William Dyce. Henry VI at Towton, late 1850s.

Oil on board, 14.5 x 20 inches. The Guildhall Art Gallery, London.

In 1461, between the towns of Towton and Exton in Yorkshire, the Lancastrian forces under Henry VI lost a crucial battle in the War of the Roses to the Yorkists. In Act II, Scene v, of Henry VI, Part 3, Henry leaves the field and meditates on the burdens of kingship:

Here on this molehill will I sit me down.
To whom God will, there be the victory!
For Margaret my queen, and Clifford too,
Have chid me from the battle; swearing both
They prosper best of all when I am thence.
Would I were dead! if God's good will were so;
For what is in this world but grief and woe?
O God! methinks it were a happy life,
To be no better than a homely swain;
To sit upon a hill, as I do now,
To carve out dials quaintly, point by point,
Thereby to see the minutes how they run,
How many make the hour full complete;
How many hours bring about the day;
How many days will finish up the year;
How many years a mortal man may live.
When this is known, then to divide the times:
So many hours must I tend my flock;
So many hours must I take my rest;
So many hours must I contemplate;
So many hours must I sport myself;
So many days my ewes have been with young;
So many weeks ere the poor fools will ean:
So many years ere I shall shear the fleece:
So minutes, hours, days, months, and years,
Pass'd over to the end they were created,
Would bring white hairs unto a quiet grave.
Ah, what a life were this! how sweet! how lovely!
Gives not the hawthorn-bush a sweeter shade
To shepherds looking on their silly sheep,
Than doth a rich embroider'd canopy
To kings that fear their subjects' treachery?
O, yes, it doth; a thousand-fold it doth.
And to conclude, the shepherd's homely curds,
His cold thin drink out of his leather bottle.
His wonted sleep under a fresh tree's shade,
All which secure and sweetly he enjoys,
Is far beyond a prince's delicates,
His viands sparkling in a golden cup,
His body couched in a curious bed,
When care, mistrust, and treason waits on him.

One question arises about Dyce's interpretation here in what is known as the "molehill scene." Henry is sitting on the ground while he soliloquizes on how uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, but Dyce shows us Henry apparently just arriving at the molehill. The text gives us no clue about the book Henry carries, but given the King's religious inclinations, it must surely be his prayerbook.

Following the soliloquy on the molehill is the scene were a son carries in his father whom he has slain, and then a father enters with the son he has killed. This scene, ritualistic and formal in its structure, is emblematic of the internecine killings of the War of the Roses, where families where pitted one against another in civil war.