Who's Who in Shakespeare's History Plays
If you're like me, these sprawling family sagas are very confusing until you figure out how all the characters are related to each other. So here's the family tree for William Shakespeare's Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, Richard III, and Henry VIII. Kings are in BOLD CAPS.
House of Lancaster House of York House of Clarence House of Tudor Other People

Edward, the
Black Prince
Lionel, Duke
of Clarence
Blanche of

John of Gaunt,
Duke of Lancaster


Duke of York


HENRY V Prince Hal

of France


Warwick the
of Anjou




Lady Anne


Katherine of


by Jane Seymour

Now take a deep breath:

King Edward III had four sons who are important to this saga. In order of birth they are: Edward, the Black Prince (heir to the throne); Lionel, the Duke of Clarence (shown in purple); John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster (shown in red); and Edmund, the Duke of York (shown in green). They're shown in a different order above for purposes of clarity.

Prince Edward dies in battle, and Edward III dies shortly afterward causing the prince's son, Richard II, to become king even though he's still a small child. His uncles, John of Gaunt (Lancaster) and later Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Glouster (not shown above) run things until Richard II comes of age.

Richard II
Richard II is now ruling but not very well. He raises money for his extravagances by selling the right to collect taxes to many noblemen. John of Gaunt accuses him of being England's landlord, not its king. Gaunt's son, Henry Bolingbroke quarrels with the Duke of Norfolk, so Richard II banishes him for six years. Before this time is over, John of Gaunt dies which should make Henry the new Duke of Lancaster upon his return, but Richard II takes the Lancaster land and wealth for himself. So Henry raises an army and immediately returns to England, not only to reclaim his land but also to take the throne of England for himself. When he arrives, Richard II is away fighting a war, and Edmund the Duke of York is in charge. Rather than fighting Henry off, Edmund senses which way the wind is blowing and lets Henry take over. When Richard returns, Edmund gives him the bad news that Henry IV is now king, and Richard II is imprisoned. However, Edmund's sons, Aumerle and Richard of Cambridge, remain loyal to Richard II and start plotting against Henry IV. Henry IV discovers the plot, but decides to forgive them if they swear loyalty to him. He then has Richard II killed to prevent others from trying to restore him to the throne.

Henry IV, Parts One and Two
Since Richard II died without any children, the legal line of succession should have gone to Lionel, the Duke of Clarence, who was the second son of Edward III. Lionel is already dead, but his grandchildren realize that they have a more rightful claim to the throne than Henry IV does. They also have powerful allies like Glendower and Hotspur, so they raise an army and go to war against Henry IV. Various other groups also rebel, but, with the help of his son, Prince Hal, Henry IV wins all the wars. He then dies of natural causes, and Prince Hal becomes King Henry V.

Henry V
Henry V looks a genealogical chart even more complicated than this one and decides that he has a more legitimate claim to the throne of France than its current king has. So he goes to France, defeats the French army at the Battle of Agincourt, becomes king, and marries the French King's daughter, Princess Katherine. By this time, Aumerle is the Duke of York and has served both Henry IV and Henry V faithfully. But his brother, Richard of Cambridge, plots against Henry V, is arrested, and is executed. Aumerle dies in the Battle of Agincourt. Since he has no children, the title of Duke of York goes to Richard of Cambridge's son, Richard, whose mother is the great-grandaughter of Lionel, the Duke of Clarence. Thus, Richard has a more legitimate claim to the throne than Henry V; he has a personal grudge against Henry V and the Lancasters for killing his father; and he now has the wealth and power as the new Duke of York to act on his ambitions. Henry V then dies of dysentary while his and Katherine's son, Henry VI, is still a small child. As Henry VI grows up, Richard of York has pleanty of time to build his power.

Henry VI, Parts One, Two, and Three
Joan of Arc shows up to help the French regain their country from English rule and gets killed by the English. Henry VI is a weak king, but his wife, Margaret, is very strong and ambitious. Richard of York and his allies make their move, and the Wars of the Roses begin. The tide of battle goes back and forth several times as do various people's alliances. When Richard of York is on top, he tries to declare himself king, but he is captured by the Lancasters. Margaret has his head cut off and sends it to his sons (Edward IV, Clarence, and Richard of Gloucester) wearing a paper crown. This annoys them, and, when the tide turns back in their favor, they kill Margaret's son, Prince Edward. They manage to capture Henry VI, and Richard of Gloucester kills him. Edward IV becomes king. It would seem that the troubles are over, but Richard of Gloucester is already plotting to make himself king.

Richard III
Richard kills everyone in the York family who stands between him and the throne, as well as Henry VI's widow Margaret, Prince Edward's widow Lady Anne (whom he marries first), and a whole bunch of people who aren't related to him to make himself King Richard III. He seems unstopable, but ...
Remember Princess Katherine, the widow of Henry V? She remarried to Owen Tudor and had a son named Edmund Tudor. And remember John of Gaunt, the first Duke of Lancaster we met? By his third wife he had a son who then had a daughter named Margaret Beaufort. Edmund Tudor married Margaret Beaufort, and their son was Henry of Richmond, technically of the House of Tudor, but also the last of the Lancasters. He appears over the horizon with an army, kills Richard III, becomes King Henry VII, and marries Elizabeth who, as the daughter of Edward IV, is the last of the Yorks and a legitimate heir to the throne as the great great great grandaughter of Lionel. Thus the enmity between York and Lancaster - not to mention almost 100 years of civil war - comes to an end, and everybody lives happily ever after. Their son is Henry VIII, whose daughter is Elizabeth I, who is queen when Shakespeare begins writing these plays.


Henry VIII
This play isn't part of the cycle of history plays above, but it does tell what happened after happily ever after. Henry VIII needs to produce a child that everyone will recognize and respect as a legitimate heir, or all the conflicts that his father finally ended might start up again. By his first wife, Katherine of Aragon (daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain - best known in America for sending Columbus), he has a daughter, Mary. He wants a son and goes through a lot of trouble to divorce Katherine - even breaking away from the Catholic Church - so he can marry Anne Boleyn, but this marriage also produces a daughter, Elizabeth. (By a later wife, Jane Seymour, he finally has a son, Edward VI, who follows him as king. Edward VI dies young and is followed by Mary, who is followed by Elizabeth, who rules for a long time.) The play ends with the birth of Elizabeth and a prophesy about what a great ruler she will be.

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