Henry VI Part I
A Study Guide
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Table of Contents

Type of Work       Composition and Publication      Sources      Settings      Characters      Historical Background      Plot Summary
Conflicts      Tone      Climax      Themes      Figures of Speech      Rhyming Conversation     
Henry VI as a Saintly Scholar
       War of the Roses      Houses of Lancaster and York      Questions and Essay Topics      Complete Text      Henry VI Part II      Henry VI Part II

Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings
...© 2003

Revised in 2010, 2011.©
Type of Work

Henry VI Part I is a history play about the struggle for power during the reign of a young English king. 

Composition and Publication
Henry VI Part I was written between 1590 and 1592, when Shakespeare was still in his twenties. It was published in 1623 as part of the First Folio, the first authorized collection of Shakespeare's plays. The latest edition of The New Oxford Shakespearepublished by Oxford University Press and edited by Gary Taylor, John Jowett , Terri Bourus, and Gabriel Egan  maintains that Shakespeare co-wrote the play with Christopher Marlowe.


Shakespeare based Henry VI Part I primarily on accounts in The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (Holinshed’s Chronicles), by Raphael Holinshed (?-1580?). The first edition of the chronicles was published in 1577 in two volumes. Shakespeare also used The Union of Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancastre and York, by Edward Hall (?-1547).

Action in England takes place in London, beginning with the funeral of King Henry V on Nov. 7, 1422. Action in France takes place at Orléans, Auvergne, Rouen, Paris, Bordeaux, and plains near Gascony, Anjou, and Angiers. In this play, Shakespeare does not always use actual historical dates when reporting battlefield news and other events. The play is "thus quite unreliable as sober history," says G.B. Harrison. (Work cited: Harrison, G.B., ed. Shakespeare: The Complete Works. New York: Harcourt, 1952. page 106.)
Although events take place between 1422 and 1445—during the King's childhood, adolescence and young adulthood—Shakespeare presents events as if they were occurring one immediately after the other. After serving merely as a figurehead in his boyhood and adolescence, Henry begins to rule on his own in 1437.

Protagonist: Henry VI is the protagonist as the central figure in a chronicle that extends into two other plays (Parts II and III). Although Henry is weak and retiring, all of the political conniving and machination and all of the military action center on his ability or inability to rule, on the legitimacy of his rulership, and on the decisions he makes or endorses with respect to England's future. He is like the eye of a hurricane, as it were: quiet, pacific, aloof in the midst of raging storms. 
Antagonist: The forces of ambition, power, and envy
The King and His Overseers
King Henry VI: Boy who becomes king after the death of his father, King Henry V. When he grows up, he is weak and ineffectual; all of the leonine qualities that one associates with monarchical rule are absent in him. 
Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester: Uncle and protector of the King.
Duke of Bedford: Uncle of the King and Regent of France.
Thomas Beaufort, Duke of Exeter: Great-uncle and guardian of the King.
Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester: Self-seeking great-uncle of the King and later a cardinal.
The Lancaster and York Factions
John Beaufort: Earl who becomes Duke of Somerset in the House of Lancaster. 
Richard Plantagenet: Son of the late Earl of Cambridge. Richard, who is made a duke, becomes the leader of the House of York. He instigates an argument that will eventually blossom into the Wars of the Roses in Henry VI Part II and Henry VI Part III
Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March: Richard's elderly uncle, who is imprisoned in the Tower. He warns Richard to be wary of the House of Lancaster, which has unfairly treated the Yorkists for many years.
Richard Neville (Earl of Warwick): Member of the York (White Rose) faction.
Vernon: Member of the York (White Rose) faction.
William de La Pole, Earl of Suffolk: Member of the Lancaster (Red Rose) faction.
Basset: Member the Lancaster (Red Rose) faction.
English Military Leaders
Lord Talbot: Fierce warrior who leads the English against the French. He becomes the Earl of Shrewsbury. 
Earl of  Salisbury: Courageous English general.
John Talbot: Lord Talbot's son.
Sir John Fastolfe: Cowardly English captain.
Sir William Lucy, Sir William Glansdale, Sir Thomas Gargrave
Duke of Burgundy: English soldier who defects to the French.
The French
Charles: Dauphin of France and later King of France as Charles VII.
Joan La Pucelle (Joan of Arc): French military heroine regarded as a witch by the English.
Reignier: Duke of Anjou.
Duc d'Alençon, Bastard of Orleans: Generals serving Reignier.
Margaret: Daughter of Reignier, afterwards married to King Henry VI.
Countess of Auvergne
Governor of Paris
Master-Gunner of Orléans and His Son (Boy)
General of the French Forces in Bourdeaux
Old Shepherd: Father of Joan.
Fiends appearing to La Pucelle
French Sergeant
Lord Ponton de Santrailles; : Prisoner of the Duke of Bedford. He is exchanged for Lord Talbot. 
Other Characters
Mayor of London
Edmund Mortimer's Keepers
Woodville: Lieutenant of the Tower.
Minor Characters: Lawyer, porter, lords, warders of the Tower, heralds, officers, soldiers, messengers, attendants.

