Since you are tongue-tied and so loath to speak,
In dumb significants proclaim your thoughts:
Let him that is a true-born gentleman
And stands upon the honour of his birth,
If he suppose that I have pleaded truth,
From off this brier pluck a white rose with me.
– Henry VI, Part 1
Henry VI was an infant when he became the King of England and France upon his father and Charles VI died within two months of each other. (Henry V did not live to see himself crowned King of France, as Charles died two months after him.) It is in Shakespeare’s second set of plays (chronologically), sometimes referred to as the second Henriad, that Henry VI’s reign is dramatized: Henry VI Part 1, Henry VI Part 2, and Henry VI Part 3, and which are sometimes combined with Richard III, covering thus England’s loss of French territories and the lead up to the Wars of the Roses and concluding with the beginning of the Tudor reign.
Despite the chronological order of the history portrayed, it was these Henry plays that were written first, around 1591, and the quality of the individual plays is generally considered uneven, subsequently they aren’t performed as much as his other history plays.
Richard, Third Duke of York became dedicated to the Yorkist cause and claim to the throne, adopting the name Plantagenet, the nickname of his forefather Geoffrey of Anjou. Until this point, the name Plantagenet had not been used to refer to the entire dynasty. His father, Richard, Third Earl of Cambridge had been involved in the Southampton plot to replace Henry V with Edmund Mortimer, the heir presumptive of Richard II, and was beheaded. His mother, Anne Mortimer, was assumed to have died in childbirth. It was from his mother’s lineage that the Yorkist claim was based, as she was a descendent of Edward I and Henry III through her mother, in addition to being a descendent of Edward III through her grandparents.
This was a time of social and political unrest, as the Hundred Years War came to an end and England lost its grip on the French territories as the French revolted, led by Joan of Arc. As Henry VI’s mental health deteriorated and his wife, Margaret of Anjou, ruled his kingdom – and eventually led the military herself as well – in his stead, the Duke of York rose in power and gained supporters for his cause to reclaim the throne. In Shakespeare’s drama, Henry VI Part 1 this takes a symbolic turn when supporters of York and Lancaster, respectively, choose either red or white roses to signify their allegiance.
Joan of Arc
I feel that a special mention to Joan of Arc must be made, as she is smeared by Shakespeare as a madwoman and witch – instead of God (her “voices”), she is inspired by Satan. Understandably, this portrayal is not well regarded and, even more, is rarely performed. It is best to have this image of Joan blotted out of memory altogether. Shakespeare’s portrayal aside, Joan remains an important figure of the conflict between the French and the English and the Hundred Years War.
The reign of Henry VI was marked by two essential conflicts: keeping England’s French territories and one closer to home, the power struggle for the English throne by the Yorkists, led by Richard Plantagenet. This was further complicated as Henry struggled with his own mental health, as it deteriorated and he lapsed into bouts of insanity.
While the Battle of Agincourt had been a great victory for the English, it had not been so for the French. In addition to suffering great losses, when the Treaty of Troyes was signed, this not only resulted in the Dauphin being disinherited on claims of illegitimacy but France being occupied by the English. Two party factions, the Burgundians and Armagnacs, had been locked in conflict over the differences of social, political, and religious systems of England and France, and the English had duly taken advantage of this. When Henry V defeated the French at Agincourt, John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy had remained neutral; thereby most of the French army were Armagnacs. After the Armagnacs assassinated John the Fearless, the Burgundians allied themselves with the English. In 1421, within a year of the signing of the Treaty of Troyes, most of northern France was under foreign control. Many of the French people did not recognize the English king, or his heir – still an infant – as theirs and hope in the legend of a maid from Lorraine grew.
The Maid of Lorraine legend was known before Joan’s time, circulating as vague prophecies that a young maid would save France. Joan was from the small village of Domrémy; according to her, she experienced her first vision when she was twelve. She was told to drive out the English and restore the Dauphin to the throne. At sixteen, she requested permission to visit the French court in Chinon; disguised in masculine clothing, she travelled through Burgundian territory with an escort. As her village was near the border of Lorraine, which increased her followers and people’s belief in her as their saviour and as she triumphed, again and again, beginning with the siege of Orleans in 1429.
