In writing the tetralogy that includes Henry IV, Part 1, Shakespeare drew heavily on English history of the 14th and 15th centuries and altered it on occasion for dramatic effect. Here is a brief overview of the events leading up to the opening scene of Henry IV, Part 1, offering insight on the tensions and family rivalries seen in the play.
An Uncomfortable Kingship: Henry IV Takes the Throne
Henry IV (Bolingbroke) rose to power by usurping the throne of his cousin, Richard II. It’s not clear in Shakespeare’s plays if Henry Bolingbroke always had his sights set on the throne, or if he simply wanted to lay claim to his rightful inheritance.
In order to pay for expensive wars in Ireland, Richard II had taken possession of lands belonging to Henry’s father, John of Gaunt. Richard’s tremendous expenditures on the wars in Ireland, both in terms of money and human life, led many to question his ability to rule.
Henry had little difficulty finding support in the pursuit of his Lancastrian property, and a combination of circumstances—Richard’s engagement with the Irish rebellion, betrayals, poor weather, and poorer communication—enabled Henry to capture his cousin and to seize the throne. Richard later died in captivity, presumably murdered by order of the new king. In Henry IV, Part 2, the king describes himself as one who “snatched” the crown, and we see him wrestle with his conscience in Part 1 as well.
Second Thoughts: The Percy Family Rebels
The Percy Family that rebels against the king in Henry IV, Part 1 was at first his greatest ally. Northumberland and Hotspur supported Henry’s efforts to regain his father’s lands, and Northumberland himself was key in the capture of King Richard. Worcester, though historically less involved than his brother in Henry’s usurpation, deserted Richard and weakened his forces. The Percy Family was rewarded for this. Northumberland was made constable of England, for example. But it was not enough.
The Percys grew disenchanted with their king for a variety of reasons, according to Shakespeare’s plays and the histories from which they draw. One issue was money: the Percy Family invested a great deal of financial support to the king’s efforts against the Scots. The Percys hoped to regain some of these funds, as we see in the opening of the play, through the ransom of prisoners, but Henry claimed those for himself. According to some sources, the Percy Family regretted having helped Henry to the throne when Richard II had already named as his heir Edmund Mortimer, fifth Earl of Monmouth. Or perhaps they had an attack of conscience for interrupting the divine ascension of kings and claimed they had been tricked by Henry who never fully disclosed his ambitions.