Post-classical history


‘Take him all round and he was, I think, the greatest man that ever ruled England’: scholars have been mindful of McFarlane’s words ever since they were published in 1972.1 Christopher Allmand, referring to them in the early 1990s, suggested that the debate had some way yet to run, key points being the wisdom of making war against France, Henry’s persecution of the Lollards, and his morality in killing the prisoners at Agincourt – all of which left him open to criticism.2 However, he concluded his study of Henry V with the words, ‘a careful consideration of his whole achievement reveals much regarding Henry’s stature both as man and king. From it he emerges as a ruler whose already high reputation is not only maintained but enhanced’.3 Anne Curry writing in the year 2000 was of the opinion that, although academics might have tried to discredit this image of Henry as ‘the greatest man who ever ruled England’, none to date had managed it. ‘For every bad thing one can say about Henry V, there are dozens of good things to say in his defence,’ she claimed. As she put it, Henry remains ‘the golden boy of fifteenth-century history’.4

I do not subscribe to this ‘golden boy’ view of Henry V. ‘Cold steel’ would be a better metaphor. While his organisational skills were extraordinary, and his determination to prove himself in war is awesome, his principal achievements were due as much to good luck as good judgment; and his perspective in pursuing his ambitions was prone to two fundamental weaknesses. The first of these weaknesses was the ill-defined objectives and time limits of his vision: he plunged England into a potentially endless and unnecessary war for the sake of demonstrating the legitimacy of his dynasty. The second weakness was his religiously inflated ego. He strikes me as a deeply flawed individual, undermined by his own pride and overwhelmed by his own authority. I find him less politically flexible and less tolerant than his father, Henry IV. I find him less cultured than Richard II; and I find him inferior to Edward III as an exponent of kingship in a number of respects – as a lawmaker, as a strategist and as a cultural leader. Only in matters of faith did he significantly outstrip his predecessors; but even this had its downside, especially for those whom he allowed to be burnt at the stake. I admire his determination, courage, organisational skills, tenacity, leadership ability and his sense of duty; but I find little else to admire and much to dislike.

This is a personal view, however, and while it might excite further discussion, it raises an important question that requires prior consideration. If my view of Henry V is so very different from those of McFarlane, Allmand and Curry, and many other equally well-informed scholars and writers, should I not simply admit that I am wrong and bow to their decades of experience? How can I vary so much from them in judging this icon of English patriotism?

The lazy answer to this question would be that I am not alone in my views. T. B. Pugh, writing in 1988, declared that Henry was ‘a man of limited vision and outlook and it is difficult to endorse McFarlane’s dictum’.5 A contemporary view, written by Jean de Waurin after the king’s death, was that

he was a wise man, skilful in everything he undertook, and of very imperious will. In the seven or eight years that his reign lasted he made great conquests in the kingdom of France, indeed, more than any of his predecessors had done before, and he was so feared and dreaded by his princes, knights, captains and all kinds of people that there was no one, especially among the English, ever so near or favoured by him that dared disobey his orders; and likewise the people of the kingdom of France under his domination, whatever their rank, were likewise reduced to the same state; and the principal reason was that he punished with death without any mercy those who disobeyed or infringed his commands.6

But one could go on like this, piling up affidavits of greatness, wisdom and cruelty, and agreeing or not as the case may be, and not say anything original. The fact is that my stance has nothing to do with other people’s verdicts. Rather, it is because I have employed a different form of history from that previously used to describe Henry V and Agincourt. To be specific, I have chosen to use a different narrative framework – the calendar for 1415 – and considered how the evidence relates to it.

This ‘new framework’ has been one of my main reasons for writing this book: a concern with the form as well as the substance of history. Historians hardly ever discuss literary form. Indeed, it could be said that most historians do not realise that history has a literary form. But the entire genre of historical non-fiction is straight-jacketed by rules, prescribed by educational and heritage-related rituals, institutional procedures and traditions. Academic journals, for example, expect a completely flat, ‘objective’, neutral stance, with no drama, no pathos, and a minimal display of literary technique. There is no scope to experiment with strict day-by-day narratives in an academic journal; it simply is not done. It is as if academic historians are only interested in what they have to say – not the variety of ways in which it can be said. If a leading scholar were to present his knowledge in the form of a pseudo-autobiography of a historical person, he would be criticised heavily for blurring the distinction between fact and fiction, and for stepping outside the prescribed limits of academic history. Yet the exercise would undoubtedly raise new questions, and might actually reveal many of the challenges the historical subject faced. As that example suggests, and as I hope this book has shown, the various ways in which we say something can also be revealing of historical meanings.

Here is not the place to explore why this exclusion of form has come to be the norm. Suffice to say that it has something to do with the educational orientation of historical scholarship in the modern world. But this is an appropriate place to consider how the narrative form adopted in this book is different from the traditional ‘life of Henry V’, or books about Agincourt. Thus this conclusion first tackles the question of form, in an attempt to understand why it is possible to have a reaction so contrary to the approbation of the scholars mentioned above.


Different structures of historical thought are likely to yield very different insights and interpretations. This book does not cover the full lifespan of the king, nor even his full reign, so its verdict cannot be as full as that of Professor Allmand on Henry’s whole life or Professor Curry’s on Agincourt. But it is far more detailed on the year 1415 than most biographies of the king. Also, because it is not specifically about Agincourt, it incorporates many religious and social details that would be disregarded as peripheral by the student of that battle. Thus it is more concerned with the interplay of all the aspects of Henry’s life at any one time than any other study. This interplay is a hugely important element in coming to understand a historical individual. To present Henry the warrior in isolation from Henry the pious Christian would be misleading, and vice versa. Likewise to consider Henry’s lawmaking and law enforcement activities with no reference to his plans for fighting in France would be misrepresentative. The Statute of Truces, which has been held up as an example of his desire for fairness and good government, was not enacted principally for the sake of fairness or good government – and still less for the benefit of foreign princes with whom Henry had truces. It was passed to make sure that, when he had diplomatically isolated the French, he would not see that diplomatic isolation jeopardised by a reckless act of English piracy. It thus appears not so much a quest for justice as a means of social control. In this way the integration of the king’s various concerns in this year reveal him in a different light – as a ruthless planner and a brilliant organiser but less concerned with justice than previously thought.

This integration of the various aspects of Henry’s life is most valuable when it brings together events which were close in time. For example, the gift of money to Glendower’s representatives on the same day as the Burgundians ratified the Peace of Arras and the English diplomats were waiting in Paris, comes across as a deliberate diplomatic snub. John the Fearless’s letter to Sigismund about the capture of the French envoys to the council of Constance, when compared with events in their geographical context, reveals inconsistencies in the dissemination of information that point conclusively to his guilt. Similarly the promise that John the Fearless had no treaty with Henry, made on 13 March by John’s representatives (including his sister Margaret of Holland) reveals John’s diplomacy to be nothing short of outright duplicity when juxtaposed with Henry’s payment of £2,000 to his agents to obtain a fleet from Holland. The realisation that Henry maintained diplomats at the courts of both the duke of Burgundy and the duke of Brittany throughout his campaign in France, and that these lords had themselves sent ambassadors to one another in this period, sets a different context to the agreements of non-hindrance that Henry had with both of these dukes. We realise the same with Henry’s intention to go to war: every official statement that he did all he could to avert war rings hollow. Direct juxtapositions like these need no conclusion; they place the facts in the hands of the reader so that the reader can make up his or her own mind as to Henry’s intentions, or those of John the Fearless. If any reader seriously believes that Henry had not resolved to go to war long before the negotiations had ceased then they have not read this book properly. Presented within a rigid chronological framework, it is as plain a fact as the black and white of the print.