Historical Background

The plot summary will be easy to follow if you keep in mind that the play has three storylines. In the first, an uncle and a great-uncle of the new English king—an infant boy who accedes to the throne as Henry VI in 1422 upon the death of his father—vie for control the government while the child is growing up. In the second, England goes to war against France and its warrior maiden, Joan of Arc. In the third, an English nobleman of the House of York, who believes his family has been cheated out of the throne over the years, quarrels with an English nobleman who supports the House of Lancaster, which has held the throne since 1399. The new king is a Lancaster. 
The action in the play takes place between 1422 and 1445.

Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
All England mourns the death of King Henry V in 1422. As his funeral procession enters Westminster Abbey, the Duke of Bedford sums up the feelings of the people when he tells the Duke of Gloucester: “Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night! . . . England ne’er lost a king of so much worth” (1.1.3). Henry V’s infant boy, born the previous year, inherits the throne as Henry VI, the third and last king of the House of Lancaster. (The first two were his grandfather, Henry IV, and his father, Henry V.) The question for England now is this: Who will control the English government, as well as French lands won by Henry V, when the little boy is growing up? The central players in this dangerous political game include the following: 
Duke of Gloucester (Humphrey Plantagenet), brother of the late king and uncle of the new king. Parliament names him acting Lord Protector to oversee government affairs. His brother, the Duke of Bedford (John Plantagenet), officially holds the title of Lord Protector. However, when Bedford goes to France to lead troops in a defense of English-held French lands, he places the boy king and the government in the hands of Gloucester.
Bishop of Winchester (Henry Beaufort), uncle of Gloucester and Bedford and great uncle of the new king. He holds the powerful position of Chancellor of England. Though arrogant and grasping, he is politically astute and vies with Gloucester for control of the government. 
Richard Plantagenet, of the House of York. Richard and his supporters believe the House of York was cheated out of the throne in 1399 by Henry IV, the first of the Lancaster kings. Henry IV was succeeded by two other Lancaster kings, Henry V, and now the boy king, Henry VI. Richard seeks to regain the throne for the House of York. 
John Beaufort (Earl of Somerset), of the House of Lancaster. He backs the Lancasters against Richard and the supporters of the House of York.
At the funeral of Henry V, a bitter quarrel erupts between Gloucester and the Bishop of Winchester when the latter claims church prayers made the late king what he was. Gloucester, who believes Winchester is claiming credit for what he does not deserve, insults the bishop as a hypocrite. When Winchester insults him back, claiming Gloucester plans to take full control of the realm, Gloucester rejoins with 
                                           Thou lov’st the flesh, 
And ne’er throughout the year to church thou go’st 
Except it be to pray against thy foes. (1.1.43-44) 
While this domestic feud threatens England’s future, so, too, does new war in France. Earlier, under the late Henry V, England captured certain French lands. In a 1420 peace pact known as the Treaty of Troyes, the French agreed that the King of England would become heir to the French throne. However, in 1422, the Dauphin of France, Charles, rejects the provisions of the treaty and, with considerable support, renews war with England. When his father dies late in 1422, Charles assumes the powers of the monarchy, although his step up from dauphin to king has not yet been sealed by a coronation ceremony. The English, of course, still regard their own monarch as the rightful heir of the French throne.
In the renewed war, the rebel French army of the dauphin includes forces under the following: 
Reignier, Duke of Anjou. 
Jean d’Orléans, Count of Dunois (known as the Bastard of Orléans). He is a general under Reignier. 
Duke of Alençon, a general under Reignier. 
At the siege of Orléans, the French repulse the English and take as prisoner England’s fiercest warrior, Lord Talbot. But the doughty English, now led by Lord Salisbury, fight back ferociously and turn the tide back in their favor. Dauphin Charles thinks all may be lost. However, the Bastard of Orléans comes forth to inform Charles he has reason to cheer up: 
Be not dismay’d, for succour is at hand: 
A holy maid hither with me I bring, 
Which by a vision sent to her from heaven 
Ordained is to raise this tedious siege 
And drive the English forth the bounds of France. (1.2.55-59) 
This maid is Joan La Pucelle, known to history as Joan of Arc. The Dauphinskeptical at first that a mere teenage girl could aid the French causetakes up a sword and tests her in a fencing match. She wins and he is now only too happy to have her fighting on his side. Joan urges her comrades to "fight till the last gasp" (1.2.133).

