Looking for the Wednesday Wandering? Go back one to learn why you should not open your door this Halloween to anyone clad in yellow… especially if they are wearing a mask. Then join me and Alan as we take a look at Henry VI and the war with the most beautiful name ever.
JANE: So, Alan, last time you mentioned that Henry VI managed to be king twice. How did he do that? And does that make him Henry VI and Henry VII?
ALAN: No, he was Henry VI both times. He inherited the throne in 1422 when his father, Henry V, died. The young Henry was only nine months old when he became king and therefore a council of regents ruled in his name until he reached his majority.
JANE: What age was considered majority back then? Do you know?
ALAN: It varied. In theory it was twenty-one but in practice it could be much earlier. Henry was officially declared of age in 1437, when he was sixteen years old.
Henry, who was of the house of Lancaster, was strongly opposed by the Yorkist branch of the family during his reign, and on 4th March 1461 a Yorkist army deposed and imprisoned him. Edward of York was then crowned as Edward IV.
JANE: Wait… Don’t you mean Eddard of Stark? Oh, wait… That’s Game of Thrones.
ALAN: Indeed it is. George R. R. Martin has never made any secret of the fact that his magnum opus was greatly influenced by the political upheavals of this period and I got strange sensations of deja vu when I started reading it…
JANE: Going back to the real war, rather than its skiffy offshoot, I’m curious about something. Regents ruled for Henry VI from when he was nine months old until he was 16 years old. Presumably they were also Lancastrians. Did they get into conflict with the Yorkists or did the Yorkist faction wait patiently until Henry VI took the throne?
ALAN: It’s not quite that clear cut. The regency council was dominated by Henry’s uncles, so obviously they had a vested interest in keeping power within the immediate family. However the family was large and had many branches. The Duke of York also had a legitimate claim to power – the houses of York and Lancaster were both offshoots of the Plantagenet line. Political differences, particularly over the conduct of the war in France, eventually forced them into armed conflict with each other. But really you can’t go far wrong by thinking of the Lancastrian / Yorkist conflict as just a family squabble writ large.
JANE: And those are the worst!
ALAN: After Henry was deposed, Lancastrian resistance continued and, in 1470, Edward was forced into exile. Henry was released from captivity and returned to the throne. Unfortunately, Henry’s second reign lasted less than six months. The Yorkist forces rallied and defeated Henry’s armies at Tewkesbury on 4th May 1471. Henry was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Edward IV was crowned again (so he, too, was twice the king of England) and Henry died less than a month later. The rumour was that Edward had ordered him to be killed.
JANE: Obviously, the 4th day of the month was not Henry’s lucky day. Wasn’t all this to’ing and fro’ing between Lancaster and York known as the War of the Roses? A lovely name for a nasty conflict…
ALAN: Indeed it was: the Red Rose of Lancashire versus the White Rose of Yorkshire, a bitter dispute that is still alive and well today. I was born in Yorkshire and so I owe my allegiance to the White Rose. These days, our patriotic fervour tends to manifest itself in trans-Penine cricket matches. There was a time when only people who were actually born in the county were allowed to play for the Yorkshire cricket team, so as to stop infiltration by those nasty Lancastrians. That rule has been relaxed in recent years, presumably because the Lacastrians, who had no such rule and who recruited their cricket players far and wide, gave us far too many good thrashings!
JANE: Do the jerseys or whatever it is the cricket players wear have roses on them?
ALAN: It comes and goes as fashions do, but certainly it’s not unheard of. I vividly remember as a small child at school drawing roses on white paper, and not being allowed to colour them in. They had to stay white!
JANE: I love that!
Sadly for the stage, Shakespeare decided to deal with the events surrounding the War of the Roses when he was relatively new as a playwright. There are three plays about Henry VI and the events of his reign. However, for years there was a great deal of resistance among both scholars and admirers of the Bard to even admit that he wrote the first of the “Henry VI” plays. Various eighteenth century editors flat out refused to admit Shakespeare could have written it.
I wonder, what does Asimov say about the play Henry VI, Part I?
ALAN: In his Guide to Shakespeare, the Good Doctor points out that some critics have suggested that Shakespeare didn’t actually write the play at all, but instead patched up and polished an already existing work by somebody else. He also points out that in 1592 one Robert Greene wrote a savage satire which appears to be largely directed at Shakespeare and again the claim has been made that perhaps Greene was the original author of the play and he objected to Shakespeare’s changes, as temperamental authors are wont to do.
JANE: My academic sources also mention Greene’s A Groatsworth of Wit. It’s marvellously snarky and I cannot resist quoting it for you:
“an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his tiger’s heart wrapp’d in a player’s hide supposes he is well able to bombast out blank verse as the rest of you; and being an absolute Johannes fac totem, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.”
The reference to “Shake-scene” makes it pretty clear who Greene was attacking, although some of those who desperately wish that the Bard had not “nodded” (as even does Homer), argue Greene was simply referring to Shakespeare the actor, not the playwright.
In any case, the result of later scholarship too detailed to go into here reluctantly gives Shakespeare the credit – or blame – for this play.
ALAN: Oh, that stings! What a bitter man Robert Greene must have been.
Of course we can’t leave the subject of Henry VI without at least mentioning the elephant in the room.
JANE: Ooh! Elephants! That’s the best part of history. What’s this one?
ALAN: Henry’s periodic episodes of insanity.
JANE: That’s a big elephant… We’d better save it for next time. I’d also like to chat about where one of France’s most famous warriors fits into Henry VI’s tale.