A Little History
In Henry V, Shakespeare portrays Henry as a pious, principled man who courageously and against all odds unites England and leads it into a noble and victorious war. As usual, Shakespeare is adjusting history to his own dramatic purposes. We'll look at the play itself later, but for now, to set the record straight and make all of the events of the play clearer, here's a bit of historical background.
If you have ever read 1 Henry IV or 2 Henry IV, you have met Henry V, who appears as Hal in those plays. He was the son of Henry IV, who had overthrown Richard II to take the crown of England. Hal was almost completely a fabrication of Shakespeare's imagination. The Hal you see in those plays is a high-spirited drinker and womanizer whose friends are the witty and uproarious lowlifes of London. He has almost no interest in, or training for, the Crown.
In real life, young Henry was born to Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford, and Mary Bohun in 1387. He was the oldest of their 7 children. Like many children of noble birth, he did not live with his parents but was raised and trained for noble service in another home; Henry was probably brought up partly by his uncle, Henry Beaufort, to whom he was deeply attached. He also lived under the care of his father's cousin, King Richard II, after Richard had his father banished for plotting to seize his throne.
From a young age, Henry was first and foremost a soldier. At the age of 12, he fought with Richard II in Ireland; he later went on expeditions to Shrewsbury and Wales. He was an accomplished soldier and fighter by the time he was 15. Richard II knighted him in 1399, when he was 12, and after his father usurped the throne in that same year, he became Prince of Wales.
After his father became King, he was not the wastrel Hal painted by Shakespeare: certainly, he was capable of drinking, gambling, and womanizing, but in additon he worked actively on the Privy Council, which played an important role in conducting the business of government and diplomacy, and which advised the King. He and his friends dominated the council from 1411-12, in fact,and this led to conflicts with his father. He and his friends even plotted to depose the King, so that Henry could take over the throne immediately, but the King discovered the plot and dismissed Henry from the council.
As King Henry IV's health declined, his son is, according to legend, supposed to have gone to him on his deathbed to beg his forgiveness. Actually, he burst into the room with a dagger and a group of friends and demanded that his father restore his power. Henry IV, too sick to resist, agreed. And Henry became King Henry V shortly after, when his father died in 1413.
He was 25 when he inherited the throne. He was crowned on Sunday, April 9, 1413, in a snowstorm. He appeared solemn, and ate almost nothing at the banquet. His habits appear to have changed from that day: he became much more pious, swore an oath of chastity, and gave up most of his old friends.
Some of his biographers believe his father's misdeeds, and his own sudden awareness at the seriousness of his position, accounted for his many public acts of piety and charity, such as the reconstruction of Westminster Abbey. Others believe he was pious, but also an egotistical master of public relations, who had the Abbey remodeled as a monument to himself. As with all historical figures, biographers are in disagreement. Christopher Allmand (Henry V) portrays Henry as a brilliant, masterful, admirable king, while Desmond Seward (Henry V as Warlord) sees him as a greedy, brutal war criminal.
In any case, whatever his motives, Henry V was more popular with the people than his father had been. His first test came with the Lollards, a group of religious dissenters who openly and defiantly challenged the doctrines--and thus the authority--of the Church. One of their leaders was Sir John Oldcastle, who had been one of the Henry's closest friends before he was King. Oldcastle was called to account for himself before the King and the bishops, but refused to recant his beliefs. He was sent to the Tower and was given 40 days to rethink his position. If he refused, he would be executed.
But before his sentence could be carried out, he escaped. The Lollards, by now some 20,000 strong and armed, plotted to overthrow the King. Their plot was discovered, and Henry took steps to thwart it, seizing and executing hundreds of Lollards. Sir John Oldcastle was not captured; he remained at large for 4 more years, making trouble for Henry. He was finally captured in December 1417 and executed.
Henry then took up the problem of France. The Hundred Years' War was still going on, and although there was not full-scale war, there were still battles and raids constantly. Henry appears to have genuinely believed that he was the rightful heir to the French crown--at the least, it was to his advantage to believe it, as it gave him a justification for attempting to conquer France.
It was a favorable time to attack: the King of France, who is protrayed as a temperate and wise ruler in the play, was in actuality unable to function due to insanity. Two factions, Charles of Orleans and the Armagnacs on one side, and the Duke of Burgundy on the other, were battling over power, thus spending their thought, energy, and resources on defeating each other rather than on defending themselves from attack by England. In addition, Henry needed to restore his reputation after the Lollard rebellion; and he needed to do something with all of the soldiers who were getting into trouble, roaming the countryside with no war to fight.
As a first step in justifying war, Henry sent his uncle, Thomas Beaufort, to the French court with an outrageous list of demands. He knew they would not--could not--be met, and he intended to use the French failure to comply as an excuse to start the war. The French offered a compromise, but Henry had instructed Beaufort to refuse, and he did. Henry had his "provocation."
He mobilized a vast army over the next few months. The French, alarmed, sent ambassadors to try to negotiate, but Henry refused their offers. He was set on war.
