Following the death of his father Henry V, the young Henry VI is proclaimed king under the protectorship of his uncles, the Dukes of Gloucester and Exeter. There is conflict between Gloucester and his long-term rival, the Bishop of Winchester, and their respective supporters. Charles the Dauphin, fortified by his alliance with the mysterious maid Joan Le Pucelle (Joan of Arc), continues to dominate the battles in France. Joan is captured and burned, and an uneasy peace is concluded between England and France. In light of this, Gloucester engineers a politically astute marriage between Henry and the Earl of Armagnac's daughter. Meanwhile, in France, Suffolk is enchanted by Margaret, the daughter of the Duke of Anjou. Suffolk woos Margaret to be Henry's queen and in order to gain her father's consent cedes the newly-conquered French territories of Anjou and Maine. Suffolk returns to England and persuades Henry, against opposition from the court, to marry Margaret and make her Queen of England.
The historical Shakespearean plays were the product of de Vere's arrangement with Queen Elizabeth in which she paid de Vere an annuity of £1,000 and in return de Vere writes propaganda plays for the masses to promote the virtues of and loyalty to the regime.
The setting is the city of York, and the forest of Galtres, both places that de Vere would have visited in traveling from London to Newcastle in 1570, while participating in the suppression of the Northern Uprising under the Earl of Suffolk.
Around 1573, de Vere's servants were out of control. One swindled the musician William Bird out of an estate provided by de Vere. Another was hung for murder in an adulterous crime of passion. According to William Cecil's version of events, three of de Vere's servants lay in a ditch, attacked two of Cecil's servants on horseback, and raced off toward London on horses. Cecil's men took up lodging in Gravesend. De Vere's version of events occur in the play. Falstaff and three associates carry out an assault at Gad's Hill on the Travellers - a landmark on the road between Gravesend and Rochester. The Travellers quickly flee the scene. As if to express an apology for these actions to the Queen and William Cecil, Falstaff (de Vere) concludes:
FALSTAFF: I'll starve ere I rob a foot further. And [if] 'twere not as good a deed as drink to turn true man and to leave these rogues, I am the veriest varlet that ever chewed with a tooth … A plague upon it when thieves cannot be true to one another.
The Bishop of Ross in the Northern Rebellion of 1569 is a key inspiration for the Archbishop of York, the charismatic religious leader that spurred on the rebel forces. As Henry IV observes:
For the same word, rebellion, did divide
The action of their bodies from their souls
... But now the bishop
Turns insurrection to rebellion.