the Wars of the Roses.  And here we need a bit of detail.

Richard II finally alienated too many powerful people by his behaviour and that of his discredited favourites, and in 1399 he was dethroned.  As he was childless, the question was who should now be king?  Who had the strongest claim – who had the most power?  ‘Custom since 1216 had vested the succession in the senior male line, even though thatmight mean a child-king (as in the case of Henry III and Richard II himself).  But there was as yet no acknowledged rule of succession should the senior male line fail.  In 1399, the choice by blood lay between the seven-year-old Earl of March, descended through his grandmother from Edward III’s second son, Lionel, and Henry Bolingbroke, the thirty-three-year-old son of King Edward’s third son, John.  Bolingbroke seized the crown after being assured of support from the Percy family whom Richard had alienated.  But in the extraordinary circumstances created by Richard II’s dethronement and imprisonment, neither March nor Bolingbroke had obviously the stronger claim.  No amount of distortion, concealment, and argument on Bolingbroke’s part could disguise what was a coup d’etat.  Hence, as in the twelfth century, an element of dynastic instability was injected into English politics which contributed to domestic instability and encouraged foreign intrigue and intervention in the following century’  (ibid, p. 221).  For Bolingbroke read ‘Lancastrian’; for March read ‘Yorkist’; and for ‘dynastic instablity’ read – finally – ‘the Wars of the Roses.’  It should also be remembered that, though ‘the Tudor myth’ would have it otherwise, in fact Henry VII had no stronger claim to the throne than Bolingbroke.  The Tudors were simply the third of the three usurping dynasties of the fifteenth century who seized the crown by force.

The Lancastrians ruled from 1399 to 1471 and in many ways enjoyed considerable success both at home and in France.  Under Henry V, and with famous victories at Agincourt (1423), and Verneuil (1424), the English acquired a considerable portion of France.  But under Henry VI, who reigned from 1422-1461 (he briefly reigned again from 1470 to 1471, in which year he was, almost certainly, murdered in the Tower), the Lancastrian rule disintegrated; nearly all the land in France was lost; and, what with squabbling magnates, and a popular uprising in 1450, everything was going wrong.   The Yorkists took over in 1461, and throughout the 1470s, under Edward IV, England enjoyed a period of relative stability and peace.  But, when Edward IV died in 1483, his son and heir, also Edward, was only twelve.  After nearly a century in which the most ruthless dynastic ambition had manifested itself in the bloodiest of ways, the time was ripe for the emergence of the most unprincipled schemer of them all, Richard of Gloucester, who made no bones about having his nephew murdered and seizing his crown – to become, of course, Richard III.  His brutal reign lasted only two years before he was killed at Bosworth Field on 22 August 1485 – by Henry Tudor, from Wales by way of France.  Henry VII, as he was to become, had two signal advantages.  He was the only one of the fifteenth century usurpers to kill his childless predecessor in battle.  And, most importantly, he was supported by the Yorkists who had become disillusioned by the increasingly impossible Richard.  But we should heed the historian’s point.  ‘The Wars of the Roses came close to destroying the hereditary basis of the English monarchy, and Henry Tudor’s seizure of the crown hardly strengthened it.  Henry posed as the representative and inheritor of both Lancaster and York, but in reality he became king, and determined to remain king, by his own efforts.’  (Morgan, p. 236).

Having said which, we may also note the historian’s opinion that ‘there is much to be said for the view that England was economically healthier, more expansive, and more optimistic under the Tudors than at any time since the Roman occupation of Britain.’  When Henry VIII died in 1547, there was another of those dreaded power vacuums at the centre; and for the next two years there was rioting nearly everywhere, and there were many disturbances during the short reigns of Edward VI and Mary.  It is perhaps not surprising that when Elizabeth was crowned in 1558 her coronation slogan was ‘concord.’  And perhaps not surprising, too, that in the 1590s, with her death just around the corner, so to speak (she was born in 1533), many people fearfully wondered whether they might not be in for another packet of upheaval and dissension – like the Wars of the Roses.  When Shakespeare was writing his history plays, ‘Englaland’ was very far from being a complacent country.  Stability, peace, and ‘concord’ could by no means be taken for granted.  If anything, just the reverse was true.

In this connection, one other momentous historical event should be mentioned here.  Between 1533 and 1536, by a series of Acts (including the Act of Supremacy and the First Act of Succession – 1534; and, finally, the Act against the Pope’s Authority – 1536), Henry VIII and his parliament broke free of Rome, so that all English jurisdiction, both secular and religious, henceforward came from the king, and the last traces of Papal power were eliminated.  England became a Protestant nation (soon to produce its own schism in the fiery post-reformation form of the disaffected ‘Puritans.’)  But Cathoics and Catholicism did not disappear overnight.  Far from it.  It is worth remembering that Catholicism still predominated at the time of Elizabeth’s accession, and throughout her reign there were constant fears of Catholic intrigue and an awareness of the real dangers of a Catholic coalition (which could bring in the Papacy, Spain, and France) against England.  Mary Stuart was finally executed in 1587, a year before the defeat of the Spanish Armada.  But the possibility of other Catholic plots was felt to be a constant one.  That was where the next War of the Roses might come from.  And it is just around this time – two years after the Armada – that Shakespeare began to write his history plays.


Our next reading:  Henry VI, Part One, Act One.

My next post:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday Morning


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4 Responses to “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/”

  1. I have seen this performed several times by the UT students in the barn at Winedale. I am glad of this chance to learn more of the meaning behind the performances.

  2. MaryKay Porter says:

    I would like to add one more comment about Titus A. I have seen the Taymore film which I really enjoyed. Thanks for letting us know about it. There’s something about that movie that put the play into perspective for me. I wish everyone could see it! I also viewed Titus: Bonus Disc. I found it on Netflix. It is 1 1/2 hours chocked-full of features. The 30 minute conversation with Julie Tamor was fascinating, and the documentary, “The Making of Titus,” was extremely interesting. Taymor said in order to make the film, she had to have a sense of humor as Shakespeare did. She continued to say that this was Shakespeare’s hit–his revenge tragedy. Fascinating info!!!!

    • MaryKay: Thanks for your comments and for reading along with us. I agree — the film works well. And now I’m going to have to back and watch the documentary on the making of…


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