“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” (William Shakespeare’s Henry V)
Young Henry became the prince of Wales when his father, Henry IV, forcibly usurped the crown from Richard II. During Henry IV’s fractious reign, Henry the younger quickly took up the gauntlet of leadership to the Lancastrian branch of the Plantagenet dynasty. He fiercely battled his father’s enemies in Wales and elsewhere. By the time the frail Henry IV had passed on, the nascent king was already a battle-hardened leader. Of course, Shakespeare’s portrayal of the young Henry, or ‘Prince Hal,’ was of a soft and mischievous boy in Henry IV parts I and II who grew into the jingoistic military-king in Henry V (memorably, the character of Falstaff, Prince Hal’s Dionysian companion, is actually based on a true historical figure John Oldcastle, a lollard from the heretical reformist sect. He was later reluctantly condemned by Henry V but Oldcastle escaped from the Tower of London and became involved in plot against Henry V until he was captured and executed in 1417).
After his ailing father’s death, Henry wasted no time uniting the fractured realm. He was crowned king on April 9, 1413 at the age of 25. Winston Churchill writes: “His disposition was orthodox, chivalrous, and just. He came to the throne at a time when England was wearied of feuds and brawl and yearned for unity and fame” (174). Upon Henry’s coronation, the nation was ready for a new and optimistic path forward. On the eve of Henry’s accession, Thomas Walsingham, the chronicler-monk of St. Albans, quotes Song of Songs: “For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone” (Song of Songs 2:11-12).
Henry was a stern and severe man who inspired confidence and loyalty among those around him. He stabilized the nation’s coinage. Henry began solely using English rather than French when conducting state business. In his early years as king, he traveled throughout England issuing pardons to his father’s enemies, along with the remaining allies of the late Richard II, whose name was often invoked to incite rebellion. In fact, many of the commoners believed a false theory that Richard was still alive and waiting to reclaim his stolen crown. To further heal the wounds of the past Henry took under his wing the heir apparent to Richard II, Edmund Mortimer, earl of March. The two became closely allied and together they foiled a revolt hatched by the Lollards (a proto-Protestant reformist religious sect) which was plotted against the king. Perhaps Henry’s most impressive and lasting maneuver was to rebury Richard II in a dignified tomb at Westminster Abbey in the true fashion of an English king. Previously, and breaking with tradition, Henry IV was unceremoniously buried in a humble grave at Canterbury Cathedral beside the tomb of Thomas Beckett. The new resting place of Henry IV among the English monarchs at Westminster signified the end of an era to a beleaguered nation.
The French Campaign
Having settled domestic turmoil, Henry turned his gaze abroad. He sought to regain England’s lost lands in France: the Angevin Empire (Aquitaine, Pitou, Normandy, Touraine, and Maine). After carefully gaining support at home, and winning the favor of Parliament, he crafted a strategy for war in France (today we know Henry’s campaigns as part of the 100 Years War 1337-1453). Henry V sailed for France August 11, 1415 and he rapidly won tremendous victories at Harfleur and Agincourt. Shakespeare’s Henry V offers an inspiring glimpse into Henry’s rousing St. Crispin’s Day speech at the Battle at Agincourt (the drama was wonderfully captured by Laurence Olivier in a 1944 film released while he was on leave from the Royal Navy during World War II). In reality, Agincourt was a vicious battle fought in the mud and rain. Many English longbowmen caught dysentery and reportedly fought naked from the waist down. When the fighting was over, the surviving English soldiers crossed the battlefield and cut the throats of any surviving Frenchmen.
The following year in 1416, the English won a decisive naval victory at the Battle of the Seine. With regard to Paris, rather than simply storming the capital city, Henry V played a political game with a divided French parliament against the witless Charles VI. Meanwhile the English continued winning victories over French towns. By 1419, the English had captured Rouen and the half-mad Charles VI was forced to sign the Treaty of Troyes which recognized Henry V as the regent and heir to the throne of France. Henry was offered the hand of Charles’s daughter, Catherine of Valois, in marriage. But after only nine years on the English throne, and while on campaign in Meaux, Henry V suddenly died in 1422 of ‘camp fever’ (perhaps dysentery). He would never achieve his dream of conquering France, nor his hope of a Crusade to the Holy Land to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
Of the death of Henry V, Winston Churchill writes: “Fortune, which had bestowed upon the King all that could be dreamed of, could not afford to risk her handiwork in a long life” (178). Henry was laid to rest at Westminster Abbey and the English crown passed to his infant son, 9-month old Henry.
For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, Peter Ackroyd’s Foundation: The History of England From Its Earliest Beginnings To The Tudors, Thomas Walsingham ‘s chronicles, Thomas Elmham’s chronicles, and Shakespeare’s Henry IV parts I & II, and Shakespeare’s Henry V.