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Henry VI - The Wars of the Roses

From English History in Shakespeare's Plays, by Beverley Ellison Warner. New York: Longmans, Green & Co.

Introduction

The first part of the play has few friends for its Shakespearean authorship. But if he is not the author of this as well as of Parts II and III, there are reasons for inferring that he is at least the editor or adapter, to as great an extent as may be claimed for him in the play of King John. These reasons are:

First, The significance of the last Chorus of Henry v, in which the events of this Part I are indicated after the same fashion as the Chorus is employed throughout that play.

Second, The introduction of the dead King Henry at its beginning, and the historical and dramatic connection thus established with the preceding play.

Third, The anti-French spirit of this Part, in harmony with Shakespeare's method and custom throughout the play.

Fourth, The fact that these three Parts were alike attributed to Shakespeare by the editors of the First Folio, who were in better position to judge of the matter, not only than the critics of our own day, but of the critics of their own day. They were Shakespeare's friends, managers, and business associates. Better than any one else in England they must have known what came from the poet's pen. There is a vital connection, too, between the three Parts. The foreign affairs of England treated in Part I, are necessary to an understanding of the domestic troubles with which Parts II and III are occupied. We conclude, therefore, that for purposes of historical study, at all events, this Part I is necessary to Parts II and III, and that in all probability the hand that penned the latter had a large share, at least, in the composition of the former.

The play as a whole covers the whole reign of Henry VI, from the death of his father, in 1422, to his own death, in 1471, and includes also a portion of the reign of Edward IV, first king of the rival house of York.

The three pivots around which the discordant order of events revolve, are marked by three names:

I. Joan of Arc, and the loss of the French conquests of Henry V; II. Jack Cade, as one of the moving springs of civil dissension; and III. Warwick the King-maker, the last of the great barons, who in his own powerful person revived for a time the fading glory of Feudalism, and with whose death at Barnet it expired forever.

It is in vain that we attempt to unravel the anachronisms in these plays. For dates and accurate notation any English history may be read. It is our place and purpose only to show how brilliantly the poet illustrates the spirit of the age he treats, although often at the expense of the letter of history. One should not read Shakespeare for the history, but having read the history Shakespeare seems to make us understand it the better. The author of the popular history of the English people pays this tribute to the poet anent the period we have now in hand: "It is a story well known to the English people, for it has been told in the dramatic form by a great historical teacher. History, strictly so called, the history derived from Rolls and Statutes, must 'pale its ineffectual fire' in the sunlight of the poet."

In the opening scene of the play we catch the muffled sound of a dead march rolling through the aisles, and rising in moaning melody to the vaulted roof of Westminster Abbey. The body of the hero of Agincourt, the conqueror of the French, lies in state. His son, a babe but nine months old, holds in his weak hands the heavy sceptre of two kingdoms. Shakespeare, the artist and hero-worshipper, is at his best in the conception, if not in the execution, of this dramatic touch. England's song of triumph is turned into a wail of woe.
Hung be the heavens with black ...
England ne'er lost a king of so much worth. (1.1.1)
Two short years only of undimmed glory abroad and at home after the treaty of Troyes, did Henry V enjoy. In these he completed the practical conquest of France in alliance with the Duke of Burgundy. Shortly after his death the feeble Charles of France also passed away, and under the treaty of Troyes, which we saw signed in the last chapter, the infant Henry VI succeeded, not to the regency, but to the actual crown of France. For a time the Duke of Bedford as regent easily maintained the English claim, but it was an unnatural state of affairs that could not last. The Dauphin proclaimed himself as Charles VII, and began that struggle for his hereditary throne to which the name of Joan of Arc lends such romance.

The first act of Henry VI is a forecast of the whole play. In the very lamentations of churchmen and nobles over the body of their late king, and growing out of the death of him who alive had bound all together by a strong hand, we hear the notes of mutual suspicion; and anon the clashing of factions. While Exeter and Gloucester boast of the glory of arms, lamenting the king's "brandished sword," and "arms spread wider than a dragon's wings," the Bishop of Winchester declares: "The church's prayers made him so prosperous." To which the soldier returns a cutting retort. Bedford, who was regent of France, as the proper dramatic mouth-piece, is forced to cry: "Cease, cease these jars and rest your mind in peace." Then follows messenger after messenger from France bringing the intelligence which for the first few years of Henry VI's minority was wafted with every wind across the Channel from French fields to English ears.