He was delayed briefly by a plot against him. The Earl of Cambridge, his younger brother, the Duke of York, and one of Henry's closest friends, Lord Scrope of Masham, were plotting to kill Henry and his brothers and replace him as King with the Earl of March, Richard II's rightful heir. When confronted by Henry, the three confessed and were beheaded.
Henry was then free to leave England and head for France. His objective was to get his army to the mouth of the Seine River, which was less than 100 miles from Paris. He would get the northernmost part of France under his control, and then move on to Paris. His first obstacle was Harfleur (see map below).
The castle at Harfleur was immense and thought to be impregnable--by everyone but Henry. He could not breach the walls, so he laid seige to the castle. The seige lasted 5 weeks, until the food in the town began to run out. Then the commander of the garrison surrendered. Its most prominent citizens were captured and held for ransom, as was common in those days. The rest of the citizens who agreed to swear alliegance to England were allowed to remain. Those who refused were driven from the city.
Harfleur had been won, but it had cost the English a great deal. They had camped in the only available space outside the city, a swamp, and the heat, the flies, the rapidly rotting food supply, and dysentery took their toll. About 2,000 men died; another 5,000 were so ill they had to be sent home. Those who were left were weakened and exhausted. Henry had left only 900 armed men and 5,000 archers. But he decided to march on to Calais anyway.
They marched for thirteen days, circling and sidetracking to avoid the French army. By then, the men, who had set out from Harfleur already ill, were exhausted and fragile. It was then that they encountered the French army.
On October 24, two armies came face to face and began to prepare for battle. The battle lines were drawn between the two villages of Tramecourt and Agincourt (today called "Azincourt"). As Henry surveyed the situation, he seems to have realized for the first time the weakness of his position. Henry was outnumbered by five or six to one. The French army was well-rested, while his men were on the point of collapse. Henry made a decision: he sent emissaries to ask for peace. He offered to restore Harfleur and pay compensation for French damages, in return for safe passage to Calais (from which port they could embark for England).
Shakespeare leaves this event out of the play; it isn't consistent with his presentation of a Henry who never doubts that his plans are right.
The French never responded to his emissaries, and the plans for the battle went on. During the night of October 24, the rain poured down, and none of the English soldiers could have gotten much sleep--the majority of them were lying in the open. Most of them commended their souls to God, believing they would die the next day.
The battle commenced on the morning of October 25, 1415. It was over by midafternoon, and, much to their amazement, the English had won. The French losses were huge--over 20,000 men, along with large numbers of noblemen (although not the Dauphin)--while the English losses were comparatively small--1600 at most (not 25, as Shakespeare says).
The English attributed their victory to God, but on more practical terms, the French lost mainly because of the rain. That rain which had made the English so miserable the night before had softened the plowed field in which the two armies met. The French chose to put their knights, in full, heavy armor on large horses, in front of the charge. Most of them simply sank in the mud, making it impossible for the rest of the army to advance. The English soldiers, mostly unarmored and on foot, simply slaughtered them and climbed over them to face the rest of the army. In addition, the French still depended on longbows, which were heavy and slow, while the English army was using crossbows, which were a much more efficient tool. Most important, the English army was united under a single commander; the French command was split, with no group willing to cede full control to any other group.
The most controversial aspect of the battle was Henry's order to kill all the prisoners. Only the most high-ranking, for which ransom could be demanded, were to be spared. This order was contrary to all traditions of medieval warfare, and has never been fully explained. Some historians justify it on the grounds that Henry feared a renewed attack on the part of the cavalry; in the play, Shakespeare attributes it both to this and to the French slaughter of the boys guarding the tents. But there really is no satisfactory explanation. In any case, many of his soldiers refused to carry out the orders, even after he had threatened to hang all of those who refused. Finally he was forced to assign the task to 200 of his archers.
The play shows Henry returning to London in triumph and negotiating a peace with France whereby he marries the French princess, Katherine, and accepts the French crown. Henry did return to London in triumph, but for dramatic effect, Shakespeare has telescoped several events and omitted other. Henry did not marry Katherine until five years later, after several other battles, and he never did become the French king.
Despite Henry's victory at Agincourt, the French were not, outside of Shakespeare's play, conquered. Henry had won a battle, but not the war. The English still held only portions of France, and Henry decided to make another expedition, this time to gain Paris and the crown. The ships sailed in August 1417. Caen fell in two weeks, and Henry ordered the massacre of the entire male population. The neighboring towns then surrendered quickly, and all went smoothly until they reached Rouen. Rouen's huge castle was well-provisioned, and the defenders of the city had devastated the fields around the city so that the English could get nothing of use from them. They even welcomed thousands of refugees into the city who had fled before Henry's army.
Henry did not try to attack Rouen. He simply surrounded it and settled down to wait. The siege began in July 1418 and lasted nearly 6 months. Rouen finally surrendered in January 1419.
