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 Henry VI Part I, which describe the events leading up to this play. Action in this play begins historically in the 1460-1461 period (Battles of Second St. Albans and Wakefield), though it appears to be continuous with the end of Part II. This play ends in 1471 (death of Henry VI and final Yorkist victories at Tewkesbury).
Major themes/events/features include: The War of the Roses; the ineffective king and his indecisive leadership; spectacular deaths (Rutland, York, Clifford, Warwick, Prince Edward, Henry VI); lack of a single key character; revenge and an eye-for-an-eye mentality; much brutality and horror; Edward's ill-advised marriage to Elizabeth Grey; the rise of the ambitious and unscrupulous Richard.
Note: It is helpful to review the history of The Hundred's Year War, for example at the Encyclopedia Britannica website or Wikipedia.
London, Parliament House and Henry VI's Westminster Palace. The Duke of York [Richard Plantagenet] and his sons and followers (including Duke of Norfolk and the Marquess Montague) have arrived in London in hot pursuit of the king. The Earl of Warwick [Richard Neville] wonders how the king has escaped. They catalog their triumphs: they have successfully killed Lord Northumberland, Lord Clifford, Lord Stafford, Lord Buckingham, the Earl of Wiltshire, and the Duke of Somerset. Son Richard [future Richard III] hopes to have the king's head. Warwick tells York the palace is now his, and York ascends to the throne. The queen is trying to hold a Parliament session nearby. Henry VI arrives at the throne room with his supporters: Lord Clifford [son of the Clifford slain in Part II], the [3rd] Earl of Northumberland [son of the slain one], the Earl of Westmoreland, and the Duke of Exeter. The king speaks of revenge by the sons for their slain fathers. York defies the king's demand for submission and they all debate the history of the royal succession (including the usurpation by Henry IV), the loss of France, etc. Exeter is temporarily persuaded to switch allegiance to York, but stays with the king after Henry and York conclude their agreement. York persuades the king to agree that York and his descendents will receive the crown; in exchange, Henry will be allowed to peacefully live out his rule, a concession that Westmoreland, Clifford, and Northumberland deplore and term unmanly of the king. Henry frets that he has disinherited the right of his son Prince Edward (or "Ned") to the throne by this action, but nevertheless makes York take an oath binding them all to the agreement. York embraces Henry and the various contingents disperse.
The queen is enraged at Henry's weak concession of his son's birthright. She announces that she divorces herself from his bed and table, and will lead an army of her followers (Westmoreland, Clifford, and Northumberland, and her son) against the Yorkists.
Sandal Castle (the Duke of York's castle). The sons of York quarrel over the concession made allowing Henry to remain in power. Richard argues the oath has no legal standing and should be broken, persuading his father to do so. Richard is to inform Norfolk secretly of this intent, while Edward will go to Lord Cobham. A messenger announces that the queen is arrived with troops to besiege the castle. York's uncles Sir John Mortimer and Sir Hugh Mortimer arrive to help in their defense.
Field of battle between Sandal Castle and Wakefield. Clifford encounters the youngest son of York, Rutland [historically 17 y/o] and his tutor. Clifford cannot be talked out of his bloody plan for revenge and kills the defenseless Rutland.
Same, Battle of Wakefield in Yorkshire. York's two uncles are dead, and York's followers are routed. Richard has encouraged his father to keep fighting. The queen enters with troops. York predicts he will arise again like a phoenix. The queen and Northumberland prevent Clifford from killing him outright and he is captured and made to stand on a molehill. Clifford shows him the blood stained handkerchief from Rutland's slaying and cruelly offers it to wipe York's tears. She puts a paper crown on his head. He curses her and swears vengeance for their cruelty. Clifford and the queen stab him to death and she has him beheaded.
Near the Welsh border [historically near Mortimer's Cross in Herefordshire], several days later. Edward, Richard and their troops are marching. Edward has a vision of seeing three suns, which they interpret as a good omen for the upcoming battle. A messenger arrives to tell them of Rutland's and their father's cruel deaths. Their express their vengeful thoughts, particularly Richard.
Warwick, Montague, and their armies arrive. He has had an inconclusive battle with the queen's forces. Norfolk is nearby and Edward's brother George [future D. of Clarence] has been sent to the Duchess of Burgundy for his own protection [historically Richard also was sent there]. Warwick proclaims Edward the new Duke of York. A messenger says the queen and her troops are coming.
