Henry the Sixth is History: Not So Much (or: Historical Inaccuracies)

For the last few days, we’ve been loading up on timelines, both historical and military, of the events that took place during the time period covered in The First Part of Henry the Sixth.  Today, let’s see how those factual events mesh (and more importantly don’t mesh) with what’s in the play.

And here, I’m not talking about character assassination: Joan as witch, Plantagenet as schemer, Somerset as an amalgam of two Beaufort brothers… nope, what we’re looking for here are out-and-out historical inaccuracies…

Scene Depiction Reality
Act One, Scene One Funeral of Henry V Henry V dies in August 1422, and is buried November 1422, so let’s put the date of this scene at or around the end of 1423
Winchester to Gloucester: “Thy wife is proud…” (I.i.39)
A reference to Gloucester’s second wife, Eleanor Cobham, who would be accused and convicted of witchcraft in 1441
Gloucester won’t marry Cobham until 1431; in fact, he has not yet wed his first wife, Jacqueline, Countess of Hainaut
French have retaken towns including Orleans and Paris The English won’t be defeated at Orleans until 1429, and won’t lose Paris until 1437
These probably are NOT meant to be taken as historical fact, but as a listing of French towns that the English audience might know.
Charles the Dauphin has been crowned king in Rheims He actually crowns himself king in Pontiers in 1422. Rheims is the traditional seat of coronation, but as the English held the town through much of the 1420s, Charles won’t have a coronation in Rheims until 1429.
Talbot, outnumbered 23,000 to 6000, is taken prisoner outside Orleans on August 10 At Patay, in June (of 1429), Talbot is out-manned 8000 to 6000, and is taken prisoner
Sir John Fastolfe (Falstaff in some texts) and his cowardice are to blame for Talbot’s capture Fastolfe was in fact a hero both at Agincourt (1415) and the Battle of the Herrings (1429). A smart military leader, he suggests to Talbot that retreat in this particular instance (Patay) might be the wiser choice; Talbot refuses Fastolfe’s advice and is captured. (It’s believed that this “cowardice” led to Shakespeare’s creation of Sir John Falstaff.)
Act One, Scene Two Single combat between the Dauphin Charles and Joan la Pucelle No such contest takes place
Act One, Scene Six Talbot is released for Ponton True, but not until 1433, four years after his capture
Salisbury is killed by lucky shot True, but a year before Patay, in 1428
Act One, Scene Seven Talbot and Joan meet on the battlefield and fight No such fight takes place, and it is unclear if she herself ever fought in battle
Act Two, Scene Three The Countess of Auvergne attempts to capture Talbot No basis in fact
Act Two, Scene Four The Rose Briar scene Purely fictitious
White Rose of York Symbol gained prominence during the civil wars
Red Rose of Lancaster Symbol gained prominence after the civil wars, so as to differentiate from the White Rose
“War of the Roses” Term comes from Sir Walter Scott’s Anne of Geierstein, or The Maiden of the Mist (1829); the phrase is said to be have been based on this scene
“next Parliament” (II.iv.117) Took place in 1426: Orleans has not yet happened; Somerset (John Beaufort) is still a prisoner of war in France; Somerset (Edmund Beaufort) has yet to be granted the title; Plantagenet is only 14 years old.
Act Two, Scene Five Edmund Mortimer: “Since Henry Monmouth first began to reign, // Before whose glory I was great in arms, // This loathsome sequestration have I had” (II.v.23-25). Mortimer claims to have been imprisoned by Henry V.
In fact, Henry IV had put him in prison, and Henry V released him; the two fought together at Harfleur. After Henry V’s death, Mortimer is sent to Ireland to be the head of the English settlement there. He live there until his death…
Edmund Mortimer dies in 1425. True, but at the age of 34, not “Nestor-like aged” (II.v.7); he dies of the plague in Ireland, not of old age/grief in the Tower of London.
Act Three, Scene One At the meeting of Parliament, Henry VI refers to his own “tender years” (III.i.72). True, Henry VI is five years old at this meeting in 1426.
Exeter wishes for his own quick death, so that he doesn’t have to see this young king fail. Exeter dies at the end of this year, 1426… after his brother becomes Cardinal in May of 1426, but before the fall of Orleans.
Act Three, Scene Two Joan infiltrates Rouen by disguising herself and her men as peasants. It is the English who use this trick in Evreaux in 1441.
Joan’s ruse works and the French take Rouen. The French do take Rouen, but not until 1449, nearly 20 years after Joan’s death.
Act Three, Scene Five Bedford dies at Rouen True, but not until 1435, while the city is still solidly under English control (and four years after Joan herself is executed there in 1431).
Act Three, Scene Seven Joan convinces Burgundy to switch sides and re-align with the French. Burgundy does switch sides, but in 1435, four years after Joan’s death. His defection has nothing to do with Joan, and much to do with Bedford’s death.

In 1424, Gloucester marries Jacqueline, Countess of Hainaut. Gloucester takes English troops and invades Holland to regain her former lands. This puts him (and England) into conflict with their ally, Burgundy. It is only through Bedford’s efforts that Burgundy stays aligned with England. After Bedford’s death, Burgundy easily changes alliances.

Act Three, Scene Eight Henry VI arrives in Framce. True, but in 1430, five years before Bedford’s death and Burgundy’s change in alliance.
King Henry VI: “I am not old” (III.viii.17). True, he is 9 years old.
Talbot is named Earl of Shrewsbury. This happens, but not until 1442.
Act Four, Scene One Exeter speaks after Henry’s coronation in 1430. Exeter died in four years earlier, in 1426.
Act Four, Scene Seven Lord Talbot and his son die together in battle. True, but in 1453, in the last battle of any consequence in the Hundred Years War.
Joan and the French nobles speak over the bodies of the fallen Talbot. Joan dies in 1431, and the Talbots over 20 years later in 1453.
Act Five, Scene One Armagnac offers daughter in marriage to Henry VI Gloucester moves to arrange marriages in the early 1440s
Winchester (Beaufort) arrives in Cardinal’s robes. Beaufort is made Cardinal in 1426.
Act Five, Scene Four Joan is captured by York (Plantagenet) Joan is really captured by Burgundy’s forces in 1430 before Burgundy changes sides; York has not yet gone to France (1436).
Act Five, Scene Five Suffolk leads Margaret by the hand as a prisoner of war. Margaret is never a prisoner of war; Suffolk had arranged a truce in France, and is working to make the peace longer-lasting though marriage.
Act Five, Scene Seven Gloucester as Lord Protector After Henry reaches his majority (1437), Gloucester would have had far less power.
Exeter comments on the marriage to Margaret. The marriage arrangement takes place in 1444; Exeter had died in 1426; Margaret had been born in 1430, four years after Exeter’s death.

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