In Henry VI, Part One, the Earl of Warwick responds to the scene in which nobles picked roses in the Temple Garden to represent their allegiance to the House of Lancaster or the House of York with this prescient prediction: “And here I prophesy: this brawl today,/Grown to this faction in the Temple Garden,/Shall send, between the red rose and the white,/A thousand souls to death and deadly night” (2.5.124-127). His prediction proves true for both the nobles and the common people as the events of the three parts of Henry VI unfold. As civil discord grows into organized conflict, Somerset, the Duke of York, Prince Edward, and King Henry VI all die, while the commoners’ lives are interrupted and sometimes destroyed by the civil war, as highlighted in the poignant scene in Part Three when Henry observes the lamentations of a son who unwittingly killed his father and the cries of a father who unknowingly killed his only son.
In Part Three, Henry rightly describes the conflict as “civil war” (1.1.197) but the series of battles depicted in Parts Two and Part Three had another name: the Wars of the Roses. Historically, the Wars of the Roses lasted from 1455-1485 and were a series of conflicts over succession to the English throne that were eventually resolved in the foundation of the Tudor dynasty with coronation of Henry VII and his marriage to Elizabeth of York. Scholars are quick to point out that the Wars of the Roses were more than just a clash for power among the nobility, but, for the purposes of understanding the three parts of Henry VI, we will focus on the struggle between the House of Lancaster and the House of York.
The quarrel between the Lancasters and the Yorks began in conflicts between the grandsons of King Edward III, who ruled England from 1312-1377. Edward III had seven sons; the first, Edward, Black Prince of Wales, the third, Lionel, Duke of Clarence, the fourth, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and the fifth, Edmund of Langley, Duke of York, are crucial to the rise of the conflict that led to the Wars of the Roses. John of Gaunt’s son, Henry Bolingbroke, deposed Edward’s son, Richard II, and became Henry IV, the first Lancastrian king of England. Henry IV’s son was the famous King Henry V, whose son was King Henry VI, whose death brought the swift end of Lancastrian control of the crown. While Henry V was admired for his achievements in conquering much of France, some people viewed all the Lancastrian kings as usurpers. Many people, including Hall, whose Chronicles Shakespeare relied on in writing Henry VI, viewed the deposition of Henry VI as punishment for his grandfather’s sins in keeping with the message of Numbers 14:18 that promises God will “[visit] the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.”
Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, traces his claim to the English throne through his mother, the granddaughter of Edward III’s third son, Lionel, Anne Mortimer, who married her cousin, Richard, Earl of Cambridge, the son of Edward III’s fifth son, Edmund of Langley. York’s claim to the throne rests on the perceived illegitimacy of Henry VI’s claim because of his grandfather’s usurpation of King Richard and the assertion that the descendants of Edward III’s third son should take precedence over the descendants of the fourth. The Earl of Warwick explains York’s thought process: “Henry doth claim the crown from John of Gaunt/The fourth son, York claims it from the third./Till Lionel’s issue fails, Gaunt’s should not reign;/It fails not yet, but flourishes in thee/And in thy sons...” (2.2.54-58). In Henry VI, as in history, the Yorks initially triumph; Henry is killed and Edward IV becomes King. The Wars of the Roses officially concluded after the reign of King Richard III and his death, when Henry Tudor, whom Henry VI predicts “will prove our country’s bliss” (4.6.70), was crowned Henry VII in 1486, establishing the Tudor dynasty and ushering in a new age of stability and intellectual and artistic advancement associated with the Renaissance.
For an overview of the Wars of the Roses, including all of the facets of the conflict not covered here, check out Martin Dougherty’s 2015 book, The Wars of the Roses: The Conflict That Inspired Game of Thrones.