Back in England, Gloucester and Winchester continue their quarrel at the Tower of London. Gloucester accuses Winchester of having contrived to murder Henry V and further charges that he grants indulgences to whores. After supporters of Gloucester and Winchester clash, the mayor of London reproaches the two men for breaking the peace. Gloucester and Winchester exchange more insults, then strike out at each other. An officer of the mayor then orders everyone home on pain of death.

In France, Talbot is released, thanks to a prisoner exchange arranged by the Duke of Bedford. England now has its lion back. But when the battle for Orléans rejoins, Joan leads an attack that repels the English, claiming the lives of two English warriors, Lord Salisbury and Sir Thomas Gargrave. Talbot, amazed by her exploits, calls her a witch. The jubilant Dauphin calls her a saint. At night, redoubtable Talbot leads another attack as the English cry, “Saint George!” (expressed in a stage direction: 2.1.43). Surprised, the French flee the city half-dressed. (This part of the story is historically inaccurate; the English did not recapture Orléans.)

Meanwhile, while Gloucester and Winchester carry on their feud in England, another quarrel breaks out, this one between Richard Plantagenet, of the House of York, and John Beaufort (Earl of Somerset), of the House of Lancaster. Richard and his supporters believe the House of York was cheated out of the throne by Henry IV, the first of the Lancaster kings. Henry IV was succeeded by two other Lancaster kings, Henry V, and now the boy king, Henry VI.

In a garden in London, Richard, confronting Somerset, bids all who support him to pick a white rose from a bush. Somerset, in turn, asks all who support him to pluck a red rose. Out of this beginning, the Wars of the Roses (between the House of York, symbolized by white roses, and the House of Lancaster, symbolized by red roses) will eventually develop. Later, Richard, seeking a full explanation of why the Houses of York and Lancaster have been at odds, visits his Uncle Mortimer, the Earl of March, who is imprisoned in the Tower of London for opposing the rule of Henry IV, a Lancaster, many years ago.
Old Mortimer, who is near death, recites the history of the rivalry, pointing out that he believes he should have been king long ago instead of Henry IV. Since that time, Mortimer says, the Yorks have been unfairly treated. He cautions Richard to be wary of the Lancasters, for they are solidly entrenched in the political establishment. Shortly after Richard’s conversation with the old man, Mortimer dies. Thus, three conflicts now afflict England: (1) the Gloucester-Winchester feud, (2) the war with France, and (3) the York-Lancaster dispute between Richard Plantagenet and John Beaufort.

