According to critics, Act Two, Scene Four of The first Part of Henry the Sixth is pure Shakespeare, with no credit afforded to Holinshed or his Chronicles (and more on those in a later post). It’s a talky scene, as befits a discourse between young aristocratic lawyers. The scene is set in a “rose briar” (II.iv.1 s.d.), and here members of the two quarreling factions meet. Not the Gloucester/Winchester factions; those factions seem to be more concerned with who shall have control over young King Henry. No, these factions’ quarrel is over who should be king in the first place.
In this scene, we meet Richard Plantagenet. Also in the briar are Warwick, Somerset (a Beaufort), Suffolk, Vernon, and a Lawyer. But it is Richard Plantagenet that is of most importance here. Back in (or rather next year in) Henry V, three conspirators are found out and sentenced to death. One of them was Richard, Earl of Cambridge; this Richard’s father was Edmund, Duke of York, who was brother to John of Gaunt, the grandfather to Henry V. Richard, Earl of Cambridge, had all of his titles and estates stripped from him. Richard Plantagenet is the son of that Richard, Earl of Cambridge, and Anne Mortimer, the daughter of Roger Mortimer, who had been the presumptive heir to Richard II, whom–remember–Henry V’s father Henry IV overthrew.
Richard Plantagenet and the Duke of Somerset are having a debate of some kind, and they want Warwick to judge the merits of the case. Of course, neither begins by giving any support to their claim; it really feels like a high school popularity contest. Plantagenet plucks a white rose, and calls upon his followers to do the same; Somerset plucks a red rose, and calls upon his followers to do the same. Warwick sides with Plantagenet, Suffolk with Somerset, then both Vernon and the Lawyer with Plantagenet. A full 80 lines pass before we begin to see what the argument is really about: the line to the throne of England.
Warwick supports Plantagenet because “His grandfather was Lionel Duke of Clarence, // Third son to the third Edward, King of England” (II.iv.83-84). His lineage is meaningless, argues Somerset, because Plantagenet’s father was a traitor. Plantagenet argues that while his father was “Condemned to die for treason” (II.iv.97), he wasn’t a traitor as his case never came before Parliament. After Somerset and Suffolk leave, Warwick predicts that the next meeting of Parliament, called “for the truce of Winchester and Gloucester” (II.iv.118), will bring about the end of the “blot” (II.iv.116) against Plantagenet, and that he will be granted the title of Duke of York. Even if this happens, however, Plantagenet predicts “This quarrel will drink blood another day” (II.iv.134). This pretty much foreshadows the next three plays. This whole scene depicts the symbolic beginning to “the War of the Roses.”
If Scene Four plants a seed, Scene Five adds water for growth. We meet Edmund Mortimer, aged and imprisoned in London Tower. Mortimer… remember that name? We mentioned that Richard Earl of Cambridge married Anne Mortimer, the daughter of the presumptive heir to Richard II. Well, Edmund was Anne’s brother, a legitimate claimant to the throne. As I noted, he’s imprisoned, and he’s old. And he’s sick, as he spends much of the beginning of the scene describing his state; he seems to be a man on his last legs, and he expects to see his nephew, Plantagenet. While he waits (both for Plantagenet’s arrival and his own death), he states, “I would his troubles likewise were expired (like his own death) // That so he might recover what was lost” (II.v.31-32). He wishes Plantagenet’s troubles would end, and for him to have his titles and estates reinstated.
Plantagenet arrives, and Mortimer explains to him in more detail the politics of advancement to the throne. The explanation is really more for us (Plantagenet would have known the story all too well):
Henry the Fourth, grandfather to this king,
Deposed his nephew Richard, Edward's son,
The first-begotten and the lawful heir,
Of Edward king, the third of that descent:
During whose reign the Percies of the north,
Finding his usurpation most unjust,
Endeavor'd my advancement to the throne:
The reason moved these warlike lords to this
Was, for that—young King Richard thus removed,
Leaving no heir begotten of his body—
I was the next by birth and parentage;
For by my mother I derived am
From Lionel Duke of Clarence, the third son
To King Edward the Third; whereas he
From John of Gaunt doth bring his pedigree,
Being but fourth of that heroic line.
But mark: as in this haughty attempt
They laboured to plant the rightful heir,
I lost my liberty and they their lives.
Long after this, when Henry the Fifth,
Succeeding his father Bolingbroke, did reign,
Thy father, Earl of Cambridge, then derived
From famous Edmund Langley, Duke of York,
Marrying my sister that thy mother was,
Again in pity of my hard distress
Levied an army, weening to redeem
And have install'd me in the diadem:
But, as the rest, so fell that noble earl
And was beheaded. Thus the Mortimers,
In whom the tide rested, were suppressed.
— II.v.63-92 (emphases mine)
So, the story in brief: Henry and his line derive from John of Gaunt, the fourth-born son of Edward III. Mortimer’s line comes from Lionel, the third-born son of Edward III. For the Mortimers (and Plantagenet), the math is simple, third is better than fourth. But there’s a hitch, one that Mortimer mentions, but doesn’t/can’t discuss in full: he’s descended from Lionel through his father’s MOTHER. And since this is pre-Elizabethan England, this is an issue: only those males who descend through male royals need apply. The Mortimers are out of luck. And since Mortimer then proclaims, “(Plantagenet) art (Mortimer’s) heir” (II.v.96), Plantagenet is out of luck, too.
But luck will have nothing to do with it: in a moment of high drama, Mortimer dies after saying a final good-bye to Plantagenet. And by scene’s (and act’s) end, Plantagenet vows,
And therefore haste I to the parliament,
Either to be restored to my blood,
Or make my ill the advantage of my good.
He’s going to get his titles and estates back, or he’s going to force the issue (use this political slight as the launching point for his own political advantage).
Consider the seed planted in Scene Four watered in Scene Five.