The events of the play take place at the very beginning of the 15th Century. In the wake of the Black Death, a new world view was beginning to form in Europe. The grip of divine structure in life and politics was beginning to ebb, and practical humanism was taking hold: a trend which would eventually lead Europe into the Renaissance.
King Richard II was a weak ruler. Many of his political decisions were unpopular with the most powerful families in England, and he became entangled in an unpopular war overseas (hmm...). His grandfather, Edward III had many sons, the result of which meant there were many nobles who were of royal blood. Richard exiled his popular cousin, Henry Bolingbroke and confiscated the family’s lands. This injustice left other families worried about who might next receive such treatment from the king.
Henry returned from his exile in France and was warmly welcomed. People saw more promise in him as a leader than in Richard. Henry acted upon this popular support and deposed Richard, and later had him killed. He assumed the throne as King Henry IV. These events are depicted by Shakespeare in his play Richard II.
Before his death, Richard had no heirs, however he named another member of the family, Edmund Moritmer, Earl of March to be his successor. As Henry took the crown, Mortimer was pushed aside. Many of the nobles who helped Henry to the crown discovered he was not the ruler they hoped he would be, and discontent rumbled through the kingdom.
This is the world of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, part one. The recently crowned King Henry faces rebellions and uprisings and seeks to enforce authority and gain legitimacy for his reign. Rebels, seeing him as a usurper and opportunist look to remove him from the throne and place Mortimer in his stead. Shakespeare echoes this quest for legitimacy in his depiction of Henry’s son Hal, who must abandon his dissolute ways to assume legitimacy and win respect as the Prince of Wales.
This was an age when political disputes culminated with politicians donning armor and taking up swords against their adversaries. While King Henry and his sons emerge victorious at the battle of Shrewsbury, their troubles are far from over. Rebel leaders Glendower, Northumberland, and the Archbishop of York remain prepared to take arms against the King, setting the stage for Henry IV, part two.