At a meeting in Parliament, young King Henry VInow old enough to exert some influenceurges Gloucester and Winchester to put aside their differences for the good of the country. In a scolding appeal, the King says:
O, what a scandal is it to our crown, 
That two such noble peers as ye should jar! 
Believe me, lords, my tender years can tell 
Civil dissension is a viperous worm 
That gnaws the bowels of the commonwealth. (3.1.74-78) 
Gloucester and Winchester then are forced to shake hands. The king later turns to Richard, who is also present, and says, 
But all the whole inheritance I give 
That doth belong unto the house of York, 
From whence you spring by lineal descent. (3.1.172-174) 
Then he confers on Richard the title of Duke of York. Thus, now that domestic strife appears to have been contained, the King can concentrate on the war abroad. At the suggestion of Gloucester, the King travels to Paris (along with the other principals of the drama) to be crowned there to engender love among his subjects and dishearten his enemies.

When Joan of Arc captures the city of Rouen, Talbot recaptures it. Then Joan persuades Talbot’s chief ally, the Duke of Burgundy, to defect to the French. After Talbot goes to Paris for Henry’s crowning, Henry rewards him with a title, Earl of Shrewsbury, in recognition of his service. At the same time, he banishes another combatant, Sir John Fastolfe, for cowardice.

At the coronation of Henry, the domestic quarrel between Richard and Somerset resurfaces. Their supporters are wearing roses in their capsthe York faction, white ones, and the Lancaster, red ones. Although Henry wears a red rose as a Lancaster, he declares his neutrality in the quarrel. To pacify Richard and Somerset, the Crown appoints both men to high government positions, and they sally forth to fight the French.

Talbot, meanwhile, besieges Bordeaux and requests reinforcements, but Richard and Somerset argue over what should be done. As a result, no reinforcements are sent. Talbot and his son die in battle in a touching scene in which the dying father clutches the body of his dead son. The tide of battle then turns against the French, and the English capture two important prisoners: the fiendish Joan and the beautiful Margaret of Anjou. The Earl of Suffolk plans to make a match between Margaret and Henry. After the English question Joan, she flings only insults and curses back at them: 
May never glorious sun reflex his beams 
Upon the country where you make abode; 
But darkness and the gloomy shade of death 
Environ you, till mischief and despair 
Drive you to break your necks or hang yourselves! (5.4.90-94) 
The English burn Joan at the stake. Then they propose a peace in which the French ruler becomes a viceroy under the English ruler while still enjoying his royal privileges. Charles agrees to a truce while keeping in mind the advice of one of his men to break the truce when he so desires. Henry, now twenty-four, then marries Margaret of Anjou in April of 1445 at Suffolk’s urging. Suffolk, who has an eye for Margaret, is pleased. He says that Margaret will rule Henry and that he, Suffolk, will rule both Margaret and Henry.


The main conflicts in the play center on (1) the domestic feud between Gloucester and Winchester over control of the boy-king, (2) the war between England and France, and (3) the growing hostility between supporters of the House of Lancaster and supporters of the House of York. A Lancaster has sat on the throne since 1399, but the Yorkists believe they should have acceded to power. The hostility between them threatens to erupt into civil strife.


Bitter rivalry characterizes the tone of the play. For example, when the Bishop of Winchester says that his prayers made the late King Henry V what he was, he touches off the following exchange with Gloucester:

