When we last left off in Act One, Scene Three, of The First Part of Henry the Sixth, the Dauphin had given the defense of Orleans to the newly arrived Joan la Pucelle (Joan of Arc).
When Scene Four begins, we’re back in England as Gloucester (Henry V’s brother Humphrey, and the Lord Protector of the infant King Henry VI) goes to the Tower of London to check the armory for the re-invasion of France. He fears there has been “conveyance” (I.iv.2) or theft (could this be a precursor to all-out civil war?), and when he arrives he finds the gates are locked but his guards are no longer outside the gates. He is refused entrance under orders of the Bishop of Winchester (so that the quarrel from the first scene is continued). Winchester calls Gloucester an “ambitious vizier” (I.iv.29), equating him with a Turkish high state official (with the implication of Gloucester being a non-believing [remember this is coming from the BISHOP of Winchester] crusader, hungry for power); he goes on to call him a “most usurping proditor” (I.iv.31). And here we may very well begin to see the roots of the quarrel.
Usurpation is a strong term (not stronger than traitor [“proditor”], but strong nonetheless). And it makes reference to Gloucester’s father, Henry IV, who usurped the crown from King Richard II. It’s unclear at this point whether Winchester anticipates Gloucester usurping power from Henry VI (this is hinted by Winchester’s refutation of Gloucester’s title of Lord Protector [I.iv.32]), or if he’s using the “usurping proditor” bit to paint Gloucester’s entire family line (including, one would think, the infant King) as usurpers. This is pretty interesting, given these two men are related.
Gloucester’s grandfather is Winchester’s father, John of Gaunt. Gloucester’s father, Henry IV, was from Gaunt’s first marriage, to Blanche of Lancaster. Winchester was from Gaunt’s third marriage, to Katherine Swynford (who was his long-time mistress; their relationship was legitimized when their offspring were well into their twenties). One of John of Gaunt’s four surviving brothers (two more died in infancy) was Edward, “the Black Prince of Wales,” father to Richard II, who was–remember two paragraphs ago–overthrown by Henry IV. So Winchester’s painting of Gloucester’s line as usurpers would not apply to himself or his Beaufort brethren.
In response to accusations of treason and usurpation, Gloucester hits the bishop with accusations of pimping (I.iv.35) and venereal disease (I.iv.52). As the two men’s parties grow closer to physical combat, the Mayor of London arrives to break up the fight. The two parties leave, but not before hurling more insults at each other. And if the mayor is on any side of the quarrel, it seems to be with Gloucester, as he says of Winchester, “This bishop is more haughty than the devil” (I.iv.83).
And the scene ends.
OK, let me return to an administrative matter from a few days back: These history scenes are a little tougher sledding than those of the tragedies or comedies… it’s tough to keep all these characters and their interconnectedness and alliances (as well as their conflicts) straight. Thus, they call out for more background… so, I’m going to take them slow, and I’m not sure I’ll be finished with the first round of reading before NEXT week’s podcast, which should be an overview of the play. Plus, I’ll be away at a conference beginning later today, and I’m not sure how much reading/blogging I’m going to be able to do in the next few days. So bear with me, and we’ll get through this. And in the coming days, I’ll present my Flash-based genealogy that should help some…