The Dauphin was proving himself the worthy descendant of a long line of kings. The people of France who had yielded to the prowess of a great soldier and gallant prince, the husband, moreover, of their own fair princess, Katharine, irked under a foreign yoke when held in place by a babe in arms. They began to renounce the English domination and to return to their natural allegiance.

Burgundy could not control all France for England, although for a time he fought alongside of the successors-in-arms of the English prince to whom he had sworn fealty.

And Bedford had been at first successful. He had pushed the English pennon into many a corner of France where the fleur-de-lis alone had waved for sovereignty. He was hampered in his movements at first by a quarrel between the Duke of Gloucester and the Duke of Burgundy. But this settled, and with Burgundy once more to aid him, he pursued his aggressive policy, and sat down with ten thousand troops before Orleans.

Charles VII was at his wit's end to retain the city. He was so weakened that he could not move. France, from gradually beginning to take heart of hope, was almost in despair for means to combat the English and Burgundian allies. What should be done? The answer came from a quarter as remote as unexpected.

Joan of Arc

The peasantry of France suffered as no other class from the unnatural divisions of her great nobles and the strides of horrid war. Within the heart of the common people lay shame and sorrow over the English rule and the Burgundian alliance. The words of the Maid of Orleans to the duke, when persuading him to forsake the enemies of his country and cast in his lot where both patriotism and piety beckoned him, fairly, and with no exaggeration, expressed the mind of the people upon whom lay the burden, and in whose sides were the wounds of war, while they had none of the glory that attended camps and courts.
Look on thy country, look on fertile France,
And see the cities and the towns defaced
By wasting ruin of the cruel foe;
As looks the mother on her lovely babe
When death doth close her tender dying eyes.
See, see, the pining malady of France,
Behold the wounds, the most unnatural wounds
Which thou thyself hath given her woeful breast.
O, turn thy edged sword another way,
Strike those that hurt, and hurt not those that help. (3.3)
So thought and felt, doubtless, the mass of the French people. In the countryside lived a simple maid who "saw visions and dreamed dreams." She felt the shock and saw the miseries of war. Her soul was in arms for her country. What could she do, a child, the daughter of a shepherd, without credit, without interest. What she did do is one of the marvels of history.

It is the greatest of all pities that Shakespeare read his chronicles too closely, and in this instance especially, transferred from their naturally biased pages, a picture of Joan of Arc, so grossly untrue and unfair, that one is reconciled to the theory that he did not conceive the Joan of his drama, and perhaps even softened down the ruder strokes of another brush. The genius which could analyze the grief of Constance, open the infinite depths of a woman's heart as in Katharine of Aragon, and exploit the shining tenderness of Portia, could apparently see nothing in the mission of Joan of Arc, save what he caught through the narrow and distorted view of insular prejudice and the hateful anger of a people against a despised but victorious foe.



In the whole treatment of Joan there is little to indicate her true historic character. She came up from her village and sought her king. Despised at first, the superstitions of the age finally gained her a hearing. At the head of an army she relieves Orleans. At the head of another she leads the Dauphin to Rheims where he is crowned and anointed King of France. Then she would withdraw, but her name had become an inspiration to the army, and the king holds her to his service. The haps of war varied now. The Duke of Burgundy pursued some small successes against Charles, but Joan had revealed to the king and people of France their own strength. The contest is a stubborn one. In the midst of it, and while on the whole favorable to France, the Maid of Orleans is taken prisoner by a band of partisans; is sold to Burgundy; is sold by him in turn to the English, and by the English, after a year's imprisonment, tried and condemned for sorcery, is burned at the stake, while an English cardinal stands by consenting to the shameful act.

History has crowned her with the crown of martyrdom. "We have burned a saint," cried out one of the soldiers who stood about the burning stake. And still her place in history is not a settled one. [The Church of Rome has but recently canonized her.] Note now, as worth study, the character-drawing of the English poet.