GLOUCESTER:  The church! where is it? Had not churchmen pray’d      
His thread of life had not so soon decay’d:      
None do you like but an effeminate prince,      
Whom like a school-boy you may over-awe.      
WINCHESTER:  Gloucester, whate’er we like thou art protector,      
And lookest to command the prince and realm.   
Thy wife is proud; she holdeth thee in awe,      
More than God or religious churchmen may.      
GLOUCESTER:  Name not religion, for thou lov’st the flesh,      
And ne’er throughout the year to church thou go’st,   
Except it be to pray against thy foes. (1.1.35-45)   
In the war between England and France, Talbot stokes the fires against the French when he tells his compatriots how the enemy treated him before he gained freedom in a prisoner exchange.
With scoffs and scorns and contumelious taunts.      
In open market-place produc’d they me,      
To be a public spectacle to all:     
Here, said they, is the terror of the French,      
The scarecrow that affrights our children so. (1.4.42-46)   
Meanwhile, rancorous enmity divides England into factions supporting the King (the Lancasters) and those opposing him (the Yorkists). When members of the two 
factions meet in the Temple Garden in London, they pluck roses as symbols of their causes—the Lancasters a red rose and the Yorkists a white rose. Richard Plantagenet, the Yorkist leader, and the Earl of Suffolk (William de la Pole), a Lancastrian, exchange insults.
PLANTAGENET:  Now, by this maiden blossom in my hand,      
I scorn thee and thy faction, peevish boy.      
SUFFOLK:  Turn not thy scorns this way, Plantagenet.    
PLANTAGENET:  Proud Pole, I will, and scorn both him and thee.      
SUFFOLK:  I’ll turn my part thereof into thy throat. (2.4.78-82)   
The climax of a play or another literary work, such as a short story or a novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. The climax of Henry VI Part I arguably occurs, according to both definitions, when Lord Talbot and his son die, galvanizing the English into redoubling their efforts and leading to the capture and execution of Joan of Arc. A peace treaty and English-French marriage then follow to maintain comity.
Sometimes a country is its own worst enemy. England fights France, but enemies at home also imperil the welfare of England.
Women can work wonders. Joan La Pucelle (Joan of Arc) proves that on the battlefield she is the equal of any man. However, Joan is depicted as evil—a witch who uses her diabolical power to repel the English. The historic Joan is depicted as extraordinarily pious and upright, though fierce in the pursuit of her goals. She is a canonized saint of the Roman Catholic Church and one of the most admired women in European history.
Age and ambition will take advantage of youth and innocence. Self-seekers attempt to manipulate the boy-king, Henry VI, in order to control the government.

True heroism is selfless. Although most of the characters in the play take risks for personal gain, the great English warrior Talbot puts himself in peril for the welfare of Englandand his son, John, follows in his footsteps. Both die bravely in battle. Talbot's heroism carries on the patriotic tradition of Henry V, who is mourned at the beginning of the play.

Figures of Speech
Shakespeare's skill as a writer derives in large part from his ability to compose memorable figures of speech. He exhibits this power in Henry VI Part I. Shakespeare wrote the play at the beginning of his career in London, when he was attempting to establish a reputation as a playwright. Following are examples of the types of figures of speech in the play. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.


Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!  (1.1.1)

Now for the honour of the forlorn French! 
Him I forgive my death that killeth m
When he sees me go back one foot or fly. (1.2.21-23)

It cannot be this weak and writhled shrimp      
Should strike such terror to his enemies. (2.3.28-29)  

[T]hy mirth shall turn to moan. (2.3.50)

Soldiers’ stomachs always serve them well. (2.3.88)

Delays have dangerous ends. (3.2.37)

Between two hawks, which flies the higher pitch; 
Between two dogs, which hath the deeper mouth; 
Between two blades, which bears the better temper; 
Between two horses, which doth bear him best; 
Between two girls, which hath the merriest eye (2.4.13-17)
Comets, importing change of times and states, 
Brandish your crystal tresses in the sky. (1.1.2-3)
The Duke of Bedford addresses comets.
His [Henry V's] brandish’d sword did blind men with his beams; 
His arms spread wider than a dragon’s wings; 
His sparkling eyes, replete with wrathful fire, 
More dazzled and drove back his enemies 
Than mid-day sun fierce bent against their faces. (1.1.12-16)
Your hearts I’ll stamp out with my horse’s heels 
And make a quagmire of your mingled brains. (1.4.113-114)
Comparison of the mingled remains of the pulverized brains of French soldiers to a swamp

The day begins to break, and night is fled, 
Whose pitchy mantle over-veil’d the earth. (2.2.3-4)
Comparison of darkness to a cloak

Civil dissension is a viperous worm 
That gnaws the bowels of the commonwealth. (3.1.74-78)
Comparison of dissension to a worm

How are we park’d and bounded in a pale, 
A little herd of England’s timorous deer, 
Maz’d with a yelping kennel of French curs! (4.2.48-50)
Comparison of English soldiers to deer and French soldiers to mongrel dogs

