David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s 1 HENRY VI: A Retelling in Prose — Act 2, Scene 4

— 2.4 —

In a garden with rose bushes, some bearing red roses and some bearing white roses, near the Middle and Inner Temples in London, the Duke of Somerset, the Earl of Suffolk, and the Earl of Warwick stood, along with Richard Plantagenet, Vernon, and another lawyer: six people in all. The Temples were areas devoted to the study and practice of law, and Richard Plantagenet and the Duke of Somerset had been disputing a point of law.

Richard Plantagenet and the Duke of Somerset were both members of royal families, being descended from King Edward III, but Richard Plantagenet was a member of the York family and the Duke of Somerset was a member of the Lancaster family.

King Henry V died on 31 August 1422. In future years, from 1455-1487, the Yorkists and the Lancastrians would fight for power in England in the famous Wars of the Roses. The emblem of the York family would be a white rose, and the emblem of the Lancaster family would be a red rose.

Richard Plantagenet asked, “Great lords and gentlemen, what means this silence? Dare no man answer in a case of truth?”

The Earl of Suffolk said, “Within the Temple Hall we would have been too loud. The garden here is more suitable for our discussion.”

Richard Plantagenet replied, “Then say at once whether I maintained the truth, or wrangling Somerset was in the wrong.”

This was a version of “Heads I win, tails you lose.”

The Earl of Suffolk replied, “Truly, I have been a truant in the law and have been neglectful in my study of it. I have never been able to frame — that is, train — my will to study law, and therefore I frame — that is, adapt — the law to my will.”

The Duke of Somerset said, “My Lord of Warwick, then, you judge between us.”

The Earl of Warwick replied, “Between two hawks, which flies the higher height; between two dogs, which has the deeper bark; between two sword blades, which bears the better temper; between two horses, which carries himself best; between two girls, which has the merriest eye, I have perhaps some shallow spirit of judgment, but in these precise and sharp hair-splitting quibbles of the law, I have to say in good faith that I am no wiser than a jackdaw.”

A jackdaw was reputed to be a foolish bird.

“Tut, tut, here is a mannerly forbearance,” Richard Plantagenet said. “This is a well-mannered refusal to get involved and commit oneself, but the truth appears so naked on my side that any half-blind eye may see it.”

The Duke of Somerset said, “And on my side the truth is so well appareled, so clear, so shining, and so evident that it will glimmer through a blind man’s eye and he will see it.”

Richard Plantagenet said to the men being asked to judge the dispute, “Since you are tongue-tied and so loath to speak, proclaim your thoughts in silent symbols. Let him who is a true-born gentleman and stands upon the honor of his birth pluck a white rose with me from off this rose brier if he thinks that I have pleaded the truth.”

The Duke of Somerset said, “Let him who is no coward and who is no flatterer, but who dares to maintain the party of the truth, pluck a red rose from off this rose briar with me.”

The Earl of Warwick, knowing that white was not considered a color, said, “I love no colors, and without all color — appearance — of base, low, fawning flattery, I pluck this white rose with Richard Plantagenet.”

The Earl of Suffolk said, “I pluck this red rose with young Somerset and say by doing so I think he is in the right.”

Vernon said, “Wait, lords and gentlemen, and pluck no more roses, until you decide that he upon whose side the fewest roses are cropped from the bushes shall yield to the other and say that he has the right opinion.”

The Duke of Somerset said, “Good Master Vernon, it is a good idea. If I have fewer roses plucked in support of me, I will agree that the other person — Richard Plantagenet — is in the right and I will be silent and no longer object.”

Richard Plantagenet said, “I will do the same.”

Vernon said, “Then for the truth and plainness of the case, I pluck this pale and maiden blossom here, giving my verdict on the white-rose side.”

The Duke of Somerset said, “Don’t prick your finger as you pluck the white rose off the bush, lest by bleeding on it you paint the white rose red and thereby fall on my side against your will.”

Vernon replied, “If I, my lord, bleed for my opinion, aka my judgment, then opinion, aka my reputation, which is based on my character, shall be the surgeon to my injury and keep me on the side where I still am.”

The Duke of Somerset said, “Well, well, come on. Who else needs to pluck a rose?”

The lawyer said, “Unless my study and my books are mistaken, the argument you held was wrong in you, and in sign thereof I pluck a white rose, too.”

Four people held white roses: Richard Plantagenet, the Earl of Warwick, Vernon, and the lawyer.

Only two people held red roses: The Duke of Somerset and the Earl of Suffolk.

Richard Plantagenet said, “Now, Duke of Somerset, where is your argument?”

“Here in my scabbard, thinking about doing something that shall dye your white rose a bloody red,” the Duke of Somerset replied.

Richard Plantagenet said, “In the meantime your cheeks imitate our white roses because they look pale with fear, as if they were witnessing that the truth is on our side.”

