Act Five, Scene One of The Second Part of Henry the Sixth begins with the entrance of Richard Duke of York and his army onto an open field between St. Albans and London. Richard makes his intention plain to his followers: “From Ireland thus comes York to claim his right, // And pluck the crown from feeble Henry’s head” (V.i.1-2). Buckingham arrives as a messenger from King Henry, desiring to know York’s reason for raising an army; York, seemingly realizing that he cannot mount a full rebellion yet, states his cause is “to remove proud Somerset from the king, // Seditious to his grace and to the state” (V.i.36-37). When Buckingham tells York that Somerset is already in the Tower of London, York immediately disbands his army and sends them off, agreeing to give Henry not only his “fealty and love” (V.i.50), but that of his sons as well, as long as Somerset is put to death. Buckingham commends York’s “submission” (V.i.54), and tells Henry as much when he arrives with his attendants a few lines later.
Of course, the ironies here are piling up like bodies on the battlefield. No one is faithful to his word, not any more.
Into this scene arrives Iden with the head of the captured and killed John Cade; Iden is made a knight by Henry (a contrast to Cade’s self-knighting in the fourth act). Moments later, Margaret also arrives, and with her is Somerset; Henry tells Buckingham to have the queen “hide him quickly from the duke (of York)” (V.i.84), and for the first time in the entire sequence of plays do we see any sort of falsehood from Henry. He knew that Buckingham was going to tell York that Somerset was imprisoned (otherwise why would Somerset need to be hid?). Was this Henry’s idea as well? Margaret’s? Regardless, Henry immediately tries to cover up the double-dealing… but to little success. York demands of Henry, “False king, why has thou broken faith with me” (V.i.91).
Somerset immediately arrests York on grounds of treason. York calls for his sons to be his bail, to plead his loyalty to the king in exchange for freedom. Edward and Richard are brought in, and if we–as a modern audience–don’t know it, the Elizabethans surely did: these are the next two kings of England. Edward vouches for his father, relying on his “words” (V.i.137); Richard goes one step further, saying that if his words won’t persuade, then his “weapon” will (V.i.138). Thus, begins Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard as a firebrand.
And if one was sensing a momentum shift toward York in the arrival of his sons, the pendulum swings fully with the arrival of Warwick and Salisbury and York’s army. Richard (the son) insults Clifford, likening him to a dog with its tail between its legs, to which Clifford can only respond by insulting the boy’s physicality: “heap of wrath, foul indigested lump… crooked in… shape” (V.i.155-156). And here Shakespeare continues the literary assassination of Richard’s character (internal and external) that will continue for the next two plays (a hit-job that will make portrayal of Joan la Pucelle seem like a Hallmark greeting): Richard is a hunchbacked villain.
But Henry has more to worry about than a fiery boy: Warwick refuses to kneel, and Salisbury openly refuses to acknowledge Henry as the “rightful heir to England’s royal seat” (V.i.172)… and by the scene’s end, the two factions have pulled back, prepared for battle.
This skirmish will be the Battle of St. Albans, the first open conflict of the War of the Roses.
Scene Two (which–in the Folio edition–is placed in the middle of Scene Three; the Pelican Shakespeare uses as its source the Quarto edition) deposits us directly into the violence. Somerset and young Richard enter the scene fighting, and Richard kills the Duke under an alehouse sign (“The Castle in Saint Albans” [V.ii.3]). Thus, spirit Asnath’s prophecy has come true: “Let (Somerset) shun castles” (I.iv.35).
Scene Three transports us to another part of the battlefield where Warwick has gone all Jack-Nicholson-in-The-Shining, trying to find Clifford to fight: “Clifford of Cumberland, ’tis Warwick calls!” (V.iii.1). After killing Warwick’s horse, Clifford is in hiding. York enters, and the chance to kill York is enough to flush out Clifford. York and Clifford battle, and York kills Clifford, then moves on to another fight. Young Clifford enters the scene, bemoaning the turn of the battle: “Shame and confusion, all is on the rout!” (V.iii.31). But this heaviness of heart is nothing compared to what he feels when he finds his father:
My heart is turned to stone: and while ’tis mine
It shall be stony. York not our old men spares;
No more will I their babes. Tears virginal
Shall be to me even as the dew to fire;
And beauty, that the tyrant oft reclaims,
Shall to my flaming wrath be oil and flax.
Henceforth I will not have to do with pity:
Meet I an infant of the house of York,
Into as many gobbets will I cut it
As wild Medea young Absyrtus did.
In cruelty will I seek out my fame.
Here, Shakespeare shows us the spiritual costs of civil war: cousin will kill cousin, and think nothing of it. The Cliffords are more closely related to the Yorks than to the Lancaster line (Clifford and the Duke of York are both great-grandsons of Edmund Mortimer), but now Young Clifford is more than willing to end that line by killing the babies of York family.
Scene Four takes us to another part of the field where King Henry is paralyzed through either fear or confusion; he’ll neither “fight nor fly” (V.iv.3), and only after urging by both Queen Margaret and Young Clifford do they all flee to London for safety.
The act and the play end with York and his sons surveying the field of battle. Young Richard has saved old Salisbury three times in combat, for which Salisbury and his son Warwick are grateful upon their entrance back on to the stage. This pair of fathers and sons now prepares to “pursue” (V.v.31) to London, after this “glorious day” (V.v.34) of victory, and the play ends.
The War of the Roses has officially begun.