[Footnote 41: For full titles, see p. 6.]
The Course of English History.—The century and a half that followed the death of Chaucer appealed especially to Shakespeare. He wrote or helped to edit five plays that deal with this period,—Henry IV., Henry V., Henry VI., Richard III., and Henry VIII. While these plays do not give an absolutely accurate presentation of the history of the time, they show rare sympathy in catching the spirit of the age, and they leave many unusually vivid impressions.
Henry IV. (1399-1413), a descendant of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, one of the younger sons of Edward III., and therefore not in the direct line of succession, was the first English king who owed his crown entirely to Parliament. Henry’s reign was disturbed by the revolt of nobles and by contests with the Welsh. Shakespeare gives a pathetic picture of the king calling in vain for sleep, “nature’s tired nurse,” and exclaiming:—
“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”
Henry V. (1413-1422) is one of Shakespeare’s romantic characters. The young king renewed the French war, which had broken out in 1337 and which later became known as the Hundred Years’ War. By his victory over the French at Agincourt (1415), he made himself a national hero. Shakespeare has him say:—
“I thought upon one pair of English
Did march three Frenchmen.”
In the reign of Henry VI. (1422-1461), Joan of Arc appeared and saved France.
The setting aside of the direct succession in the case of Henry IV. was a pretext for the Wars of the Roses (1455-1485) to settle the royal claims of different descendants of Edward III. While this war did not greatly disturb the common people, it occupied the attention of those who might have been patrons of literature. Nearly all the nobles were killed during this prolonged contest; hence when Henry VII. (1485-1509), the first of the Tudor line of monarchs, came to the throne, there were no powerful nobles with their retainers to hold the king in check. He gave a strong centralized government to England.
The period following Chaucer’s death opens with religious persecution. In 1401 the first Englishman was burned at the stake for his religious faith. From this time the expenses of burning heretics are sometimes found in the regular accounts of cities and boroughs. Henry VIII. (1509-1547) broke with the Pope, dissolved the monasteries, proclaimed himself head of the church, and allowed the laity to read the Bible, but insisted on retaining many of the old beliefs. In Germany, Martin Luther (1483-1546) was in the same age issuing his famous protests against religious abuses. Edward VI. (1547-1553) espoused the Protestant cause. An order was given to introduce into all the churches an English prayer book, which was not very different from that in use to-day in the Episcopal churches. Mary (1553-1558) sought the aid of fagots and the stake to bring the nation back to the old beliefs.