Scholar Clare Asquith explores the parallels between the events of Henry VI and what was happening during Shakespeare's lifetime.

So long as the Elizabethan era was seen as a golden age, there was something puzzling about the huge popularity of Henry VI - a sombre depiction of a period of national disintegration. It was widely attributed to the new interest in English history stimulated by the republished Chronicles of Raphael Holinshed. But though Shakespeare relied heavily on accounts of the violent period between 1455 and 1485, the Henry VI plays are not strictly historical.

Sources are freely altered; a reaction to the work by Shakespeare’s admiring contemporary Thomas Nashe suggests that the alterations were intended to transport the audience’s minds from the events of the 15th century to the tightly censored upheavals of their own time. Nashe notes that the chivalric demeanour of one of the drama’s few heroes, Lord Talbot, was a reproach to ‘these effeminate times of ours’. He warned that the portrayal would find no favour with the London authorities – new men, he sniffs, ‘sprung up by base Brokerie’, who ‘care not if all the ancient houses were rooted out’. 

Shakespeare portrays Henry VI as a monarch whose ‘effeminate’ rule was so weak that it amounted to a power vacuum. Many in the 1590s viewed the previous 40 years in the same way: a period when the cataclysm that followed England’s Reformation was presided over by two women and a boy – Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth.

Talbot and Sir William Glansdale in conversation.
Talbot (left) is one of the few heroes in the drama. The photo shows David Swift as Talbot and Iain Mitchell as Sir William Glansdale in the 1978 production at the Aldwych Theatre, London.
Photo by Reg Wilson © RSC Browse and license our images

World turned upside down

Just as in Henry VI, court and country were riven by power struggles. Deep faultlines developed along social and religious divides, splitting towns, counties, families. In the fallout, thousands underwent deprivation, imprisonment, exile and execution.

Abroad, an isolated England suffered losses in France even more humiliating than the 15th-century fiascos portrayed by Shakespeare. It was a period when Western Europe was haunted by the danger of anarchy, of ‘the world turned upside down’ by inspired Reformation extremists, bent on destroying the old social order.

At home, traditionalists slugged it out with members of the new order in a grim struggle for power. By the early 1590s, the Cecils were in the ascendant, patrons of the new men who had become Elizabeth’s closest advisors. The opposition was led by the young Earl of Essex, the embodiment of the vanishing chivalric ethos of England’s ‘ancient houses’.

SQUABBLING FACTIONS

There is no doubt as to which side Henry VI is on. It champions the cause of valour, selflessness and patriotism against a power-hungry court culture. Part One pointedly departs from Holinshed’s Chronicles in order to associate the valiant Talbot with opponents of the Cecils. By giving Talbot the subsidiary title of Lord Strange, Shakespeare links him with the Elizabethan Strange, patron of Lord Strange’s Men (the acting company that first staged Henry VI). Strange was regarded with suspicion by the Cecils, not least because he had a claim to the throne which was promoted by disaffected subjects eager for a break in the run of ‘effeminate’ rulers.

A second departure links the Earl of Essex to Talbot. Shakespeare’s Talbot besieges Rouen - an event which does not occur in the Chronicles, but which would have reminded audiences that the Earl of Essex was laying siege to Rouen at the very point when Henry VI was first performed in London. In fact, Essex was abandoned by his French allies, deprived of supplies and reinforcements and ignominiously recalled home, one of many high-profile victims of Elizabeth’s vacillating foreign policy.

In a similar incident a few years earlier, two outstanding military leaders, urgently in need of food, money and support, took the scandalous step of defecting to the enemy along with large numbers of their men. Like the heroic English soldiers of Henry VI, they were compromised by corrupt and negligent generals. 

Throughout his campaign, Talbot shares the fate of such men. He is constantly let down by ‘want of men and money’, and meets his death as a result of squabbling factions: ‘the fraud of England, not the force of France’. He and his supporters continually recall the glory days under leaders like Edward III and Henry V, when England dominated much of France. The contrast for Shakespeare’s audiences was sorrier still: by their day, England had lost her last foothold in France, and was now hard put to defend her own borders.

A portrait of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex.
A portrait of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, who has similarities with the character of Talbot.
© Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons Browse and license our images

A MONARCHY LOSING CREDIBILITY

Most topical of all was Henry VI’s running motif of the oath. The plays repeatedly pose the question – is an oath binding if it is sworn to unworthy or usurped authority? To Elizabeth’s subjects, struggling with the stringent demands of the Oath of Supremacy, this was a familiar dilemma. Many maintained that they could dispense with an oath sworn to a queen who had been disinherited by her father, who had sanctioned the execution of her rightful heir, refused to marry or to discuss the succession, and who had overridden the wishes of the majority of her subjects. Exploring each of these arguments, Henry VI portrays the gradual dissolution of a fundamental social bond, one of the fatal results of a monarchy which has lost its credibility.

In the end, a forceful leader emerges from the chaos, but he takes a sinister form. The hunchbacked son of the Duke of York steps forward in Henry VI Part Three, a Machiavellian operator who will establish a reign of terror in the history cycle’s concluding play, Richard III. Exaggerated though the portrait was, Essex’s supporters could not have failed to see a satire on the rise of their chief nemesis, Robert Cecil - the clever, hunchbacked son of Lord Burghley.

Antony Sher as Richard III.
Antony Sher as Richard III, whose story concludes the history cycle. This photo is from the 1984 production directed by Bill Alexander.
Photo by Reg Wilson © RSC Browse and license our images

ESCAPING CENSORSHIP

Given these dangerous parallels, how did the plays escape censorship? One reason was the choice of Henry VI as the symbol of pliable sovereignty. Henry was revered as a saint in England.  Blame for the bloodbath, it could be argued, lay not with the Christ-like sovereign, but with the sovereign’s corrupt subjects.

There was a second line of defence. A play which contained such a formidable seam of Tudor flattery could scarcely be subversive. At the very end of the series (Richard III), it is Elizabeth I’s grandfather, Henry VII, hailed by Henry VI as ‘England’s hope’, who rescues the country from the whole sorry mess.  

The ploy was successful. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Henry VI is the fact that it is only in the light of recent historical research that we are detecting its subversive subtext. Like many plays of the period, it is a triumph of the art of deniable dissident drama: from one angle, it can be seen as an endorsement of the Tudor myth; from another, it reads as one of its most comprehensive indictments.

Clare Asquith is an independent scholar living in England and the author of Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare.

A version of this piece first appeared in a 2006 RSC programme.