William Shakespeare
The First Part of King Henry the Sixth VI
Summary by Michael McGoodwin, prepared 1999

William Shakespeare

Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using The Complete Works of Shakespeare Updated Fourth Ed., Longman Addison-Wesley, ed. David Bevington, 1997.  Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of his commentary.   

Overall Impression: The Henry VI trilogy is early Shakespeare, not as profound in language or action or as enjoyable as the later historical tetralogy, at times rather crude.

Overview of the Historical Plays: 1H6 was written as part of the first of two tetralogies, the first consisting of H6 Parts 1-3 and Richard III, and the second tetralogy consisting of Richard II, H4 Parts 1 and 2, and H5. 

The time periods depicted in this first tetralogy are:

   1H6: 1422 (Death of Henry V) to 1445 (H6 wedding to Margaret of Anjou)
   2H6: 1445 (Queen's coronation) to 1455 (First Battle of St Albans)
   3H6: 1460-1461 (Battles of Second St. Albans and Wakefield) to 1471 (death of Henry VI and Yorkist victories at Tewkesbury)
   RIII: 1471 (death of Henry VI) to 1485 (Battle of Bosworth)

Relevant Royal Patrilineal Lineage (partial; FO = Father of, Symbols * ^ # % @ ! provide visual cue to successive generations)

Geoffrey of Anjou [in France], FO
  Henry II (first Plantagenet King r. 1154-1189, m. Eleanor of Aquitaine), FO 
    John I, FO
      Henry III, FO 
        Edward I, FO 
          Edward II, FO 
            Edward III (last Plantagenet King, r. 1327-77), FO 
              1* Edward the Black Prince, FO 
                   Richard II (first Lancastrian King, r. 1377-99, deposed by Henry IV)
              2* John of Gaunt=Duke of Lancaster, FO
                  Henry Bolingbroke Henry IV, r. 1399-1413, FO 
                    Henry of Monmouth Henry V, r. 1413-22, FO 
                       Henry VI (last Lancastrian King r. 1422-61 m. Margaret of Anjou), FO 
                        Edward m. Anne Neville  (dtr. of Richard Neville, D. Warwick)
              3* Lionel D. of Clarence, FO
                  Philippa, m. Edmund Mortimer (3rd E. of March), FO
                     1^ Roger Mortimer, FO 
                          Edmund Mortimer, 5th E. of March, m. Anne, FO 
                            Richard Plantagenet=D. of York, FO 
                              1# Edward E. of March, Edward IV (1461-1483), FO
                                   1@ Edward V (r. 1483)
                                   2@ Elizabeth m. Henry Tudor Henry VII (first Tudor King, r. 1485-1509), FO 
                                        1! Henry VIII (r. 1509-1547), FO 
                                        2! Mary I (r. 1553-58)
                                        3! Elizabeth I  (r. 1558-1603)
                                        4! Edward VI (r. 1547-1553)
                                        5! Margaret m. James IV of Scotland, FO
                                             James VI of Scotland and I of England (1603-25)
                                    3@ Richard ("York")
                              2# Edmund
                              3# George D. of Clarence m. Isabelle Neville, FO
                                  1%  Edward (Ned)
                                  2% Margaret 
                              4# Richard=D. of Gloucester, Richard III (r. 1483-85, last Yorkist King)
                    2^ Edmund Mortimer (imprisoned)
              4* Edmund Langley 1st D. of York

Per Bevington:

Shakespearean exclusive authorship has been questioned for 1H6 (e.g., some felt the low depiction of Joan of Arc is too coarse for WS), and 1H6 may have in fact been composed last. The chief sources are Edward Hall's "The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York" and probably Raphael Holinshed's "The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, 2nd Ed." Possibly also John Foxe's "Acts and Monuments of Martyrs" and Grafton's "Chronicle". The subject is the extended civil discord that ravaged England in the 15C culminating in the War of the Roses between the Yorkists (White Rose) and the Lancastrians (Red Rose), in part arising from the ineffectiveness of Henry VI as a leader. It also depicts the meddling of the Catholic Church to exploit England's weakened condition.

Shakespeare frequently distorts, compresses, or disregards chronology for artistic unity. E.g., Orleans and Rouen were never retaken once lost to the French, Talbot's visit to the Countess of Auvergne is fictitious, the scene where the Lords pluck roses is invented, Falstaff's cowardice is overstated (historically he was named Falstolfe), and Joan la Pucelle is portrayed with maximally evil interpretation. Unlike official Tudor providential propaganda, WS avoids directly portraying the conflict between the Lancastrians and the Yorkists as provoking divine wrath and retribution and justifying the ascendancy of the Tudor lineage (i.e., Henry VII, Henry VIII, and Elizabeth I), though he does echo a distrust for political chaos.

