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Studies in Shakespeare

A Brief Note on the Historical Background to Shakespeare's First and Second History Cycles

[The following note has been prepared by Ian Johnston for students in English 366 at Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC. This document is in the public domain, released August 1999, last revised on August 22, 1999]


Introductory Note

This note explains briefly the main historical narrative of Shakespeare's two history cycles and outlines the principal relationships in the royal family whose dynastic quarrels were the basis of the Wars of the Roses. This account describes only matters directly relevant to Shakespeare's version of the story. His genealogy is, for the most part, quite accurate, but there are some minor discrepancies and some omissions. And his plays significantly alter the chronology of events, the ages of the participants, and so on.

The Wars of the Roses: Brief Synopsis

The Wars of the Roses refers to a long, repetitive, and destructive civil war, based on a struggle for the English crown by the members of two distinct factions in the English royal family (called the Plantaganets, who had ruled for over two hundred years). Strictly speaking, the Wars of the Roses applies only to the latter half of this conflict, but it is commonly used to describe the entire internecine fight.

The war had its origins in a quarrel between Richard II and his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, as a result of which Richard II was murdered and Henry became Henry IV. Richard's murder brought about civil war, which continued until Henry IV's son ascended the throne as Henry V and restored a short interval of glorious military victory in France and peace at home.

Upon Henry V's early death, the wars of succession resumed. Henry's son, Henry VI, who led the branch of the family called the Lancastrians (the party of the Red Rose) was challenged by the Yorkist branch of the family (the party of the White Rose). Success in the war alternated for a number of years, until the Yorkists prevailed, and Edward IV came to the throne. Upon the death of Edward, his brother Richard became King Richard III.

The Lancastrian cause meanwhile was taken up by a distant relative of the royal family, Henry Tudor (whose claim was based upon the marriage of his grandfather, Owen Tudor, to Henry V's widow). He invaded England and defeated the Yorkist forces at the Battle of Bosworth Field (in 1485), thus ending the dynasty of the Plantaganets and initiating the Tudor royal family (as Henry VII). Henry VII was the father of Henry VIII and therefore the grandfather of Queen Elizabeth.

Although the procedure may be seriously misleading, the Battle of Bosworth Field is often used as a convenient date to mark the start of the Renaissance in England, inasmuch as it initiates the first distinctly Renaissance royal family in England, the Tudors, who take over from the famous medieval royal family, the Plantaganets.

Shakespeare's History Cycles

Shakespeare wrote two four-play sequences dealing with the full story of the Wars of the Roses. The First History Cycle, written very early in Shakespeare's career, consists of the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III. The Second History Cycle, written a few years later, consists of Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2, and Henry V. The term History Cycle may be somewhat misleading, since we have reason to think that the plays were not originally thought of as a linear sequence, even though we can treat them that way.

The First History Cycle thus covers the second half of the story (from the death of Henry V to the defeat of Richard III). The Second History Cycle deals with the first half of the story, from the reign of Richard II to the triumph of Henry V. These two cycles should not be considered a single eight-play sequence (although the story they tell is more or less continuous), since the Second History Cycle is clearly the work of a dramatist far more sure of and gifted in his art than the writer of the First History Cycle.

The Family Tree

[To understand this explanation you will need a full family tree in front of you, so that you can locate the various characters. If you need such a family tree, consult the instructor. One should note also that the basic principle of succession was that the throne passed to the eldest surviving male heir or, if he was no longer alive, to his eldest surviving male heir. If there were no male heirs left in that branch of the family, the succession went to the male survivors of the next branch of the family. The eldest surviving heir of a female ancestor also had a claim, a factor which is crucial to the narrative]

1. The narrative begins with Edward III (not a character in Shakespeare), a legitimate, powerful, and successful king. Edward had seven sons. The eldest son, Edward, Prince of Wales (the Black Prince, who does not appear in Shakespeare but who is referred to) predeceased his father, but he left a son, who became the legitimate king, Richard II (it is important to note that Richard II is, without any qualification, the lawful king; no one disputes that in any of the plays).