In her introduction to Charles of France, she is made to assume an arrogant and boastful tone, even as regards her personal appearance, totally at variance with the modest faith of one who believed herself inspired of God to do her country service. Of the vision of the Virgin, Joan says:
In complete glory she revealed herself.
And whereas I was black and swart before,
With those clear rays which she infused on me,
That beauty am I blessed with which you see.
Ask me what question thou canst possible
And I will answer unpremeditated:
My courage try by combat, if thou dar'st,
And thou shalt find that I exceed my sex.
Resolve on this, thou shalt be fortunate
If thou receive me for thy warlike mate. (1.2)
And again she is made to boast:
Now am I like that proud insulting ship
Which Caesar and his fortunes bare at once. (1.2)
The English were taught to look upon the maid as a witch; no difficult matter in those times, and for some generations later. Shakespeare expresses this feeling, which undoubtedly laid fast hold upon the imagination of the soldiery, officers and men alike, in Talbot's savage apostrophe:
Here, here she comes, I'll have a bout with thee,
Devil, or devil's dam, I'll conjure thee!
Blood will I draw on thee, thou art a witch,
And straightway give thy soul to him thou serv'st. (1.5)
And the Duke of Bedford, regent and general in chief of the English troops, thus speaks concerning Charles, the French prince, whom Joan crowned at Rheims:
Coward of France, how much he wrongs his fame,
Despising his own arms' fortitude,
To join with witches, and the help of hell. (2.1)
There is a contemptible assumption all through the play, also, that the Maid was not pure in her honor. Scene Fourth of the Fifth Act, in which she is made to confess the shamefullest of all shameful things for woman's lips, is a brazen violation both of decency and of historic truth. But we can fancy the pit of an Elizabethan theatre ringing with applause at the atrocious falsehoods.

The scene in which the Maid has an interview with fiends, in which even they, familiar spirits of darkness, forsake her, is a fitting prelude to the language she is made to use concerning both her allies and her enemies, after she is taken prisoner.

The Duke of York makes an insulting speech concerning her and the French prince which would have turned the real Maid speechless with shame and pale with horror; the poet's Joan answers in kind:
Puc. A plaguing mischief light on Charles and thee,
And may ye both be suddenly surprised
By bloody hands in sleeping on your beds.

York. Fell, banning hag. Enchantress hold thy tongue.

Puc. I prithee give me leave to curse awhile.
Now this is not the Joan of Arc of history nor of poetry. It is an English tradition above which apparently the dramatist could not rise on account of his audience.

We must not suppose, however, that Shakespeare is without apologists for his treatment of the Maid of Orleans.

Charles Knight, who speaks with authority, declares that the poet idealizes the character from what is found in the chronicles concerning her. And up to the scene already alluded to, when she makes the inconsistent and contradictory assertions about her honor, Knight calmly alleges, "But in all previous scenes Shakespeare has drawn the character of the Maid with an undisguised sympathy for her courage, her patriotism, her high intellect, and her enthusiasm. If she had been the defender of England and not of France, the poet could not have invested her with higher attributes." [Knight's Studies of Shakespeare, Bk. IV, Ch. 4.]

Knight's rapturous admiration is buttressed by one argument as follows:
"Neither the patriotism nor the superstition of Shakespeare's age would have endured that the Pucelle should have been dismissed from the scene, without vengeance taken on imagined crimes, or that confession should not be made by her which should exculpate the authors of her death. Shakespeare has conducted her history up to the point where she is handed over to the stake. Other writers would have burned her upon the scene." [Ibid.]
This is a refinement of distinction without difference which seems to me to have few equals as a bit of special pleading. Her honor is stabbed, her modesty travestied, her humility veneered, her firm faith in God as her inspiration turned into an incantation scene with fiends, and because to this is not added that she is literally burnt at the stake on the scenic stage, we are to beheve that the English poet was above and beyond the harsh spirit of his age in the delicacy with which he treats her dramatic career.

Again Mr. Knight says, in extenuation of his adoration of Shakespeare, "It is in her mouth (Joan's) that he puts his choicest thoughts and most musical verse." [Ibid.]