A truce was declared, and Henry now met with the Queen and the representative of the Dauphin. Although they could not come to terms, the negotiations had begun. At this time, Henry met Princess Katherine, whom he appears to have genuinely liked. Marriage to her began to seem like more than just a diplomatic move.
The truce ended, the battles went on, and finally (due in large part to the feuding between the different factions in France), he prevailed. In 1420, France reached an agreement with England, whereby Henry was appointed Regent of France. Upon the King's death, the French throne would come to Henry and be passed on to his heirs. The two crowns would remain separate, and the two countries would retain their own laws and customs. Henry would marry Katherine. The treaty was signed, and Henry and Katherine were married in the parish church of St. Joan in Troyes on June 2, 1420. Katherine was crowned the British Queen on February 23, 1421.
But the war was not over yet. The Dauphin, furious at being deprived of his crown, assembled his army and fought back. Henry's brother Thomas, Duke of Clarence, was killed in Beauge in a confrontation with Dauphinist troops in March 1421. Henry set sail again for France and took control of the situation, with brutality. He ordered that the castle of Rougemont be burned after its capture, and hanged every member of its garrison. His capture of Meaux was equally merciless.
But Henry was by now seriously ill, probably of dysentery. It became clear that he was dying, and Queen Katherine came to join him in France. She left at home in England his five-month-old son Henry, whom he had never seen. He died in Vincennes on August 31, 1421, at the age of 34.
Henry didn't live long enough to inherit the French crown. King Charles died 6 weeks later. The throne of France and the throne of England then both belonged to Henry's 7-month-old son, now King Henry VI.
Three years after Henry's death, Queen Katherine married her bodyguard, Owen Tudor; they had a son, Edmund. Edmund had a son named Henry Tudor, who became the Earl of Richmond and overthrew Richard III to take the throne of England.
Themes and Ideas in Henry V
Shakespeare's intentions in writing Henry V have been much debated. Was his intent to show Henry as a hero, or to undercut his heroism? To celebrate England's greatness or show its abuse of power? The play also, John Norwich points out, raises "the age-old moral conflict about the justification for aggressive war..." (217. And Park Honan believes that the play "...suggests the author's deep uneasiness with political heroism and with a nation's barbarity in war" (222).
The play seems filled with contradictory messages:
- Henry fights valiantly, but for a crown to which he has no right. William Hazlitt, an 18th century critic, said of Henry V, "He was a hero, that is, he was ready to sacrifice his own life for the pleasure of destroying thousands of other lives...How then do we like him? We like him in the play. There he is a very amiable monster, a splendid pageant..." (qtd. in Bloom 320).
- Henry has noble motives, but shows himself to be easily manipulated by others (such as the Bishops) whose motives are less pure.
- Henry leads his men to a victory against all odds, by sheer force of will, but then he orders them to commit an atrocity in killing the French prisoners.
- He takes the trouble to woo Katherine, but fills his wooing, not with romance, but with sexual innuendo and double entendres.
- He creates a glorious moment in English history, but Shakespeare's audience knew what a short time that glory lasted, and how much it cost England in later years.
- Henry is pious and moral, but he coldly renounces his old friends when they need him. William Butler Yeats wrote of him, "[Henry V] is as remorseless and undistinguished as some natural force, and the finest thing in his play is the way his old companions fall out of it broken-hearted or on their way to the gallows" (qtd.in Bloom 319).
- The play glorifies war, using a character who was already a national hero, but plenty of characters (especially Williams) undercut or show skepticism of Henry's purposes.
- The Chorus, especially, seems to make it impossible to pin down a point of view about the play. Stanley Wells argues that the effect of the Chorus is "to glorify the subject matter of this particular play, to confer epic grandeur on the familiar story..." (152). Park Honan sees its function differently: "...the Chorus might have wandered in from another play. It describes wrong settings, contradicts the stage-action, or sends Henry off to Harfleur from two different ports. It refers to honour 'in the breast of every man' just before we see the Eastcheap rogues. On the eve of Agincourt, it speaks of 'a little touch of Harry in the night,' though Harry cheers up neither man nor devil in the night" (221-2).
Harold Bloom thinks all of these contradictions are deliberate. He sees Henry V as an essentially ironic play. "Shakespeare has no single attitude toward Henry V, which allows you to achieve your own perspective..." (321).
The best versions of Henry V on film are Laurence Olivier's Henry V (1944)and Kenneth Branagh's Henry V (1989). They have different visions of the story, and it's fascinating to see how differently the story can be depicted, using the same lines.
If you'd like more information on any of the topics in this lecture, click the button:
Some of the information in this lecture derives from:
1. Shakespeare: A Life in Drama, by Stanley Wells
2. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, by Harold Bloom
3. Shakespeare, by Anthony Burgess
4. Shakespeare: A Life, by Park Honan
5. Shakespeare's Kings, by John Julius Norwich
6. "Henry V: A Modern Perspective," by Michael Neill, in the New Folger Library edition of Henry V
7. Henry V, by Christopher Allmand
8. Henry V as Warlord, by Desmond Seward
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