Henry A. Payne. Choosing the Red and White Roses.

Pen and watercolor, gouache, gold-leaf and oil, approximately 20 x 22 inches. City Museums and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England.

This confrontation in the Temple Garden occurs in 1 Henry VI, Act II, scene iv, and symbolically recreates the origins of the Wars of the Roses. Richard Plantagenet (the figure on the left) who will eventually become the Duke of York plucks a white rose, the emblem of the Yorks, and his adversary, John Beaufort, Duke of Somerset (the figure on the right), picks a red rose, the badge of the Lancastrians. Their followers then choose sides by plucking a red or white rose.

Shakespeare's histories form a single narrative, and we must look for the roots of this scene in the Temple Garden in Richard II when Bolingbroke threatens the reign of Richard with rebellion and usurpation. Speaking to Northumberland, Richard says in Act III, scene iii:

Yet know, my master, God omnipotent,
Is mustering in his clouds on our behalf
Armies of pestilence; and they shall strike
Your children yet unborn and unbegot,
That lift your vassal hands against my head
And threat the glory of my precious crown.
Tell Bolingbroke--for yond methinks he stands--
That every stride he makes upon my land
Is dangerous treason: he is come to open
The purple testament of bleeding war;
But ere the crown he looks for live in peace,
Ten thousand bloody crowns of mothers' sons
Shall ill become the flower of England's face,
Change the complexion of her maid-pale peace
To scarlet indignation and bedew
Her pastures' grass with faithful English blood.

The time foretold by Richard II is coming, and Warwick warns in Henry VI:

And here I prophesy: this brawl to-day
Grown to this faction in the Temple garden
Shall send, between the red rose and the white,
A thousand souls to death and deadly night.

The full import of the red and white roses becomes apparent in Act IV, scene i, when Henry attempts to reconcile Richard and Somerset and dismisses the symbolic significance of the roses.

Let me be umpire in this doubtful strife.
I see no reason, if I wear this rose,
[Puts on a red rose.]
That any one should therefore be suspicious
I more incline to Somerset than York.
Both are my kinsman, and I love them both.

Richard is immediately suspicious and says, "I like it not, / In that he wears the badge of Somerset." Warwick tells Richard to pay no heed, that Henry "thought no harm." Richard, unpacified, answers ominously, "An if I wist he did--But let it rest." The factions will not, however, let it rest, and Henry's random choice of the red rose will result in the end of his reign and the ultimate ascendancy of Richard III, the most evil of Shakespeare's monarchs.