Another consequence of the strict chronological form employed in this book is the inevitable inclusion of more evidence than is normally considered necessary in books about Henry or Agincourt. Any historian constructing a narrative or argument selects his or her evidence and discards certain details as superfluous to requirements. In a book like this, in which we are trying to explore as many days as possible, it would be wrong to discard some days and not others. The consequences are significant. Consider Henry’s pawning of religious artefacts and relics from the royal chapels from 1 June. Pawning relics to pay soldiers’ wages does not accord with the traditional image of Henry as a pious man. Nor does his dissolution of more then fifty priories. Historians – especially English writers – have tended to present Henry in the best possible light, and have accordingly downplayed or ignored these details. But their place in the calendar structure forces us to confront the apparent inconsistency head-on. It cannot be downplayed or eliminated without distorting our understanding of the man.

This tendency towards comprehensiveness has a literary side-effect. Henry’s chief characteristics are repeated with ongoing force. No one can read this book and not be struck by the number of references to his piety. Similarly, no one can fail to notice the extraordinary degree of organisation and planning required to make the whole Harfleur expedition happen. In a normal history text we would remark on these aspects once or perhaps twice; they would not be repeated so many times. The journal form, highlighting the potential importance of the timing of every reference, forces their repetition. Thus Henry’s main personality traits are amplified in the narrative. The whole picture is thus proportional to the reality of the man’s daily life (as far as it can be determined from the sources). The references to the difficulties on the march from Harfleur clearly underline the depth of the king’s determination. Similarly the continued paucity of references to women, coupled with the repetition of Henry’s ordinances concerning prostitutes and rape, hammer home the fact that Henry wanted his men to be like him and to love chastity more than the attractions of the fair sex. The result is a behaviour study that represents historical reality in a very different way from a thematic overview.

The form of the chronological year has two further methodological implications. Sometimes it simply is not possible to account for his actions over a period of days. When this happens in a normal history book, it tends not to be obvious; indeed, the historian may not even realise there is a gap – especially if he or she is writing an interpretative account, with a non-narrative structure. In this book, any chronological lacuna is immediately apparent, and it behoves the historian to try and explain it, whether through looking around for the significance of the day (a saint’s feast, perhaps), or by considering circumstantial evidence. Hence the speculation that Henry visited Southampton in advance of the army gathering; we have evidence that he went there not long before May 1415, and we have a gap in the evidence for his stay in London in March. It seems logical to suggest the two might be connected. In this way a precise historical form is valuable for it reveals a gap in the data, and accordingly forces us to consider previously unconsidered questions.

The other methodological implication is chronological precision. The rigid date structure forces the historian to be far more exact about dates, plans, orders, logistics, and the time it took to travel or to send a messenger. Although one often reads in history books that two members of Henry’s council met in London in early February and then led an embassy into Paris on 9 February, this seems impossible when considered in a strict calendar form. Ambassadors habitually took at least fifteen days to go from London to Paris in winter. Similarly it is not reasonable to assume that all the people who apparently witnessed royal charters in the year 1415 were present at the time of sealing or even at the time of granting these documents, for there is incontrovertible evidence that some of them were at Constance. We repeatedly find that the evidence is conflicting and misleading, and this sometimes includes contemporary records. We cannot simply ignore such documents where they do not accord with convenient or long-accepted interpretations. In a calendar-based book readers can see for themselves that there are glaring inconsistencies in the records and chronicles. Precision of dating is therefore not only possible in this book but structurally built into it to a greater extent than in other studies.

In some cases, the precise calendar-aligned arrangement of events results in small refinements of detail (the date of the above-mentioned embassy’s arrival in Paris is a good example). In others, it reveals significant errors of interpretation that have led to flawed narratives being circulated and widely accepted. For example, in his book The Medieval Archer, Jim Bradbury declares that

Agincourt was far from being a battle that Henry planned and sought … In the agreements that Henry made before the campaign in order to obtain the force he needed, it is clear that an expedition to the south figured in Henry’s plans. Frequently the agreements specify what wages will be paid should the soldiers be called upon to go to Southern France.7

On a study of the contemporary evidence in isolation Bradbury is right; many of the indentures for service, which are almost all dated 29 April 1415, give wage rates for fighting in Gascony as well as France. So did the proclamation regarding wages on the third day of the great council of that year (18 April). But as this book shows, this dual wage rate announcement was a smokescreen, created so no French spies would discover where the army was heading. Precise attention to the dating of payments in the Issue Rolls reveals that the decision to head to Harfleur had been made by 16 April at the very latest. Thus we can see that Henry’s deliberate ambiguity on the 18 and 29 April has misled Bradbury into thinking that Agincourt was an unplanned and unsought conflict, fought on the back foot. The exact site of battle may have been unplanned, and obviously the ground conditions were beyond Henry’s control, but the general policy of fighting a battle between Harfleur and Calais, massacring French men-at-arms with longbows, was very carefully planned.

The above shows that there are a number of advantages in the calendar form, and collectively these go some way to explaining why I have a different reading of the man’s character from other writers. The integration of simultaneous aspects of Henry’s life, the tendency to be comprehensive with regard to the evidence, and the repetition of personal characteristics in proportion to the historical evidence are all key elements explaining why readers of this book may join me in disagreeing with the post-Agincourt, hero-worshipping verdict on Henry adopted by fifteenth-century chroniclers, Shakespeare, and most historians since the sixteenth century.

Having said this, there are certain disadvantages to the form that should not pass without notice. The key one is the literary challenge, mentioned in the prologue. As stated there, it is impossible to avoid the fact that the calendar is a non-literary structure, so the more details one includes in their correct historical place, the more inflexible the narrative becomes. It reminds me of the often-repeated question, ‘How do you stop the facts getting in the way of a good story?’ To this question a historian instinctively replies, ‘the facts are the good story’. However, the facts make for a much better story when the author can deploy them at will, and use them within a looser temporal framework. It may be that the more historians meet the challenges of accuracy, fullness and precision, the more difficult it is for them to create a ‘story’, or work of literature, out of the characters and events of the past.

A second disadvantage lies in the limited scope of textual criticism. By discussing the battle of Agincourt within an entry for a single day – 25 October 1415 – it is not possible to include all the varying narratives. While modern scholars describe the various stages by stating that ‘Chronicler X says this, while Chronicler Y claims the opposite’, this style of textual criticism deflates the value of seeing events unfolding. We lose focus on history as a matter of past reality (the goal of historians outside the lecture hall) and become subsumed within history as the analysis of evidence (the prime purpose of history within the lecture hall). Fortunately, given the many detailed contributions from so many academics concerned with Agincourt to date, this is not a problem; those wishing to understand all the various accounts of the battle can make recourse to books by specialists on the battle, especially Anne Curry’s The Battle of Agincourt: Sources and Interpretations.

A third problem of this detailed chronological form is simply the lack of evidence. While certain aspects of Henry’s life are given weight in this book due to their frequent appearance in the contemporary written record, other aspects do not appear at all. We have no chamber accounts for the year 1415, nor any household or great wardrobe accounts (with the exceptions of those concerning military expenditure). One has to ask, therefore, is there a side to Henry that is missing in this book due to the lack of source material for this year? A comparison of the Issue Rolls payments under Henry V with those made under Henry IV does not suggest that there was. Although Henry IV was a similarly serious, religious, dutiful and committed king, he paid for organising jousts, bought hunting birds, enjoyed sword fighting, bought new clothes for his fool, and ‘paid a certain woman 20d for undertaking certain affairs for the king’, which, even if it was wholly innocent, reminds us that he had an illegitimate son.8 In the Issue Rolls of the second and third years of the reign of Henry V there is nothing that approximates to such fun – just the one reference to the dining chamber in the lake at Kenilworth Castle. Nevertheless, questions still remain. There are no references to royal hunts taking place in this year; yet we know Henry V enjoyed hunting. There are no references to his reading either – even though we know that he regularly borrowed books from other people. These aspects of his life are therefore probably under-represented in this book. The same must go for his other interests that are not reflected in the evidence for 1415.

