Two generations before King Henry VI weds Margaret of Anjou, England is ruled by Richard II. As king, Richard does little to instill faith in a country rushing toward civil war. His cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, accuses the king of complicity in the death of an uncle. Richard banishes Bolingbroke and confiscates lands that should have passed to Henry.
Bolingbroke declares against the king. He rallies the nobles against Richard, who is forced to abdicate. While Henry staves off an uprising by the king’s supporters, one of his associates misinterprets an idle remark, “Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?” and murders Richard.
Bolingbroke is crowned Henry IV.
Henry IV, Part I
The political turmoil of the kingdom is reflected in the inner torment of the newly crowned Henry IV. While Henry is consumed by guilt over the death of Richard II, a group of nobles, led by the Percy family, are seeking to dethrone the “usurper.” As the rebels bicker among themselves, Henry’s eldest son and heir, Prince Hal, ignores his royal duties, carousing with the drunken knight, Falstaff, and a band of lowlifes. When King Henry’s final offer of pardon for the rebels is rejected, battle ensues. Proving his worth to his father (and himself) Hal saves Henry from death, then kills his rival Hotspur, champion of the rebel Percys, in hand-to-hand combat.
Henry IV, Part II
The civil war continues, as do Hal’s adventures with Falstaff. Fleeing to avoid arrest for debt, Falstaff joins the fighting. While Henry’s second son defeats the rebel forces, the soul-sick king lies gravely ill. When Hal is brought to his father, he thinks the old man dead and dons the crown. The king awakens to find his son wearing the crown; there follows a scene of recrimination and, ultimately, reconciliation. Hal abandons his carousing companions and takes his place as ruler after Henry IV dies. A new order has come to England.
After taking the throne, Henry V determines to avenge a royal insult and press territorial claims in France. Though the lords support Henry’s invasion plan, the story of the war is largely told through the lives of the English common soldiers. Even Hal’s old comrades join the war effort after mourning the death of Falstaff.
Despite Henry’s initial victories, the French remain confident in their superior numbers. On the eve of a great battle, the king moves among his men disguised as a commoner. At dawn, Henry’s dukes quail at the five-to-one advantage of the French, but the king rallies nobles and commoners alike with his rousing “St. Crispin’s Day” speech. These “happy few,” a “band of brothers” Henry has forged, carry the day at Agincourt, forcing the French to sue for peace.
Henry courts the French princess, Katherine, during the final negotiations and, as war ends, a marriage is planned.
The Chorus tells us that Henry’s glorious conquest of France will fall away during the reign of his son, Henry VI.