But surely this is not a legitimate deduction. He puts in the mouth of one of the basest of English kings that fine outburst against the usurped authority of Rome, beginning:
What earthly name to interrogatories
Can task the free breath of a sacred king?
The same king gave away the crown and honor of England to the pope, and received it back as a fief of the Holy See. Shakespeare's estimate of Joan's character must be found in her own words concerning herself, her mission, and her deeds. And judged by that standard we fail to find a basis for Knight's laudatory comment. The real reason was, as we have already noted, the state of the English mind, the demands of the patrons of the theatre, and the evident purpose of Shakespeare to put upon the stage, plays that would fire the English heart with enthusiasm, and draw shillings from the English purse. This is not a hard view to take if we look upon Shakespeare as a man; if we conceive of him as a demigod who could do no weak or faulty thing, the criticism, of course, falls to the ground....

Jack Cade's Rebellion

So Suffolk was banished, and in Scene 1 of Act IV his strange fate is told. Leaving England for exile, doubtless dreaming of a return through Margaret's influence, he was taken prisoner by an English warship, and disappeared forever. The poet deals with him more savagely, and at the hands of the people, to indicate apparently that the people were the real cause of the powerful favorite's overthrow. And we are at once led by this incident to one of the great preliminary movements and active agents in promoting the strife of Lancaster and York, in the person of Jack Cade, and the socialism of the fifteenth century.

Jack Cade is one of the strange figures of romantic history, whose cause after this lapse of time cannot be accurately judged. By some he was looked upon as a patriot; by others as a rebel; by many as a hero; by many as a rogue. The movement which he headed had for its object political reform. The closest investigation leads us to the conclusion that the religious ferment of Lollardry at the same time had nothing to do with Cade's rebellion. It was a rising of the peasants, under the leadership of a shrewd soldier, who called himself Mortimer, for the purpose of exciting feeling against the House of Lancaster, and perhaps at the instigation of the Yorkist faction, to prepare the way for the Duke of York's claim upon the throne, as heir of the Mortimers. The Kentishmen were dwellers in the manufacturing district, and the sudden cessation of the French wars had wrought them harm. The complaint of the commons of Kent, according to the chronicles, called for "administrative and economical reforms; a change of ministry, a more careful expenditure of the royal revenue, and the restoration of the freedom of election."

These were not excessive claims surely. A victory over the royal troops, a quick march upon London, and the execution of Lord Say, gave Cade and his insurgents prestige. The Royal Council yielded in form to their demands, and against Cade's advice the malcontents disbanded. He still carried on the war, and opened jails for his soldiers, but the undisciplined host quarrelled among themselves, and deserted in numbers. Cade was finally killed by a civil officer, amd the revolt came to an end with no advantage to the commons of Kent or of England.

Shakespeare touches upon but one side of this rebellion, its absurd and illogical side. He was sorely in need of comedy for the tragic drama of Henry VI and pitched upon the social and political heresies of fifteenth century socialism to provide it.

Flippantly as he thus seems to treat a movement of respectable proportions and for desirable ends, we cannot fail to read in the speeches of these lath-carrying heroes, a good deal of the bathos and lurid rhetoric with which our own times are more or less familiar. We need not find in this use of the Cade revolt an argument, as many do, to buttress the position that Shakespeare was an aristocrat, despising the people. It is too large a subject to more than advert to here. But while in this instance he does not even state Cade's side fairly, he does, what he doubtless intended as an artist, relieve the gloom of his drama; and as an historian, presents one true, if absurd, side of the movement.

Jack Cade's preposterous claim to a royal pedigree, descendant of the Plantagenets and Mortimers, did not deceive his allies; the very making of it was a stultification of the words of his followers that "there never was merry world in England since gentlemen came up." (Part II. 4.2)

We notice that as soon as the rebel leader comes to power he is as arrogant as the bluest-blooded noble, and will strike a man dead for not addressing him as Lord Mortimer. This savors of modern times. Position and money make even anarchists conservative of their own — which is anarchistic heresy. As always, the unthinking people believe all things of all men if only they can have a try at upsetting the standing order of things. "Be brave, then," cries Cade, "for your captain is brave and vows reformation. There shall be in England seven halfpenny loaves sold for a penny, the three-hooped pot shall have ten hoops, and I will make it felony to drink small beer." (Part II. 2.4)

A bright thought occurs to Dick the butcher. "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." And Cade's answer, extravagantly expressed as it is, does most curiously indicate the mental attitude of the peasantry of that day, and of all people who think little and read not at all, toward instruments and institutions of whose origin or raison d'etre they are in total ignorance. "Is not this a lamentable thing, that of the skin of an innocent lamb should be made parchment? that parchment, scribbled over, should undo a man?" (Ibid.)

