The first act of the play shows the ongoing struggle between Henry VI (the house of Lancaster) and the Duke of York (the house of York) for the throne of England in England’s Wars of the Roses. It begins after the battle of St. Albans in 1455, which is where the previous play, Henry VI, Part 2, ended.
The action begins in the Parliament building in London in the wake of the battle in which the Yorkist forces triumphed but the King managed to escape. The victorious nobles assemble. Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, explains how the King managed to slip away, but three of his chief supporters, Clifford, Stafford, and Northumberland, were killed. Two of York’s sons, Edward and Richard, boast of their exploits in the battle. Richard carries the head of the Duke of Somerset. Warwick urges York to seize the throne immediately. York agrees and sits in the royal seat.
Henry and his group of nobles enter, including Clifford and Northumberland, who have just lost their fathers in the battle. Henry wants to retain his throne but he counsels his impatient nobles, who are eager for revenge, to restrain themselves. He is wary because he knows the extent of the popular support York has. He thus prefers to use verbal threats than force. He demands that York get out of his throne seat. York refuses. After the nobles on both sides exchange angry words, York asks Henry if he wants him, York to prove he is the rightful king. If not, York says, they will settle the issue on the field of battle.
Henry is not interested in hearing it. He calls York a traitor, whose title is simply Duke of York, while he, Henry, as the son of the revered Henry V, is the rightful king.
York’s sons, especially Richard, urge him to seize the throne immediately, but their father tells them to keep quiet, and Henry is given the right to speak uninterrupted. Henry insists his title is legitimate, and says he will defend it with force. He says his grandfather, Henry IV, won the throne by conquest. York interjects that this was by rebellion against the rightful king (who was Richard II). In an aside, Henry admits that his claim to his title is weak. Then he says that Richard II voluntarily resigned the crown, but York insists that Richard was forced out.
The Duke of Exeter, who up to now has been a supporter of Henry, now breaks ranks, and says that he does not think Henry is the rightful king. Hearing this, Henry loses confidence, but Northumberland and Clifford leap to his defense.
York insists that Henry resign the crown. Warwick threatens to seize the crown for York by force. Seeing the forces arrayed against him, Henry tries to make a deal. He wants to remain king for his lifetime, and York says he will accept this if he, York, inherits the crown after Henry’s death. Henry agrees to this, only to ignite a chorus of opposition from his supporters, who point out that he is disinheriting his own son, Prince Edward. They all exit, saying they are going to tell the Queen of what he has agreed.
Henry then says he formally grants the crown to York and his heir, on the condition that York calls off the civil war and honors him as king as long as he lives. York takes an oath to abide by these conditions. He says the war between the houses of York and Lancaster is now over. He and his supporters exit.
Queen Margaret storms in, furious at what she has just heard. She berates the king about his decision to disinherit their son. Prince Henry also protests. Henry replies that he was forced into doing it, but the Queen pours scorn on this excuse. She tells him that York and his allies are in control of all the important offices and that they will overthrow him, whatever the agreement. Had she been there, she would never have agreed to such a thing. She says she divorces from his “table and bed” until the disinheritance of their son is repealed. She plans to round up some of the lords from the northern part of the country and make a fight of it against York.
After she and the prince exit, Henry reflects that she has reacted due to her great love for him and their son. He thinks she may get revenge on York, whom he hates, and he resolves to be reconciled to the lords who have just deserted him.
The question that most readers will be asking as this power struggle unfolds is, who is right? Who is the lawful king? Does York have any justification for his claim? The answer is—it’s complicated, as any glance at a genealogical chart will show.
The York case is that Henry VI is a usurper because his grandfather, Henry IV, formerly Duke of Lancaster, seized the throne by force from Richard II. Shakespeare tells that story in Richard II. Henry’s defense, that Richard voluntarily handed over the crown, is not true.
York and Henry VI are in fact cousins. They are both descended from Edward III (1312-77), and York makes his claim to the throne based on his descent from Edward III’s son, Clarence, Duke of Gloucester, and the Mortimer line. Edmund Mortimer, York’s uncle (1391-1424), who died when York was thirteen, was regarded by Richard II as the heir presumptive to the throne. So it could be argued that York’s claim has some merit, although he ignores the fact that many acts of parliament since the usurpation by Henry IV had confirmed the right of the Lancastrians to the throne.
Another point to note in the opening scene is the prominence given to York’s son Richard, the future Richard III. Richard was not present at this event historically, but Shakespeare has an interest in keeping him in the mind of the audience as the villainous future king. So he has Richard in this scene actually carrying the severed head of Somerset, whom he killed in battle (which is also unhistorical, since Richard was only three years old at the time). Richard is also the most aggressive of York’s sons in this scene, saying that he wants the king’s head, too. Shakespeare condenses the time frame and takes other liberties with historical fact in order to shape his dramatic purpose. Another example is the fact that this scene in parliament actually took place in 1460, five years after the battle of St. Albans, not immediately after it.
The characters continue as they have been developed in the earlier parts of Henry VI: Henry is weak, conciliatory, and pious, while Margaret is strong and unscrupulous, eager for power; and York is ambitious for the crown.