The final problem worth mentioning is a technical one. When were these documents actually drawn up? This question normally presents no significant problem in a less chronologically precise study, but here it matters. Consider the king’s orders to close the ports on 3 July: were these delivered before or after he had heard about the way discussions with the French ambassadors were going? Or had he actually given the orders some time before, perhaps days before, and this was simply the date of enrolment? Doubts about the timing of certain documents might lead to certain inaccurate juxtapositions. We know that some documents were dated long after the events to which they relate. This applies to many entries in accounts, which were settled in retrospect, as well as charters that were supposedly witnessed by people who were not even in England on the stated day. For this reason, precision does not always guarantee correctness.

Overall, despite all the problems and challenges, the form of the single year has proved illuminating, stimulating, challenging and worthwhile. I hope that it stands as an example to show that historical discoveries are not just about finding a new piece of evidence or applying postmodern critical techniques to old evidence. Arranging a large number of facts and observations within a new framework can reveal new meanings, raise new questions, offer new insights, and stimulate discussion. Different biographical viewpoints and different chronological layouts – even different conceptual approaches regarding what history is – all help us to see the past differently, and to interact with it more personally, and to understand humanity over long periods of time.


To what extent should we judge historical characters? Outside academia, is there any value in such judgments of individuals from the remote past? Are not historians’ opinions of people who died several hundred years ago as inconsequential as their opinions on the nameless individuals whose bodies once lay under prehistoric burial mounds?

In the past, a historian’s judgment has been seen as an essential part of his or her role. Professor Jack Simmons, reviewing a book on Elizabethan England in 1951, commented that there were four qualities of a great historian: common sense, justice, sympathy and imagination. With regard to justice he declared that this was

not impartiality – the anaemic, remote detachment of a man looking at the whole story from the superior height of a later age, but something much harder to attain: the true justice of a judge who sets out and weighs the evidence and then pronounces upon the question in dispute. The great historians have never shirked this duty of judgment. Rather they have regarded it as one of the main aims of their work.9

I have borne this review in mind ever since reading it, eight years ago; but I have increasingly found myself disagreeing with it. Or, rather, I have found that the point of view of ‘the historian’ in describing the past is a complicated one. While judgments concerning recent social history are important, because they may affect the way we live our lives today (for example, successes or failures within economic systems, or the National Health Service), the purpose of studying medieval subjects in the public arena is beyond the exercise of judgment; it is an examination of the experiences of the human race over time. It is much more important to understand the past sympathetically – to see why they did what they did, from their own point of view – than to pontificate about those who cannot possibly have known their judge, let alone defend themselves.

Given this suspicion that historical judgment is often unhelpful and unnecessary, this would be the ideal book in which to say that I will leave readers to make their own judgments on Henry V in the year 1415. All the facts that I consider pertinent have been laid out above, and readers may make of them what they will. But in each of my past biographies I have felt obliged to deliver a judgment on the character concerned, and I feel it necessary to do so here. The reason is primarily because reinterpretation has its value, if only as a riposte to what I consider the erroneous judgments of others. Another reason is that, as with the other books, I want to push the understanding of this man a little bit further, to explore the ambiguities and inconsistencies of his behaviour that are so revealing of his character. Finally I want to pursue the reinterpretation in order to say something of the consequences of Henry’s decisions in 1415. We cannot say Henry V was good or bad, or right or wrong, without making huge assumptions about moral values across the ages; but we can reinterpret his character and the consequences of his decisions, and that is the purpose of the remainder of this book.

Before addressing the question of what the year 1415 reveals about the character of Henry V, it is necessary to make an observation that is crucial to any historical judgment, reinterpretation or understanding of the past. When discussing any historical fact there is an automatic juxtaposition with its perceived equivalent in our own time, even if we do not realise it. For example, when we read about child-beating in the fourteenth century being seen as a sign of good parental care, and that the medieval father who did not beat his son might be seen as irresponsible, we automatically contrast this with ‘good practice’ in our own time, and realise that something has changed. Conversely, when we read a medieval poem about unrequited love, or pangs of hunger, or grief following the loss of a child, we automatically compare these emotions and sensations with our own experiences, and suspect that little has changed across the years. Either way, whether we are discussing change or continuity, we compare and contrast the past with our own time; we cannot forget our own norms, our own age.

The inevitable comparisons and contrasts we make when reading historical texts constitute a sort of correlative force that distorts our perception of the past. This is best explained by referring to the literary device of the ‘objective correlative’, outlined by T. S. Eliot in his essay ‘Hamlet and His Problems’ (first published in 1922). It is not any single literary image or statement that gives rise to an emotion when reading a piece of literature; it is a set of objects, a series of images. A series of juxtapositions can have far more emotive force than the facts in isolation. To take an example from this book, it is not just that the count of Richemont did not recognise his mother that causes an emotional reaction in the reader. Nor is it that his mother hid from him. Nor is it simply that he had been captured at Agincourt and was in England as a prisoner, or that they had not seen each other for many years, or that she had been forced to give up her children when she married Henry IV. It is the correlation of all these things. The emotional reaction develops from each fact in relation to the others. In Eliot’s words, ‘it is a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion’.

Something similar is operating when we read a history book. We are obtaining a historical sensation from the juxtaposition of behaviour in the past with the norms of our own time. We automatically correlate Richemont’s fifteenth-century shame with our own experience of shame. When we read of Henry V ordering women’s left arms to be broken, we experience a strong emotion through the contrast of this apparently barbaric act with acceptable behaviour in England today. When we read of the massacre of the prisoners, we contrast this order with our own post-Geneva Convention attitude to war (however many abuses of that convention we might be aware of). When we read of the burning of Jan Hus and John Claydon, we are appalled that these things were done by the Church and the state respectively in God’s name. The killing conflicts with the modern paradigm of Christian tolerance and mercy. These are just a few examples of what may be called ‘the historical correlative’ – the emotions or sensations arising from the automatic correlation of an event in the past with our own time. The fact is that every historical fact or event is subject to this effect, however slight – even the payment of a sum of money (how much or little something costs), or the time it took to travel from London to Paris (different in winter and summer), or the eating of beef for a Christmas feast (no turkeys). Most importantly of all, the historical correlative is a reaction in the reader’s mind – and therefore largely beyond the historian’s control.

The reason for explaining this point is that any interpretation or reinterpretation of a historical character or event is bound to be affected by the historical correlative. Every fact we may perceive, every suspicion we garner, every piece of knowledge, is automatically correlated, consciously or subconsciously, with the norms of our own time as we personally see them. Even if we make allowances and try to understand that society was far more violent and religious in the fifteenth century than it is now, most of us do not understand exactly how violent or religious it was, and so have no yardstick by which to measure Henry’s massacres or religious acts, and so we have no way of obviating the effect of the historical correlative. It demonstrates to us how all historical judgment is inevitably subjective. It is in this light, and only in this light, that we can proceed to make judgments on the past. However accurately all the evidence is laid out, and however precisely it has been examined, historians’ judgments are fallible because their experience of life in a later century means their values are different, their understanding of common human behaviour is different, and the expectations of their readers are different.