Before the walls of York. The king asks the queen to withhold revenge on the town, but Clifford wants to make the slaughter of the rebellious inhabitants a precedent. Henry laments the death of the Richard Duke of York. The queen has the king beknight their son as Edward Plantagenet. A messenger arrives telling of the imminent arrival of the army of Warwick and Edward Duke of York. Clifford asks Henry to leave the field and leave the fighting to the queen et al, but he insists on staying. Edward D of York confronts them (accompanied by Warwick, Richard, George D of Clarence, Norfolk, and Montague). They accuse each other of oath breaking regarding the regal succession. Henry overrules his wife's objections that he not speak. Richard insults Margaret's origins, and battle cannot be averted.
Battle near York [historically it was between Towton and Saxton in Yorkshire]. The Yorkists are losing. Warwick swears vengeance or death.
Same. Richard encounters Clifford, who flees.
Same. Henry observes that the battle has swayed one way and then the other, and sits down on a molehill, wishing for the quiet life of a commoner. A son that has inadvertently killed his father enters, followed by a father that has killed his son. Henry laments the senseless war of the roses, and leaves with the queen.
Same. The Yorkists are victors [Henry and Margaret and their son have fled to Scotland]. Clifford has an arrow through his neck. Edward comes upon him as he dies. Warwick, after he and Edward mock the dead Clifford, has his soldiers take his head to replace Richard Plantagenet's head that Clifford had placed there ("Measure for measure must be answered"). Warwick plans to go to France to ask for the hand of Lady Bona, sister to the Queen of France, for Edward. Edward makes Richard the D of Gloucester and George the D of Clarence. They plan to go to London.
North England, near Scottish border. Two keepers encounter Henry in disguise and capture him.
London, royal court. Edward meets the widow of the slain Yorkist defender Sir Richard Grey--she wants her lands back after it was possessed in the war. Edward, known as a lady's man, wants to lie with her and finally asks her to be his wife, despite Warwick's mission underway on his behalf. A nobleman informs them that Henry has been captured and conveyed to the Tower.
Left alone, Gloucester [future Richard III] muses on his deformities and his own evil designs to achieve the crown.
France, the royal court. King Lewis XI meets with Queen Margaret, her son, and the Earl of Oxford. She complains she and her king have had to flee to Scotland while Edward has usurped the throne. He offers to help her. Warwick arrives and asks for Lady Bona for Edward. Margaret knows that if Lewis consents, her cause is doomed. They all debate the royal succession. The pragmatic Lewis finally is persuaded to believe that Edward is now the defacto king, and agrees to the marriage. Posts arrive informing Warwick and the others of Edward's marriage to Lady Grey. Warwick is mortified at this personal humiliation and renounces his allegiance to Edward and reconciles with Margaret. Lady Bona demands vengeance for her own humiliation. Lewis promises to aid them. Warwick agrees to demonstrate his new loyalty by marrying his eldest daughter [historically Anne, who was a younger daughter whereas Isabella was his eldest and married to Clarence] to the Queen's son, Prince Edward. He vows also to bring King Edward down.
London, royal court. Gloucester [Richard] and Clarence discuss the inadvisability of the marriage of King Edward and Lady Grey. Edward and the now Queen Elizabeth arrive with others. He demands their loyalty to their new queen, and the brothers are sarcastic, Montague is critical, but Hastings is supportive. Gloucester resents that Edward has arranged a favorable marriage between the brother of the upwardly aspiring queen [Lord Anthony Rivers] and Lord Scales' daughter, whom Gloucester would have favored marrying. Clarence also objects to the marriage arranged for Lord Hastings with the daughter of Lord Hungerford and also that of the queen's son with the heir of Lord Bonville. He announces that he has arranged his own marriage [to Isabel / Isabell / Isabelle / Isabella, daughter of Warwick] and is disavowing his loyalty to his brother. Edward reassures his queen that she will be safe.
A messenger arrives to announce that Lewis is sending "masquers" (troops) to attack, and that Warwick has joined the other side, etc. King Edward pledges more war. Gloucester will stay with King Edward. Clarence leaves and [Edmund 4th D of] Somerset joins with him. Pembroke and Stafford prepare for go to war for Edward, and Montague and Hastings swear their loyalty to Edward (the former will change sides however).
