The funeral of King Henry V brings together the dukes of the realm, each pondering his role in the new government. Most are conspiring to take advantage of the youth of the child king, Henry VI, to advance their own interests. In France, while the English bicker, many of the lands the new king’s father won there have been lost, partly because of the inspiration of Joan de Pucelle (Joan of Arc), who is later captured by the English and burned at the stake.
In England, Richard Plantagenet (later the duke of York) quarrels with John Beaufort (later the duke of Somerset, of the house of Lancaster). Plantagenet plucks a white rose as a symbol of his house, and Beaufort picks a red rose—thus starting in motion a long and bitter civil war. Plantagenet also learns he has a strong claim to the throne and takes that claim to Parliament; thus the quarrel quickly escalates to a civil war over the crown, despite the pleadings of the young king for peace. One of the first casualties of the quarrel is the noble Talbot who dies in France because English lords are too involved in their intrigues and arguments to send needed reinforcements.
King Henry VI, though very young, consents to marry the daughter of the earl of Armagnac, who offers a large dowry. Suffolk, however, is in love with Margaret of Anjou and convinces Henry to marry her instead (despite her lack of a dowry), thus opening the way for Suffolk to control, not just the new queen, but the king and the nation as a whole—and exacerbating the enmity between the various court factions. The marriage does, however, bring about temporary peace between the French and the English.
The nobles unite for the time being in an attempt to oust the faithful Gloucester from his post of protector, each secretly hoping he can take over this powerful position. Aided by Queen Margaret, who is anxious to get unlimited control of her weak husband, they undermine Gloucester through his ambitious wife, Eleanor. She is tried and banished, and Gloucester resigns his position. He is soon cruelly murdered on orders from Suffolk, who in turn is banished (to the despair of the queen) and is also murdered.
The nobles, meanwhile, are reviving the old quarrel. The king sends York to Ireland, hoping to rid himself of a rival for the crown. However, York uses this as a chance to raise an army and returns to England and defeats the House of Lancaster in the Battle of St. Albans. He then rushes to London and seats himself on the throne. Henry, defeated, promises the throne to the House of York when he dies; but scheming on both sides soon starts the war again, with Queen Margaret leading the Lancastrians. York and his son, Edmund, are killed in battle, leaving his other sons, Edward, Clarence, and Richard, to carry on the war. Soon, aided by the powerful Warwick, they are victorious; and Edward, the new duke of York, becomes King Edward IV. Henry is imprisoned, and Warwick hastens to France to arrange an advantageous marriage for the new king.
The king, however, falls in love with Lady Elizabeth Grey and marries her at once. When Warwick hears the news, he is incensed and changes his allegiance to the Lancasters and joins up with the exiled Margaret. They sail to England and for a time remove Edward from the throne, but he soon recovers, kills Warwick in battle, takes the crown again, and has Henry sent to the Tower and Margaret to France. Gloucester, the king’s brother, kills Henry and his young son; and Edward and his queen rule a kingdom, which for the time being is at peace.
However, Richard, the king’s other brother, also has plans, and the scheming for the throne is far from over.