A number of character traits were associated with Henry at the outset of this book. In particular, he was ‘circumspect, conscientious, solemn, firm, proud, virtuous and intense’. Through the year many events and facts have served to corroborate these personal traits in particular circumstances. For example, his circumspection is repeatedly evidenced in his reluctance to take any unnecessary risks on the Agincourt campaign: in his choosing a very difficult landing place to avoid encountering French hostility, not risking an all-out attack on the town of Harfleur, refusing to fight at Blanchetaque, and changing direction away from following the French army north from Péronne. In contrast, the risks he did take were all taken for good reasons – the decision to march to Calais was a strategic manoeuvre designed to encourage the French to attack; and the order to advance at Agincourt was given to catch the French off-guard. But while it would be possible to go through the above list of Henry’s character traits in this way and find examples to back up each one, this is unnecessary. These traits are the ones that chroniclers noted in him, and are the elements of his character that are not in doubt. A more valuable exercise in this book is to examine what the year 1415 reveals about him – the acts and decisions on which we may base a historical judgment of him in this year.

One element of Henry’s character that comes across very strongly in 1415 is his colossal ambition. He wanted to become a great king so desperately that he became one. In his ancestry – particularly in his role model, Edward III – he had an example of what great kingship could be, and he sought to emulate it in every important respect: in war, faith, great buildings, the administration of justice, and even in the way he was seen. For him kingship was itself a crusade. All its facets were part of a spiritual journey in which he saw himself delivering a perfect rule. To achieve any one of his aims would have required a certain determination, but to achieve them all required more than just the determination to do something; it required an over-arching ambition to be something; and that ‘something’ was of such a high order that it is fair to rank Henry as one of the most ambitious European monarchs who ever lived.

Ambitious people are rarely humble, and least of all kings. Thus Henry’s pride is something we come across time and time again in this book. This is not in itself surprising; but what is interesting is that his pride did not lead to complacency. He was not conceited by his success. He was somewhat sensitive to failure; his own failings were anathema to him, and he was sometimes a harsh critic of himself. When de Gaucourt managed to lead three hundred men into Harfleur after the town had been under siege for three days, exposing Henry’s lack of foresight, Henry’s response was immediate and swift – to send his brother to cut off the far side of the town. Likewise when there was a sortie from Harfleur on 15 September, Henry’s reaction was immediately to order an all-out attack on the Porte Leure. His instinct was to defend himself by immediately counter-attacking when he realised he had made a mistake.

Another striking trait that comes across in 1415 is his tenacity. Despite the delays putting back his expedition, he did not give up on his plans. Although the earl of Cambridge’s plot and the dangers of a Lollard rising in August led to calls for him to remain in England, he still went ahead with his invasion. Nor did he lose faith in himself when he lost more than 1,330 fighting men at Harfleur, and had to leave behind a further 1,200 men to guard the town. Still he went ahead with his march to Calais, even though he knew the French could summon a far larger army against him. He might have changed his strategy here and there, but he never gave up.

Given this ambition and tenacity, it is not surprising to find that Henry was serious to the point of being humourless, and sometimes bad-tempered. His orders were often issued under pain of the recipient suffering the king’s ‘grievous wrath’ if they were not fully and immediately complied with. One never reads of Henry enjoying himself; he did not hold jousts or any of the celebratory games that we associate with Edward III. He did not encourage any form of indulgence, as far as we can see, and he was deeply hostile to any behaviour that could be considered immoral. He did apparently play cards, chess and tables (a form of backgammon) with his fellow men (as we learn from accounts in other years); and one presumes he drank a lot of wine; but his focus remained on combat, God’s work, and contests of will.10 He was clearly a severe man; and once he had made up his mind on a point, he would not be argued with. One sees this in his actions against Scrope, and also in his refusal to accept the arguments of those trying to dissuade him from marching across France. It is also apparent in his occasional high-handedness – for instance, in the fine he imposed on the earl of March, or the reversal of the terms on which de Gaucourt and the other prisoners from Harfleur had surrendered.

All these traits – ambition, self-criticism, tenacity and a severe, almost puritanical personality – were closely related to his faith. This was extreme. With Edward II, Edward III and Richard II one can question whether they were normally or abnormally religious in comparison with their contemporaries, and make a case that their spirituality was not excessive for the period. However, Henry IV was considerably more serious about religion than his antecedents, and in his eldest son we have a king who was at the very height of religiosity in a deeply religious age. When we describe Edward III as a ‘warrior of God’ we do so because he was a war leader who was normally religious, and regularly used religious symbols (such as relics, offerings of devotion and pilgrimages) to inspire his army. In contrast, when we describe Henry V as a ‘warrior of God’ we mean to say that he believed God had made him a warrior, and in fighting he was doing God’s work.

There is no doubting Henry’s devotion – it is to be discerned in almost every aspect of his life. He did not choose to found normal monasteries, he founded houses for Celestines, Bridgettines and Carthusians: the most zealous orders. His choice of saints was similarly fervent – especially in following St John of Bridlington and the Holy Trinity. The provisions for Masses in his will were excessive, even for the time; and his attribution to God of the cause of victory in battle betokens a religious foundation for even the act of killing fellow Christians. The more one looks, the more one sees the signs of his deep religious conviction. These range from trivialities, such as his higher-than-usual payments to those attending his Maundy Thursday ceremonies, to profound and shocking statements, such as his later declaration that he was ‘the scourge of God come to punish God’s people for their sins’.11 No one can doubt that we find a greater degree of spirituality in Henry than among almost any of his contemporaries.

So how do we reconcile Henry’s religious devotion with his deliberate breaking of one of the Ten Commandments: thou shalt not kill? Moreover, how did he justify to himself breaking that Commandment in God’s name?

Various other instances have been noted in the text of acts that seem similarly irreligious. Pawning religious relics to pay for soldiers’ wages, dissolving the French monasteries, and failing to give the Englishmen who had died for him at Agincourt a proper Christian burial, are the most obvious. All these, like the massacre of the prisoners, seem ungodly acts. Yet they show that Henry was so convinced that he was a divinely inspired person that he believed he could go beyond the religious expectations of his day. This is most easily explained by referring to Henry IV’s killing of Archbishop Scrope in 1405. One might have thought that Henry’s father was acting in a godless manner; and many contemporaries thought so. However, it took a great deal of spiritual self-confidence for a king to be sure that he would not suffer divine vengeance for killing an archbishop. Thus the execution is evidence not of his profanity but of his religious conviction: Henry IV knew where he stood with God. So it was with Henry V. In fact, Henry’s spiritual conviction was even more marked because he believed that everything he did was a religious act. As he himself put it in explaining his foundation of Syon Abbey: ‘he will turn where He wills’. His every deed was moved by God. His will was God’s will – as far as his subjects were concerned, the two were inseparable. Thus his war was God’s war, and his victories were God’s victories, much as the abbot of St Denis had preached in 1414: ‘God resolves wars according to His will’.12 What was different about Henry V was that he was so confident in his belief that God would deliver him victory that he was prepared to put his faith to the ultimate test.

Anyone looking for the source of Henry’s courage need look no further than this faith. As made clear in the passages describing Henry on Christmas Day 1414, he was vulnerable – he was aware that at any moment he might lose his crown, his friends’ support, his health and his life – but against this he set his faith. Henry really did believe God would protect him and make him victorious. We might say that his courage was the measure of his faith – for it was his faith that placed him in the front line of his army, so close to the enemy that he had a piece of his crown cut off with an axe. One does not need courage when one is unaware of danger, but when one is as open to attack as Henry was when wearing a royal surcoat on the battlefield, facing a larger army, one needs a huge amount of courage. His faith gave him sufficient.

