What happens in Henry VI

It’s time for Henry VI this month on What Happens in Shakespeare. At long last, patient Free Folk of Westeros, we kick off the Wars of the Roses.

This Henry somehow merited three plays – Henry IV Parts 1, 2, and 3. We literally go from Henry’s cradle to his grave. But we get Joan of Arc. Witchcraft. Rebel alliances. Dolphins. And a band of oh-so-convenient Shakespeare pirates.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted:

Henry V-play AND king-is tough act to follow. Not even a genius can hit it out the park every time.

Like a cricket match and Celine Dion’s love, these Henry VI plays will go on.

The play so nice he wrote it thrice!

What happens in Henry VI
(King of England from 1422-1461 and again from 1470-1471. King of France from 1422 -1453)


King Henry V has died unexpectedly in his prime, leaving his young son to become King Henry VI. Henry’s uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, will sit on the iron throne until Henry is older.

There is unrest in Orléans, France (England is occupying France). Charles, the French King (technically he is still just the heir and therefore holds the all-Shakespeare champion job title: the Dolphin) hears about a feisty Orléans shepherd girl who is having visions from God about how to defeat the English.

Enter – you guessed it – Joan of Arc. Charles challenges her to a duel. She wins. He puts her in charge of the army.

There is battling. The English representative in France, named Talbot, gets captured, then released, then does sneaky maneuvers to win the battle for Orléans.

Back in England, a petty argument between two nobles, Richard Plantagenet and the Duke of Somerset, has expanded to involve the whole court. Richard and Somerset ask their peers to pick sides and wear a red or white rose as proof of loyalty. Red = Somerset, white = Plantagenet. And that, my lovelies, is the origin of the Wars of the Roses.

Richard visits his uncle, Edmund Mortimer, who is in prison. Mortimer tells Richard the history of their family’s conflict with the king’s family. They had been allies, but the king’s family overlooked them, and then Henry V had Richard’s father executed and his family stripped of all its property. Mortimer believes he is the rightful heir to the throne based on some genuinely plausible family-tree evidence. When he dies, according to his logic, Richard will be the true heir.

Are you hearing the Game of Thrones electronic cello?

Mortimer dies. Richard petitions the by-now-crowned King Henry VI to reinstate the Plantagenet family title. Henry does. Thanks to the arcane English system where everybody who owns land has a kajillion names, Richard is now the Duke of York. We will call him York for the rest of his life, which will not be very long, or didn’t you watch Game of Thrones?

In France, the English win the city of Rouen. The Dolphin is distressed, but Joan of Arc has a plan. She convinces the powerful Duke of Burgundy, who had been fighting for the English, to switch sides and join the French.

Henry goes to France with an entourage that includes York and Somerset. He tells Talbot to handle the Burgundy problem. He tries to get York and Somerset to put aside their conflict, but without realizing what he’s doing, he chooses a red rose (Team Somerset). He leaves each of the bickering lords in charge of their own branch of the English military in France and goes back to England.

The French army traps Talbot. He calls on York and Somerset for backup, but they second-guess each another, don’t send help, and then blame each other. The French destroy the English. Talbot and his son are both killed.

York captures Joan of Arc and burns her at the stake. She is an enjoyable potty-mouth to the end and leaves the world much too soon.

Henry negotiates a not-too-stable peace treaty with France. His advisers think it would be stronger if Henry married a French woman.

The Earl of Suffolk produces just the candidate, Princess Margaret of Anjou. Suffolk lusts Margaret and hatches a plan to marry her up to Henry, keep her as his mistress, and control Henry through her. He and Margaret travel back to England.


King Henry and Margaret get married. Suffolk and Margaret are having an affair and making disloyal plans. Gloucester (Henry’s uncle, who is still powerful even though Henry is the king now) stands in their way because Henry trusts him. As do the common people of England, but literally nobody cares about them.

Gloucester’s wife has designs on the throne. She uses necromancy to predict the future, but she gets caught and banished.

Suffolk conspires with Somerset (remember him from the dispute with York?) to bring about Gloucester’s ruin. Suffolk accuses Gloucester of treason and has him thrown in jail, then has him assassinated before his trial.

Meanwhile, York reveals his top-secret claim to the throne to the Earl of Warwick and other allies. They pledge to support him.

Suffolk is banished for his role in Gloucester’s death. He gets killed by some convenient pirates. (These are not the only spontaneously occurring pirates to dispatch an inconvenient character in Shakespeare; visit Good Tickle Brain for a whole list of pirates ex machina.) Suffolk’s head gets sent back to his horrified lover, Queen Margaret.

York wants to take the public’s temperature and see if they would support him as king. He enlists a former officer, Jack Cade, to stage a rebellion as a test. Cade gains ground at first, but one of Henry’s supporters persuades the common people who make up Cade’s army to abandon the revolt. York is back to zero.

There is a bit of subplot having to do with allies on both sides. Then York announces his claim to the throne.

The English nobility take sides. Fun fact: Henry’s side was also known as the House of Lancaster. Making the Stark-Lannister fight oh so reminiscent of the York-Lancaster fight.

There is a battle at St Albans (I don’t know why I keep the place names in and snip so much else out, but I do like place names. They’re a kind of flash card system for remembering history. The Alamo. Wounded Knee. Stonewall). The York side wins.

Margaret persuades the beaten Henry to retreat to London. The York party chases them.


King Henry and York meet in the throne room. Henry has admitted defeat and agrees for York to be his heir. That means Henry’s son will not become king.

Queen Margaret, angry about her son losing his chance to sit on the iron throne, leads a military attack on York with the help of some allies. They capture and kill him.

York’s sons, Edward and Richard (we’re going to call him Richard III here to distinguish him from his father, plus, he’s about to turn into one of the most villainous villains in all of Shakespeare next month when he gets his own play), renew their pledge against Henry. They welcome their ally, Warwick.

There is battling.

Henry loses spectacularly and retreats to Scotland. Edward is now the Duke of York. We won’t bother calling him York for short because he immediately claims the English throne. Now-King Edward sends Warwick to arrange a marriage for him with the French king’s sister, but then he falls in love with an English noble, Lady Grey.

Henry comes back to England in disguise, but gets captured and imprisoned.

Richard III announces that he wants to be king.

Margaret and the prince go to France for help, where Warwick’s efforts to arrange a marriage between Edward and the French royal sister have gone down the drain because Edward has now married Lady Grey. Warwick is insulted. He joins forces with Margaret, arranges for his own daughter to marry the prince, and gets Henry out of prison.

George (brother of Edward and Richard III) does not approve of the marriage and switches sides to join Warwick’s forces. They capture Edward and imprison him.

Richard III helps Edward escape. He recaptures Henry.

There is a battle. Warwick dies.

George switches sides again and rejoins Edward’s forces. They kill the prince (Henry and Margaret’s son).

Margaret pleads for death but gets exiled to France instead.

Richard III sneaks around villainously and kills Henry.

Edward and Lady Grey settle in as King and Queen, not having a clue about Richard III and his two-facedness.


Fun as it would be to litter the Globe Theatre with Game of Thrones characters (Mrs. Gloucester = the Red Woman!), George R.R. Martin only drew inspiration from Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses plays, he didn’t retell them scene for scene. This story on screenprism sheds light on what’s history and what’s not, but it came out before the TV series ended, so it reaches some conclusions that may give you a drop of nostalgia for your lost innocence as a fan.


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