The subject of a three-part Shakespearean drama cycle, Henry, Prince of Wales, afterwards Henry VI ., was born at Windsor, on 06 December 1421. Henry VI became king before his first birthday. He then spent decades battling mental illness as his kingdom lost land to France and slid into the War of the Roses. A weak leader, Henry suffered his first full mental breakdown in 1453, which left him incommunicative for more than a year. After a brief recovery, in 1456 his condition worsened into lethargy punctuated by outbursts of religious devotions. He was deposed by Yorkist forces in 1461, exiled in Scotland, briefly restored to the throne in 1470 but reimprisoned and murdered the following year.
The Second and Third Parts of Henry VI. were printed in 1600. When Henry V. was written, we know not, but it was printed likewise in 1600, and therefore before the publication of the first and second parts. The First Part of Henry VI. had been often shown on the stage, and would certainly have appeared in its place, had the author been the publisher. The second and third parts, as they are now called, were printed without the first, were a distinct work, commencing where the other ended, but not written at the same time.
The Second and and the Third Part of King Henry VI contain that troublesome period of this prince's reign which took in the whole contention between the houses of York and Lancaster : and under that title were these two plays first acted and published. The present play opens with King Henry's marriage, which was in the twenty-third year of his reign [A. D. 1545], and closes with the first battle fought at St. Albans, and won by the York faction, in the thirty-third year of his reign [A. D. 1455]: so that it comprises the history and transactions of ten years. The Contention of the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster was published in quarto; the first part in 1594 ; the second, or True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York, in 1595; and both were reprinted in 1600.
Some see at least four hands in the plays; some assign Peele, Marlowe, Lodge or Nash, and Shakespeare. The attempt to determine the authorship is futile, owing to the absence of all evidence on the print. The most cursory glance at the Quartos is enough to convince one that scant justice has been done to the author of the plays, and that the printers of the Quartos must have had very careless copy before them. Probably many errors may be referred to the indifferent reporters employed by the pirate publisher.
Hence arises the most complex of Shakespearean problems, and scholars are divided on the question; their views may be grouped under four heads, according as it is maintained (1) that Shakespeare was the author of the four plays; (2) that Shakespeare was merely the reviser, retaining portions of his predecessor's work, altering portions, and adding passages of his own; (3) that the portions common to the old plays, and 2, 3 Henry VI, were Shakespeare's contribution to the original dramas (by Marlowe, Greene, Shakespeare, and, perhaps, Peele; (4) that Marlowe, Greene, and, perhaps, Peele, were the authors of the old plays, while Shakespeare and Marlowe were the revisers, working as collaborators.
Henry VI was born at Windsor in 1421. At the death of his father, Henry V, he was only eight months old, and the regency of the kingdom was entrusted to his uncle, Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, the duke of Bedford remaining in France as regent of that country.
This unhappy prince was unsuccessful both at home and abroad. His misfortunes began in France, by the death of his grandfather, Charles VI, not quite two months after the death of his father, king Henry, which gave great advantage to the dauphin, who was called Charles VII and being crowned at Poictiers, disputed with Henry the crown of France; yet for some time the English continued to have great success in that kingdom, and gained the famous battles of Crevant, Verneuille, and Rouvroi ; and every thing seemed to promise the entire possession of France, when it was prevented by an unforeseen blow. A girl, known by the name of Joan of Arc, or the maid of Orleans, suddenly appeared at the head of the French army, and in 1429, made the English raise the siege of Orleans. From that moment Henry's interest in France declined. However, he was carried to Paris, and crowned there with a double crown, in the cathedral church, on the 17th of December, 1430.
In 1444, a truce of eighteen months was concluded between the two crowns. marriage of Henry and Margaret of Anjou, daughter of René, king of Naples, took place in April, 1445. This was the source of many of his misfortunes for the king being of a mild and easy temper, and the queen a highspirited woman, she undertook, with her favorites, to govern the kingdom. The English were now every-where defeated, and had no places left in France but Calais, and the earldom of Guines. These losses were principally occasioned by the civil wars which broke out in England.
In October, 1453, while they were at Windsor, the mental weakness of the king became too much marked for further concealment, and it was necessary to appoint a "Council of Regency." The council went to Windsor to see the "kynges highnesse, but they cowlde get noo answere ne signe." Nothing could move him from the state of apathy, almost of insensibility, into which he had fallen. In November the king's first son, Edward, was born, and in January he was brought to the castle in the hope that his father might be roused to take some interest in him, but Henry was still sitting "like a statue, unable to move, to speak or to hear." The Duke of York was appointed Protector.
The rest of Henry's history is only a record of his fluctuating state of mental and physical health, and the kingdom was constantly plunged into civil war by the followers of the "White Rose" and the Red. Windsor was more than once the scene of affrays between partisans of the opposing factions.
Richard duke of York, who descended on the mother's side from Lionel, the second son of Edward III, claimed a better right to the crown than Henry, who was descended from John of Gaupt, duke of Lancaster, the third son of the same Edward, Henry was defeated, and made prisoner, at St. Alban's, by Richard Plantagenet, duke of York, on 31 May 1455, and a second time at the battle of Northampton, on 19 July, 1460. The parliament then determined that Henry should keep the Crown, and be succeeded by the duke of York, but Queen Margaret afterwards raised an army in the North, and gained the battle of Wakefield, December 30, 1460, in which the duke of York was killed, and her husband delivered.
This turned the tide, and sunk the interest of the house of York. However, Edward earl of March, the son of Richard duke of York, revived the quarrel and gained a bloody battle at Mortimer's Cross, near Ludlow. In short, the earl of March, after several engage ments, was proclaimed king by the name of Edward IV by means of the eart of Warwick, called the Setter-up and Puller-down of kings. In March, 1461, Henry was imprisoned in the Tower, and Edward, son of Richard, Duke of York, was proclaimed king as Edward IV. Henry VI was of a hale constitution, naturally insensible of affliction, and hackneyed in the vicissitudes of fortune. He was totally free from cruelty and revenge: on the contrary, he frequently sustained personal indignities of the grossest nature, without discovering the least mark of resentment. He was chaste, pious, compassionate, and charitable, and so inoffensive, that the bishop, who was his confessor for ten years, declared that, in all that time, he had never committed any sin that required penance or rebuke. In a word, he would have adorned a cloister, though he disgraced a crown; and was rather respectable from those vices he wanted, than for the virtues he possessed.