Henry was lucky. Inordinately lucky. Just to take examples from 1415: he was lucky that Ralph Pudsay recaptured Mordach of Fife. He was lucky that the earl of March betrayed the earl of Cambridge and his fellow conspirators. He was lucky that Glendower died when he did. He was enormously lucky that the civil war in France did not end with the confirmation of the Peace of Arras in March, and that the duke of Burgundy repeatedly betrayed the French king. Henry was lucky to be warned by a Gascon about the ambush at Blanchetaque. He was lucky that he found a way across the Somme near Nesle and did not have to march his starving army even further upstream, and even luckier that his army was able to cross the Somme unopposed by the French. He was lucky that the duke of Bourbon decided to fight him without waiting for orders and reinforcements from Rouen, and he was lucky that the French leaders at Agincourt were disorganised and overestimated themselves. Above everything else, he was lucky that it rained so heavily at Agincourt on the night of 24 October. If it had not, the French wings might have been able to charge into the advancing English archers, scattering them before they could shoot enough arrows, thereby winning the battle for France and humiliating Henry and undermining his pretensions to be doing God’s work.

From the above it emerges that Henry was one of the most ambitious, lucky and pious kings that England has ever had. But one would not rank him among the kindest. That severity in his demeanour was ruthless, and he was capable of great cruelty. As Waurin said in the passage quoted above, ‘he was so feared and dreaded by his princes, knights, captains … and the principal reason was that he punished with death without any mercy those who disobeyed or infringed his commands’. The instances to which Waurin was referring mainly date from after 1415; but in the year under study there are three instances that stand out: the massacre of the prisoners at Agincourt, the persecution of Lollards, and the killing of Lord Scrope. Historians have traditionally exonerated Henry on this last point by confusing Scrope’s role in the plot and regarding him as guilty. As for the policy of burning Lollards, two methods have been used to exonerate him: firstly, by removing him personally from the position of judge in such matters, and making it a legal process; secondly, by claiming that his attitude was orthodox for the time. Nevertheless, it is worth remarking that no men were burnt for heresy under Edward III or Richard II, and Henry IV’s reign saw only two men executed in this way. Henry’s reign saw seven burnt alive in the first year alone. That the mayor of London felt the need to write to Henry about burning John Claydon in 1415 directly connects the king with the policy. As for his cruelty in killing the prisoners at Agincourt, it was at best an ungodly decision made in a moment of panic. And such acts paved the way for grosser acts of cruelty in later years. In 1417, at Caen, he gave orders for 1,800 men to be slaughtered in cold blood. The following year at Louviers, he ordered eight gunners to be hanged. Waurin’s verdict – that Henry ‘punished with death without any mercy those who disobeyed or infringed his commands’ – seems borne out in these incidents. In 1422 he had a trumpeter killed merely because the man made him angry.13 A full biography of Henry V would trace the development of his intoxication with his own power up until his death. Obviously he fell far short of the charming hero of Shakespeare’s Henry V, and the overseer of such murderous acts hardly deserves to be considered as a candidate for the title ‘the greatest man who ruled England’.

Henry’s cruelty has been remarked on before by other historians but the near-total exclusion of women from his society, as far as I know, has not previously been remarked upon. The form of this book allows us to use negative evidence in building a picture of his life, and there is a notable absence of any sign of warmth towards any women not intimately connected with his childhood. As mentioned in the prologue, this was partly a result of Henry being an unmarried king. But the complete failure to mention women in his will except two senior members of his family, or to make any grants to any women in their own right who had not looked after him in childhood, or to associate himself with any other women (except in relation to their husbands), cannot be ignored. Even the two women who submitted petitions for him to consider on Good Friday were dismissed and told to pursue their claims in the law courts.

This lack of any closeness towards females other than those ‘safe’ women from his past or his family, coupled with his separately evidenced lack of indulgence in sexual intercourse, suggests at least a deliberate avoidance of women in 1415, and perhaps even a fear of them. Further evidence for this is to be noted in the homecoming celebrations in London: all the various sets of girls were dressed in virginal white, with signs of chastity and virginity around them. If we also consider the cruelty of the extreme punishment that Henry ordered to be meted out on any women who came within three miles of his army – having their left arms broken – we may read signs of a man who had a difficult relationship with women. Bishop Courtenay’s remark to Fusoris – that Henry had not had carnal relations with a woman since becoming king – implies that he had had such relationships before his accession. That Henry turned against that aspect of his life seems beyond doubt. Whether an unfortunate experience left him fearing women as sexual beings, or whether he regretted his pre-accession philandering on moral grounds, is not so clear. Either way, Henry excluded almost all women from his life in this year, with very few exceptions, notably his grandmother and his stepmother; and the latter of these two he later accused of being a witch and treated extremely badly. The outlook for the girl he had decided to take for a bride – the pubescent Katherine of France – was not rosy.


The above description of Henry points to an extraordinary individual: ambitious, tenacious, courageous, ruthless, pious, severe and sometimes cruel. So it is fair to ask, what made him like this? Can we discern any formative influences that will help us understand him?

Henry’s innate, serious nature cannot but have been affected by several early developments in his life. Two months short of his eighth birthday, his mother died in childbirth. One indication that this profoundly affected him is his closeness to her mother, his grandmother, Joan Bohun, the dowager countess of Hereford. As noted in the text, she was a very pious woman, to whom Henry gave gifts of land; he also mentioned her in his will. A second indication that his mother’s death had an impact on him is his commissioning an effigy to be placed on her tomb at Leicester not long after his accession, twenty years after she died. Her death would have coincided with the beginning of Henry’s education in a noble household – so at a time of traumatic changes. He and his brother Thomas were transferred to the household of their grandfather, John of Gaunt. When not with John they stayed with their grandmother, the dowager countess of Hereford, or the even more elderly countess of Norfolk. Thus Henry did not grow up with his sisters or two youngest brothers, and for most of his youth his one constant companion of a similar age was his brother Thomas, whom he did not like very much. In John of Gaunt’s household, his companions were mostly knights and grown men-at-arms; and when he was with his grandmother or the countess of Norfolk, his companions were old pious women. On being taken into Richard II’s household at the age of twelve, following John of Gaunt’s death, he again found himself surrounded exclusively by men, as Richard’s ten-year-old wife did not live at court.

Just as much of a loss to Henry was the refusal by Richard II to acknowledge the entail of Edward III. It has been remarked that Henry was so far from the throne at the time of his birth that no one bothered to record the event. This statement is wrong on both accounts. The date and even the time were recorded – 11.22 a.m. on 16 September 1386.14 Henry would have been brought up by his father to believe that, if Richard II died without an heir, then the line of succession would pass to the Lancastrians, and one day he would inherit. Richard II made his first overt moves to overturn this in 1394, the same year as Henry’s mother died. The year was thus a turning point in his life. Not only did he lose his mother, and find himself shuffled between households, but his position in the line of succession also started to slip. At seven this would have meant little to him, but by the time of his father’s exile in 1398, when he was twelve, he would have understood only too well that he was no longer seen as a likely future king of England. Before his father returned from France and ousted Richard II, Henry saw his position in the line of succession obliterated. As a boy who had been brought up to believe he was a potential heir to the throne, that had grave implications for his identity. Was he God’s chosen sovereign or not?

His sense of vulnerability, and his determination to overcome it, probably dates from this early period of his life. The diminution of his importance must have damaged his esteem. His rivalry with his brother Thomas, who was almost the same age but who was his father’s favourite son, must have increased his determination to stand out, to prove himself. His father gave him the opportunity to do just that, when he appointed him to his Welsh command at the age of fourteen. This separated Henry from his brother and gave him a position of respect and independence. His command might at first have been purely nominal, under the tutelage of Henry Percy, but nevertheless he was head of his own household and the only royal person in North Wales.

