“If you look at relatively recent British history there have been two huge civil conflicts: the English Civil War and the Wars of the Roses. We don’t have the great work of art about the English Civil War. The Wars of the Roses lives more strongly in our culture than the English Civil War- as a period, as a story, and as a piece of living history- because of Shakespeare.” Interview with Edward Hall on pages 396-397 of Henry VI edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen
I think Edward Hall is correct that Shakespeare is the gateway for most of us to the history of the Wars of the Roses. It’s a flawed view, but it gets you inside the history if you allow it to.
My first encounter with the play had me hoping for Henry, which I believe it was designed to. This time, as I studied more of the background and actual history of the participants, I’ve found myself feeling pulled towards York.
It turns out that York was a better leader than Henry. He didn’t just settle the unrest in Ireland when he got there, his leadership won him the support of its people. Rebelling against the government did not seem to be his ambition. Many times he could have taken advantage of Henry and the power that was given him, and repeatedly he did not. But there was Somerset and there was Margaret, and it is likely those two and Henry’s support of them, that changed everything.
York became the Protector during King Henry’s first episode of madness. According to Isaac Asimov, as soon as Henry regained sanity, York promptly resigned. That is when the real trouble began:
“No sooner was York out of the way than King Henry (or, more likely, Queen Margaret acting in his name) made it his first business to liberate Somerset and place him in charge of the government once again.
This was very foolish of Margaret (but then she always allowed her passions to rule over her good sense-if she had any), for she couldn’t possibly have done anything to worse offend the nation. The last person they wanted was the man they felt had lost France and betrayed Talbot.
Nor could she have done anything to worse offend York. It was only now that York finally felt that nothing could be done with King Henry, that only a complete revolution could save England.” pages 615-616 of Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare Part IV
It was these circumstances that could drive York to cry,
“How now? Is Somerset at liberty? Then, York, unloose thy long-imprisoned thoughts, And let thy tongue be equal with thy heart.” Henry VI Part II, Act 5 Scene 1
and then speak treason.
When the Earl of Salisbury is questioned as to how he could side with York when he had once sworn an oath to Henry, Salisbury says something very fine:
“It is great sin to swear unto a sin: But greater sin to keep a sinful oath: Who can be bound by any solemn vow To do a murd’rous deed, to rob a man, To force a spotless virgin’s chastity, To reave the orphan of his patrimony, To wring the widow from her customed right, And have no other reason for this wrong But that he was bound by a solemn oath?” Act 5 Scene 1
Richard, York’s son, is admirable in his treatment of Salisbury as they fight and win the first battle at St. Albans. And here we end Henry VI Part II.