Historically, H5 died of camp fever in 1422. His son, the future Henry VI was 9 months old at the time. Henry VI was the last Lancastrian king (previous were Richard II, H4, and H5). Henry V, formerly Henry of Monmouth Prince of Wales, had conquered France for England, and was revered as a national hero who had died prematurely.

Main events/themes are the weakness of King Henry VI, the contention of his nobles (Winchester vs. Gloucester, Richard Plantagenet [York] versus Somerset, the seeds of the War of the Roses), the heroic struggles of Talbot to hold on to French territory while the nobles bicker, the evilness of [more historically the inspiration of the French national consciousness by] Joan of Arc, and the ill-advised marriage of Henry VI to Margaret of Anjou.

The Falstaff character in 1 Henry VI is obviously alive in this play after the Falstaff of Henry V play has died--they are not therefore to be considered identical.

Note: It is helpful to review the history of The Hundred's Year War, for example at the Encyclopedia Britannica webiste.


Act I

Act I Scene 1

Westminster Abbey. Henry V funeral is underway. John E. of Bedford, Humphrey D. of Gloucester (uncle and now Protector to Henry VI), Thomas Beaufort D. of Exeter (son of John of Gaunt), and the Bishop of Winchester (formerly Henry Beaufort, later called Cardinal) mourn H5's death. But Gloucester is contemptuous of the evil Winchester and the meddling Catholic Church he represents. 

Messengers arrive to announce major losses of territories in France: Guyenne, Rouen, Rheims, Orleans, Paris, Poitiers, etc. The messenger blames the losses on the factional disputes taking place at home. Another announces that the Dauphin is crowned French King Charles VII [historically 1429 in Reims] and joined by the Bastard of Orleans, Reignier, and Alenšon/Alencon against the English. [A dauphin is the eldest son of a French king and therefore heir apparent; this dauphin is the future Charles VII, son of Henry VI's maternal grandfather, the deceased French king Charles VI]. A 3rd announces that the valiant and heroic Lord Talbot has been wounded and taken prisoner during the siege of Orleans maintained by the English. Winchester secretly plots to gain control over the young king.

Act I Scene 2

France, before Orleans. Charles VII and his men are victorious and plan to raise or overcome the siege of Orleans by driving off the English. During the ensuing battle, the English beat them back. The Bastard introduces the holy maid Joan of Arc ("la Pucelle"= virgin or slut) to Charles. She tells the king that she is sent to free France, and their conversation if filled with sexual double meanings, as is her speech throughout the play. He challenges her to fight and is overcome and thereby won over by her, though she states she will not yield to rites of love. Reignier says she will be immortalized for her heroism.

Act I Scene 3

Before the Tower of London. Gloucester and his men in blue coats are forbidden entry by Cardinal Winchester's men in tawny coats. Gloucester berates Winchester and accuses him of profiting from prostitutes etc. when he appears--Winchester vows that he will answer to the Pope for this. The Mayor of London intervenes and to himself laments the behavior of these feuding nobles. 

Act I Scene 4

Before Orleans. The master gunner plans an attack on the besieging English. The valiant Lord Talbot, who has been released in a trade of prisoners, plans their attack with E. of Salisbury. But Salisbury is mortally wounded by the gunner, along with Gargrave. They learn from a messenger that the French are assisted by Joan, and Talbot puns that she is a pussel (slut).

Act I Scene 5

Same. Talbot meets Joan la Pucelle on the battlefield, they fight briefly but she breaks away, telling him she will have many victories over him. Talbot calls his men to attack. 

Act I Scene 6

Pucelle wins Orleans back from the English and is declared France's new saint by Charles.

Act II

Act II Scene 1

Before Orleans. Talbot plots to reattack while the French are lulled with celebrating and expresses contempt that the French have placed reliance on a sorceress or witch (Joan). Talbot with others scale the walls. Charles VII has been passing the time with Joan (perhaps sexually) but they flee as the English arrive

Act II Scene 2

Same. Talbot plans to sack the conquered town but regrets he did not find Charles or Joan. A messenger arrives to say the Countess of Auvergne wants to meet with Talbot, and Burgundy and Bedford caution him.

Act II Scene 3

Auvergne, The Countess' castle. Talbot arrives, she mocks him, then announces he is her prisoner. But his soldiers enter with a show of force and he then dines with her on his terms.