This start in life does perhaps explain why Henry was as he was in 1415. The ambition and the desire to prove himself in this year correspond with his experiences as a boy: realising that his position in the royal family was being ignored, that he was losing respect from non-family members, and that his father preferred his more martial brother, Thomas. The piety he displayed in 1415 can be traced in the influence of his grandmother, the countess of Hereford, as well as his father. The young Henry may also have felt the need to prove that he deserved to be an anointed king, chosen by God, as his position in the line of succession slipped. In his background, isolated from girls, we might also see why he showed no signs of warmth to any females except those he had known since childhood. As for his other traits of cruelty and the fear of disloyalty, these may be connected with his experiences in Wales (as noted at the start of this book). The disloyalty of those involved in the Epiphany Rising in 1400 and the Percy family’s rebellion in 1403 can only have heightened Henry’s sense of vulnerability, and made him very sensitive to plots and discussions outside his control.

The last set of formative experiences that needs to be mentioned in an attempt to understand Henry in 1415 is his relationship with his father. As his father’s favouritism of Thomas suggests, Henry and his father were never close. They were very alike – determined, headstrong, courageous and tenacious and pious in the extreme – but they disagreed on many issues. There were also some fundamental differences between them. Whereas Henry IV argued the philosophy of rebellion and religion with his enemies, Henry V did not waste words on those who disagreed with him. Whereas Henry IV regarded himself as a king whose piety supported his kingship, Henry V was more fervent, to the point of seeing things the other way around: his kingship supported God’s work. Perhaps Henry V saw his father’s discussions with his enemies as a sign of weakness. Perhaps he saw his father’s long illness as a sign of God’s disapproval of his reign. By the time of his regency, Henry V was forming his own ideas about kingship, and his vision so far eclipsed his father’s policy of merely steadying the political boat that he can have had little respect for the dying man. In everything he did, he wanted to be seen to eclipse his father’s achievements: in spirituality, religious buildings, attention to royal dignity, the suppression of heresy, and leading an army into France.

Such experiences in childhood and youth, and in particular his struggle to maintain self-esteem, royal identity and public respect, gave Henry his declared aim: to win ‘the approbation of God and the praise of the world’. It was in the humiliations of his youth, I feel, that his ideas about what it meant to be a divinely anointed king and the advantages of invading France were conceived.


Henry did not win ‘the praise of the world’. There were plenty of men and women in Europe who saw him as a tyrant, and quite a few in England too. Such a view was an inevitable consequence of his kingship, which he saw as being both divinely authorised and justified in its authoritarianism, as indicated by the original Homeric context of his motto une sanz pluis:

… As for having several lords, I see no good therein; let one and no more be the master, and that one alone be the king

That Henry believed this was his role – and believed that the torrent of good luck he received was confirmation of the sanctity of all his acts – was bound to result in his own power growing too great for him to control. It overwhelmed him. Yet there was a book that justified exactly this all-powerful approach to kingship: the De Regimine Principum by Giles of Rome, a text which was well known at the court of Richard II. This exhorted kings to take complete control of their subjects and to demand absolute obedience in all things. The chances of Henry or any other man wielding such enormous power, unchecked, for the benefit of all his subjects, all the time, were nonexistent.

Consider the example of Ireland. From Henry’s point of view, he had done little there; but what he had done, he had done well. He had appointed a strong soldier-governor to be King’s Lieutenant of Ireland, Sir John Talbot. English historians often praise him for this appointment. But from the Irish point of view, the appointment was disastrous. Talbot proved to be utterly ruthless. His method of governing the Irish was to put all the rebels to the sword and to take away their children. Having arrived in November 1414 he had spent almost the whole of 1415 in arms. He attacked Fachtna O’More of Leix, plundered his cattle and horses, and captured his castle. O’More himself was forced to serve in Talbot’s army, leaving his son as a hostage with Talbot, and joining him in his relentless pursuit of the native Irish and their English allies. Soon afterwards, O’Reilly of Breifna and O’Farrell of Annaly submitted to Talbot, and another native lord, MacMahon, was forced to surrender. So there was a destructive element to Henry’s Irish government. There was also an administrative failure. Talbot was unable to administer or secure the land without money; and in this respect Henry let him down badly. Henry had promised him 4,000 marks per year – and then failed to pay him. In order to keep the loyal English on his side, Talbot alienated much of the royal income, allowing his people to cream off the revenues at source rather than pay it into the Irish treasury. In addition, he had to plunder continuously, thereby creating no stable relationships with the men he brought back under English command but rather causing lasting grudges. In February 1416 he had to leave Ireland to come to England to ask the king for payment of his own salary – a process which delayed him in England for months, allowing his military achievements in Ireland to be undone. When he left Ireland it was said by an English writer that ‘he left with the curses of many, because having run much into debt, he would pay little or nothing at all’. A Gaelic writer went so far as to declare that Talbot was ‘the wickedest man to have lived since Herod’. In short, in 1415 Henry V brought terror upon the Irish, and showed no will to try and control it.15

Henry placed such a high value on his own authority that he frequently committed acts of high-handedness himself, some of them verging on tyranny, and turned a blind eye to such acts committed in his name. The imprisonment of Italian merchants for not paying towards his expedition to France is one example. His support for his brother’s refusal to allow the elected mayor of Lynn to exercise office is another. Restoring the Flemish ships to the men who illegally captured them, in contravention of his own Statute of Truces, is a third. His treatment of the earl of March is a fourth. Indeed, considering Henry placed such a high value on ‘justice’, it is disquieting how little justice he showed the earl of March – forcing him to seal a recognisance that he would remain loyal, on pain of forfeiting 10,000 marks, and then imposing the full fine on him for simply marrying without permission. Another example of his high-handedness in 1415 is his alteration of the terms of surrender which de Gaucourt and the other knights from Harfleur had to accept. After Agincourt it suited him to insist that they all subject themselves to imprisonment again, regardless of what his officers had previously told them. A sixth example is the baseless charge of conspiring to murder the king and his brothers which he levelled at Scrope, Cambridge and Gray. In fact, a seventh, eighth and ninth are wrapped up in his treatment of Scrope – attempting to try him before a jury (and not before his peers), executing him for a crime he had not committed, and disinheriting his brothers. With regard to this last issue, it is a signal failure that Henry confessed that it troubled him much and yet he never did anything about it.16

The complication we have in judging the above high-handed acts is that of the historical correlative, as outlined in a previous section. These acts seem high-handed to us, but did they appear so to contemporaries? And if so, did all contemporaries think alike? Perhaps some people saw Henry’s actions against the Italian merchants as justifiable, for it was arguably in the kingdom’s interest. Similarly the problems of local government in Lynn had dragged on long enough; a decisive move by the king was perhaps what was needed to bring the men of the town to their senses. The majority considered that the process against Scrope was lawful – even before Henry’s post-Agincourt propaganda machine had blackened his name – although Scrope’s own household seem to have considered it an act of tyranny. De Gaucourt clearly thought Henry had behaved most unfairly to him. But the fact is that these and almost any other high-handed act could be justified by the majority of contemporaries. High-handedness and even tyranny could be tolerated in a strong king; it was a price worth paying in order to preserve peace among the magnates.

If we have trouble judging Henry for his high-handedness, we have less difficulty when it comes to his outright failures. Stepping away from the propaganda-oriented chronicles has revealed a number of areas where Henry’s record falls well short of the glorious, unblemished career we have been led to believe in by traditional historians. He never captured Glendower. Sir John Oldcastle remained at large until Edward Charlton, Lord Powys, captured him in 1417. Henry failed to sort out the mayoral disputes in Lynn. His failure to remedy the state of Berwick Castle, despite the warnings of his council in February 1415, left the north dangerously unprotected.17 There were more significant failures too. He made mistakes in attacking Harfleur, almost destroying the defensibility of the town; he also made errors on the march to Calais, which resulted in his army becoming weak, hungry and dispirited. The expedition was only saved from complete disaster by a number of strokes of good fortune.

