Uneasy Made Easy: A Historical Prequel to Shakespeare’s HENRY IV

Matthew S. Sciarappa

Matthew deep in study

by Matthew S. Sciarappa

It’s no wonder why we hear King Henry conclude, “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” in Act III, scene 1 of Henry IV part 2. Handling the monumental pressures of both running a nation and ensuring a lineage doesn’t exactly sound like pie. In Smith Street Stage’s upcoming production of Henry IV we will see King Henry grappling with his uneasiness and sporting that very heavy crown.

However, he was not the first man taxed with such a tremendous task. England has a rich and intricate history leading up to Henry IV that (let’s face it) can make us feel “uneasy” ourselves in figuring it out.

But let’s say that you’re auditioning for Henry IV sometime soon; or you’re at an intellectual cocktail party with friends; or you’re an impressive Shakespeare buff, but you don’t quite know what happens before the time of this play, when suddenly you’re asked, “How did Henry IV get to be Henry IV?”

Well, ladies and gentlemen, to help you answer this question I’ve compiled a brief history highlighting the key players and events that you should know.


  • Edward II

Edward II began his rule in 1308. No one in England at the time really seemed to like him, as he played favorites with particular nobles in court and continuously failed in war against Scotland.

Eventually, Edward II’s wife, Isabella of France, teamed up with her lover, Roger Mortimer, and launched a revolt against her husband. In said revolt, Edward II’s own forces abandoned him. Really, he was not a popular guy.

Edward II relinquished his crown to his fourteen-year-old son, Edward III, in 1327 and later was probably murdered—we don’t know that for a fact, but the dude rather quickly wound up dead.

  • Edward III

Edward III was only a bit more popular than his dad, but he was pretty stoked to be the new king. So much so, that at age seventeen he decided to throw a coup against Roger Mortimer (previously mentioned) who was ruling de facto at the time.

Edward III continued the fight against Scotland, which was a major struggle, but he managed to gain a decent victory in the Battle of Halidon Hill.

Edward III soon had the brilliant idea that since his mommy Isabella was French, he could be the king of both France and England. France obviously said “heck no” (I may be paraphrasing) and this whole ordeal led to a little quarrel between the nations known as The Hundred Years’ War…smooth move Eddie…

Edward III had four sons, and we only really care about three of them because the last one was eventually beheaded for treason. The three sons we care about are as follows: Edward the Black Prince, Lionel Duke of Clarence, and John of Gaunt the Duke of Lancaster.

FUN FACT: the middle son, Lionel, will eventually produce a lineage leading to Richard III, but that’s a whole other story/Shakespeare play we can save for another time. We’re going to ignore Lionel right now. Nothing personal.

  • Edward the Black Prince

Edward III’s eldest son, Edward the Black Prince, did not get to be king. After living a life of impressive military success, he took ill. His stubborn father, our Edward III, outlived him. When Edward III eventually died (illness as well in 1377) the crown was passed to his ten-year-old grandson, Richard II. Remember Richard II. We’ll come back to him in a moment.

  • John of Gaunt

Edward III’s other son, John of Gaunt, had some unpopularity problems just like his dad (are we noticing a theme here?). John of Gaunt’s unpopularity stemmed from his lack of familial grounding. England wasn’t sold on his parentage; there were rumors at the time that he was a mere butcher’s son. This was in part because Edward III was not actually present for his birth.

However, John of Gaunt was a decently successful military commander, and for a while was essentially running England’s government. This was due to Edward III’s/Edward the Black Prince’s illnesses and deaths. John of Gaunt travelled to different countries, crusaded against enemies, and even buddied up with famous writer Geoffrey Chaucer.

John of Gaunt had two wives in his lifetime, Blanche of Lancaster and Catherine Swynford.

FUN FACT: Catherine Swynford came later, and also had something to do with the lineage leading up to Richard III, but we’ll again forgo traveling down that path.

  • Blanche of Lancaster

There isn’t much recorded history about Blanche of Lancaster, but she and John of Gaunt seemed to have gotten along rather well. By all accounts, she was attractive, wealthy, and faithful to her husband. She and John of Gaunt had seven children, three of which survived infancy, and one of which was Henry of Bollingbroke (I repeat, HENRY of Bollingbroke… SPOILERS: He becomes our King HENRY IV).

OKAY! Let’s Check in

So here’s where we are now: it’s 1378, all the previously mentioned Edwards are dead, John of Gaunt is still alive/running England, ten-year-old Richard II (remember him?) is presently king, and ten-year-old Henry of Bollingbroke is his cousin.


  • Richard II

Richard II, though starting out at age ten, didn’t do half bad as a king. He successfully suppressed the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381 with help from advisors, and in 1389 he claimed full control of his position as king, leading to a relatively peaceful eight years in England.

  • Thomas de Mowbray

One day in 1398, some gossipy duke we don’t like named Thomas de Mowbray decided that Richard II’s cousin, Henry of Bollingbroke, said something treasonous against the kingdom. Henry of Bollingbroke denied this, and suddenly their dispute became a big deal.

Neither Thomas de Mowbray nor Henry of Bollingbroke would surrender in their battle of hearsay, so Richard II decided that the two dukes should duke it out in a duel. On the day of said duel, Richard II was feeling temperamental, and instead of letting one of these men kill the other, he chose to banish Henry of Bollingbroke for a time, and exile Thomas de Mowbray for life.

  • Henry of Bollingbroke

Henry of Bollingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt, passed away one year after the banishment. Richard II got a little greedy and decided that since Henry of Bollingbroke was presently banished, he was not entitled to his inheritance.

Henry of Bollingbroke was not very happy about this, so in 1399, while Richard II was away in Ireland, he chose to invade England to reclaim his inheritance. He had such a large following, however, that it soon became clear: Henry of Bollingbroke could overthrow Richard II and become king of England. So obviously he did, and in the same year he crowned himself our very own King Henry IV.

And thus, ladies and gentlemen, we begin at Shakespeare’s Henry IV part one. I hope you’ve enjoyed this whirlwind history lesson!

Matthew S. Sciarappa

Sometimes all this history can be overwhelming.

–Matthew Sciarappa, SSS Assistant