Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using The Complete Works of Shakespeare Updated Fourth Ed., Longman Addison-Wesley, ed. David Bevington, 1997. Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of his commentary.
Overall Impression: See Henry VI part I.
Overview of the Historical Plays: See Henry VI part I.
Per Bevington: See introductory materials with Part I, which describe the events leading up to this play. Action in this play covers 1445 to 1455.
Major themes/events include: portrayal of civil discord and turbulence arising from deplorable social conditions, including the Jack Cade rebellion [historically 1350]; role of prophecy; political and moral decline; ineffective institutions of government; demise of the honorable Gloucester and his envious duchess; York's rising ambitions and claim to the crown; deaths of Suffolk and Winchester; beginnings of the War of the Roses (Battlefield near Castle Inn in St. Albans).
Note: It is helpful to review the history of The Hundred's Year War, for example at the Encyclopedia Britannica website or Wikipedia.
London, the royal court. Suffolk (William de la Pole, Marquess and later 1st Duke of Suffolk) presents Queen Margaret of Anjou to Henry VI, in whom Henry is delighted [the coronation was historically in 1445]. Suffolk asks the Lord Protector of the king, Gloucester (i.e., Humphrey D. of Gloucester) to read the terms of the treaty with France. He cannot read beyond the clause whereby Anjou and Maine are turned over to King Reignier, Margaret's father. These terms, along with the lack of a dowry of any type, distress him greatly. Cardinal Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester continues. Henry makes him the first Duke of Suffolk.
After the queen, king, and Suffolk leave, Gloucester expresses grief for the memory of the hard won French lands now given away and the fatal marriage, sentiments agreed to by the [1st or 5th] Earl of Salisbury (Richard Neville), his son the [1st] Earl of Warwick (Richard Neville 1428-1471), and York (Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York, 1411-1460), though Winchester defends the king. Gloucester predicts France will soon be lost and leaves.
Winchester says to the others that Gloucester is a threat to the king and no true protector. The Duke of Buckingham wonders why he still remains in the position as protector, since the king has come of age [historically he had a period of insanity in 1453 - 1454]. The [1st] Duke of Somerset (Edmund Beaufort, 4th Earl of Somerset, lived c. 1406-1455) warns that they must also watch the haughty Cardinal, who wishes himself to dominate the weak king, then leaves with Buckingham. Salisbury congratulates York on his good deeds in bringing civil discipline to Ireland and Salisbury, York, and Warwick agree to join together to suppress the growing power of the Cardinal, Suffolk, Buckingham, and Somerset. Left alone, York is resentful that it is his ancestral domain that has been given away and notes that he must bide his time, pretending to love Humphrey while plotting to pit the house of York against the house of Lancaster to win the throne for himself.
Gloucester's house. Dame Eleanor Cobham ("Nell"), Duchess of Gloucester, goads her husband to seek the throne for himself, but he asks that she banish such thoughts. He divulges a dream in which Edmund and Somerset had been beheaded, and she in turn describes her dream of sitting on the throne as queen, resenting as she does the queen. A messenger asks them to join the kings falconry outing. She expresses to Humphrey her ruthless ambition to be queen again, then he leaves.
She receives Sir John Hume, a priest, who she is paying to arrange a conjuring and witchcraft session to aid in her quest for the throne, though, when he is left alone, he says he is actually working for the cardinal to undermine the Duchess and bring down Gloucester.
The court. Petitioners are intercepted by the queen and Suffolk (though they wish to see the Lord Protector). One complains that the cardinal's man is depriving him of his lands, another that Suffolk has enclosed the commons of Medford, but the third, Peter, complains that his master, Thomas Horner (York's armorer), has claimed that York is the rightful heir to the throne and the king a usurper. The queen tears up the petitions and Suffolk asks Peter to bring his master to the court.
Left alone together, the queen expresses her dismay at the weakness and religiosity of her husband, and the strength of the various lords, and Suffolk agrees to do her bidding. She wants to bring down the Duchess Gloucester and Suffolk informs her of the trap he and the cardinal have laid.
The king appears with others. Somerset and York are arguing over the regent of France position. Winchester is haughty toward Warwick. The queen questions why the king should still have Gloucester as Protector, and demands his resignation. Somerset accuses Buckingham of acquiring excess wealth and he in turn accuses Somerset of excess cruelty toward offenders. The queen drops her fan and strikes Duchess Gloucester, who swears to herself to have revenge. Gloucester arrives late, and recommends York to be regent to France, recalling Somerset's poor performance in battle in France.
Peter and his master the armorer are brought in. Suffolk presents the charge that Peter has made against his master, that he said York is the rightful heir to the throne, but York denies this. Gloucester, asked to rule on this, says the apprentice and the master must fight in single combat, and also consents to Somerset being regent to France, since York is now under a cloud of suspicion.
Gloucester's house. The duchess meets with Hume, her witch Margery Jordan, and conjurer Bolingbroke. The spirit Asnath prophecies about what will become of the king (ambiguous), Suffolk (dies by water), and Somerset (shun castles)--the priest Southwell writes down the answers. York and Buckingham suddenly break in and arrest her and the others. York comments on the ambiguous prophecies and plans to dine with Salisbury and Warwick.
