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Henry VI, Part 2 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry VI, Part 2 | Themes


Saintly King

In Part 1 King Henry struggled to command the respect of his noblemen because he was a child. He has since come of age but now faces a different problem: everyone sees him as too religious and idealistic to be an effective ruler. York hints at this early on when he calls Henry "bookish," but Queen Margaret is the first to make an explicit link between the king's religiosity and his weakness as a ruler. In comparing her husband—unfavorably—to Suffolk, she complains that

all his mind is bent to holiness,
To number Ave Marys on his beads;
His champions are the prophets and apostles,
His weapons holy saws of sacred writ,
His study is his tiltyard, and his loves
Are brazen images of canonized saints.
I would the College of the Cardinals
Would choose him pope and carry him to Rome
And set the triple crown upon his head!
That were a state fit for his holiness.

This speech is remarkable not only because it reveals the queen's scorn for religion but also because it takes the conventional emblems of a manly, active king and mockingly turns them inside out. Instead of champions to defend him in combat, Henry has his saints; instead of weapons he wields quotations from Scripture. Worst of all, Margaret complains, Henry doesn't even keep up the appearance of being warlike and chivalrous: rather than practicing his jousting in the tiltyard, he spends all his free time in his study. With England just emerging from one war and seemingly doomed to enter another, these are not promising traits in a leader.

Henry's own pious platitudes only add to this image of a man better suited to the life of a monk or priest than that of a monarch. His speech in Act 2, Scene 1 is full of such sayings, which reveal the strength of his faith but also show his gullibility. When Simpcox, the allegedly blind man of Saint Albans, is "cured," Henry is overjoyed by the apparent miracle; he praises God and enjoins Simpcox to do the same. He grills Simpcox for details of the miraculous event but fails to notice the warning signs of a scam—because, in Henry's mind, divine intervention is a likelier explanation than simple fraud. This same tendency leads Henry to see the outcomes of trials and battles—including his own defeat at Saint Albans—as divinely ordained, a belief that greatly frustrates the practical-minded Queen Margaret.

The historical Henry VI, it is now widely understood, struggled with mental illness throughout the latter half of his reign. Shakespeare's decision to instead present King Henry as a naive holy man is not just an act of imagination or an attempt to spare the feelings of the royal family: from his death in 1471 until the time of the Protestant Reformation, Henry was indeed venerated as a saint by the English. In fact he was the subject of a well-developed saintly cult: miracles were attributed to the murdered king, and intercessory prayers were addressed to him. Although this cult diminished greatly during the reign of Henry VIII, it formed the basis for Henry VI's reputation in the pivotal decades following his death. Shakespeare's portrayal acknowledges this view of Henry VI, but it also shows the king as dangerously neglectful of earthly affairs.

What Makes a King?

One of the reasons Henry is so mellow in Part 2 is that he never seems to doubt his legitimacy as king. It's true that Henry IV, his grandfather, seized the throne by force from his rival Richard II. (In fact this is the very act of usurpation York seeks to undo by restoring the original order of succession.) In the meantime, however, Henry V—the father of Henry VI—did a great deal to legitimize the Lancastrian dynasty's rule, both in the view of the noblemen and in the eyes of the common people. In essence he did this by refocusing the public's attention on military victories abroad: he conquered substantial portions of England's longtime rival France, restoring national pride and keeping the soldiering class employed. Henry VI thus inherits the crown with a great deal of popular support simply because he is Henry V's son: Clifford takes shameless advantage of this in Act 4, Scene 8 when he invokes the name of the late king to charm the rabble back into loyalty. This reserve of goodwill, however, gradually diminishes as Henry VI's reign wears on. As King Henry's popularity erodes, so does the security of his rule.

The source and nature of kingship is a problem that Shakespeare's protagonists (and antagonists) will wrestle with throughout the history plays. In the Second Tetralogy, King Richard II will describe himself as "the deputy elected by the Lord" and maintain that "not all the water in the rough rude sea/Can wash the balm off from an anointed king." For him, in other words, kingship is a matter of divine right, plain and simple. Much later Richard III will legitimize his claim to the throne in a brutally simple way: he murders everyone who stands before him in the order of succession, thus becoming king by default. Back in Henry VI, Part 2 the Duke of York takes a two-pronged approach to the issue, claiming kingship both by birthright and by force of arms. As he explains at length in Act 2, Scene 2, York's pedigree places him higher in the order of succession than Henry VI, thus substantiating his genealogical claim to the throne. This sort of "Find your Ancestors" exercise is helpful in securing the allegiance of noblemen like Warwick and Salisbury, who would prefer to feel that they are righting a wrong rather than abetting a rebellion. More important, however, is the fact that York commands an army and that this army is loyal to him personally—not to Henry VI. The messenger in Act 4, Scene 9 confirms as much when he describes York's troops as "gallowglasses and stout kerns," hired swordsmen from the warrior clans of Ireland. These men are mercenaries, and the Duke of York is their paymaster.