2. Edward III's second son, William of Hatfield, died without issue. The third son, Lionel, Duke of Clarence had a daughter Philippa, who married Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March. This link is important, as it establishes the Mortimers as having a claim to the throne, once Richard II is dead (because Edward III's second son, William, left no family, the Mortimers are the male descendants of the next oldest child of Edward III). The Mortimers are important in Henry IV, Part I, for they challenge the legitimacy of Henry IV, on the ground that they are the true heirs. And the Mortimer connection is, as we shall see, the basis of the Yorkist claim to the throne (a key element in the Henry VI plays)..

3. Edward III's fourth son, John of Gaunt (who is a character in Richard II) is the originator of the House of Lancaster. His eldest son, Henry Bolingbroke, is oppressed by Richard II, rebels, and usurps the throne as Henry IV. The legitimacy (or illegitimacy) of this act is a major theme of both history cycles. It is vital to understand that the legal justification for the family fight (on both sides) concerns the legitimacy of Henry IV's kingship, for if he is not a legal king, then the House of Lancaster is not entitled to the throne.

4. Edward III's fifth son, Edmund of Langley, Duke of York, is the originator of the House of York. As we shall see, once this branch of the family united in marriage with the Mortimers, they established a claim to the throne through Philippa, daughter of Lionel, the third son (see Point 2 above).

5. The Second History Cycle (which tells the first part of the story) starts with the quarrel between Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke, which results in the murder of Richard and the crowning of Bolingbroke as Henry IV. That is the subject matter of the first play in the tetralogy, Richard II. The two parts of Henry IV continue the story of Henry IV's reign, as he faces repeated rebellions by those who do not support the Lancastrians on the throne (especially the Mortimers, who believe they have a better claim).

6. The last play in the tetralogy, Henry V, moves beyond the strife to celebrate the triumphs of Henry IV's son, Henry V, who seems to have put the inter-family fighting temporarily to rest by getting everyone to combine to invade France. In the course of the play Henry marries Katherine, the daughter of the King of France. This woman, although a minor character in the play, is a crucial link in the overall story, because after Henry V's death, she marries Owen Tudor. Their grandson, Henry Tudor, is the invader who overthrows Richard III at the end of the First History Cycle (and thus ends the Wars of the Roses). Henry Tudor's claim to the throne is very marginal, since his grandfather was a commoner, and his grandmother was a royal widow, with no blood connections to the English Royal Family. His mother (Margaret Beaufort) was related to the royal family, but through a branch that was barred from succession because the family was considered illegitimate (the Beauforts). After the death of her first husband (Edmund Tudor), Margaret Beaufort married Lord Stanley (a character in Richard III, whose last-minute switch of sides contributes to Richard's defeat at the end of the play). Shakespeare (for obvious reason) does not explore Henry Tudor's claim to the throne.

7. The First History Cycle begins with the death of Henry V and the accession to the throne of his son, Henry VI. Henry's claim to the throne is disputed by the Yorkist members of the family, led by Richard Plantaganet, who revive the old dispute about the legitimacy of the Lancastrian claim to the throne. Much of the first play is taken up with the ways in which the quarrels among the English lords contribute to the loss of the French territories won by Henry V.

8. The most complicated part of this entire narrative is the claim of Richard Plantaganet to be the legitimate king rather than Henry VI. Richard's father was Richard, Earl of Cambridge, son of Edmund Langley, fifth son of Edward III. This Richard, Earl of Cambridge, married Anne Mortimer, daughter of Philippa, and granddaughter of Lionel, third son of Edward III. Richard, Duke of York is the son of this Anne Mortimer and Richard, Earl of Cambridge. Thus, in the First History Cycle, the Yorkist claim to the throne runs as follows: Once Richard II is dead, the throne passes to the eldest heir or the surviving family of that heir. With Edward, the Black Prince, and his son, Richard II, dead and William of Hatfield (Edward III's second son) dead without issue, the legitimate royal candidates, according to the Yorkists, are the successors of Lionel, Duke of Clarence, third son of Edward III (i.e., the Mortimers). Since the mother of Richard, Duke of York, was a member of the Mortimer family, therefore his claim to the throne is better than Henry VI's, who traces his ancestry back to John of Gaunt, the fourth son of Edward III. Shakespeare puts the explanation of this claim into the Second Part of Henry VI, 2.2.

