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Henry VI, Part 1 | Plot Summary

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Summary

Act 1

The great warrior-king Henry V has died, leaving England in a state of general disarray. The English are losing ground in their ongoing war against France, and the nobles at court can barely contain their contempt for one another. Two noblemen in particular—the well-intentioned Duke of Gloucester and the scheming Bishop of Winchester—fight for influence over King Henry VI, who is still a mere boy. Soon their supporters take to brawling in the London streets.

In France, English forces continue to besiege the city of Orleance (Orléans), despite thinning numbers and a lack of supplies. An initial French attempt to lift the siege fails utterly, but the arrival of a "holy maid" named Joan la Pucelle inspires the French with new confidence. The Dauphin, France's hereditary crown prince, is enthralled by Joan and impressed by her seemingly prophetic powers. He asks her to lead the effort to reclaim Orléans for France. Her victory against the English is sudden and complete, lending some credence to her claims of divine inspiration.

Act 2

Lord Talbot, a famed English warrior, leads a successful clandestine mission to retake Orléans. Soon afterward he finds himself invited to the chateau of the Countess of Auvergne, who briefly attempts to imprison Talbot but changes her mind when she realizes his army is waiting outside. The two part on friendly terms after enjoying a rare respite in the Anglo-French hostilities.

Meanwhile more trouble is brewing on the home front. In perhaps the most famous scene of the play, Richard Plantagenet (later the Duke of York) quarrels with the Duke of Somerset in the Temple Gardens, prompting the other lords and gentlemen in attendance to choose sides. The partisans pluck roses to indicate their allegiances, with white signaling Plantagenet's cause and red indicating Somerset's. Richard Plantagenet then visits his dying uncle Edmund Mortimer, who has been imprisoned for many years in the Tower of London. Mortimer reveals that he was jailed for asserting his lawful claim to the English throne; his brother, Richard's father, lost his life in the same cause. Richard begins to see the current English dynasty as a tyrannical conspiracy, but Mortimer urges his nephew to be cautious, lest he suffer as well.

Act 3

The feuding between Gloucester and Winchester deepens, despite King Henry's rather feeble attempts to control his unruly subjects. Richard Plantagenet is granted the title of Duke of York, shifting the balance of his ongoing conflict with Somerset. In France Joan leads a stealthy assault on Roan (Rouen) but is quickly rebuffed by the forces of Lord Talbot. She then changes tack and convinces the Duke of Burgundy to break off his alliance with the English. King Henry arrives in France amid growing strife between the York and Somerset factions.

Act 4

King Henry is crowned at Paris and, learning of Burgundy's treachery, sends Talbot with an army to punish him for his act of rebellion. He then returns to London to await news of the expected English victory. Talbot arrives at the French city of Bordeaux, which he intends to besiege, but he finds himself surrounded by the Dauphin's forces. He requests aid from the Duke of York, who in turn requests a troop of horsemen from the Duke of Somerset—but Somerset holds off on providing the reinforcements because of his ongoing grudge against York. The English commander Sir William Lucy eventually shames Somerset into sending the horsemen, but by then it is too late: Talbot and his young son John die fighting the French at Bordeaux. Having lifted the siege, the Dauphin and his army head for Paris.

Act 5

Back in London, King Henry holds court with a group of European ambassadors who have urged him to negotiate an end to the war in France. He approves of their request; to secure the truce he even agrees to marry the daughter of the Earl of Armagnac. A revolt in Paris momentarily revives the French resistance, but the English succeed in driving off the Dauphin's forces and capturing Joan la Pucelle. Joan's supposed miracles are revealed to be the result of demonic magic, and she is sent to the stake to be burned as a witch.

Suffolk, one of the remaining English commanders in France, captures the French noblewoman Margaret of Anjou. He falls in love with her on the spot and decides to convince King Henry to marry her, thereby granting Suffolk a powerful ally at court. Charmed by Suffolk's description of Margaret, Henry hastily offers to make her his queen. In doing so he overrules Gloucester, who points out that the king will first have to break off his previous engagement with the Earl of Armagnac's daughter. The king's rash decision ends the play on an ominous note, setting the stage for a deepening civil conflict in Part 2.

Henry VI, Part 1 Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction

Introduction

1 Henry V dies and is succeeded by the young Henry VI.

Rising Action

2 England receives word of devastating losses in France.

3 Joan leads the French to a further victory at Orléans.

4 Tensions escalate among the English nobles.

5 The English repel a French assault on Rouen.

6 Henry VI is crowned at Paris.

Climax

7 The French successfully defend Bordeaux.

Falling Action

8 England seeks peace with France.

Resolution

9 King Henry agrees to marry Margaret of Anjou.

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