Act 5, scene 1
Standing on the city wall at Coventry, Warwick anxiously asks his messengers where his reinforcements, Montague and Clarence, are and how long it will take them to arrive. He is told that Clarence will arrive in two hours.
But it is Edward and his forces who arrive first. Warwick is angry that his scouts did not spot Edward’s approach.
There is a parley. Edward calls on Warwick to open the city gates and to acknowledge Edward as his king. Warwick is defiant, saying that if Edward acknowledges his power, he will allow him to remain Duke of York. Warwick emphasizes that it was he who made Edward king, and now he withdraws that gift, saying that Henry is king. Edward and Gloucester then inform Warwick that Henry has been taken prisoner.
After more defiant words are spoken on both sides, Warwick’s ally Oxford arrives with his forces and enters the city. Then Montague and Somerset arrive with their armies, which are also on Warwick’s side. But when Clarence arrives, he and Gloucester speak in whispers and then Clarence announces that he has switched sides again—now he is back with his brothers. He speaks defiantly to Warwick and then asks his brothers to forgive him, which they do.
Warwick says he will move his forces to Barnet, and he challenges Edward to meet him in battle there.
The approaching battle is known as the Battle of Barnet. Barnet then was a small town just north of London, so Warwick’s intentions are to march south from Coventry, which is in the English midlands.
Clarence at this point is related to both sides. He married Warwick’s daughter, so Warwick is his father-in-law. Historically, Clarence had reason at first to believe that Warwick would make him heir to the throne, after Henry VI. But after Warwick married his younger daughter off to Prince Edward, Henry VI’s son, it became clear to Clarence that he was not in line for the throne, so he changed sides again. Shakespeare briefly alludes to Clarence’s hopes in Act 4, scene 6, but omits the full details. Clarence’s words to Warwick in this scene (“thou foul misleading me”) refers to these events.
Act 5, scene 2
On the battlefield at Barnet, Edward brings in the mortally wounded Warwick, then leaves him to search for Warwick’s brother Montague.
Warwick knows he is dying but does not know who has won the battle. He laments his former glory, when could make or unmake kings. Now he has nothing left.
Oxford and Somerset enter, saying that Queen Margaret has arrived from France with a big army, and so they may yet win the day. Somerset tells Warwick that Montague is dead. Warwick dies. Oxford and Somerset exit, carrying the dead Warwick, to meet up with the queen’s army.
Historically, the battle of Barnet was fought on April 14, 1471. It was a big and decisive battle involving anywhere between twenty thousand and forty-five thousand men. The Lancastrians under Warwick outnumbered the Yorkists. Historians say that Warwick, knowing after his brother Montague was killed that the battle was lost, ran for his horse in an attempt to retreat, but was caught by Yorkist soldiers and killed. Unlike in Shakespeare’s play, Edward had wanted to capture but not kill Warwick—either so he could have him publicly executed or regain him as an ally (historians differ as to which explanation is preferred).
Act 5, scene 3
Edward and his brothers enter in triumph. They still have to face the queen’s forces, but Edward and Clarence are confident of victory. Gloucester, however, warns that the queen’s army numbers thirty thousand men, to which should be added the armies of Somerset and Oxford. He says the two armies will be of about equal strength.
Edward sets course for Tewksbury, where the battle is to be fought. He says they will pick up more forces on their way, as people rush to support their cause.
The battle coming up here is the Battle of Tewksbury, fought just three weeks later, on May 4, 1471. Tewksbury is a small town in Gloucestershire.
Act 5, scene 4
Margaret and her allies enter. She is aware that Warwick and Montague have been defeated and are both dead. She tries to rally her forces nonetheless. She still has Somerset, Exeter, and the French forces, so she means to make a fight of it. Young Prince Edward speaks up in praise of his mother’s spirit, and Oxford is inspired by his speech. They are all ready for battle.
Edward and his forces enter, eager for battle. Margaret inspires her forces one last time, reminding them that Henry, their king, is a prisoner and the country is being misused, its laws overthrown and its money spent.
