Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1327
In the House of Parliament, the duke of York, his sons, and the earl of Warwick rejoice over their success at Saint Albans. Riding hard, the Yorkists arrive in London ahead of the routed king, and Henry, entering with his lords, is filled with consternation when he sees York already seated on the throne, to which Warwick conducted him. Some of the king’s followers are sympathetic toward York and others are fearful of his power; the two attitudes result in defection in the royal ranks. Seeing his stand weakened, the king attempts to avert disorder by disinheriting his own son and by pledging the crown to York and his sons, on the condition that York stop the civil war and remain loyal to the king during his lifetime.
Annoyed by the reconciliation and contemptuous toward the king because of her son’s disinheritance, Queen Margaret deserts the king and raises her own army to protect her son’s rights to the throne. The queen’s army marches against York’s castle as York is sending his sons to recruit forces for another rebellion. York’s sons persuade their father that his oath to the king is not binding because his contract with the king was not made in due course of law before a magistrate.
In a battle near Wakefield, Lord Clifford and his soldiers kill Rutland, York’s young son, and soak a handkerchief in his blood. Later, as he joins Margaret’s victorious army, which outnumbers York’s soldiers ten to one, Lord Clifford gives York the handkerchief to wipe away his tears as he weeps for his son’s death. York’s sorrow is equaled by his humiliation at the hands of Margaret, who, after taking him prisoner, puts a paper crown on his head that he might reign from the molehill where she places him to be jeered by the soldiers. Clifford and Margaret stab the duke of York and behead him. His head is set on the gates of York.
Hearing of the defeat of York’s forces, Warwick, taking the king with him, sets out from London to fight Queen Margaret at Saint Albans. Warwick’s qualities as a general are totally offset by the presence of the king, who is unable to conceal his strong affection for Margaret, and Warwick is defeated. Edward and Richard, York’s sons, join Warwick in a march toward London.
King Henry, ever the righteous monarch, forswears any part in breaking his vow to York and declares that he prefers to leave his son only virtuous deeds, rather than an ill-gotten crown. At the insistence of Clifford and Margaret, however, the king knights his son as the Prince of Wales.
After a defiant parley, the forces meet again between Towton and Saxton. The king, banned from battle by Clifford and Margaret because of his antipathy to war and his demoralizing influence on the soldiers, sits on a distant part of the field lamenting the course affairs took in this bloody business of murder and deceit. He sees the ravages of war when a father bearing the body of his dead son and a son with the body of his dead father pass by. They unknowingly took the lives of their loved ones in the fighting. As the rebel forces approach, led by Warwick, Richard, and Edward, the king, passive to danger and indifferent toward his own safety, is rescued by the Prince of Wales and Margaret before the enemy can reach him. He is sent to Scotland for safety.
After a skirmish with Richard, Clifford flees to another part of the field, where, weary and worn, he faints and dies. His head, severed by Richard, replaces York’s head on the gate. The Yorkists march on to London. Edward is proclaimed King Edward IV; Richard is made duke of Gloster, and George is made duke of Clarence.
King Edward, in audience, hears Lady Grey’s case for the return of confiscated lands taken by Margaret’s army at Saint Albans, where Lord Grey is killed fighting for the York cause. The hearing, marked by Richard’s and George’s dissatisfaction with their brother’s position and Edward’s lewdness directed at Lady Grey, ends with Lady Grey’s betrothal to Edward. Richard, resentful of his humpback, aspires to the throne. His many deprivations resulting from his physical condition, he feels, justify his ambition; he will stop at no obstacle in achieving his ends.
Because of their great losses, Margaret and the prince go to France to appeal for aid from King Louis XI, who is kindly disposed toward helping them maintain the crown. The French monarch’s decision is quickly changed at the appearance of Warwick, who arrives from England to ask for the hand of Lady Bona for King Edward. Warwick’s suit is granted, and Margaret’s request denied, when a messenger brings letters announcing King Edward’s marriage to Lady Grey. King Louis and Lady Bona are insulted; Margaret is overjoyed. Warwick, chagrined, withdraws his allegiance to the House of York and offers to lead French troops against Edward. He promises his older daughter in marriage to Margaret’s son as a pledge of his honor.
At the royal palace in London, family loyalty is broken by open dissent when King Edward informs his brothers that he will not be bound by their wishes. Told that the prince is to marry Warwick’s older daughter, the duke of Clarence announces that he intends to marry the younger one. He leaves, taking Somerset, one of King Henry’s faction, with him. Richard, seeing in an alliance with Edward an opportunity for his own advancement, remains; he, Montague, and Hastings pledge their support to King Edward.
When the French forces reach London, Warwick takes Edward prisoner. The king-maker removes Edward’s crown and takes it to crown King Henry once again; Henry, in the meantime, escaped from Scotland only to be delivered into Edward’s hands and imprisoned in the Tower. Henry delegates his royal authority to Warwick and the duke of Clarence, so that he might be free from the turmoil attendant upon his reign.
Richard and Hastings free Edward from his imprisonment. They form an army in York; while Warwick and Clarence, who learned of Edward’s release, are making preparations for defense, Edward, marching upon London, again seizes King Henry and sends him to solitary confinement in the Tower.
Edward makes a surprise attack on Warwick near Coventry, where Warwick’s forces are soon increased by the appearance of Oxford, Montague, and Somerset. The fourth unit to join Warwick is led by Clarence, who takes the red rose, the symbol of the House of Lancaster, from his hat and throws it into Warwick’s face. Clarence accuses Warwick of duplicity and announces that he will fight beside his brothers to preserve the House of York. Warwick, a valiant soldier to the end, is wounded by King Edward and dies soon afterward. Montague is also killed.
When Queen Margaret and her son arrive from France, the prince wins great acclaim from Margaret and the lords for his spirited vow to hold the kingdom against the Yorkists. Defeated at Tewkesbury, however, the prince is cruelly stabbed to death by King Edward and his brothers. Margaret pleads with them to kill her, too, but they choose to punish her with life. She is sent back to France, her original home. After the prince is killed, Richard of Gloster steals off to London, where he assassinates King Henry in the Tower. Again he swears to get the crown for himself.
The Yorkists are at last supreme. Edward and Queen Elizabeth, with their infant son, regain the throne. Richard, still intending to seize the crown for himself, salutes the infant with a Judas kiss, while Edward states that they are now to spend their time in stately triumphs, comic shows, and pleasures of the court.
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