One fun aspect of reading Henry VI for me is learning about the history of a period of time I know very little about. In history and in the plays, the wives of Henry VI and his Uncle the Duke of Gloucester had serious consequences for themselves, for England, and for France.
Act 1 of Henry VI Part II opens with the first meeting of King Henry and his wife Margaret. Upon seeing her for the first time, he says:
“O Lord, that lends me life, Lend me a heart replete with thankfulness: For thou hast given me in this beauteous face A world of earthly blessings to my soul, If sympathy of love unite our thoughts.”
Unfortunately for King Henry, his choice of spouse was divisive both in his court and in his kingdom, and that sympathy of love and thought he hoped for was lacking in his marriage to Margaret.
Isaac Asimov describes Henry and Margaret’s marriage thus in Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare:
“Margaret of Anjou, had she only been a man, would have made a strong King, while Henry, converted to a woman, would have made a perfect Queen. Unfortunately, that could not be.
Margaret, despising her husband… threw herself into party politics on her own. Naturally, as a Frenchwoman, she would be for peace with France, and she therefore espoused with all the energy of her nature the side of Suffolk and the Cardinal. She bitterly opposed the hawkish Gloucester and the equally hawkish (and dangerously competitive) York.
In this way, she lost her chance to keep the English crown above faction, dragged Henry with her into the mire of partisan politics and civil war, increased the hatred of herself on the part of all who opposed Suffolk, and sought a scapegoat for the debacle in France.
It was her passion and venom, in fact, that went far to starting the civil war soon to come, and her energy and indomitability that kept it going so long and made it so disastrous.” (pages 585-586)
It wasn’t just Margaret’s personality that was a problem, it was her lack of dowry. Asimov addresses this also:
“It was customary for a bride to bring a dowry with her. In arranging a marriage, the bride’s dowry was constantly in mind, and in the case of a royal marriage, the dowry might well be some cities or a province brought under the control of the husband.
For the English (who still considered themselves a conquering people with the French as their inferiors) to be forced to take a French princess for their King without any dowry at all, and with the King even paying transportation costs and giving up two provinces in addition in a kind of reverse dowry, was too great a humiliation. From the very moment of the marriage, Margaret was unpopular in England.” (pages 576-577)
Shakespeare portrays this discontent in Act 1 and uses it to bring York to the forefront of Henry VI Part II where he laments his losses alone onstage and vows to “force perforce” (through violence) make Henry “yield the crown”.
In real life, Henry VI’s uncle, Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, didn’t fare much better in the marriage department than his nephew did. Fighting for his first wife’s (Jacqueline of Hainault) inheritance, Gloucester broke the Anglo-Burgundian alliance while alienating her subjects and driving them to join the Duke of Burgundy. (You can read more about that at History… The Interesting Bits! here.) This contributed to England losing control of France. Jacqueline’s story is not included in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, but the downfall of Gloucester’s second wife, Eleanor, which led to his own demise, is.
Eleanor Cobham was a lady-in-waiting to Gloucester’s first wife. The antagonism between herself and Queen Margaret in Henry VI Part II is entirely fabricated, though could have happened personality-wise had Eleanor’s arrest and imprisonment occurred after, rather than before, Henry’s marriage to Margaret. Eleanor’s involvement with witchcraft and her ambition as depicted in Act 1 have a strong historical basis, and did lead to her arrest and imprisonment.
How Margaret and Eleanor affect the lives of their husbands and those of the court and country at large will be seen as Henry VI Part II continues. My feeling is that an apt subtitle for Henry VI Part II could easily be “who you choose to marry matters”. Is that a spoiler? Check it out for yourself and see what you think.