The Dauphin’s mother-in-law, Yolande of Aragon, was present when Joan appeared at court and had been financing a relief expedition to Orleans and Joan requested to go with the army. Although people may argue about Joan being divinely inspired and the nature of her visions – in more recent times her visions have been interpreted in psychiatric terms as possible signs of mental illness – Yolande has been overlooked as a key instrumental player in Joan’s campaign; besides financing the army that went to Orleans, and Joan joined, she also promoted Joan and supported her. (Yolande and her role in Joan’s story is the subject of The Maid and the Queen: The Secret History of Joan of Arc by Nancy Goldman.)
A series of successful military campaigns to reclaim French territories from the English, led by Joan, resulted in the Dauphin’s coronation as Charles VII. In 1430, she was captured by the Burgundians and put on trial for heresy. Politically motivated, Henry VI’s uncle John of Lancaster, First Duke of Bedford, claimed the throne of France on behalf of his nephew and condemning Joan, as she was responsible for Charles’ coronation, would put into question his legitimacy. Traditionally, the family of the captured needed to pay a ransom for their release but as Joan was in special circumstances, Charles should have intervened on her behalf. However, he did not and his actions were and have been much criticized.
Her trial began in January 1431 and the transcripts have survived; although she was not educated, the transcripts display a woman of astute intellect. Most famously, when she was asked the trick question if she knew she was in God’s grace, she responded: “If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me.” By answering yes, she would have convicted herself of heresy; if she had answered no, she would have confessed her guilt. While a trick question, it was also a scholarly one, as Church doctrine held that no one could be certain of being in God’s grace. However, later, many court functionaries testified that significant portions of the transcripts had been altered in her disfavour.
Despite her defendants’ efforts, Joan was condemned and sentenced to die, by burning on May 30th, 1431 on charges of cross-dressing. She had before pleaded to be in a prison with nuns (as female guards) but she was ignored. Wearing a dress, she had repeat violation attempts by the guards and it reached a climax when her dress was taken from her by the guards and she was given masculine clothing, which she was forbidden to wear, else she was condemned for having a “relapse in heresy”. She was forced to wear this clothing , however; it has been suggested, and it is highly probable, that this was planned so that she would have died anyway.
After the war ended, twenty-two years after her death, there was a retrial opened at the request of Joan’s mother Isabelle Romee and Inquisitor-General Jean Brehal, to investigate whether Joan’s trial and verdict had been handled justly, according to canon law. The court declared her innocent in 1456 and annulled her sentence.
The House of York, the White Rose
Until 1437, Henry VI’s realm was governed by regents; upon becoming of age and assuming the government, he came to favour a policy of peace with France (the English had lost its hold after Henry V’s death and the series of French victories led by Joan of Arc). To ensure peace, he was persuaded to marry Margaret of Anjou, Charles VII’s niece.
Peace with France did not last long, however, as hostilities were reopened in Normandy in 1449, led by the Duke of Somerset. It was futile, though, as the French took back the whole province by 1450. By 1453, the only remaining English territory was Calais.
Following the loss of Bordeaux, in 1453 Henry VI experienced a mental breakdown and became completely unaware of his surroundings. This lasted for more than a year, and he even failed to respond to the birth of his son and heir Edward, which would later fuel rumours that Edward was not his son. It’s been suggested that Henry inherited his mental illness from his maternal grandfather Charles VI.
Meanwhile, the Duke of York had begun his campaign for the crown while gaining an important ally, Richard Neville, Sixteenth Earl of Warwick. York gained supporters, culminating in the first of a series of violent struggles with the First Battle of St. Albans in 1455 and it is this battle that traditionally marks the beginning of the Wars of the Roses. York kills Lord Clifford, which would have future repercussions and Henry VI is captured by the Yorkists.
It was to be Margaret of Anjou who would rally the Lancastrian troops and sought the support of King James III of Scotland, as she fought fiercely for the English throne for her husband and son. Despite the initial triumph of St. Albans, the Lancastrians seemed to be a stronger force and the war reached a new climax at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460, during which York and his second son, Edmund, Earl of Rutland, a mere boy of seventeen, were killed. York died in battle but Edmund had managed to escape the battlefield, except he was ambushed by the Lancastrians and was executed by John Clifford, Ninth Baron de Clifford, in revenge for his father’s death. Edmund was reportedly unarmed. The Yorkist army was decimated by the much larger Lancastrian army and victory for Lancaster seemed nigh.