Plot summary and commentary
The edition used in this commentary is William Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part One, edited by Michael Taylor, Oxford World’s Classics, general editor Stanley Wells, 2004, reprint, 2008. Page and line numbers refer to this edition.
Act 1, Scene 1
The play opens with the funeral of King Henry V, who preceded King Henry VI as monarch of England. Attending the funeral are various prominent nobles and churchmen, who reflect on what the king’s death means to England. The Duke of Bedford is Regent of France, a reference to England’s conquest of some territories of France during Henry V’s reign. The Duke of Gloucester is described as the Protector. The Protector (of the Realm) is a person who rules temporarily on behalf of a monarch who is too young to rule in his own right until he comes of age. Henry VI is at this point still a boy.
Also in attendance at the funeral are the Duke of Exeter, the Earl of Warwick, the Bishop of Winchester, and the Duke of Somerset.
Both Bedford and Gloucester say that Henry V was the worthiest king of all time and a great military leader who conquered England’s enemies (this refers to the French). The nobles see Henry V’s death as a tragedy for the country, marking the end of England’s period of glorious conquest in France.
A squabble breaks out among the nobles. Exeter wonders if the French have killed Henry V by bewitching him. Winchester says that Henry V was successful because he was strengthened by churchmen’s prayers, but Gloucester replies that the churchmen hastened his end by praying against him. He adds that Winchester would prefer an effeminate and weak prince to one with a mind of his own. Winchester accuses Gloucester of caring more about pandering to his wife’s ambition than about God. Gloucester accuses Winchester of being ungodly.
Bedford tries to make peace by summoning the nobles to the altar. There, they will lay down their arms, which are useless now that Henry V is dead. Bedford fears that a terrible time is coming when all the men will have been killed (presumably in the civil wars that he predicts) and only women are left to mourn the dead.
Bedford is interrupted by a messenger, who adds to the sense of a nation shamed by announcing that the English have lost many of the towns in France that were conquered by Henry V. The cause, adds the messenger, was a lack of men and money for the army in France. The nobles are dismayed. Bedford, who is Regent of France, calls for his armor so that he can go to France and fight for the return of the lost towns.
A second messenger enters with worse news. France has revolted against its English occupiers and Charles the Dauphin (Dauphin is the French term for the eldest son of the reigning monarch) has been crowned king. Other prominent royals and nobles have joined Charles, including the Bastard of Orléans; Reignier, Duke of Anjou; and the Duke of Alençon. Exeter, Gloucester and Bedford vow to raise an army, go to France, and reclaim the lost towns.
A third messenger arrives and says that Lord Talbot, a renowned English military leader, has suffered a serious defeat at Orléans. Despite his lack of men and weapons, Talbot fought courageously for hours. But he was betrayed by the cowardice of Sir John Fastolf, who was supposed to provide backup to Talbot but fled instead. Talbot was then stabbed in the back by a soldier fighting for the French. He is still alive but has been taken prisoner, along with other nobles. Bedford says he will set off for France to ransom Talbot. He says he will take ten thousand men with him to launch a fresh offensive against the French. The messenger says that the English army has grown weak from lack of supplies. The Earl of Salisbury, one of the leaders of the English forces, faces imminent mutiny by his men.
Exeter reminds the other nobles of their vows to Henry V to crush the Dauphin or make him recognize the authority of England. Bedford leaves to get ready for his journey to France. Gloucester says he will proclaim young Henry VI king. Exeter leaves to make arrangements to keep Henry VI safe. Left alone onstage, Winchester reveals to the audience in a soliloquy (a speech made by one character which only the audience hears) his plot to kidnap the young king and make himself the ruler of England.
The action of Henry VI, Part One describes the events following the death of King Henry V of England. Shakespeare takes artistic licence in telescoping the historical periods of the Siege of Orléans (1428–1429), which marked a turning point in the Hundred Years War (1337–1453), with the beginning of the Wars of the Roses (1455–1485). In these decades, England lost many of its territories in France, and Henry VI, Part One examines the reasons for this.
In Shakespeare’s play the Hundred Years War in general and the Siege of Orléans in particular are portrayed as a war between the French and the English. However, it is more historically accurate to say that it was a war between two royal houses in competition for the throne of France. The two royal houses were the House of Valois, which was based in France, and the House of Plantagenet, also known as the House of Anjou, which had been based in and ruled England since the 12th century. However, both houses originated in France: the House of Plantagenet originated from the French regions of Anjou and Normandy. Contrary to the impression given in Henry VI, Part One, French soldiers fought on both sides in the Hundred Years War.
During the Hundred Years War, it was customary for the monarchs of England to describe themselves as King of England and France. Henry VI, a Plantagenet, followed this practice. France, however, saw the French-based House of Valois as its rightful monarchs, and a French king was in place throughout the period.
Henry V of England, Henry VI’s father, was a Plantagenet king who achieved a famous victory against larger numbers at the Battle of Agincourt (1415). In English history – a history that Shakespeare helped create through his history plays – Henry V was viewed as a great military hero who expanded England’s greatness through his conquest of France. He was considered by the English to be King of both England and France. The French, however, had their own royal line which they believed to be the legitimate rulers of France.
Henry VI, in contrast with his illustrious father, was seen by English chroniclers as a weak king who was responsible for losing England’s French conquests. His weakness is only partly explained by the fact that he is a young boy when the play opens. Even after Henry reaches his majority, Shakespeare portrays him as an ineffectual man of words who is incapable of decisive and successful action.
