Many of Shakespeare’s Histories drew their inspiration from a contentious period in English history: the War of the Roses, and the years leading up to it. It is worth reviewing this important, yet complicated history with students before engaging them in Shakespeare’s History plays such as The Tragedy of Richard III, Henry IV, Henry V, or Henry VI.Shakespeare assumed his audience was already familiar with the history of the monarchs and their conflicts, so students should be familiar with them, too.
It is also important for students to note that Shakespeare’s Histories often painted former monarchs in an exaggerated light, especially for theatrical effect. In Shakespeare’s world, the Tudor Dynasty reigned supreme, but many English citizens were concerned that Queen Elizabeth I did not have an heir. It was crucial that the story of the Tudors be shown in a positive light to avoid the displeasure of the Queen – if any of these playwrights wanted to keep their heads attached to their necks.
The best place to begin is with the Plantagenet line, established by Henry II and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, in 1154. His great-great grandson, Edward III, who ruled from 1327-1377, was a beloved king. Edward III's reign was marked by two significant events in European history. The first was the start of The Hundred Years’ War with France in 1337, an attempt to maintain control over Guyenne (Aquitaine). The second significant event was the outbreak of the Black Death from 1348-1350, which killed over one-third of Europe’s population and created class, ideological, and religious shifts.
Unfortunately, Edward III’s son, Edward the Black Prince, died in 1376, one year prior to Edward III’s death. According to the English laws of succession, Prince Edward’s son Richard became King Richard II at only ten years old. His advisors essentially ruled the country until Richard was old enough to make decisions for himself, but once Richard did start making decisions, they were not very good ones. He lived a very extravagant lifestyle, conferred political titles to friends (who were not necessarily the most competent choices), and he showed poor judgment in financing battles in Ireland. When his wife Anne died in 1394, Richard’s behavior became increasingly erratic and impulsive. Richard’s uncle, John of Gaunt (the Duke of Lancaster), was one of the wealthiest men in Europe, and he was also Geoffrey Chaucer’s patron. John’s son was Henry Bolingbroke, who later became Henry IV. Shakespeare’s play Richard II deals with much of the action that led Richard to abdicate the throne to Henry Bolingbroke. This began the reign of the House of Lancaster.
Henry IV’s reign was plagued by many uprisings and revolts by people who once supported him. Shakespeare’s plays I Henry IV and II Henry IV cover some of these difficult moments that King Henry faced during his reign. At the end of his life, he was completely worn out by the fighting, and England was in serious financial straits as a result. His son, Henry V, restarted the Hundred Years’ War that his father had put on the back burner, which Shakespeare highlights in Henry V. He succeeded in defeating the French Army in 1415, and in 1420, he became Regent of France and the sole heir to the French throne upon the death of Charles VI. He further ensured his right to the French throne by marrying Charles’ daughter, Catherine. Henry and Catherine had a son in 1421, who was also named Henry. Henry V died in 1422, and Charles VI died the next month. Henry’s 10-month-old son became the King Henry VI, in charge of ruling both England and France.
Until Henry VI was 15, England and France were essentially ruled by a Lord Protector, Richard Duke of York. This is where Shakespeare begins his play I Henry VI. Henry VI was the great-great grandson of Edward III under John of Gaunt’s line (York); Richard was the great-grandson of Edward III under Lionel the Duke of Clarence’s line (Lancaster). During Henry’s reign, he often appealed to Richard for help in making decisions for both England and France, giving Richard more power than he ought to in the affairs of ruling. Charles VII, son of Charles VI, contested Henry’s claim to the throne, and uprisings in France (especially those led by Joan of Arc), began to gain strength. Henry married Charles’ niece, Margaret of Anjou in 1445, in an attempt to solidify his claim to the throne, but the uprisings continued. They had one son together: Edward, Prince of Wales.
In 1453, the English were run out of France, and Henry sank into a deep depression. Richard began to make trouble for Henry, and Henry eventually agreed to an arrangement with Richard that will allowed him to remain on the throne, but disinherit his son Edward’s claim to the throne. This arrangement infuriated Queen Margaret who wanted her son to have his rightful place as the next king. Richard took control of the government during this time, and a civil war finally broke out between the Houses of Lancaster and York. Shakespeare’s play II Henry VI focuses on the battles between the nobles and the rising power of Queen Margaret. Richard imprisoned Henry in 1460 after a Yorkist victory at the Battle of Northampton, a battle led by Richard, Earl of Warwick; meanwhile, Henry’s wife Margaret raised an army and killed Richard and his son. However, Richard’s son Edward ascended to the throne in 1461, becoming Edward IV, installing his brothers George and Richard as the Dukes of Clarence and Gloucester, respectively. Edward initially sent Warwick to find him a royal match in France, but then he married a common woman named Lady Elizabeth Woodville Grey. This infuriated Warwick, who made peace with Margaret of Anjou and joined forces with her, and the two imprisoned Edward IV and restored Henry VI to the throne in 1470. Shakespeare’s play III Henry VI follows much of the action through the Battle of Tewkesbury, including the infamous scene where Queen Margaret taunts Richard, Duke of York with his son’s blood on a handkerchief.
