What he wrote—and what really happened
The plays usually considered Shakespeare's "histories" include only the British histories.
The Roman and other historically based plays, like Julius Caesar or Anthony and Cleopatra, are generally considered tragedies.
A few others that deal with very early, quasi-mythical British history, like King Lear, Macbeth and Cymbeline, are also classed as tragedies or comedies, rather than as histories.
The source of most of the material Shakespeare dramatizes in the British historical plays is thought to be Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, often called just Holinshed's Chronicles. It was published in 1577 and expanded in a later second edition, which Shakespeare likely studied at school.
This source material, however, was not always accurate by our later standards. Moreover, when dealing in his plays with recent royal figures—such as Queen Elizabeth's predecessors—Shakespeare adopted the Tudor perspective which was in favour at the time.
Here's a comparison of the known historical events and the same events as depicted by Shakespeare's plays, in order of the historical events.
What really happened: John, youngest son of Henry II and known as John Lackland, had become king in 1199. He had his nephew Arthur killed in 1203, fought with Philip II of France in 1204–1205 over the Aquitaine, quarrelled with the Church 1206–1213. He died of dysentery in 1216 while fighting the barons. Historically John is best known for having been forced to sign the Magna Carta in 1215, transferring some of his power to the barons and founding individual freedoms under a constitutional monarchy.
Play written: 1594–1597
• Shakespeare condenses the time period, adds a confusion over Arthur's death, and conflates the battles with the Church and the battles with the barons.
• Incidentally John is also the villanous monarch in the Robin Hood stories as the usurper of his brother King Richard's throne. All the sons of Henry II are also portrayed as schemers in James Goldman's play (adapted to films) The Lion in Winter.
What really happened: Richard had become king in 1377 at age 10. He had Gloucester murdered in 1397 and banished Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV) in 1398. John of Gaunt died in 1399. Bolingbroke deposed Richard in 1399 and Richard died of starvation in 1400. He may have been insane in his latter years.
Play written: 1592–1596
• This is first of Shakespeare's tetralogy of plays written in order (followed by the two Henry IVs and Henry V), dealing with early 15th-century British history.
• Shakespeare obviously sides with Bolingbroke. Although he makes him responsible for Richard's death, he also has him repent.
• When the play was produced, Queen Elizabeth thought she might be identified with Richard and had the deposition scene struck from the play. When Essex rebelled against her, he is supposed to have bribed Shakespeare's company to put the scene back in.
Henry IV, Part 1
What really happened: Henry IV had become king in 1399 after replacing Richard II. His son, Prince Hal, had been close to Richard III. As heir apparent, Hal took part in government and battle on the king's side but differed with his father over the king's policies. Glendower started a Welsh rebellion in 1401 and allied with Henry Percy Hotspur. In 1403 Hal joined his father in battle against Hotspur at Shrewsbury, where Hostpur was defeated and slain and where Hal was seriously wounded.
Play written: 1596–1597
• Shakespeare exaggerates the wildness of Prince Hal's youth and changes the time sequence.
• Falstaff, as well as the other thieves and layabouts with whom Hal carouses in the play, appear to be largely invented characters.
• Shakespeare also makes the Shrewsbury battle more dramatic by arranging direct confrontations between the leaders, culminating in Prince Hal personally killing Hotspur.
Henry IV, Part 2
What really happened: Northumberland (the Percy family) continued to fight until finally defeated in 1408. Glendower and other rebels carried on spasmodically to the end of Henry IV's reign. Henry died in 1413.
Play written: 1596–1598
• Again Shakespeare drastically compresses time.
• There was likely no sudden change of heart by the prince nor deathbed acceptance of his son by the king, as the prince had been involved in fighting rebels on his father's behalf and holding civic positions since 1402.
What really happened: Henry V had become king in 1413. He invaded France in 1415 and won the battle of Agincourt. The peace treaty was signed and Henry married Katherine in 1420.
Play written: 1594–1597
• The play is relatively faithful to history, although all the subplots of Henry's eve-of-battle rambles, the glove-in-the-hat episodes, and the exploits of Falstaff's successors in roguery—Pistol and Bardolph—are undoubtedly fictional.
