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Royal Shakespeare Company, 1977

Henry VI Part 1

Synopsis and plot overview of Shakespeare's Henry VI Part 1

TL;DR (may contain spoilers): King Henry is a child, so everyone tries to control him; Plantagenet and Somerset hate each other; after a war, Henry marries a woman he has never met; oh, and Joan of Arc is in it too.

Henry VI Part 1 Summary

After Henry V's death and while Henry VI is young, nobles rule England and fight the French, including Joan of Arc. As Henry VI becomes King, the noble houses begin to divide and take sides between York and Lancaster. The war with France winds down, and the nobles try to find Henry a wife and disagree about who Henry chooses. 

More detail: 2.5 minute read

Act I 

Following the events of Henry V, the play opens with the funeral of King Henry V. His brother, Gloucester, will rule England as Lord Protector for the infant King Henry VI. War continues in France, despite Henry V’s victory a few years before at Agincourt. In the midst of the wars, news comes that an English General, Lord Talbot, has been taken prisoner at the siege of Orleans.

In shepherd costume (woollen trousers, long smock with wide sleeves) Joan of Arc kneels on the stage, her left arm stretched out towards us, with the palm showing, her body twisted, and her head thrown back; she is either shouting or screaming.
Henry VI Part 1, RSC, 1977

In Orleans, despite the imprisonment of Lord Talbot, the English continue to hold the upper hand. Joan La Pucelle, a shepherd’s daughter who claims to have had visions of the Virgin Mary, comes to lead the French army. Talbot is released in exchange for a French noble, but the French continue the attack. Joan fights one-on-one with Talbot. She spares his life and temporarily wins the town back for France. In a sneak attack, Talbot then regains the town, forcing the French to leave. 

Act II

Talbot accepts an invitation from the Countess of Auvergne, who tries, unsuccessfully, to trap him. Aware of her intent, he has brought his soldiers with him and escapes unharmed. 

My thoughts are whirled like a potter's wheel; I know not where I am, nor what I do;

— Henry VI Part 1, Act 1 Scene 5

In England, the King’s great-uncle, Bishop of Winchester, bars Gloucester from entering the Tower of London. He claims that Gloucester is trying to usurp power. In London’s Temple Garden, a dispute breaks out between noblemen Plantagenet and Somerset. They ask their followers to take white or red roses to illustrate which side they prefer. Warwick chooses white for Plantagenet (House of York) and Somerset opts for the red rose (House of Lancaster). Plantagenet's uncle, the imprisoned Edmund Mortimer, sends for Plantagenet. Edmund had previously tried to claim the throne through ancestry. Before he dies, Edmund Mortimer passes the York claim to the throne on to Plantagenet. 


The young King Henry seeks to rectify Gloucester and Winchester, claiming that division will lose them the war. After much urging, Winchester and Gloucester reconcile. Then, following Edmund Mortimer's death, the King names Plantagenet the Duke of York. He does so despite Somerset’s continued dislike (Plantagenet will be known as York from this point forward).

In France, Joan brings her troops to Rouen, enters the city through trickery, and expels Talbot. In the next battle, however, Joan is forced to flee with King Charles of France. She promises a new idea to conquer the English lands. Joan persuades the French Duke of Burgundy, an English supporter, to change sides and help the French instead. 

On the left sits a man in a helmet and rich-looking robes, an upright sword lying between his right arm and his body. On the right a woman in a long dress and long wild black hair leans on a flask on a table.
The Maid of Orleans, Ward, 1872

No, no, I am but shadow of myself:

— Henry VI Part 1, Act 2 Scene 3

Act IV

King Henry and his lords arrive in France and reward Talbot by naming him Earl of Shrewsbury. While in Paris, Henry is crowned King of France (in opposition to Charles). Talbot is sent to fight Burgundy. The King attempts to calm further arguments between York and Somerset before he returns to England. Talbot challenges Burgundy at Bordeaux, but the French Dauphin's army encircle his men. Both York and Somerset delay and fail to send armies to Talbot’s aid. They blame each other for the injuries done as a result. Fearing the worst, Talbot tries to send his son away from danger, but instead, Talbot is mortally injured, and his son killed. The French, led by Joan, acknowledge Talbot’s prowess and discuss a peace treaty. A marriage between King Henry and a French wife would strengthen the treaty. 

Act V

Wars continue within France, and Joan uses witchcraft to conjure up spirits, but these spirits desert her. The Duke of York captures Joan.

Fight till the last gasp.

— Henry VI Part 1, Act 1 Scene 2

Suffolk, an English lord, is sent to find Henry a wife. Instead he falls for Margaret of Anjou, daughter of the penniless Reignier. Suffolk proposes that Margaret becomes the queen, while planning to take her as his own mistress. Joan pleads for her life, but Warwick and York condemn her to burn at the stake. King Charles is persuaded to accept a peace treaty with England. Henry agrees to marry Margaret, despite protests from Gloucester, based on how Suffolk describes her. The betrothal is arranged while Suffolk looks forward to leading England when his mistress becomes Queen of England.

The story continues in Henry VI Part 2.

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