This victory was short-lived, however. Edward IV, who had fled to Belgium, raised an army and returned to England in full-force. He defeated Warwick in the Battle of Barnet, and he defeated Margaret at the infamous Battle of Tewkesbury. During this battle, Margaret’s son Edward was also killed, ending one Lancastrian claim to the throne. Edward IV then murdered Henry VI in the Tower of London in 1471, solidifying his place as the first York king.
Upon Edward IV’s death in 1483, the crown was supposed to pass to his 12-year-old son, Edward V. However, Edward IV’s brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, sees Edward’s marriage to Lady Elizabeth Woodville Grey as illegitimate because he was already betrothed to another woman when he married her (and in these times, betrothal was pretty much like being married!). This crusade against Edward and Elizabeth’s marriage had more to do with the fact that Lady Grey was a Lancaster, and she and her family were hugely unpopular with the people. In addition, Edward had given her family members far too much power, which was a concern. Parliament declared the young Prince Edward illegitimate, along with his younger brother Richard, in June of 1483. Parliament then declared that their uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester, had the rightful claim to the throne (George was murdered in 1478, leaving only Richard next in line). Richard was crowned Richard III in 1483, and there are strong suspicions that he had his two young nephews murdered in the Tower of London, making him a villain in the minds of many, and the perfect evil character for Shakespeare to highlight in his play Richard III. The boys were never seen again.
Richard’s reign lasted about two years until Henry Tudor came along. Henry had much support for his claim to the throne: his mother was Margaret Beaufort, the great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt; his father’s mother was daughter of France’s Charles V and the widow of Henry V. Many saw Henry as an opportunity to unite both England and France after many years of turbulent family feuding. In addition, Richard’s only child, Edward, died in 1484 at the age of nine. Henry and his supporters invaded England in 1485 and killed Richard in the Battle of Bosworth Field. This ends the brief Yorkist reign and begins the long and (mostly) peaceful Tudor dynasty.
Students can get familiar with the different players in this real-life soap opera by creating a storyboard that reflects the family tree of one of the royal families; likewise, they can also create a timeline of important events leading up to the Elizabethean era. Examples of these storyboards, along with their rubrics, can be found below.
When Shakespeare was writing his histories, it was crucial that he paint Queen Elizabeth’s family in a positive light, especially to quell any mumblings that the Tudors were not the rightful claimants to the English throne. Henry, crowned Henry VII, united the houses of Lancaster and York by marrying Elizabeth of York, but other revolts with different claims to the throne still persisted throughout Henry’s reign. Henry’s oldest son Arthur died at the age of 15 after a mysterious illness, less than eight months after marrying Catherine of Aragon. Upon Henry VII’s death in 1509, his next son, Henry, rises to the throne and becomes the infamous Henry VIII. Henry married Catherine of Aragon shortly after his coronation.
Henry initially came to the throne as a man not very interested in governing; instead, he liked to have lavish parties, go on long hunting expeditions, and compete in jousting and tilting tournaments. He mainly waged wars only when something irritated him, or he needed to raise money. During this time, Catherine had eight children; however, only one survived (Mary, later Mary I or “Bloody Mary”). Henry began to grow concerned that he would not produce a male heir, and started to question if God was cursing him. His top religious adviser, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, began a campaign to receive an annulment from Pope Clement VII under the Biblical statute found in Leviticus 18:16 which reads: “Do not have sexual relations with your brother's wife; that would dishonor your brother.” Henry used this verse to argue that because Catherine had been married to Arthur first, and consummated that marriage, his marriage to her afterwards was not legal or blessed by God. Of course, this crisis of conscience conveniently coincided with the beginning of his affair with Anne Boleyn in 1526. Pope Clement VII refused to grant the annulment, saying that Henry did have a legitimate, living heir: Mary. In addition, by this point Henry and Catherine had been married for 18 years. In Clement’s eyes, the marriage was as valid as any other.