St. Albans. The king's falconry outing. Gloucester's hawk flies highest and the king comments, and there are various resentful comments about his ambition by the cardinal, etc. The cardinal and Gloucester resolve to duel that evening. A townsman of St. Albans arrives proclaiming a miracle, that a blind crippled man has been made to see, and the religious king is eager to hear more. The man, Sander Simpcox, is brought in with his wife, and answers with double entendres to his interrogation by Gloucester, who finally shows him to be a fraud. The wife explains that they did it out of pure need.
Buckingham arrives to tell of Gloucester's wife's witchcraft. Gloucester argues his faithfulness to the king and says he will banish her from his company if these accusations are true.
At York's garden. He asks Salisbury and Warwick of their opinion regarding his potential claim to the crown, explaining the past actions of the Lancastrians Edward the Black Prince, Richard II (who was murdered), and Henry IV, V and VI, the Mortimers and his imprisoned uncle Edmund. Warwick proclaims that York is the rightful heir and the two Nevilles kneel down to York. York asks them to bide their time until Gloucester is out of the way, promising to make Warwick the second greatest man in England.
London, A place of justice. Duchess Gloucester is charged by the king and banished to the Isle of Man (because she is nobly born), whereas Margery and the other conjurers are to be executed. Afterwards, the king asks Gloucester to give up his role as Lord Protector. The queen privately gloats.
The single combat between Peter and his master takes place. Peter strikes him and the master confesses his treason, then dies.
London street. Gloucester awaits the banishment of his wife. She is undergoing 3 days of humiliation first. She pauses to berate her husband for his inaction on her behalf and also gives vent to her hatred of the others. Gloucester reminds her of his own innocence. Gloucester is surprised to be summoned to a meeting of parliament. She is led away by the sheriff Stanley.
Parliament session at Bury St. Edmunds. The queen plants more ideas about Gloucester's supposed ambitions and encourages the king to weed him out, though the king protests Gloucester's goodness and innocence. Somerset arrives and announces that all the lands in France have been lost. York laments the loss of this land he intended to rule.
Gloucester arrives late and is arrested by Suffolk for treason. York accuses him of taking bribes and converting money intended for the soldiers to his own purposes. Gloucester in fact claims he has paid them out of his own pocket to keep them provisioned. The king still believes he is innocent. Gloucester warns the king that more violence will follow this plot to get rid of him and of the conspiracy among the cardinal, Buckingham, Suffolk, and the queen. The king laments the fate of Gloucester at the hands of these powerful enemies but seem powerless to save him.
After the king and others depart, the queen secretly plots with Suffolk to quickly get rid of Gloucester, though the Cardinal wonders if it should be done through legal means. Suffolk knows the legal case against him is weak. York encourages the murder and the 4 in the end consent to the murder.
A messenger arrives to announce the rebellion in Ireland. York wants Somerset to go there to put down the rebellion, but the Cardinal decides it should be York who goes there, and Suffolk states their decision is as if the king had spoken it. Left alone, York plans to amass a private army in Ireland and return on the attack. In the meantime, he has hired a Kentishman, John Cade, to foment an uprising under the name of John Mortimer, a deceased man whom he resembles. His uprising will test the strength of pro-Yorkist sentiment.
Bury St. Edmunds. Murderers flee from murdering Gloucester to tell Suffolk the deed is done.
The king and others enter to try Gloucester. Suffolk returns to announce the discovery of the murder. The king faints, and on recovering tells Suffolk of his suspicion of Suffolk's involvement. The king further laments the loss, and the queen chastises him. Warwick arrives and reports that the people believe Gloucester was murdered by Suffolk and the Cardinal. The body of Gloucester is brought before the king. Warwick deduces signs of murder on the body and implies that Suffolk and the Cardinal were involved. Suffolk replies angrily that he is being slandered, insulting the Neville family name in turn--the two adversaries leave together to fight, then return with swords drawn.
Salisbury arrives followed by commoners and announces that they demand Suffolk be put to death for the murder or they will do it themselves, to protect the king from Suffolk. The king banishes Suffolk, to the protests of the queen. She and Suffolk are left alone to lament this outcome. She kisses his hand, their speech together implies their love, and he pledges to get the sentence repealed or to follow him into exile.
Vaux arrives to announce that the Cardinal is dying from a sickness that makes him gasp and stare and blaspheme God. Suffolk leaves for France.
Cardinal's bedchamber. The Cardinal is near death and out of his mind but speaks of a trial, of torture, and his confession [to involvement in the murder]. He dies unable to make a sign showing he is thinking on heaven.
The coast of Kent. Suffolk's ship to France is attacked and boarded by Walter Whitmore and other private citizens [?pirates]. Suffolk recognizes the prophecy of dying by water (pronounced same as Walter). Walter is not moved by his initial entreaties. The Lieutenant recalls how Suffolk has wasted the country's treasury, murdered Gloucester, kissed the queen (who herself had made a worthless marriage), lost Anjou, Maine, and Normandy. The house of York with Warwick is rising up against the crown and the commons is in rebellion. Suffolk claims to be on a mission for England to France. He is haughty finally and refuses to beg for his life, though so advised by a gentleman. He is led off by Walter and the soldiers, who then return carrying Suffolk's head, which is to be carried to the queen by one of the other captured gentlemen.