The demagogue has the ignorance of his audience on his side. He has in behalf of his appeals that sullen jealousy of the masses who are conscious of classes, that is, of a caste above them and more accomplished. That a man can write and read and cast accounts is monstrous to the peasants who never hold a book save in awe, or a pen without fear of sorcery. So Cade's main charge against Lord Say, who was the chief noble sacrificed in this uprising, is hardly exaggerated: "Thou hast most traitorously corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar school; and whereas, before, our fathers had no other book but the score and the tally, thou hast caused printing to be used; and contrary to the king, his crown and dignity, thou hast erected a paper mill. It will be proved to thy face that thou hast men about thee that usually talk of a noun, and a verb, and such abominable words as no Christian ear can endure to hear." (Part II. 4.7)

There was no escape from death when such charges were treason, and Lord Say died. But such revolts also die of their own fevers and wounds. Cade moralizes over the fickleness of his followers in a strain with which again we are made familiar throughout these chronicle plays: "Was ever feather so lightly blown to and fro as this multitude? The name of Henry V hales them to a hundred mischiefs, and leaves me desolate." (Part II. 4.8)

[Note, A century later, in 1671, Sir William Berkeley, Governor of Virginia, wrote home to England, "I thank God there are no free schools or printing, and I hope we shall not have them these hundred years. For learning has brought heresy and disobedience and sects into the world, and printing has divulged them and libels against the best government. God keep us from both." — Douglas Campbell's "Puritan in Holland, England and America," vol. i., p. 32.]

Meanwhile the Yorkist cause begins to lift its head above the troubled surface of the nation's life. The York faction was accused of using Jack Cade to foment discontent and make people familiar with the name of Mortimer, through whom the Duke of York claimed inheritance. Shakespeare notices this in Scene 2 of Act IV, when Stafford says: "Jack Cade, the Duke of York hath taught you this," and although Cade answers in an aside, "He lies, for I invented it myself," it is not conclusive. It is altogether probable that as York used the death of Gloucester, the attainder of Suffolk, and the quarrels of the Churchmen of the period, so he used these discontents of the people to foment dissention and further his own schemes.

Poor Henry VI is in a constant state of lamentation. He is no sooner well rid of Cade than the dire news comes of York's march with the Irish troops, to ostensibly remove the Duke of Somerset from power, but really to assert his own claims to the throne.
But now is Cade drawn back, his men dispersed,
And now is York in arms to second him.
* * * * * * * *
Was never subject long'd to be a king
As I do long and wish to be a subject.
This was literally true. Henry has more fire and force in the play than he had in history. But he was not fit to govern the England of the fifteenth century. He would have found his place in the nineteenth rather. Royalty for its pomp and show and power was never dear to him. His books and his beads were more precious than sceptre and crown. He realizes this, and dimly, too, as Shakespeare hints, he feels that his feebleness is hurtful to the realm:
Come, wife, let's in and learn to govern better,
For yet may England curse my wretched reign.
We can but briefly touch upon the details of the furious wars that culminated in these last days of Henry VI, although they were brewing as far back as Richard II. On the one hand is the House of Lancaster with Henry VI and his son Edward, Prince of Wales, the centre of a group of nobles, whose interest, ambition, and loyalty cause them to wear the blood Red Rose of the reigning house. The martial spirit of this party is Margaret of Anjou, patient, revengeful, terrible; fascinating and attractive for her high courage and splendid hope.

On the other hand is Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, with his sons, Edward (afterwards the Fourth), Edmund Rutland, who dies early in the strife, George, afterwards the "false, fleeting, perjured Clarence," and ablest, most unscrupulous, self-contained of all, Richard Gloster, the hunchback duke, afterwards known to infamy as Richard III. The guiding spirit of this house, among a host of others who wore the milk White Rose of York, was Warwick, well named the King-maker.

