|Henry VI at Towton, North Yorkshire by William Dyce (1860).|
Henry VI Part III is the final of Shakespeare's Henry VI plays, all, it is thought by some, were composed in 1591, and it is the third of his Wars of the Roses plays. So far in Henry VI Part I and II we've seen the roots of the English civil war of the 15th Century: Henry VI was of the House of Lancaster, whose symbol was the red rose, however it was believed by some that he should not have been king; Henry IV, who was also a of the House of Lancaster, usurped Richard II. Richard of York, 3rd Duke of York (and the grandson of Edward III, his father being Edmund of Langley, 1st Duke of York) was of the House of York (the symbol of which was a white rose) believed he should be the king and would have most likely have been king had Richard II not been usurped. And so in Henry VI Part III we see the challenge to the throne.
Henry VI's reign was fraught with problems caused most of all by his weakness and reluctance to even be king. In Henry VI Part I Shakespeare writes of how the English lost many territories to the French. In Part II we see the king unable to quell the troubles within his own court. Part III begins after the death of the Lord Protector the Duke of Gloucester, after York has confronted Henry VI and after a battle Henry is forced to flee to London with York and his supporters vowing to follow them. On arriving in London in the Parliament House they wonder where Henry is, until he walks in the room accompanied by Lord Clifford, the Earl of Northumberland, Earl of Westmorland, and the Duke of Exeter. York, already sitting in the throne, again makes claim on it and Henry asks, "Let me for this my life-time reign as king", promising that after his death Richard may become king and Henry's son Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales (also known as Edward of Lancaster) will be disinherited. Queen Margaret, as expected, reacts with fury:
Who can be patient in such extremes?
Ah, wretched man! would I had died a maid
And never seen thee, never borne thee son,
Seeing thou hast proved so unnatural a father
Hath he deserved to lose his birthright thus?
Hadst thou but loved him half so well as I,
Or felt that pain which I did for him once,
Or nourish'd him as I did with my blood,
Thou wouldst have left thy dearest heart-blood there,
Rather than have that savage duke thine heir
And disinherited thine only son.
This plan to wait for the death of Henry is short-lived: Margaret summons the soldiers and again dons armour herself, meanwhile Richard's sons Edward and Richard (who will become Richard III) urge their father to seize the throne immediately. As Margaret and her supporters make their way to Wakefield, the seat of the House of York, Richard's youngest son Edmund Plantagenet, Earl of Rutland, is murdered. York is then captured, tortured, and brutally murdered by Margaret and Clifford in perhaps one of the most chilling scenes of any of Shakespeare's works.
Meanwhile Edward and the young Richard, unaware of their father's and brother's murder, appear to see three suns:
Three glorious suns, each one a perfect sun;
Not separated with the racking clouds,
But sever'd in a pale clear-shining sky.
See, see! they join, embrace, and seem to kiss,
As if they vow'd some league inviolable:
Now are they but one lamp, one light, one sun.
In this the heaven figures some event.
Edward interprets this as a sign that the three brothers must rule as one, Richard however is reluctant to agree. However they are interrupted by a messenger who informs them of their father's death. As they are told Warwick and Montague prepare to attack Margaret's forces with the help of George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence (another son of Richard of York).
Margaret and Clifford, as this plan is executed, are in York with Henry, begging him to reconsider disinheriting his son. When York's eldest son arrives with his men Margaret refuses to let Henry speak and so it is decided they will do battle. This battle is known as the Battle of Towton and took place in Yorkshire on 29th March 1461 claiming the lives of some 28,000 men including Henry's son. Once again Henry flees the scene and Edward is ultimately crowned king - King Edward IV. When Henry is later found he is arrested and imprisoned. Meanwhile Edward IV arranges a marriage for him and the sister of the King of France, Anne de Beaujeu or Anne of France, however as Warwick arranges this Edward secretly marries Elizabeth Woodville (as a result Warick switches his allegiance). On hearing this his brother Richard, now Duke of Gloucester, ponders his possible route to the throne, a hint of what is to come in Shakespeare's Richard III:
... Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile,
And cry 'Content' to that which grieves my heart,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face to all occasions.
I'll drown more sailors than the mermaid shall;
I'll slay more gazers than the basilisk;
I'll play the orator as well as Nestor,
Deceive more slily than Ulysses could,
And, like a Sinon, take another Troy.
I can add colours to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school.
Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?
Tut, were it farther off, I'll pluck it down.
As Warwick switched his allegiance, so too did Edward's brother George; Edward IV is imprisoned but soon rescued by Richard and William Hastings, 1st Baron Hastings. Henry too is freed however is still reluctant to be king, making Warwick and George (who freed him) joint Protectors. Ultimately another battle takes place between the Houses of York and Lancaster, the Battle of Barnet, which took place on 14th April 1471 (about 1,500 were killed including Warwick); this battle was ten years after the Battle of Towtown (Shakespeare makes it appear to be a great deal less!). Henry is once again captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London, but there will be no escape: Richard arrives, and before Richard stabs Henry to death Henry says,
Hadst thou been kill'd when first thou didst presume,
Thou hadst not lived to kill a son of mine.
And thus I prophesy, that many a thousand,
Which now mistrust no parcel of my fear,
And many an old man's sigh and many a widow's,
And many an orphan's water-standing eye--
Men for their sons, wives for their husbands,
And orphans for their parents timeless death--
Shall rue the hour that ever thou wast born.
The owl shriek'd at thy birth,--an evil sign;
The night-crow cried, aboding luckless time;
Dogs howl'd, and hideous tempest shook down trees;
The raven rook'd her on the chimney's top,
And chattering pies in dismal discords sung.
Thy mother felt more than a mother's pain,
And, yet brought forth less than a mother's hope,
To wit, an indigested and deformed lump,
Not like the fruit of such a goodly tree.
Teeth hadst thou in thy head when thou wast born,
To signify thou camest to bite the world:
And, if the rest be true which I have heard,
The path to the throne is cleared of one opponent, Richard is now a step closer to becoming King. However at the end of the play Edward IV celebrates the birth of his son who will become Edward V of England. He is also the elder of the Princes in the Tower: for this, we must read Richard III.
It is another Shakespearean thriller that may appear to end well with Edward IV proclaiming "For here, I hope, begins our lasting joy." But we know, as Shakespeare'a audience knew, there is so much more to come. I'm very much looking forward to reading Richard III.