The scene is set for this interpretation of history by the play’s opening, which shows the funeral of the great King Henry V. This is not portrayed as simply the death of one man, but as an event of cosmic and universal significance: the heavens and comets join in the lamentation. Bedford’s lament that “England ne’er lost a king of so much worth” (line 7) suggests that Henry V’s death marks the end of a glorious era for England and the arrival of a degraded era. Gloucester reinforces this impression by recalling Henry V as a hero of legendary strength, power, and standing (line 11: “His arms spread wider than a dragon’s wings”; line 16: “He ne’er lift up his hand but conquered”).
This age of glory, this scene suggests, has died with Henry V. In contrast, the present is characterized by an absent king (King Henry VI does not appear until much later in the play) and a group of squabbling nobles. The country is suffering from a lack of strong leadership and a nobility characterized by division and rancor. In Elizabethan society, the nobility or aristocracy formed the next lower stratum of society under the monarch.
The aristocracy had military roots. It was descended from the warriors who helped the invading Norman king, William the Conqueror, defeat the Anglo-Saxon King Harold and conquer England in 1066. William had rewarded his warriors with huge landholdings or manors and gave them titles associated with the places where these manors were located. The titles were hereditary and descended down the generations, usually through the first-born son. Hence characters in the play like the Dukes of Gloucester and Bedford would have been descended from the warriors who were given manors located near the towns of Gloucester and Bedford, respectively.
Even in Shakespeare’s time, the aristocracy had a strong military role. Each noble was expected to raise an army at the monarch’s request from among the tenants of his manor. Loyalty to the monarch was therefore the chief aristocratic duty.
In his plays, Shakespeare consistently supported the traditional ideals of the aristocracy: chivalry, honor, selfless loyalty to the monarch, and a willingness to enforce his or her policies through military means. He saw the monarch, and beneath him, the aristocracy, as the leaders of society. Disorder in the uppermost strata of society, according to Shakespeare’s essentially conservative world view, always bodes ill for the state as a whole.
Thus in Henry VI, Part One, Bedford’s suggestion that he and his fellow nobles lay down their arms at the altar during Henry V’s funeral would have been shocking for those among Shakespeare’s audience who supported the aristocratic ideal. It would have been almost equivalent to a monarch abdicating. Essentially, the nobles are resigning from their job. The suggestion is that the aristocratic values of honor and chivalry have died with Henry V.
There is a strong anxiety in Shakespeare’s plays about the breakdown of the old order of rule by the monarch and aristocracy. While the Henry VI plays are set in an earlier time, Shakespeare was in the habit of placing the concerns of his own time into the period that he was portraying in a play. In Shakespeare’s time, and correspondingly in his Henry VI plays, the old order was under threat from the rise of the middle classes, or “new men”, as they were called. The rise of the middle classes was enabled by the spread of education and the growth of trade, among other factors (see Themes). Monarchs such as Henry VIII (Elizabeth I’s father) and Elizabeth I employed humbly-born but talented men as their advisors, leading to resentment from nobly-born courtiers, who felt that their rightful position close to the monarch had been usurped.
The middle classes’ values were very different from the old aristocratic values and hinged around entrepreneurship, individualism, self-interest, and the accumulation of wealth. Shakespeare shows suspicion of these values and frequently attacks personal ambition and financial greed in his plays. Thus the nobles’ accusations in Henry VI, Part One, Act 1, scene 1, of motivations of self-interest and personal ambition show Shakespeare’s unease about these values and the way they seem to be changing society.
In the play, the sense of decay in the state is reinforced by Winchester’s reference to Gloucester’s wife’s ambition, which he suggests is what drives Gloucester. The idea that the real power in the nation lay with the Protector’s wife would have been subversive to the Elizabethans. This was true despite the fact that the reigning monarch of Shakespeare’s time was both a woman and a successful ruler, Queen Elizabeth I. It is worth noting in this regard that even the formidable Elizabeth felt that she had to reassure her subjects that she had “the heart and stomach of a king”: in other words, the qualities of a man.
Whereas Elizabeth was, in her own eyes and the eyes of most of her subjects, a divinely appointed and approved ruler, Gloucester’s wife lacks Elizabeth’s legitimacy as a power holder. She occupies a secretive and duplicitous role in the shadows of her husband.
In Henry VI, Part One, women generally occupy the role of sinister and untrustworthy influences who use devious and illicit means to influence people and events, as will be seen in the character of Joan la Pucelle (more commonly known as Joan of Arc).
The First Messenger’s announcement of England’s loss of its conquests in France telescopes twenty-five years of history into a theatrical instant. This is typical of Shakespeare’s lack of adherence to the theatrical unities that were popular in French drama but that failed to take root in English drama. The three unities, of time, place, and action were rules of drama revived from ancient Greek drama.
Unity of time demanded that the time the play took to present on stage accurately reflected the time that the events presented in the play would have taken if happening in real life. It was not therefore not permissible to telescope several days’ or years’ worth of events into one play or into one instant, as Shakespeare does here.
Unity of place meant that the play could only represent one place and that all the action should occur in that place. It was not permissible to skip between, say, the English court and France, as Shakespeare does in Henry VI, Part One.
Unity of action meant that the play had to represent a single, coherent string of events, rather than jumping between different narrative threads. Again, Shakespeare ignored this rule. Shakespeare cared nothing for rules that limited the scope of his drama.
The three messengers’ bad news from France does succeed in galvanizing what remains of any commonality of purpose among the nobles, who rush off variously to ensure the young King Henry VI’s safety and to head for France to try to reclaim the lost empire. But the initial impression of disunity among these nobles is confirmed when Winchester reveals to the audience his secret plot to kidnap the king and seize power for himself. The seeds of civil war have been sown. Having such an enemy within, England is unlikely to possess the necessary solidarity to defeat the enemy without, France.