Henry VI Part II Act 2, Scene 1 opens with King Henry, Queen Margaret, Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, Cardinal Beaufort, the Earls of Salisbury and Warwick, and the Dukes of York, Somerset, Suffolk, and Buckingham in the midst of a hunting party that, true to its day, used falconry as a social event steeped in status, posturing, and positioning.
Occurring in or near St. Albans, a Christian pilgrimage site roughly 19 miles north of London and the location of two major battles during the Wars of the Roses (the wars which Henry VI Parts II and III chronicle), St. Albans is also noteworthy for the record of falconry practices written by Prioress Dame Juliana Barnes in The Boke of St. Albans. Apparently what birds you could use to catch wild game were highly dependent upon your social standing to the point where you could lose your hands for keeping birds above your rank (see Shawn E. Carroll’s excellent article “Ancient and Medieval Falconry” here for more information).
This setting is particularly appropriate for the subtle and not so subtle references to the aspirations and power struggles among the members of King Henry’s court.
“But what a point, my lord, your falcon made, And what a pitch she flew above the rest: To see how God in all his creatures works! Yea, man and birds are fain (inclined to or fond of) of climbing high.” King Henry to the Duke of Suffolk in Henry VI Part II, Act 2 Scene 1
This innocent exclamation of Henry’s is particularly chilling if you recall the final lines of Henry VI Part I where Suffolk states:
“Thus Suffolk hath prevailed, and thus he goes As did the youthful Paris once to Greece, With hope to find the like event in love, But prosper better than the Trojan did: Margaret shall now be queen, and rule the king: But I will rule both her, the king, and realm.”
In an interview contained in the recent RSC edition of the Henry VI Trilogy edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, director Michael Boyd concludes that: “Henry’s journey is both a paradox and a pilgrimage. He begins as an ignored and powerless child, overwhelmed by a factious court and the memory of his father, Henry V. Supported by the loyal and pragmatic counsel of Humphrey Duke of Gloucester, he grows in stature, speaks better than anyone of the dangers of internal dissent on the field of France, and makes the best possible effort to balance and neutralize the opposing dynastic factions within the court. His moment of greatest human folly (and the undoing of the English court) is the moment where he most insists upon his will being done: his marriage to Margaret and crowning her Queen of England.” (page 401)
After Henry’s praise of nature and Suffolk’s falcon, Suffolk quickly turns the conversation into an attack on the Lord Protector, Duke Humphrey of Gloucester:
“No marvel, an it like your majesty, My Lord Protector’s hawks do tower so well: They know their master loves to be aloft. And bears his thoughts above his falcon’s pitch.”
to which Gloucester quickly replies:
“My lord, ’tis but a base ignoble mind That mounts no higher than a bird can soar.”
The party quickly degenerates into mass bickering and the challenging of Cardinal Beaufort and Gloucester to a duel. Act 2 ends with Gloucester losing his position at court and solemn words exchanged with his wife, who is being forced to perform public penance prior to her banishment. She warns her husband that he is not safe at court, using the metaphor of catching birds through a process of smearing a sticky substance called birdlime on a tree or a bush.
“For Suffolk, he that can do all in all With her that hateth thee and hates us all, and York and impious Beaufort, that false priest, Have all limed bushes to betray thy wings, And fly thou how thou canst, they’ll tangle thee. “
This warning has a certain irony to it, in that Eleanor’s actions and ambitions- for which she is in that very moment being humiliated- were part of the liming of the bushes to entrap her husband and bring him down.
Gloucester does not see the danger he is in. He tells her with confidence:
“I must offend before I be attainted: And had I twenty times so many foes, And each of them had twenty times their power, All these could not procure me any scathe, So long as I am loyal, true and crimeless.”
If only that is how the world and the governments upon it worked, but as Shakespeare’s Henry VI shows us, it is not.
“The world may laugh again,” Gloucester tells Sir John Stanley, the man appointed to fulfill Eleanor’s banishment, before he entrusts her to his care and protection, “And I may live to do you kindness if You do it her.”
If only that were so. The falcons of the court are circling, and they aren’t satiated yet.