Fields is Warwickshire. Warwick pledges his daughter Isabell to Clarence.
Edward's camp near Warwick. Warwick and others sneak up and attack the guards, bringing out Edward in a chair. Richard and Hastings flee. Warwick chastises Edward for disgracing him in France. Warwick removes Edward's crown and has him taken as prisoner to Warwick's brother, the Archbishop of York. Warwick plans to free Henry.
London, the royal court. Queen Elizabeth meets with her brother Earl [Anthony] Rivers, bemoaning that Edward has been taken prisoner. She is apparently pregnant and plans to flee.
A park belonging to the Archbishop of York [historically Middleham Castle in Yorkshire]. Richard, Hastings, and Sir William Stanley plan to free Edward while they hunt and send him to Flanders.
The Tower of London. Warwick frees Henry, who chooses him and Clarence to be his joint Protectors. Henry asks that Margaret and his son be sent for. Somerset introduces young Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond [future first Tudor king, Henry VII] with optimistic words. They learn from a messenger that Edward is escaped to Burgundy with the help of Richard and Lord Hastings. They plan to send young Henry Tudor to Brittany.
Before the walls of York. Edward is planning once more to gain the crown, having received help from Burgundy. The mayor refuses their entry, but is persuaded to relent. Sir John Montgomery joins them, and they discuss strategy, finally deciding to formally declare Edward King Edward IV.
Bishop of London's palace. Warwick and Henry discuss war strategy with Clarence, Montague (his loyalty now changed to the Lancastrians), Oxford, Exeter, etc. Montague, Clarence, and Oxford are sent out on missions to drum up support. Henry congratulates himself on the fruits of his mildness and mercy. But King Edward arrives with troops, and Henry is taken as prisoner to the Tower.
Before the walls of Coventry. Warwick hears news of how Montague and Oxford (but not Clarence) are converging on his location with additional troops. King Edward arrives with troops and informs Warwick that Henry has been captured. Oxford arrives with reinforcements, as does Gloucester. Montague arrives and declares himself a Lancastrian in support of Henry, as does Somerset. Clarence also arrives and, after conferring with Richard, renounces his allegiance to Warwick and asks Edward and Richard to allow him to return to the Yorkist side--he is welcomed back. The opposing sides plan to do battle at Barnet [historically located 75 miles away].
Battlefield near Barnet. Edward brings in the wounded and dying Warwick and leaves. Warwick contemplates his fall from greatness and his inglorious end in the dust. Oxford and Somerset arrive and tell Warwick that Montague has died.
Same. Edward discusses with Clarence and Gloucester the impending arrival of the queen and her large force at Tewkesbury and resolves to meet her there.
Near Tewkesbury. Margaret rallies her weary troops, and the young Prince Edward admires her courage. A messenger tells them King Edward is near. He confronts her, and tells her that King Henry is captive. She, her son, Oxford, and Somerset are taken captives.
Same. The prisoners are brought before King Edward. Oxford is to be imprisoned but Somerset is to be beheaded. Prince Edward speaks out courageously against the captors. Gloucester, Clarence, and the queen stab him to death in front of his mother. Gloucester heads for the Tower of London on ominous business of his own. Margaret laments her son's cruel death and curses Edward's offspring, asking to be killed.
The Tower of London. Gloucester enters Henry VI's room, where he finds him reading a religious work. Henry knows his son has been slain and asks that he also be killed, prophesying that many more will die and rue Gloucester's birth. Gloucester is incensed and stabs and kills him. Henry pardons him as he dies. Gloucester reflects on his own crooked mind that matches his crooked body and how he now needs to purge Clarence, and many more to achieve his own goals.
London, the royal court. Peace has at last arrived, the War of the Roses is over. King Edward recalls the nobles they have killed: Three Dukes of Somerset, two Cliffords, two Northumberlands, Warwick, Montague. He kisses his son, also named Prince Edward ("Ned"), and hopes that now there can be peace for his son to inherit. However, Gloucester has other intentions and though he kisses the boy, it is like the kiss of Judas. Margaret is to be exiled to France. Edward is ready to enjoy his reign.