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The Folger Spotlight

An Eye for an Eye, an Edward for an Edward

There are lots of characters in Richard III. Most of them are related to each other and figuring out exactly how is a task best accomplished with a large bottle of aspirin. To help out future historians and to celebrate his coronation, Edward IV (King of England at the opening of Richard III) commissioned a complete genealogy of his family. It started with Adam and Eve, ended with his sons, and is 20 feet long. If you have a few hours, you can look through a beautiful digital version online, however you may be no closer to understanding the York family tree at the end than you were when you started (Although you will have seen lots of pretty pictures).


And horses. Lots of horses.

One of the major problems is that everyone has the same name. Oh, sure, sometimes you’ll have a Lionel or a Jasper to relieve the endless march of Edwards and Henrys and Richards, but more often than not, you will find that there was a chap named Edward, who had a son named Edward. That Edward had a son named Richard, who was deposed by a Henry who had another son named Henry. That Henry had yet another son named Henry, who was deposed (twice) by an Edward. That Edward had a son who was also named Edward who was deposed by a Richard. That Richard was deposed by a Henry who had a son named Henry who had a son named Edward who died without any children so a Mary could finally get in there. Or a Jane, depending who you ask.

Sorry, what?

Sorry, what?


And there you have 241 years of English History with nothing but Henrys and Edwards as far as the eye can see. There was such a lack of creativity in baby names (No Blue Ivy?) that you lived in England between 1312 and 1553, there was a 51% chance that your king was named Henry.



Length of Reign (years)

Edward III



Richard II



Henry IV



Henry V



Henry VI

1422-1461, 1470-1471


Edward IV

1461-1470, 1471-1483


Edward V



Richard III



Henry VII



Henry VIII



Edward VI



Grand Total

Number of Kings

Number of Years



Chance that Your King Would Be Named







241 years, 11 different monarchs, and your chance of having a Henry for a king was the same as if you flipped a coin.

James I

“So you want to be king of England, huh? What’s your name?”
“Oh, thank God”

And it isn’t only the Kings who have the same names. There were three Princes of Wales between 1471 and 1484, all named Edward. None of them lived to see their eighteenth birthday and we don’t hear a-lot about them, but two of them are in Shakespeare’s Richard III.

Edward of Lancaster was the son of Margaret of Anjou and Henry VI and was the Prince of Wales from birth to death, 1453-1471. He is killed onstage at the end of Henry VI Part III (Edward, Richard, and Clarence take turns) and his ghost appears at end of Richard III in the “Everyone yells at Richard now” scene before Bosworth Field.

Let me sit heavy on thy soul to-morrow!
Think, how thou stab’dst me in my prime of youth
At Tewksbury: despair, therefore, and die!  

The man simple cannot catch a break

The man simply cannot catch a break


Edward V was the Prince of Wales from 1471 to whenever he died, maybe 1483, and was one of the Princes in the Tower of whom I know you have heard. He is adorable and precocious and wants to invade France.

 An if I live until I be a man,
I’ll win our ancient right in France again,
Or die a soldier, as I lived a king.

But he doesn’t have a chance because Richard III kills him and his brother. Or maybe not.

princes in the tower

He just wants to tell them a bedtime story, right? Right?!


Edward of Middleham does not appear in the play, but he is the most interesting of the three. He was the only child of Richard III and Lady Anne Neville. Yes, that Richard and that Anne.

Wear this ring. No backsies.

Wear this ring, please. No backsies.

Richard III had three children that we know of, but Edward was his only legitimate child. Edward of Middleham was the Prince of Wales from 1483 when his father became king, until 1484 when he died suddenly at the age of 10, one year before his father was killed at Bosworth. It is strange to think of Shakespeare’s crook-back villain as a family man. One can only hope that he showed more love to his son than his mother did to him.

There is one place in Richard III where it seems that Shakespeare is commenting both on the fact that everyone has the same name, and the fact that they all kill each other.

In Act IV, scene iv, Queen Margaret, Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of York compare their dead:

Queen Margaret: If sorrow can admit society,
Tell o’er your woes again by viewing mine:
I had an Edward, till a Richard kill’d him;
I had a Harry, till a Richard kill’d him:
Thou hadst an Edward, till a Richard kill’d him;
Thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard killed him;

Duchess of York: I had a Richard too, and thou didst kill him;
I had a Rutland too, thou holp’st to kill him

Queen Margaret: Thy Edward he is dead, that stabb’d my Edward:
Thy other Edward dead, to quit my Edward;
Young York he is but boot, because both they
Match not the high perfection of my loss:
Thy Clarence he is dead that kill’d my Edward

Like swapping a pawn for a Queen right?

Like swapping a pawn for a Queen right?

The endless repitition of the names of the dead – Edward, Richard, Harry, another Edward, another Richard – almost serves to make them indistinguishable to the audience listening to the litany, but to each of these women they represent another brother lost, another husband, another son.

In the wars of York and Lancaster, the math of an eye for an eye, an Edward for an Edward, never quite adds up. These women are united in pain but divided by their loss.  After all, Margaret killed the Duchess of York‘s husband and son. The Duchess of York‘s son in turn killed Margaret‘s husband and son. These women not only share each other’s loss, but also the responsibility for it.

However, Margaret doesn’t feel that the death of the Duchess of York‘s grandson Prince Edward should “make up” for the death of her son Prince Edward because the “high perfection” of her loss was so great. The proud mother even in death. Not even the death of the other Prince in the tower, “young York” makes up for that one death.

This one-upmanship of pain is always heartbreaking to watch on stage. Margaret‘s insistence that her heartbreak is “worth” more because it is older –

If ancient sorrow be most reverend,
Give mine the benefit of seniory,
And let my woes frown on the upper hand.

– seems counterintuitive (new loss is fresher) but the logic of pain for each of them has its own path.

We look forward to seeing you all in the theater for Richard III (previews start in less than two weeks!) and hope that you will keep an eye out for all the Edwards and Richards and Henrys onstage. Below is a little teaser of our redesigned space. ‘Till next time!