“No, Plantagenet,” the Duke of Somerset said, “my cheeks are not pale because of fear but because of anger, and your red cheeks blush for pure shame to imitate our roses, and yet your tongue will not confess your error.”

“Doesn’t your rose have a cankerworm eating it, Duke of Somerset?”

“Doesn’t your rose have a thorn, Plantagenet?”

“Yes,” Richard Plantagenet said, “and the thorn is sharp and piercing, to protect its truth, while your consuming cankerworm eats its falsehood.”

The Duke of Somerset said, “Well, I’ll find friends to wear my bleeding roses, and they shall maintain what I have said is true where false, perfidious Plantagenet dare not be seen.”

Richard Plantagenet replied, “Now, by this maiden — white — blossom in my hand, I scorn thee and your fashion, peevish boy.”

Richard Plantagenet insultingly used the word “thee” to refer to the Duke of Somerset. The words “peevish” and “boy” were also insulting.

The Earl of Suffolk, who supported the Duke of Somerset, said, “Don’t turn your scorns this way, Plantagenet.”

The Earl of Suffolk’s name was William de la Pole.

Richard Plantagenet said to him, “Proud Pole, I will, and I scorn both him and thee.”

“I’ll turn my part of that scorn into your throat,” the Earl of Suffolk said.

“Let’s go, let’s go, good William de la Pole!” the Duke of Somerset said. “We show grace to the yeoman by conversing with him.”

Calling Richard Plantagenet a “yeoman” was another insult. A “yeoman” was not a noble. Richard Plantagenet came from a noble family, but his father had been executed for treason by order of King Henry V and as a result Richard Plantagenet had lost his land and his noble titles.

The Earl of Warwick said, “Now, by God’s will, you wrong him, Duke of Somerset. His grandfather was Lionel, Duke of Clarence, who was the third son to Edward III, King of England. Do crestless yeomen spring from so deep a root?”

A crest is a part of a heraldic display and sits on top of the helmet.

Richard Plantagenet said, “He knows about this place’s privilege — no violence is allowed here. If not for that, he would not dare, for all his cowardly heart, to say this.”

“By Him Who made me, on any plot of ground in Christendom I’ll maintain my words are true,” the Duke of Somerset said. “Wasn’t your father, Richard, Earl of Cambridge, executed for treason in the reign of our late King Henry V? And, because of his treason, don’t you stand tainted, deprived of your titles, and excluded from ancient gentry — long-established high rank? His trespass — his treason — yet lives on guilty in your blood, and until you are restored to your titles, you are a yeoman, a commoner.”

Richard Plantagenet replied, “My father was arrested, not attainted. He was condemned to die for treason, but he was no traitor. And I will prove that in a trial of combat on better men than you, Duke of Somerset, when I have the opportunity.”

He meant that his father had been arrested and executed for treason by the order of King Henry V; this had not been done by a full bill of attainder in Parliament and so his father had not been attainted. A bill of attainder is a legislative bill declaring a person or a group of people guilty of crime and ordering punishment for the crime.

Richard Plantagenet continued, “As for your associate William de la Pole and you yourself, I’ll note you in my book of memory so that I remember to scourge you for this opinion. Look to see it happen and say you are well warned.”

The Duke of Somerset replied, “Ah, you shall find us ready for thee always, and you will know us by these colors — we will wear the red rose — for your foes, for my friends shall wear the red rose in defiance of thee.”

Richard Plantagenet said, “And, by my soul, this pale and angry rose, as a sign of my bloodthirsty and blood-drinking hate, I and my faction will forever wear, until it withers with me in my grave or it flourishes to the height of my rank and standing.”

The Earl of Suffolk said, “Go forward and be choked with your ambition! And so farewell until I meet thee next.”

The Earl of Suffolk, aka William de la Pole, exited.

The Duke of Somerset said, “I’ll go with you, William de la Pole. Farewell, ambitious Richard.”

The Duke of Somerset exited.

Richard Plantagenet said, “How I am defied and insulted and must necessarily endure it!”

The Earl of Warwick said, “This blot that they object against your house shall be wiped out in the next Parliament, which has been called to make a truce between the Bishop of Winchester and the Duke of Gloucester. If you are not then made the Duke of York, I will not live to be considered the Earl of Warwick. You are as likely not to gain the title of Duke of York as I am to lose my title. In the meantime, as a sign of my love and friendship for you, and in opposition to the proud Duke of Somerset and William de la Pole, I will as a part of your faction wear this white rose. And here I prophesy: This brawl today, grown to this factious quarrel in the Temple garden, shall send between the red rose and the white rose a thousand souls to death and deadly night. Many, many people will die as a result of this quarrel that happened tonight.”

Richard Plantagenet said, “Good Master Vernon, I am bound to you because on my behalf you plucked a white rose.”

“On your behalf I will always wear a white rose,” Vernon said.

“And so will I,” the lawyer said.

“Thanks, gentle sir,” Richard Plantagenet said. “Come, let us four go to dinner. I dare say that this quarrel will drink blood some day.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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