For contemporaries, one of Henry’s most obvious failures was a lack of respect for basic chivalric codes. Something of the spirit of chivalry, as well as its shining armour, was sullied by the mud of Agincourt. The massacre of the prisoners is just one of many instances; another, equally significant at the time, was that so many lords were killed; normally codes of honour ensured that great lords were ransomed, not butchered like cattle. From the French point of view, there was also Henry’s behaviour at the siege to consider. Henry threatened the people of Harfleur with the law of Deuteronomy, not a chivalric or honourable end to the siege. Like the Black Prince at Limoges, he threatened to massacre women and children. At Agincourt he failed to give a Christian burial even to the fallen Englishmen; only the bones of the two dead lords were taken home for burial. At Calais he failed to live up to the code of honour which de Gaucourt and d’Estouteville expected: they had fulfilled their oaths in turning up to pay their ransom; and they reasonably expected Henry to honour his side of the bargain; but he did not. Henry’s refusal to pay his men for the last eight days of the expedition was similarly dishonourable, as was his failure to provide food for the archers when they reached Calais. At the end of the year, we cannot see Henry V in 1415 in a chivalric light. He regarded the common Englishman in his army as little more than a chattel, and the French men-at-arms as enemies of God, to be treated according to God’s law, not the laws of chivalry. Only the most important Frenchmen were held in any esteem by him – because they represented the magnitude of his triumph.

Another of Henry’s more significant failures was incremental debt. As this book shows, the royal council was aware that he was not financially secure enough to go to war in February 1415; and the budget in June confirmed their impression. And yet he plunged the crown into even greater debt, and even pawned the Crown Henry. Most of the crown in question was not redeemed until 1430.18 Historians writing in the afterglow of McFarlane’s view of Henry have tended to gloss over such failings. One scholar has gone so far as to remark that there was ‘no opposition’ to Henry’s repeated requests for extraordinary taxation from parliament.19 However, as a closer look reveals, prior to Agincourt there was indeed opposition: in the parliament of November 1414 as well as the York convocation of January 1415; it was rather that the opponents were overruled on both occasions, not that there was ‘no opposition’. Similarly it is said that Henry’s officers managed to ‘mobilise’ £131,000 for the Agincourt campaign, with the implication that he should be congratulated for his fiscal resourcefulness. Yet Henry achieved this in the most underhand way. Many items pawned in 1415 were never redeemed in his lifetime. Many debts were never repaid. Many lords were not reimbursed for their troops’ wages for several years. All of these effectively constituted short-term loans, repayable when Henry deemed it desirable, but more often than not, he did not deem it desirable in his lifetime. Of the 25,000 marks he undertook to pay for his father’s possessions, he only paid 6,000; and he himself ‘died almost as insolvent as his late father had been’.20

The negative accounting of Henry’s year would not be complete without raising the fundamental point of his entire war policy. Just in terms of loss of lives and the heavy ongoing costs, there are good reasons to say that it was a bad strategy as well as a needless one. First, as the mottoes displayed in London on his homecoming reveal, Henry’s campaign led to an anti-French rhetoric which was deeply divisive. Whereas in November 1414 some Members of Parliament had argued against war, in November 1415 the French had become ‘those who afflict us … those who hate us’ and Henry was described as England’s saviour from such people. This was the result of propaganda. The reality was that the English had not needed saving, and they would have benefited more from peaceful cooperation with France rather than the ensuing hostility that Henry fomented and which lasted decades.

There was a more subtle and damaging implication to this incitement to hate the French, and it is probably the most negative thing one can say about Henry V. The main reason to re-start the war in 1415 was to prove the right of the Lancastrians to occupy the throne of England. However, by making the legitimacy of the Lancastrian dynasty subject to winning victories over the French, Henry mortgaged his future and that of his descendants. They had to be successful – always – for if there was a failure, it would immediately raise the question of whether the Lancastrians still enjoyed God’s approval. What Henry had thus started was a war which he could not possibly win, and which would lead to many deaths, including his own and that of his brother, Thomas. It was a fight against fate; and thus a fight against time, for, sooner or later, the French were bound to win a battle or two. And those victories would cast doubt over the legitimacy of the Lancastrians to govern England, as well as France. It is no coincidence that, soon after the war justifying the legitimacy of the Lancastrian dynasty had been lost in France, it shifted on to English soil and became a civil war – the Wars of the Roses.


Professor Curry’s assertion that ‘for every bad thing one can say about Henry V, there are dozens of good things to say in his defence’ is difficult to put into practice for the year 1415. In fact there seem to be relatively few ‘good things’ one can say about him in this year, especially when trying to defend him against the charges of cruelty, overwhelming pride, high-handedness, incurring crippling debts, ignoring chivalric codes of honour, and mortgaging the future of his entire dynasty. However, the legend of Henry V is not without a basis in reality. What one needs to do is to get away from the day-by-day details of the year, stop criticising him for every niggling failure, and picture the man’s vision and achievements in relation to his time. And when we do that, we can say a number of positive things about him.

Many of these positives can be summed up in the word ‘unity’. Almost all the domestic rifts which had existed at Christmas 1414 had been healed by the end of the year. Questions over the legitimacy of the Lancastrian dynasty had been emphatically answered at Agincourt – for the time being, at least. Moreover, in the organisation and prosecution of the war, he galvanised the various forces and groups of the kingdom and gave them a common political purpose. At the same time he gave many of them a common spiritual purpose in the eradication of heresy and the defence of the Church. Such unity England had not known in the reigns of Richard II and Henry IV. It thus constitutes a considerable achievement.

The key to the unity of the kingdom was domestic peace between the magnates. Edward II’s entire reign had been wrecked by divisions between the great men of the realm. Richard II’s had likewise been greatly disturbed, and Henry IV’s was one long disturbance from beginning to end. But Henry managed to reconcile most of the disaffected families – the Hollands, the Despensers, the Mortimers, the Percys – and those individuals who refused to accept this reconciliation were forced to keep quiet by the consequences of the earl of Cambridge’s plot. At the same time, Henry calmed the possible divisions within his own family by managing his relationship with his brother Thomas in a satisfactory way, and keeping the peace between Thomas and his uncle Henry Beaufort.

Henry’s relations with the clergy were similarly enhanced and strengthened. The prelates of both convocations, ever mindful of threats in parliament to remove their temporal income, saw Henry as a strong defender of the Church. In his deeply pious and moral lifestyle – even endowing and building new monasteries – they saw an example of how lords should behave. They also found him willing to continue the campaign against Lollardy for as long as it took to extirpate heresy. In this respect 1415 was particularly important, for the burnings of Claydon and Gurmyn were among the last martyrdoms to take place during this early phase of Lollardy. Inquisitions continued to be held into Lollard practices but increasingly the supposed heretics were absolved of their crimes. Henry was thus seen by the clergy as winning the battle against Lollardy, acting in collaboration with Archbishop Chichele, who issued an order against Lollards in July 1416, and the new pope Martin V, elected in 1417, who similarly issued a bull against followers of Wycliffe. After Oldcastle had been captured, brought to trial and burnt at the stake in 1417, it was many years before anyone else was burnt for Lollardy. The clergy also acknowledged the divine signal in his victory at Agincourt, and Henry’s religious propaganda reinforced his image as a man of God. Although there had been opposition to Henry’s subsidy in the York convocation of 1415, it did not resurface after he had proved himself as a ruthless oppressor of heretics and a victor on the field of battle.

