Gloucester vs. Winchester: Sexual Mudslinging

For the first half of The First Part of Henry the Sixth the main interpersonal conflict is between Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester and Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester.  As noted earlier in the month, the two are related, and their quarrel is over who shall have access to and control over the young king.  And while Winchester’s attacks are mostly on religious (“vizier” [I.iv.29]) and political (“most usurping proditor” [I.iv.31]) grounds, Gloucester’s responses are much more earthly and sexual.

We get our first inkling of this when in response to Winchester’s mention of “God (and) religious churchmen,” Gloucester states, “Name not religion, for thou lovest the flesh” (I.i.40 and 41, respectively).  As a Catholic Bishop, the flesh should be the least of Winchester’s concerns, so why this attack?

First, a little personal background on Henry Beaufort.  While a student at Cambridge, Beaufort fathered an illegitimate daughter, Jane Beaufort.  While there is some speculation that the mother was Alice FitzAlan (a married woman), there is no documentation to support the claim; for those who believe the FitzAlan maternity, Jane’s birth was most likely before 1397 (when Henry took his holy order); those who don’t usually put Jane’s birth in 1402.

Thus, the “lovest the flesh” comment makes historical (and insulting) sense.

In Act One, Scene Four, Gloucester states that Winchester “giv’st whores indulgences to sin” (I.iv.35).  This has a double meaning: the first is fairly obvious, a reference to the church’s selling of “indulgences” or pardons for sins; the second is not as obvious–the Bishop of Winchester historically held the leases for the land in the Bankside or Southwark area of London (ironically–then again, maybe not–the area in which the Globe theater was located), and in that area were a number of whorehouses, from which he received a portion of the profits.

The next line in Folio edition (the Pelican text is mainly from the Quarto text) is the line “I’ll canvass thee in thy broad cardinal’s hat” (I.iv.35a [Folio]).  This is a reference to an infamous Southwark brothel, active in Shakespeare’s day, called “The Cardinal’s Hat” (which is itself, according to some, a reference to the appearance of the end of an erect penis).

When Gloucester then taunts the bishop with “Winchester goose!” (I.iv.52), he moves from accusations of pimping to charges of venereal disease.  “Winchester goose” references not only the swelling of the genitals caused by an STD and the sufferers of such an STD, but the whores (“geese”) employed by the Bishop of Winchester, as well.

Finally, when Gloucester and Winchester argue before the young king, Gloucester calls Winchester “lascivious (and) wanton” (III.i.19), again accusing the bishop of being “inclined to lust” and “lewd” (both Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM [v. 4.0], respectively).  Here, the statement is an obvious insult to a man of religion, but it doesn’t seem to pack the same punch as the earlier attacks.

Why?

By this point in the play, the Gloucester/Winchester conflict is already subsiding in importance.  The Somerset/Plantagenet (read: “Lancaster/York”) conflict is beginning to eclipse the petty argument concerning influence over the young king… now, we’re heading toward the War of the Roses, the overarching conflict for the next three and a half plays.

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