Unbidden guests
Are often welcomest when they are gone. (2.2.58-59)
But now the arbitrator of despairs,
Just death, kind umpire of men's miseries,
With sweet enlargement doth dismiss me hence. (2.5.28-30)
Comparison of death to a human being
Glory is like a circle in the water,
Which never ceaseth to enlarge itself
Till by broad spreading it disperse to nought. (1.2.139-141)
Comparison of glory to a circle in the water 

The other lords, like lions wanting food, 
Do rush upon us as their hungry prey. (1.2.30-31)
Comparison of the lords to lions

My thoughts are whirled like a potter’s wheel (1.5.22)
Comparison of mental activity to the whirling of a potter's wheel

Rhyming Conversation
Shakespeare uses rhyming conversation in Henry VI Part I. The following exchange between Talbot and his son demonstrates this device:
TALBOT:  Shall all thy mother's hopes lie in one tomb?
JOHN TALBOT:  Ay, rather than I'll shame my mother's womb.
TALBOT:  Upon my blessing, I command thee go.
JOHN TALBOT:  To fight I will, but not to fly the foe.
TALBOT:  Part of thy father may be saved in thee.
JOHN TALBOT:   No part of him but will be shame in me.
TALBOT:  Thou never hadst renown, nor canst not lose it.
JOHN TALBOT:   Yes, your renowned name: shall flight abuse it?
TALBOT:  Thy father's charge shall clear thee from that stain.
JOHN TALBOT   You cannot witness for me, being slain.
CHARLES:   O, no, forbear! for that which we have fled
During the life, let us not wrong it dead. (4. 5. 36-45).

Henry VI: Saintly Scholar

Shakespeare depicts Henry VI as weak and ineffectual, as he was in real life. However, the historical Henry did possess some praiseworthy qualities, notably his piety as a devout Catholic and his love of learning and education. He exhibited the latter quality when he established Eton College in 1440 as the King's College of Our Lady of Eton Beside Windsor, providing scholarships for deserving boys who enrolled. Henry also founded Cambridge University's King's College to enable Eton boys to continue their education. 
Both Eton and King's College continue operation today as two of England's most respected educational institutions. As for Henry's famous saintliness, Edward Hall, a historian who graduated from Eton and King's College, described it in a history that Shakespeare used as one of his sources for the play. Hall (also spelled Halle) wrote:

    He did abhor of his own nature, all the vices, as well of the body as of the soul; and from his very infancy he was of honest conversation and pure integrity; no knower of evil, and a keeper of all goodness; a despiser of all things which were wont to cause the minds of mortal men to slide or appair. Besides this, patience was so radicate in his heart that of all the injuries to him committed (which were no small number) he never asked vengeance nor punishment, but for that rendered to Almighty God, his Creator, hearty thanks, thinking that by this trouble and adversity his sins were to him forgotten and forgiven (qtd. in G.B. Harrison, ed. Shakespeare: The Complete Works. New York: Harcourt, 1952, page 143).
Lineage of the Houses of Lancaster and York

House of Lancaster: Henry IV ("Bolingbroke," son of the Duke of Lancaster), 1399-1413. Age at death: 47. Henry V (son of Henry IV), 1413-1422. Age at death: 34. Henry VI (son of Henry V, deposed), 1422-1471. Age at death: 49. 
House of York: Edward IV (son of duke of York), 1461-1483. Age at death: 41. Edward V (son of Edward IV), 1483. Age at death: 13. Richard III ("Crookback," brother of Edward IV) 1483-1485. Age at death: 35.

War of the Roses

Henry Bolingbroke's ascendancy to the English throne as Henry IV was the germinal event that triggered the War of the Roses (1455-1485) between the House of  York and the House of Lancasterfounded by Bolingbroke's father, John of Gaunt. For additional information on the War of the Roses, click here.

Study Questions and Essay Topics

1. Which character in the play is the most admirable? Which is the least admirable?
2. Write an essay that uses Henry VI Part I to demonstrate how ruthless politicians maneuver to get their way.
3. Write a psychological profile of King Henry VI.
4. If Joan of Arc was such a praiseworthy human being, why did Shakespeare depict her as a witch?
5. In monarchies, rulership passes to a son or daughter of the king and queen. Is a monarchy a flawed system of government? Or does it have its merits?.