Act II Scene 4

London, the Temple Garden. Richard Plantagenet (future 3rd D. of York) has a hostile encounter with his antagonist the D. of Somerset [John Beaufort, ? 3rd Earl of Somerset d. 1444]. Richard plucks a white rose and Somerset plucks a red to signify the colors of the opposing factions [tokens used in the much later War of the Roses.] The others also pick roses and sides: White (Yorkist) roses by the E. of Warwick, Vernon, and a lawyer; Red (Lancastrian) roses by William de la Pole (Earl and later Duke of Suffolk). Somerset insults Richard by claiming Richard's father Richard [E. of Cambridge, executed by Henry V for treason] was a traitor and that Richard is corrupted by this, reminding him also that his father lost his lands as a result. Richard swears he will avenge the insult. Warwick prophesies that the enmity between the factions will lead to thousands of deaths.

Act II Scene 5

Tower of London. Richard Plantagenet goes to visit his imprisoned and dying uncle, Edmund Mortimer [the 5th E of March, but historically, it was this Edmund's uncle, also named Edmund Mortimer, who was imprisoned]. He asks him to explain why he is in prison and why Richard's father had been executed. A lengthy explanation includes that Henry IV deposed Richard II (both were Lancastrian kings), an usurpation felt unjust by the Percys of the north. Edmund Mortimer is descended from Edward III through his son Lionel and thus has a legitimate claim to the throne. Richard's father, married to Edmund's sister Anne Mortimer, had tried to levy an army to help Edmund's claim, but was captured and beheaded at the command of Henry V, thus suppressing for the time the claim of the Mortimers. Mortimer cautions Richard to bide his time, then dies. Richard vows to avenge the acts against his father and his uncle Mortimer.

Act III

Act III Scene 1

London, Parliament. Gloucester makes public his accusations against Winchester, whom he calls lewd, lascivious, and wanton, and accuses him of laying a trap to take Gloucester's life. He and Winchester exchange insults, and Somerset comments that such a defense is unseemly in a clergyman. The young King Henry VI [historically only 5 years old then] asks the two men to shake hands in friendship. The Mayor enters and complains that followers of Gloucester and of the Bishop [or Cardinal] are throwing pebbles at each other. The king laments "Or who should study to prefer a peace/If holy churchmen take delight in broils?" Pressured to do so, the men shake hands, Gloucester with honorable intent but Winchester swearing to himself otherwise. 

Warwick also presents a petition to have Richard Plantagenet's lands and title to the house of York restored, to which the king consents, making him [3rd] Duke of York (he is hereafter termed "York"). Gloucester urges the young king to go to France and be crowned there in order to win the people's affection, and he consents to do this. Exeter, aside, fears the prophecy that what Henry V won, Henry VI will lose.

Act III Scene 2

Before Rouen. Joan in disguise with other men sneaks through the gates of Rouen, currently under siege. She holds up a torch from within and Charles and the Bastard and their men storm the gates. Talbot appears and curses the witch Joan. Bedford is brought in in a chair, sick. The Duke of Burgundy is currently allied with the British. Talbot tries to get the French barricaded inside to fight openly, but Joan refuses, and he curses her again. 

More attacks, Sir John Falstaff flees in cowardice and is confronted by a captain. Rouen is recaptured by Talbot and Pucelle and Charles flee. They make plans to go to Paris to meet with the newly arrived Henry VI. 

Act III Scene 3

Near Rouen. Pucelle (Joan) plots with Charles to get the Duke of Burgundy to ally with the French. He arrives and Joan appeals to his patriotism--she instantly persuades him to do so. 

Act III Scene 4

Paris, the Royal Court. Talbot meets with H6 and is made the E. of Shrewsbury. Vernon and Basset, wearing white and red roses resp., begin to fight after the king leaves, and Basset swears vengeance.

Act IV

Act IV Scene 1

Paris, same. Winchester crowns Henry VI as king [of France] and the mayor of Paris vows allegiance to him. Falstaff appears with a letter from Burgundy and Talbot curses Falstaff, taking away his garter signifying membership in the Knights of the Garter (because of his cowardice), and the king banishes him.

The letter announces that Burgundy has gone over to the French. Talbot agrees to march on Burgundy. Vernon and Basset continue their fighting and bickering, and this leads to York's throwing down the gauntlet to duel with Somerset. Henry urges them to end their factional quarreling in France, lest they all appear weak and lose France, then himself (harmlessly, he thinks) puts on a red (Lancastrian) rose. He appoints York to be regent in France, and plans his own return to England. York dislikes that the king has adopted Somerset's rose color, however innocently. Exeter sees the disputes as a bad omen.

