One of William Shakespeare’s earliest plays, Henry VI, Part 3
(1590) is part of a tetralogy that retells the saga of the Wars of the Roses, a series of civil wars fought in fifteenth-century England. The play begins in the immediate wake of the defeat of the House of Lancaster at the hands of the House of York at the First Battle of St. Albans in 1455. This battle is considered by many historians to be the unofficial start of the Wars of the Roses, following a lengthy period of bickering and turmoil among England's most powerful families, which Shakespeare covered in the first two installments of his Henry VI
Following his defeat at the First Battle of St. Albans, Henry and his wife are on the run from the supporters of the Duke of York. The major belligerents all meet up in London, where Henry and York both vie for the throne. The two make a deal: Henry will remain King, but upon his death, York will take over and his family will establish a new royal line of succession. This agreement infuriates Margaret because it means her son, Edward, Prince of Wales, will be deprived of the throne. Defying her husband, Margaret declares war on York and his supporters, enlisting the help of the military commander, Lord Clifford, who seeks revenge against York for killing his father in battle.
Margaret and Clifford attack York's castle in Wakefield, killing his youngest son, twelve-year-old Rutland. Clifford proceeds to humiliate and degrade York by forcing him to wipe his brow with a handkerchief covered in his young son's blood. Clifford ends the display of depravity by stabbing York to death. Things only get worse for the Yorkists after Warwick, one of the family's most loyal noblemen is defeated by Margaret's army at the Second Battle of St. Albans, though he lives to tell the tale. Meanwhile, Henry revokes his agreement to give up the throne to the Yorkists at Margaret's urging.
At the Battle of Towton, the Yorkists prevail, killing Clifford. With the enemy's best military commander defeated, the Yorkists proclaim Edward, the eldest son of York, the new King of England. Meanwhile, Edward's brother, Richard, is proclaimed the Duke of Gloucester. However, the honor isn't enough for Richard, who secretly reveals to the audience his ambitions to steal the throne away from his brother, Edward.
In order to shore up the Yorkists' power and influence, Warwick visits King Louis XI of France in the hope of brokering a marriage between Edward and Lady Bona, the French king's sister-in-law. Warwick is surprised to see that Louis XI is already in negotiation with Margaret over supplying the Lancastrians with French troops to help them defeat the Yorkists. He intervenes, offering up a convincing pitch for why Louis XI should side with the Yorkists by approving the marriage between Edward and Lady Bona. Unfortunately, just as Warwick persuades Louis XI to agree to the marriage, Edward falls in love with someone else, a nobleman's widow Lady Grey. Enchanted by her beauty, Edward attempts to make Lady Grey his mistress. Nevertheless, although she is attracted to Edward, Lady Grey refuses his sexual advances unless he agrees to marry her, which he does.
Having worked so hard to convince Louis XI of the marriage between Edward and Lady Bona, Warwick is livid with Edward over his impulsive proposal to Lady Grey. Warwick defects to the Lancastrians, denouncing Edward and promising his daughter Anne's hand in marriage to Henry's son, the Prince of Wales. Edward's brother, George—who strongly advised Edward against marrying Lady Grey—also defects to the Lancastrians. With the French troops Margaret had previously negotiated for, Warwick and George invade England, taking Edward prisoner. Meanwhile, Lady Grey escapes into exile.
After a brief lull in the fighting, England is quickly engulfed in chaos once again when Richard frees Edward from imprisonment. The two gather up the remaining Yorkist loyalists and attack Warwick at the Battle of Barnet. Warwick loses the advantage after George betrays him, rejoining his brothers on the Yorkist side of the conflict. Warwick is killed, leaving Oxford and Somerset in charge of the Lancastrian forces. Their army is reinforced by a second wave of French troops led by Margaret and the Prince of Wales.
In a state of deep inner turmoil and disgust at the horrors of war, Henry sits atop the hill where York was executed by Clifford near the start of the play. He meets two men who have both turned against their own kin as a result of the civil war, including a father who killed his own son in battle. Disillusioned by war, Henry is easily captured by two gamekeepers loyal to the House of York. Meanwhile, Edward's forces meet the rest of the Lancastrian army at the Battle of Tewkesbury, where the Yorkists come out on top. All the principal leaders of the Lancastrian army are captured, including Margaret who is banished from England. Edward, George, and Richard give Margaret's son, the Prince of Wales, an opportunity to recognize Edward as the rightful king, but the Prince of Wales refuses and is stabbed to death in retribution.
Enraged by the Lancastrians refusal to recognize Yorkist rule, Richard travels to the Tower of London where Henry is held. He stabs Henry who, on the brink of death, warns Richard that his murderous ambition will result only in chaos for England. The play ends with a victorious Edward reunited with Lady Grey—now Queen Elizabeth—and their infant son. However, while Edward celebrates what he expects to be a long period of peace in England, his brother Richard continues to plot to take the throne from him.