This did not sit well with Henry or Anne, who reportedly withheld intimate relations with Henry until he could secure an annulment. However, eventually it was revealed that Anne was pregnant in 1533, and to secure her child’s claim to the throne, Henry and Anne had to be married. Henry and Anne married in secret in January, and Henry’s marriage to Catherine was declared invalid. In September of 1533, Anne gave birth to a baby girl, whom she named Elizabeth. In November 1534, Parliament introduced the infamous Act of Supremacy, which established the king as the Head of the Church, essentially kicking the papal authority (and, therefore, the Catholic Church) out of England. While the Church of England was still very much steeped in Catholic rituals, it became a separate entity from it. To stray from Henry’s new church was treasonous.
Henry soon tired of Anne, too, especially after she miscarried a male child after Henry was knocked off of his horse in a tournament, remaining unconscious for about two hours. Besides, his eyes had turned to a lady-in-waiting of Anne's named Jane Seymour. Charges were trumped up against Anne that alleged she had been having an affair with several members of the court and her own brother George. Anne was beheaded in May of 1536, and Henry married Jane a few weeks later. Jane gave birth to a boy named Edward in October of 1537. She died as a result of complications from childbirth about a week and a half later. Henry later declared that Jane was his only true wife, because she had been the only one to bear him a son who survived.
Henry’s next three marriages to Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard, and Katherine Parr, happened relatively closely to one another. Henry, who had only seen a portrait of Anne before agreeing to marry her, found her unattractive and he was unable to consummate their marriage. The marriage was annulled after six months, but Anne remained in England under the title “Sister of the King”, and the two remained friendly for the rest of Henry’s life. Three weeks later, Henry married Katherine Howard, the niece of the Duke of Norfolk, and he remained married to her until he discovered that she had been previously intimate with a man named Francis Dereham. During her tenure as Queen, she also had an affair with a courtier named Thomas Culpeper. Henry discovered this information in 1542, and had all three of of them executed. In 1543, Henry married his sixth wife, Katherine Parr, who ended up being a large influence in her step-daughter Mary’s life. There were rumors that Katherine might be a closet Protestant, which was not technically the Church of England, so it was considered treasonous for the Queen of Henry VIII. Before Henry could get too involved in the investigation, however, he died of illness caused by a persistent leg wound from a tilting accident in 1536.
Henry’s young son Edward ascended to the throne at age of nine, becoming King Edward VI. He was a very sickly child, and he died at the age of 15 in 1553 from tuberculosis. While Edward had appointed his cousin Lady Jane Grey to succeed him upon his death, Mary, eldest daughter of Henry VIII, gained immense support and usurped the crown from Jane when the councilors defected to her side. Her five-year-reign was marked by bloody executions of Protestants, the restoration of the Catholic Church in England, and Mary’s phantom pregnancies. She died in 1558, leaving her sister Elizabeth, daughter of Henry and Anne Boleyn, as the final Tudor heir to the throne.
Elizabeth re-established the Church of England and the sitting monarch as the Head of the Church. She never married, and is still known as “The Virgin Queen”. There are many different arguments as to why she never married, because she did have several suitors. Some say she never loved any of them enough to marry; others blame her observations of her father’s actions, and they alleged she could not trust men; still others say that to marry was to give up her power, especially in the realm of foreign affairs. Whatever the reason, Elizabeth I’s 45-year-reign was marked by prosperity, a flourishing English Renaissance, an age of exploration in the Americas, and the building of the most powerful Navy the world had ever seen with the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Despite her popularity, Elizabeth did have to put down rebellions from Scotland and Ireland in her lifetime. In addition, she was plagued by the issue of Mary Queen of Scots, the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister Margaret, and technically the next-in-line to the throne upon Elizabeth’s death. She was implicated in a plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth, and she was executed in 1587, much to the public outrage of Elizabeth. After Elizabeth’s death in 1603, Mary’s son James took the English throne as James VI, uniting England, Scotland, and Ireland and ending the Tudor reign.
Shakespeare’s Histories were a kind of propaganda, in that they painted the Tudors as the untarnishable saviors of England. Shakespeare even wrote a collaborative play with John Fletcher entitled Henry VIII, which glossed over much of Henry’s own evil actions and painted Thomas Wolsey as the mastermind behind a lot of the problems with Henry’s marriage to Catherine. Shakespeare and Fletcher also hinted that Anne Boleyn was an innocent pawn in the whole affair, by showing the courtiers’ displeasure of the birth of Elizabeth. Truly, given what we know about the facts of Henry’s reign, this play is the epitome of pro-Tudor propaganda.