Act IV Scene 2

Before Bordeaux [in SW France]. Talbot is at the gates. The French general refuses him, saying the rule of England is nearing an end. Talbot realizes he is trapped by encircling French troops.

Act IV Scene 3

Plains in Gascony [SW France]. York is angry that Somerset has delayed sending his troops to assist York with the siege and has instead claimed to be marching to aid Talbot. The Dauphin has marched to Bordeaux to attack Talbot, having been joined by Burgundy's troops. Sir William Lucy urges York to go to the aid of Talbot at Bordeaux, but York says he cannot and again blames Somerset. To himself, Lucy blames the destructive effects of the rivalries between the great English commanders, i.e. York and Somerset.

Act IV Scene 4

Same. Somerset has decided against sending his troops to aid Talbot, since the attack was York's idea and he suspects that York wants Talbot dead so York can have the glory to himself. Lucy urges him to aid Talbot, blaming him if Talbot falls, and finally Somerset relents and promises to send troops. Lucy fears it will be too late, however.

Act IV Scene 5

Near Bordeaux. Talbot is reunited after a long separation with his valiant son John Talbot, who has unfortunately arrived in time to share his father's fight to the death. They valiantly try to persuade each other to save himself, and finally resolve to fight to the end side by side.

Act IV Scene 6

Same. Talbot saves his son from an attack and blames York for the lack of troop support. They continue their valiant fight.

Act IV Scene 7

Same. Old Talbot laments the death of his son and himself dies. Charles, Bastard, and Pucelle gloat at the sight. Sir William Lucy asks to see the French king to reclaim the bodies, and learns of Talbot's death. He takes the bodies and claims that the English will yet triumph.

Act V

Act V Scene 1

London, the royal court. Gloucester discusses with the king the need to make peace with France and the offer of the French Earl of Armagnac (in Gascony) for his only daughter to wed the king--he agrees to this proposal. Cardinal Winchester arrives and Exeter remembers Henry V's prophecy about the cardinal's ambition to co-rule. Winchester again vows to himself to put Gloucester down.

Act V Scene 2

France, fields before Angiers [W France]. Charles, Pucelle, Burgundy, and others discuss the revolt developing in Paris against the English. A scout announces the English are coming to do battle.

Act V Scene 3

Same. Pucelle is concerned that the English under the Regent of France (York) are winning. She conjures up spirits and fiends with sexually charged language--they appear but seem to be unable to help her anymore. Fighting ensues and York captures her, telling her she will be burned at the stake. 

Elsewhere in the same battle, Suffolk encounters Margaret of Anjou, daughter of Reignier King of Naples [and also neice to the French queen]. He is attracted to her and considers taking her for himself, then decides to win her for King Henry (though hoping to enjoy her on the side). She consents to be Henry's wife and Reignier appears and gives his consent provided he receives Maine and Anjou [in NW France] for himself to reign over without interference. Suffolk receives a kiss from her and wrestles with the lust he feels for her.

Act V Scene 4

Camp of Duke of York in Anjou. Jean is brought before York, along with her anguished shepherd father, whom she rejects and denies as her father, claiming to be of more noble birth, the virtuous progeny of kings. He condemns her for this, wishing her dead, and washes his hands of her. She claims to be a virgin, chaste and immaculate, but hearing she is to be executed, she claims instead to be pregnant, first by Alenšon, then blaming Reignier. The men mock her claims to chastity. She is taken away for execution, cursing England [historically her trial was in Rouen and the execution performed May 30, 1431]. 

Cardinal Winchester enters and announces the Christian states are imploring England and France to conclude a peace. York fears an "effeminate" peace and foresees the utter loss of France from England, but Warwick reassures him it will not be a ruinous peace. Dauphin Charles is also there. The cardinal announces the terms: Charles will be a viceroy under Henry VI--to which Charles initially refuses, then is persuaded to accept by Alenšon as a temporary arrangement. 

Act V Scene 5

London, royal court. Suffolk has praised the beauty and chasteness of the absent Margaret to the king and he is eager for the marriage. Gloucester reminds him that he is already betrothed to the Earl of Armagnac's daughter, a marriage which would be much more advantageous to the country (closer alliance to Charles VII, more money), but Suffolk dismisses the obligation as easily broken. The king is determined to wed Margaret despite Gloucester's objections and asks that a collection be made from the populace of 10% of revenues to pay for her coming. Suffolk concludes to himself that he will rule the Queen, the King, and the realm.