Henry VI, Part 3 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry VI, Part 3 | Act 4, Scene 4 | Summary

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Summary

Back at the palace in London, Queen Elizabeth (formerly Lady Grey) is conferring with her brother Lord Rivers. She has received word of Edward's capture and is concerned for his safety but resolves to bear up bravely because—as she now reveals—she is pregnant with Edward's heir. Rivers asks his sister what has become of Warwick, and the queen says that the renegade earl is marching toward London to crown Henry once more. Fearing the worst from Warwick, she announces her plan to seek refuge in the Sanctuary at Westminster.

Analysis

The right of sanctuary was taken quite seriously in 15th-century England: once a criminal (including a suspected traitor) had taken refuge on consecrated ground, it was considered blasphemous to remove them from the sanctuary by force. Even during periods of civil war, England's kings and nobles generally respected this right—or, more cynically, understood that violating it would be bad for public relations. To be excommunicated from the Church—the usual penalty for violating sanctuary—was to be branded an enemy by England's powerful clergy. Practically and politically speaking, it would not do to simply storm the abbey precincts and drag the refugees out to stand trial.

On at least two separate occasions, the Sanctuary at Westminster played an important role in the Wars of the Roses. In 1470, the approximate date of the events in Act 4, Queen Elizabeth Woodville successfully sought refuge in a fortified building on the Westminster Abbey grounds; there, in November of that year, she gave birth to her (and Edward IV's) son, who later reigned briefly as Edward V. Thirteen years later, Elizabeth returned to the Sanctuary with her younger son, this time seeking refuge from the Duke of Gloucester (this play's Richard). Ultimately the young prince was not permitted to remain in the sanctuary; the grim aftermath of this decision is dramatized in Richard III.

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