Act 5, scene 5
Edward is victorious, and Margaret, Oxford, and Somerset are taken prisoner. Edward orders Oxford to be taken away and Somerset to be executed. They exit under guard.
Prince Edward is brought in as a prisoner. Edward asks him for an explanation as to why he has risen up against him. Prince Edward is defiant, referring to Edward not as the king but as the ambitious Duke of York. He also trades barbs with Gloucester and then insults Edward, Gloucester, and Clarence in very personal terms. He so enrages them all that they stab him, one after the other. Margaret, seeing the slaughter of her son, asks them to kill her too, and Gloucester is ready to oblige but Edward restrains him.
Gloucester says he must go to London on a serious matter and exits.
Margaret mourns her dead son, saying that Edward and his brothers are worse than murderers; they are butchers and cannibals and have no remorse because they have no children of their own.
Edward commands that she be taken away, and she again asks Clarence to kill her, but he refuses. She looks around for Richard to do the deed, but he has already gone. Margaret is led out, and Clarence and Edward depart for London.
The Battle of Tewksbury was fought on May 4, 1471. It was a smaller battle than the one at Barnet a few weeks earlier, and was another decisive victory for Edward IV and the Yorkist cause. It effectively ended the Lancastrian resistance, especially since seventeen-year-old Prince Edward was killed either during or sometime soon after the battle. (Shakespeare’s version, in which Edward, Gloucester, and Clarence all stab him is unhistorical.) The remaining Lancastrians had no one to turn to. As for the ruthless Margaret, she was imprisoned in the Tower of London for four years until the French king paid a ransom for her release in 1475.
Act 5, scene 6
In the Tower of London, Gloucester goes to see the imprisoned Henry. Henry guesses what his purpose is. He also knows that his son Edward has been killed, and that Gloucester is in part responsible. He makes a prophecy that many more people will come to regret that Richard of Gloucester was ever born. There were bad signs in nature, Henry says, the moment Gloucester was born as an “undigested and deformed lump.” Gloucester interrupts Henry’s insults and stabs him to death. Gloucester admits that he has heard the stories of his peculiar birth—that he was born with teeth, for example, so it is surprising that he should bite? He admits that he knows nothing of love; love does not apply to him. He says he will plot against Clarence’s life, because now Henry VI and his son are out of the way, Clarence is next. He exits, dragging Henry’s body.
Historically, Henry VI died on the night of May 21/22, 1471, just over two weeks after the Battle of Tewksbury. Did Richard, Duke of Gloucester, really kill King Henry? Historians do not know for sure. Some believe that Edward IV ordered the murder, since having the former king alive and imprisoned could have become a rallying cry for his political opponents. But did he order Richard to do it? The way Shakespeare presents it, Richard is entirely responsible; Edward does not tell him to do it. Obviously, it suited Shakespeare’s purpose to show Gloucester as the murderer, since Gloucester is fulfilling his stated desire to get rid of everyone who is ahead of him in the line of succession until he can seize the throne himself. Shakespeare’s play gains in force from his continuing presentation of Richard as an arch-villain. Richard’s long speech after he has killed the former king whets the appetite for more evil deeds that will be portrayed in the last play in this historical tetralogy, Richard III. (Shakespeare seems to have wanted to make sure his audience is aware that there will be more to come.)
Act 5, scene 7
At the palace in London, Edward celebrates his victory by reciting a list of the enemies they have defeated. He believes the kingdom is now secure. He kisses his infant son and says that the work of war was for him, so he could inherit a kingdom at peace. In an aside, Gloucester says this will never happen. Clarence and Gloucester both kiss the baby, at Edward’s request, but in another aside Gloucester compares his kiss to that of Judas, who betrayed Christ with a kiss.
Clarence asks what is to be done with Margaret, for whom the king of France has paid a ransom. Edward says she is to be returned. Then he calls for some celebrations, in honor of happy times ahead.
Historically, Edward IV was to reign another twelve years after these events, until his death from natural causes at the age of forty, in 1483. Historians generally account him not only as a formidable military leader but also as an effective and popular king after the Lancastrians were finally overcome.