Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1154
The earl of Suffolk, who arranged for the marriage of King Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou, brings the new queen to England. There is great indignation when the terms of the marriage treaty are revealed. The contract calls for an eighteen-month truce between the two countries, the outright gift of the duchies of Anjou and Maine to Reignier, Margaret’s father, and omission of her dowry. As predicted earlier, no good can come of this union, since Henry, at Suffolk’s urging, broke his betrothal to the daughter of the earl of Armagnac. However, Henry, pleased by his bride’s beauty, gladly accepts the treaty and elevates Suffolk, the go-between, to a dukedom.
The voices are hardly still from the welcome of the new queen before the lords, earls, and dukes express their ambitions to gain more control in affairs of state. The old dissension between the duke of Gloster and Cardinal Beaufort continues. The churchman tries to turn others against Gloster by saying that Gloster, next in line for the crown, needs watching. The duke of Somerset accuses the cardinal of seeking Gloster’s position for himself. These high ambitions are not exclusively the failing of the men. The duchess of Gloster shows great impatience with her husband when he says he wishes only to serve as Protector of the Realm. When she sees that her husband is not going to help her ambitions to be queen, the duchess hires Hume, a priest, to traffic with witches and conjurers on her behalf. Hume accepts her money, but he is already hired by Suffolk and the cardinal to work against the duchess.
Queen Margaret’s unhappy life in England, her contempt for the king, and the people’s dislike for her soon become apparent. The mutual hatred she and the duchess have for each other shows itself in tongue-lashings and blows. The duchess, eager to take advantage of any turn of events, indulges in sorcery with Margery Jourdain and the notorious Bolingbroke. Her questions to them, all pertaining to the fate of the king and his advisers, and the answers that these sorcerers receive from the spirit world are confiscated by Buckingham and York when they break in upon a séance. For her part in the practice of sorcery the duchess is banished to the Isle of Man; Margery Jourdain and Bolingbroke are executed.
His wife’s deeds bring new slanders upon Gloster. In answer to Queen Margaret’s charge that he is a party to his wife’s underhandedness, Gloster, a broken man, resigns his position as Protector of the Realm. Even after his resignation Margaret continues in her attempts to turn the king against Gloster. She is aided by the other lords, who accuse Gloster of deceit and crimes against the state; but the king, steadfast in his loyalty to Gloster, describes the former protector as virtuous and mild.
York, whose regency in France is given to Somerset, enlists the aid of Warwick and Salisbury in his fight for the crown, his claim being based on the fact that King Henry’s grandfather, Henry IV, usurped the throne from York’s great-uncle. Suffolk and the cardinal, to rid themselves of a dangerous rival, send York to quell an uprising in Ireland. Before departing for Ireland, York plans to incite rebellion among the English through one John Cade, a headstrong, warmongering Kentishman. Cade, under the name of John Mortimer, the name of York’s uncle, parades his riotous followers through the streets of London. The rebels, irresponsible and unthinking, go madly about the town, wrecking buildings, killing noblemen who oppose them, and shouting that they are headed for the palace, where Cade, the rightful heir to the throne, will avenge the injustices done his lineage. An aspect of the poorly organized rebellion is shown in the desertion of Cade’s followers when they are appealed to by loyal old Lord Clifford. He admonishes them to save England from needless destruction and to expend their military efforts against France. Cade, left alone, goes wandering about the countryside as a fugitive and is killed by Alexander Iden, a squire knighted for his bravery.
Gloster, arrested by Suffolk on a charge of high treason, is promised a fair trial by the king. This is unwelcome news to the lords, and when Gloster is sent for to appear at the hearing, he is found in his bed, brutally murdered and mangled. Suffolk and the cardinal hired the murderers. Thus is fulfilled the first prophecy of the sorcerers, that the king would depose and outlive a duke who would die a violent death.
Shortly after Gloster’s death, the king is called to the bedside of the cardinal, who is stricken by a strange malady. There King Henry hears the cardinal confess his part in the murder of Gloster, the churchman’s bitterest enemy. The cardinal dies unrepentant. Queen Margaret becomes more outspoken concerning affairs of state, especially in those matters on behalf of Suffolk, and more openly contemptuous toward the king’s indifferent attitude.
At the request of Commons, led by Warwick and Salisbury, Suffolk is banished from the country for his part in Gloster’s murder. Saying their farewells, he and Margaret declare their love for each other. Suffolk, disguised, takes ship to leave the country. Captured by pirates, he is beheaded for his treacheries and one of his gentlemen is instructed to return his body to the king.
In London, Queen Margaret mourns her loss in Suffolk’s death as she caresses his severed head. The king, piqued by her demonstration, asks her how she will react to his own death. Evasive, she answers that she will not mourn his death; she will die for him. The witch prophesied Suffolk’s death: She said that he would die by water.
Returning from Ireland, York plans to gather forces on his way to London and seize the crown for himself. He also states his determination to remove Somerset, his adversary in court matters. The king reacts by trying to appease the rebel by committing Somerset to the Tower. Hearing that his enemy is in prison, York orders his army to disband.
His rage is all the greater, therefore, when he learns that Somerset is restored to favor. The armies of York and Lancaster prepare to battle at Saint Albans, where Somerset, after an attempt to arrest York for capital treason, is slain by crookbacked Richard Plantagenet, York’s son. Somerset’s death fulfills the prophecies of the witch, who also foretold that Somerset should shun castles, that he would be safer on sandy plains. With his death, the king and queen flee Salisbury, weary from battle but undaunted, and Warwick, proud of York’s victory at Saint Albans, pledges their support to York in his drive for the crown. York hastens to London to forestall the king’s intention to summon Parliament into session.
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