England bleeds again
In the early 1590s an exciting young playwright called William Shakespeare burst onto the Elizabethan theatre scene with three popular plays about the Lancastrian king Henry VI (1421–71) and the civil discord that eventually culminated in the accession of the Yorkist Richard III in 1483. The cycle catalogues the young king’s weakness and how, as Shakespeare wrote later in Henry V, “so many had the managing” of his state that “they lost France and made his England bleed”.
The action in Henry VI, Part 1 is driven by the wars in France and the contrast between the heroic Lord John Talbot (c1387–1453) and the French warrior Jeanne la Pucelle, known in Britain as Joan of Arc (1412– 31). They fight over various French cities, including Rouen, which changed hands in 1418–19.
In the play, the English soldiers “sit before the walls of Rouen”. That historical siege displayed direct parallels with events that were taking place as Shakespeare wrote his play. In 1589 Elizabeth sent an army to France to oppose the Catholic League and support the Huguenot king Henry IV. During the winter of 1591– 92 the English forces besieged Rouen, but political confusion, military mismanagement and disease led to the abandonment of the siege, with huge loss of English life and disillusionment with the whole campaign. No wonder the three parts of Henry VI were so successful: they were effectively military and political reportage of current events, as well as broader reflections on pre-Tudor English history.