Henry VI, Part 1
What really happened: Henry V died in 1422 and Henry VI succeeded at the age of one. Joan of Arc helped capture Orleans For France in 1429. She was captured and executed in 1431. Henry was crowned king of France in 1431 at age 10 and married Margaret of Anjou in 1445.
Play written: 1591–1592
• This starts another tetralogy dealing with British history, written earlier but taken from a later historical period. Scholars are undecided whether Shakespeare wrote only a few scenes in this play, especially the apocryphal origins of the War of the Roses in a garden debate, or wrote it all.
• Henry VI's age is increased to make him part of the intrigue. Years, even decades, between actual events are wiped out.
• Joan of Arc is a loose-living witch in this British play, rather than the heroic, sainted virgin of French legend.
Henry VI, Part 2
What really happened: Gloucester was Protector or Regent off and on until 1437 while the king was a youth. Gloucester's wife was exiled for witchcraft in 1446. He was charged with treason in 1447 but died of natural causes. Cardinal Beaufort also died in 1447. John Cade led the London rebellion in 1450 and died of wounds afterwards. York seized power as Protector in 1454. He won the first battle of the War of the Roses at St. Albans in 1455.
Play written: 1590–159
• The play compresses the timeline, mixes up historical events and hypothesizes events—such as the supposed murder of Gloucester—with little evidence.
• However, these inaccuracies, like many of those in Shakespeare's plays, may have been based on the chronicles available at the time, rather than been created by the playwright.
Henry VI, Part 3
What really happened: York is killed in battle in 1460. The battle of Towton was fought in 1461 and led to the royal family fleeing to Scotland and York's eldest son, Edward, being crowned. Henry returned to fight in 1464 but was captured. He was restored to the throne in 1470 but lost it to Edward IV again the next year at the battle of Tewkesbury. He was murdered in the Tower in 1471.
Play written: 1590–1592
The third Henry VI play is thought more likely to have been written by Shakespeare. Once more the events are compressed into a much shorter period, and principals are shown committing acts personally that would have have been carried out through intermediaries. But the events do more or less follow historical order.
What really happened: Edward IV had replaced Henry VI as king but Edward's brother Clarence was charged with plotting his death and was killed (rumoured by drowning in wine) in 1478. When Edward died in 1483 from natural causes, his son succeeded as king. But Edward's youngest brother Richard took the throne and imprisoned Edward's two sons who later disappeared. He put down a rebellion by Buckingham the same year and had him executed. He was killed in the battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 by the forces of the Earl of Richmond, Henry Tudor, who was crowned as Henry VII and married Edward IV's daughter to end the War of the Roses.
Play written: 1592–1596
• The most controversial of Shakespeare's histories, Richard III follows the practice of the Tudors—of which Queen Elizabeth I was the latest representative—of vilifying the Plantagenets. Richard was depicted as an evil hunchback who pitted his brothers against each other, seized power illegally and had his nephews murdered.
• Historians have argued about how much of that picture is true. The Plantagenet Society has long argued that Richard was not the monster depicted in this play. Recent discoveries indicate he did have a twisted spine but it is unknown whether he had Edward's sons killed.
• One point is certain though, Richard was not slain in battle personally by Richmond (the future Henry VII), as depicted in the play..
What really happened: Henry VIII had succeeded his father Henry VII in 1509. After failing to win a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, his elder brother's widow, he married Anne Boleyn in defiance of the Roman Catholic church in 1533. Cardinal Wolsey was arrested and died in 1530. Elizabeth (to be Elizabeth II) was born in 1533. Catherine died in 1536. Boleyn was beheaded the same year.
Play written: 1612–1613
• Shakespeare was brought out of retirement to collaborate on this drama with his successor John Fletcher. Its original title was All Is True. It isn't. The events did happen, though not in the order depicted.
• More importantly, motivations have been warped to turn the rapacious Henry VIII, Elizabeth's father, into a conscience-stricken and noble monarch.
• And what's been left out! How about the fact that Boleyn was soon executed.
• Worse, it's a boring play. A political apology wrapped in spectacle.