Class Conflict

Throughout Henry VI, Part 2 commoners typically appear as a fractious mob, occasionally personified in such characters as Thomas Horner and Jack Cade. The restlessness of this crowd—as seen, for example, in the petition episode of Act 1, Scene 3—reveals real tensions between the English nobility and the common people they govern. Gloucester, the "Good Duke," is the rare nobleman who thoughtfully responds to the commoners' petitions; others like the Duke of Suffolk are high-handed and dismissive in their treatment of the king's subjects. In short this system depends not on an impartial idea of "justice for all" but on getting one's petition into the right hands.

This particular petition, incidentally, reflects a widespread grievance against the nobility, not only in the days of Henry VI but also in Shakespeare's own time. The man from Melford is complaining that Suffolk has "enclos[ed] the commons" of his village; in other words Suffolk has put a fence around public land and claimed it as his own, most likely for the grazing of sheep. This was an increasingly common practice in the Late Middle Ages and a major instigating factor in both Wat Tyler's Peasant Revolt (1381) and Jack Cade's rebellion (1450). The petition delivered in this scene represents a comparatively gentle attempt to fight the encroachment of large landowners through legal means.

Act 2, Scene 1 provides further evidence that the English nobility are—to put it mildly—out of touch with their social inferiors. The episode with Simpcox shows an uglier side of Gloucester, who insists on punishing and humiliating Simpcox in a rather extravagant fashion. Simpcox's wife describes the miracle hoax as a desperate measure, undertaken out of "pure need," but Gloucester is unmoved and orders that she and her husband "be whipped through every market town/Till they come to Berwick, from whence they came." Afterward the cardinal and Suffolk join Gloucester in a cruel chuckle about the "miracle" he has performed by making Simpcox "leap and fly away." This is a rare moment of camaraderie between the three noblemen: ordinarily Gloucester and the cardinal are bitter enemies. It is notable that such a vignette should be founded on their shared contempt for the poor.

The trial by combat between Horner and Peter in Act 2, Scene 3 furnishes yet another example of the nobles' abuse of power. There is no pressing reason these men should have to settle their dispute by fighting one another (except, perhaps, for the arresting onstage spectacle it creates). Yet Gloucester—again, a nobleman generally portrayed as one of the good guys—is firm in his insistence that Horner and his apprentice fight to the death; supposedly this will determine which of the two is a traitor. Henry gives his assent to this procedure in advance, then sanctions it again in retrospect by pronouncing Peter's victory a result of divine providence.

These heavy-handed applications of the law set the audience up for Act 4, in which Jack Cade leads a popular uprising against King Henry. Throughout this act Cade makes learned men—professionals, gentlemen, and the nobility—the main target of his crusade. He has a clerk hanged for being able to write and assents to a plan to "kill all the lawyers." This animosity toward the law, though expressed in caricatured form, reflects the fact that Cade and his followers do not trust the English legal system to do right by them. After seeing the kind of justice visited upon the man from Melford (Act 1, Scene 3), Sander Simpcox (Act 2, Scene 1), or the conjurers hired by the duchess (Act 2, Scene 3), the audience may well be inclined to agree.

In Act 4, Scene 7 Cade unleashes a long monologue against Lord Saye, who is attempting to speak up for the role of patronage and learning in English society. Like many of Cade's speeches, this tirade is a mixture of legitimate grievances and vicious anti-intellectualism. Cade claims Saye has

most traitorously corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar school ... It will be proved to thy face that thou hast men about thee that usually talk of a noun and a verb and such abominable words as no Christian ear can endure to hear.

So far Cade seems to be doing little more than inadvertently parodying his own hatred of book learning. Later in the same speech, however, Cade brings up a more troubling point:

Thou hast put [men] in prison; and, because they could not read, thou hast hanged them, when indeed only for that cause they have been most worthy to live.
The idea of executing someone for being illiterate may seem outrageous and improbable, like Cade's own sentencing of the luckless Clerk in Act 4, Scene 2. In fact Cade is inveighing against a real practice calledbenefit of clergy, which was widely used in late medieval England and still fairly common in Shakespeare's day. According to this legal fiction, a person accused of a crime would be considered a member of the clergy if they could read from the Bible; in practice the passage chosen was nearly always the same (Psalm 51:1), and the passage could therefore be memorized. The "benefit" was that crimes committed by clergy were tried by a special ecclesiastical court, which would not apply the death penalty. For Cade this distinction between literate and illiterate is a hateful reminder that England's legal system is stacked against the poor.

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