King Henry VI, a weak and worldly king, sits on the throne of England, while all around him the English nobility vies for position and power.
At the beginning of the play, King Henry meets his new bride, Margaret, whom Suffolk has married by proxy for the king. Unknown to the others, Suffolk and Margaret are lovers and in league to control the king. The marriage contract includes the ceding of the French duchies of Anjou and Main back to the French, which incenses Henry’s powerful uncle, Gloucester, the lord protector, and puts him in opposition to Henry’s other powerful uncle, Cardinal Beaufort.
Gloucester is loyal to the king, but his wife, Eleanor, has her eye on the throne. However, her plotting is exposed, she is exiled, and Gloucester is removed from office, then murdered on Suffolk’s orders. King Henry banishes Suffolk, and he is soon captured by pirates and killed. Meanwhile, the cardinal dies, raving in madness because of his part in Gloucester’s death.
A Kentish rebel, Jack Cade, leads a short-lived revolt, seizing London before his followers abandon him and he is killed. Then another revolt emerges: Richard, duke of York, argues his family’s claim to the throne is stronger than Henry’s and that he (Richard) is the rightful king. As the play ends, he leads an army against King Henry. The War of the Roses is now in full bloom: the Yorks, led by York, his sons Edward and Richard, and Warwick bear the white rose; and the Lancasters, led by Henry, Margaret, Clifford, and Northumberland hoist the red.
York, Warwick, and their forces chase Henry to London and invade the throne-room. York and Henry agree to allow Henry to remain king for the rest of his life, with York as his heir—thus disinheriting Henry's son, Prince Edward.
Infuriated, Margaret, raises her own army. Spurred on by his sons, York breaks his oath to Henry and renews his fight for the crown. In battle, Margaret and her supporters kill York, so Warwick proclaims York's son King Edward IV. Margaret, Henry, and their followers flee to Scotland and France. King Edward’s supporters capture Henry and lock him in the tower.
Warwick sails to France to forge an alliance by securing Princess Bona as Edward’s bride. He succeeds, but upon returning home finds Edward has married Lady Grey, not an advantageous coupling. Angry at Edward’s callous actions, Warwick breaks with the king, joins Margaret, and vows to win back the crown for Henry.
Warwick and Margaret succeed and install Henry once again on the throne. But their victory is short lived as Edward’s armies kill Warwick and take the throne back again. This leads to the famous Battle of Tewksbury, where the Lancastrians (led by Henry, Margaret, and Prince Edward) are soundly defeated by the Yorkists (led by King Edward IV and his brothers). The brothers kill Prince Edward; and Richard, now duke of Gloucester, kills Henry, putting the crown in the hands of the House of York and establishing peace.
Peace, that is, for now—as Richard ends the play with the ominous opening lines from Richard III: “Now is the winter of our discontent . . .”