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Henry VI, Part 1 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry VI, Part 1 | Act 5, Scene 1 | Summary



King Henry has returned to London and is now holding court with his advisers Gloucester and Exeter. The first order of business is a peace treaty with the French. Ambassadors from the Earl of Armagnac and the Holy Roman Emperor, along with a legate (a representative of the pope), have written to Henry urging him to enact a truce as soon as possible. Henry is eager to do so since he is distressed by so much mutual bloodshed between two Christian nations. Gloucester suggests that Henry marry the daughter of the Earl of Armagnac, a prominent Frenchman, in order to strengthen the "knot of amity" between the two countries. Henry is startled by the suggestion—he considers himself too young to get married—but he gives his consent to Gloucester's plan.

Winchester, now dressed in a cardinal's robes, arrives along with the two ambassadors and the legate. (Exeter, in an aside, comments that Winchester's elevation to the cardinalate is bad news for England.) Henry greets the ambassadors and voices his desire for "a friendly peace." He gives one of the ambassadors a jewel as a pledge of engagement to the Earl of Armagnac's daughter, then asks Gloucester to escort the entire delegation to Dover so they may cross over to France.

Henry exits with Gloucester, Exeter, and the ambassadors, leaving Winchester and the legate alone on stage. Winchester asks for a moment to go get the money he owes the pope "for clothing [him] in these grave ornaments." (In other words, Winchester is notifying the audience that he has bribed his way into the cardinalate.) The legate decides to wait offstage, leaving Winchester free to make a villainous closing soliloquy. In his short but foreboding speech, he declares that he will use his high rank to compel respect and obedience from Gloucester. If the Duke does not comply, Winchester will proceed to "sack this country with a mutiny."


This scene solves one major problem and quickly introduces another. The Hundred Years' War is, for the moment, put on hold—or at least it will be once word of the truce reaches the European mainland. Marrying the daughter of a French nobleman should help Henry to maintain good relations with France, even though an arranged marriage of this sort might not be a very personally fulfilling decision.

Just as matters in France are cooling off, however, the Bishop of Winchester returns, having ominously leveled up to the rank of cardinal. (In the Catholic ecclesiastical hierarchy, cardinals are high-ranking clerics, "Princes of the Church," who advise the pope and participate in papal elections.) In earlier scenes Winchester was already a little bit suspect: his haughty demeanor, mocking asides, and general fondness for conflict made it hard to take him seriously as a churchman. He even, in Act 1, took steps to "steal" Henry away from the other noblemen, the better to influence the young king's decisions. In this scene, however, he graduates to a full-on, moustache-twirling villain. He casually lets drop that he has bribed the pope, then announces to the audience that he is willing to instigate a civil war in England rather than see his rival Gloucester prosper. He does not quite voice an intention to "make his cap [the symbol of his priestly rank] coequal with the crown," as Exeter prophesies. Even so Winchester will be a character to watch in Part 2, where he helps to engineer Gloucester's murder and thereby leaves England open to factional warfare.

If Winchester's elevation to the cardinalate seems like déjà vu, it's because he's already been described as a cardinal in earlier acts, beginning with Act 1, Scene 3. This continuity error may be a little jarring, but it doesn't have much effect on the overall character of Winchester or his role in subsequent plays. Whether he is already a cardinal at the play's start or becomes one here, the general message is the same: Winchester is in cahoots with the pope, who is corrupt enough to sell high offices within the church. This behavior is formally known as simony, after Simon Magus, a biblical figure who tried to bribe the apostles for the ability to perform miracles (Acts 8:9–24).

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