Blackheath, a heath in Kent near London. Bevis & Holland are commoners planning to join in the ranks with John Cade. Cade enters to a flourish with Dick the butcher, Smith the weaver, a Sawyer, and others armed with long staves. Cade is claiming to be John Mortimer and outlining the kind of utopia he will create, but the responses from the others are comically skeptical. A clerk arrives who can write his name, and Cade sends him off to be hanged because he has this skill. Cade knights himself.
Sir Humphrey Stafford and brother William arrive with soldiers to battle with Cade. Cade plans to have Lord Saye beheaded for selling Maine (in France) and being able to speak French. Stafford declares that all supporters of Cade will be proclaimed traitors.
Same. The Stafford brothers are slain in the fighting. Cade puts on Staffords armor and drags the bodies through the street. They march toward London, planning to release the prisoners.
London, the royal court. The queen carries Suffolk's head and grieves. Henry is trying to decide how to appease the uprising, discussing with Saye that they want Saye's head. Henry notes the queen's mourning and says she would not have mourned his own death so much. Messengers announces that Cade as John Mortimer calls the king a usurper and plans himself to be king, and has arrived at London Bridge. Henry decides to flee to Killingworth but Saye will stay behind.
Tower of London. Cade has taken the bridge and is trying to take the Tower.
London. Cade as Mortimer is now lord of London. A soldier of his calls him Jack Cade and is summarily executed for it. They plan to burn London bridge.
London. Cade wants all the records in Parliament to be burned. Lord Saye has been captured. Cade chastises him for his crimes: giving up Normandy, erecting grammar schools, using printing, establishing a paper mill, and speaking Latin. Saye defends his past actions. He orders Saye beheaded, along with Saye's son-in-law Sir James Cromer, and wants their heads impaled on poles. He demands that all the nobles will pay tribute to himself and all the maidens their first married night. The heads are brought in and abused.
Southwark. The anarchic rebellion continues. Buckingham and Lord Clifford appear to Cade as ambassadors from the King, offering pardons to those who swear allegiance to the king. The crowd cried God save the king. But Cade persuades the crowd to the opposite allegiance. Clifford warns the crowd that the French will take advantage of the chaos in England and attack them, appealing to their patriotism. The crowd switches again and will follow the king, as if a feather blowing in the wind. Cade flees, chased by the soldiers.
A Castle [historically Kenilworth]. The king longs for a quiet life. Clifford and Buckingham inform him that Cade has fled and the mob returned in loyalty--the king pardons them all. A messenger announces that the Duke of York [Richard Plantagenet] is arrived from Ireland and marching with an army ostensibly to remove the Edmund Duke of Somerset from power. The king agrees to imprison Somerset in the Tower.
In Iden's garden in Kent. Cade is hiding in a garden owned by Alexander Iden. Iden enters with men and confronts Cade, who threatens him and the others. But Iden fights him and slays Cade. Iden has his head cut off to present to the king.
[Historically the action of this act began in 1452-1453 between Dartford and Blackheath SE of London and ends with a battlefield between London and St. Albans near Castle Inn in 1455.] York plans to claim his right to the crown. Buckingham arrives to ask for the king what his intentions are. York conceals that he seeks the crown, saying only that he wants Somerset removed--Buckingham assures him that Somerset has been removed to the Tower. York feigns satisfaction and dismisses his troops, pledging loyalty to the king. They meet with the king. Cade's head is brought in by Iden, whom the king makes a knight.
The queen enters with Somerset, and York accuses them of deception, since Somerset is still at liberty. York declares his true intention to have the crown. Somerset tries to have him arrested, and the queen sends for Clifford, but York calls in his sons Edward [future Edward IV] and Richard [future Richard III] with soldiers. He curses the queen. Lord Clifford (accompanied by his son Young Clifford) wants to take York off to Bedlam or the tower. York's sons stand up for him as he declares himself the true king. The Earls of Warwick and Salisbury enter with soldiers. Clifford heaps abuse on the deformed son Richard. The king chastises the aging Salisbury for his treason in recognizing York's claim. Clifford and Warwick plan to battle each other, Warwick flying the family crest showing a chained bear
Battlefield near Castle Inn in St. Albans. Warwick confronts Lord Clifford, but York asks that he be allowed to fight Clifford and Warwick leaves. York slays Lord Clifford. Young Clifford sees his dead father and pledges total war on the house of York, even its infants.
Richard fights Somerset and kills him under the sign of the Castle Inn in Saint Albans, fulfilling the prophecy. The king wants to stay but the queen insists they flee to London. Young Clifford angrily laments the circumstances and leaves. Salisbury tells York the work is unfinished as the king has fled to London, and York agrees they must pursue him. Warwick says the victory that day at St. Albans will long be celebrated.