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Richard, Duke of York is Henry VI's biggest opponent. Why? Well, once upon a time, it was decided that the English throne would pass down from father to son to son to son… you get the idea. This worked out great until Richard II came along and didn't have any kids. The rule was that if this happened, the throne should have passed to Richard's oldest brother, and then to that brother's kids.
If things had actually gone down that way (they didn't), York would have eventually become king, since he was descended from Richard II's oldest bro. Sure, Henry VI is the son of the past king—Henry V, who was the son of Henry IV—but Henry IV (Henry VI's grandpa) pretty much stole the throne from Richard II. If everything had gone along naturally, Henry VI never would have become king. York would have.
Phew. We got through that.
York might have the best claim to the throne, but don't think that means he rushes in to take it. He wages war with Henry slowly but surely, in stages. Let's break it down.
Step 1: He convinces other nobles to join his team. Once Warwick and Salisbury are on board, York knows he'll be able to call for backup when he lowers the bomb on Henry.
Step 2: He hires a nobody, Jack Cade, to do his dirty work and lay the groundwork for his campaign. Bonus: Cade knocks out a few nobles along the way and weakens Henry's forces.
Step 3: He decides to assemble an army. He heads off to Ireland on the king's command, and sure, he'll help the king out... but in exchange, he'll need an army. Wink, wink. Naturally, Henry gives him all kinds of guys and weapons to use.
Step 4: He lowers the bomb. By the time he gets around to telling Henry that he's taking the kingdom, Henry is weakened and shocked. York has support from nobles, an army ready to kick butt, and a much stronger resolve.
York's slow and steady attack mode wins the race. He may not technically have the crown at the end of the play, but that seems like a minor detail to him. He's already defeated Henry once, and he can do it again—or so he thinks. The two pick up their battle again in Henry VI, Part 3.
We can see that York is calculating, smart, and strong. Hmm… something tells us those qualities would make for a better king—in this particular context, at least—than Henry. But does that make it right for him to take the crown? Shakespeare never comes down either way on this one. He leaves that for us to deliberate, so it's up to you, Shmoopsters.