9. In the course of the Wars of the Roses, Henry VI is killed, as is his son, Edward, Prince of Wales. The narrative of these quarrels and battles is told in the Third Part of Henry VI. With the death of Henry VI, the Yorkist cause seems triumphant, and the eldest surviving son of Richard, Duke of York, becomes King Edward IV. The last play in the First History Cycle, Richard III, begins with the coronation of Edward as king.

10. Edward IV has three brothers. One (Edmund, Earl of Rutland) has been killed in the fighting. The third brother (fourth son of Richard, Duke of York) is Richard Gloucester, who wants to become king. He arranges the murder of his elder brother Clarence (also called George) and the murder of the two young sons of Edward IV (Richard's nephews, famous as the two princes in the Tower of London), so as to eliminate any male heir who might prevent his attaining the throne once Edward IV (who is very ill) dies. Richard is successful in his schemes and becomes Richard III, the last of the Plantaganet kings.

11. Early in the Richard III, Richard (not yet king) woos Anne Neville (the wife of Edward, Prince of Wales, son of Henry VI). He has thus (in the course of the plays) killed or participated in killing Anne's husband, her father, and her father-in-law. Nevertheless they get married. Shakespeare gives us no clear reason why Richard wants to marry Anne, since she does not improve his claim to the throne. They have no children.

12. The chief opposition to Richard in Shakespeare's play comes from Henry Tudor (see Point 5 above). His claim to the throne is very weak, but once he defeats Richard at the Battle of Bosworth Field (at the end of Richard III) he marries Elizabeth, the sole surviving child of Edward IV, and thus in Shakespeare's dynasty, the last surviving member of the Yorkist branch of the royal family. Henry claims that with the marriage he will be uniting the two houses once again (i.e., combining the white rose and the red, a frequent image of Tudor politics). The weakness of Henry Tudor's claim, together with the fact that he is Elizabeth's grandfather, may be the reason that Richard III makes no mention of the legality of royal power, a major concern of most of the other history plays in these two cycles.

If you find this narrative confusing, you might like to consider that such confusion may very well be a really important point Shakespeare is exploring in these history cycles, namely, that attempts to usurp legitimate authority through violence and murder may create political anarchy in which the very notion of legitimate rule becomes absurd, as everyone makes up competing narratives with no sure guide as to where one should place one's allegiance. The result is political confusion.

A Brief Historical Note

As you may know, there is much debate about whether or not the historical Richard, Duke of York (Richard III) was as evil as Shakespeare portrays him. A number of sober historical assessments have seriously challenged this vision (as has a really delightful detective novel, The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey). And there is a society in English called the White Boar Society (named after Richard's insignia) which is dedicated to preserving the good reputation of Richard III.

In depicting Richard the way he does, Shakespeare is following the tradition established by Tudor historians of demonizing Richard. Their motives for doing so are not difficult to see. The Tudors' claim to the throne through blood connections with the Plantaganets was extremely slight. One way of papering over any potential embarrassment on that question was to celebrate the arrival of Henry Tudor (Henry VII) as England's divine deliverance from the diabolical evil of Richard. The worse Richard could be made to appear, the better Henry VII (Elizabeth's grandfather) would seem. This rewriting of history has come to be called the Tudor Myth.

Questions of royal legitimacy were potentially dangerous in Shakespeare's time, because Queen Elizabeth's claim to the throne was repeatedly challenged, on the ground that the marriage of her mother and father (Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII) was illegitimate and that she was therefore a bastard. Also, any dramatic depiction of the usurpation of the monarch by a powerful noble could be dangerous. Indeed, one performance of Richard II on the eve of the Essex rebellion led to a serious investigation of Shakespeare's company and some censoring of scenes from that play.


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