Warwick, the King-Maker

When once the shock of battle is joined, Henry VI drops out of the actual contest, save as he is taken up, first by one and then the other of these factions, who shrouded their own ambitions beneath his robe of royalty. He is simply a shuttlecock. Margaret and Warwick are the master-hands in this game of war. The claims of York are urged upon Henry and Parliament, after various skirmishes and battles in which the pretender to the throne is usually worsted. The Parliament of 1560 at length came to a compromise as the only way of settling a question that promised to distract the land interminably. This was that Henry should reign for life, and that York and his heirs should succeed to the crown. We can imagine the maternal fury of Margaret, who was away from London when this grave matter was discussed and settled. By this pact her son was robbed of his rights forever. She loses no time, but flies to arms, and in the battle of Wakefield the Duke of York is slain, and his son Edward succeeds to his pretensions.

Margaret let slip the fruit of her victory to indulge her revengeful nature in some executions, and the young Edward, dropping the mask of loyalty to Henry VI, marches upon London, is proclaimed rightful king, and once more the fierce contention comes to shock of battle, at Towton. Here Warwick for the Yorkists won a great battle, one of the bloodiest in English history. Henry and Margaret fled away. Edward IV was crowned king, and but for a feeble struggling moment or two of seeming power afterwards under the powerful banner of Warwick who now opposed them, the Lancastrians passed into obscurity. The House of Plantagenet was still upon the throne, but the usurpation of Bolingbroke was avenged, and the York branch resumed the seat which belonged to it of hereditary right.

Edward is variously described as a soldier and a voluptuary. He was a mixture, not strange, of both. That he fought bravely ever is beyond doubt. That he was ever fond of "silken dalliance" is equally so. Warwick had made him, and literally had placed him on the throne. He deserved some consideration, but Edward thought he asked too much.

While the great baron is at the court of France suing for the hand of the French princess for the English king, Edward takes the bit in his royal teeth, and marries off-hand a lady of the court whose modest beauty charmed and captivated him. Margaret and Warwick are both suppliants now before the throne of Louis of France, but in what different case. Margaret a discrowned queen, her husband a willing hermit in exile, her son, for whom she pleads, a beggar at her side. She has little enough to offer in the way of alliance with the proud French sovereign.

Warwick, on the other hand, is empowered to offer the hand of one of the greatest kings of Christendom to the daughter of France. Margaret sues with tears and promises; Warwick with gallant smiles and gold. What wonder Warwick wins. It was an age when on the surface of things might made right.

But just at the moment when this "proud setter-up and puller-down" is carrying all before him, Margaret has a strange and unexpected victory. News out of England. Edward's light marriage with the Lady Grey. "King Louis," cried Warwick to that angry and misused monarch,
"I here protest in sight of Heaven,
And by the hope I have of heavenly bliss,
That I am clear from this misdeed of Edward's,
No more my king, for he dishonors me.

• • • • • • •
I here renounce him and return to Henry.
My noble queen, let former grudges pass,
And henceforth I am thy true servitor."
Mar. Warwick, these words have turned my hate to love.
And I forgive and quite forget old faults,
And joy that thou becom'st King Henry's friend. (Part III. 3.3)
So the mother and the queen drops out of account her personal indignities, for the sake of her exiled husband and her youthful son:
My mourning weeds are laid aside.
And I am ready to put armor on. (Ibid.)
Yet Warwick was no lover of the Lancastrian. His pride is touched at Edward's treachery to himself, and
Not that I pity Henry's misery.
But seek revenge on Edward's mockery. (Ibid.)
is his watchword for that bloody campaign, whereof Margaret's was husband and son, king and prince.

Again the rude shock of war. The powerful King-maker once more pulls down a king, and seats the old-time occupant. Then follows Barnet, and Warwick dies. Tewkesbury follows, and the final downfall of Henry of Lancaster, who returns thankfully to his Tower prison, while Margaret is first imprisoned and then exiled from the country.


How to cite this article:

Warner, Beverley Ellison. English History in Shakespeare's Plays. Longmans, Green and Co. New York: USP, 1916. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2010. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/henryvi/authorshiphenryviseries.html >.

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