Parliament likewise was won over by Henry in 1415. Whereas in November 1414 the Speaker, Thomas Chaucer, had had great difficulty in persuading parliament to voice support for the war, and had only elicited the grant in order to defend the realm, the atmosphere in the parliament of November 1415 was euphoric. From this it is evident that Henry pleased the majority of his people. The antagonism which had existed between parliament and the king in the reign of Henry IV was clearly a thing of the past. At the same time Henry’s victory pleased the Londoners, who saw themselves in a partnership with the victorious king, claiming that London was ‘the city of the king of justice’ on his return. This was the very opposite of the suspicion and hostility with which the men of the capital and the king viewed each other in the reign of Richard II.

As the foregoing passages show, Agincourt was the key to his success. Had he lost that battle as originally reported, he would be regarded today as a self-deluded failure. But he did not lose, and the symbolism of that victory was all-important. Agincourt has been described as a ‘singularly unproductive victory – from the strategic point of view’, but that view is limited in its exclusively secular character. Agincourt delivered the unity of the magnates, clergy, parliament and Londoners in support of the king, and so was of immense strategic value.21 Symbolic victories demonstrated God’s approval, and thus the likelihood of future successes. Agincourt guaranteed Henry’s unrivalled tenure of the throne and permitted him to raise more money to send future expeditions to France, culminating in the conquest of Normandy. Had he not won such a decisive victory, his standing in England would have been lower, and his authority to command the kingdom’s forces would have been commensurately reduced.

This hints at another of Henry’s achievements in 1415: the completion of the restoration of the royal dignity. The previous thirty years had seen the standing of the monarchy in England sink very low – so low that Richard II was deposed in 1399 by overwhelming popular consent. But the new royal family found it almost impossible to recover the dignity of Edward III’s time. The rivalry between Henry IV and Richard II continued even after Richard’s death, with faked signet letters from him being circulated and a series of rebellions and assassination attempts mounted against Henry IV and his family. The question of Lancastrian legitimacy never went away; and after Henry IV fell ill, the royal dignity sank so low it became a subject for parliamentary discussion. The king was too feeble, too indebted and too vulnerable to reverse the situation. Prince Henry himself directly contributed to the decline of the royal dignity, by trying to arrange his father’s abdication. Had that happened, people would have looked on the kings of England as not being kings for life but only for as long as their heirs and parliaments would permit them to occupy the throne. Edward II had been forced to abdicate by parliament in favour of his son; Richard II had been deposed in parliament in favour of his cousin. If Henry IV had also been dethroned, people would have questioned whether his successor was king by the will of God or by the will of parliament.

Henry V’s accession did not automatically bring this situation to an end. The pro-Richard II protest in Westminster Abbey at the time of his accession, Sir John Oldcastle’s rising, and the earl of Cambridge’s plot all served to demonstrate that Henry had to dosomething to restore the royal dignity; he could not just expect it to happen. But he did do what was required. He made good the things his father had left undone, such as reburying Richard II in his rightful place and commissioning the completion of Westminster Abbey. He remedied the shortcomings of royal foundations, such as the collapsing fabric of St Werbergh’s church in Chester and the discipline of the Dominican nuns of Dartford. And he set an example of a king who was hardworking, pious, well-read, intelligent, attentive to justice and the public weal, courageous and, most of all, victorious. England could be proud of its king in December 1415.

Henry also raised England’s prestige abroad. In fact, he arguably managed to exceed his great-grandfather Edward III in this respect, for his enhancement of English standing was twofold: spiritual as well as military. At Constance he ensured that the English were recognised as a nation in their own right, and maintained a firebrand spokesman there in the bishop of Salisbury. His influence was felt in many aspects of the council’s work, from laying down the law on Wycliffe and heresy to the reform of the Church and the papacy. He made Sigismund aware of his desire for there to be close ties between himself and the Holy Roman Empire, and did what he could to demonstrate this affinity to the rest of Christendom. This policy paid off in 1416 when Sigismund came in person to London, was inducted into the Order of the Garter, and agreed a treaty with Henry. All Europe could see the honour bestowed on Henry, and on England.

The military achievement of Agincourt was of even greater significance in enhancing England’s international standing. Whether we approve or not, in the fifteenth century success in battle remained the benchmark of divine approval and chivalric dignity. Henry could break all the chivalric codes he wanted, but he would still be respected by knights and men-at-arms throughout Europe because he had been successful in battle. He had deliberately set out to emulate Edward III’s greatest victories, and he had succeeded; he thus recovered not only the royal dignity in England, but also reinstated English dignity internationally. England was no longer riven by domestic disputes between magnates, or between the king and the Londoners. It was a kingdom that could put forth an army and defeat the French in battle. And if Henry could defeat the French, the greatest military kingdom in Christendom, then he could defeat anyone.

Finally we come to the most lasting and greatest achievement of Henry V in 1415: inspiring a legend. Today his achievements have long been undone or rendered irrelevant. The symbolic value of Agincourt had little practical value after his death, and the war increasingly became a greater liability than an opportunity, until the English were finally thrown out of Gascony in 1453. Henry’s policy towards Lollards was temporarily successful; but he could not control people’s changing beliefs. In reality he lost the battle against the followers of Wycliffe on 6 July 1415, when Jan Hus became a martyr at Constance and inspired the whole world – including eventually Martin Luther, whose ninety-five theses would trigger the Protestant Reformation 102 years later. But nevertheless, Henry’s legend lives on, and he is still considered a great king, even though we live in a world that normally condemns nationalist leaders for starting wars in order to strengthen their domestic political position. Like Jan Hus, Henry V’s actual achievements have become less important than his inspirational qualities, which have proved enduring.

In England, of course, Henry’s legend has sometimes obscured the real man. Winston Churchill wrote lyrically about him being the founder of the English navy, and being the first English king to use the English language in his letters – forgetting or not realising that Edward III had commanded a considerably larger navy than Henry, and both Edward III and Henry IV had done much more to encourage the use of the English language. Other pseudo-achievements are still pinned on to Henry as a result of contemporary English chroniclers being in such awe of him, and striving to stress his achievements to the point of exaggeration. That they place the numbers of French troops at Agincourt in excess of sixty thousand, and in some cases over a hundred thousand, is a case in point. But we do not need to twist the statistics or invent facts to portray Henry as a single-minded, courageous and inspiring king. His story in 1415 is somewhat like that of Richard I on the Third Crusade. We do not need to believe that crusades were justifiable to appreciate the admirable qualities that the man displayed in the face of adversity. Indeed, we may deplore crusades, and equally disapprove of Henry’s recommencement of the war in France; and yet still we may admire the courage and resolution of a man who set out to achieve something, and encouraged men to follow him, and was prepared to risk his life for what he believed was right.

Henry V’s claim to greatness today thus lies predominantly in the legend that he inspired. Shakespeare’s ‘Henry’ might have preserved little of the cruelty and ‘scourge of God’ character of the real Henry, and the playwright certainly imbued his hero with more charm than the real Henry possessed, but we should not forget that Shakespeare was sufficiently inspired by Henry V to create a masterpiece: a sequence of four history plays that culminated in the triumph at Agincourt. Indeed, in that sense, the legend of Henry V really does live on, for Shakespeare’s character has developed into a more important cultural figure in the modern world than the real Henry V. There are many biographies of Henry V, and there are many books on Agincourt: but there are even more on the Shakespeare play, Henry V. Thus, as a leader of men engaged in a struggle against overwhelming odds, he has come to have meaning for the whole English-speaking world. And although it could be argued that the historical Henry does not deserve the credit for inspiring Shakespeare, it is fair to say that without that seed of greatness, the great work of literature would not have grown.

Let us not pretend, then, that Henry was perfect, nor that he was without blood on his hands. Harfleur, Agincourt, the executioner’s block at Southampton, and the fires of Lollardy – his achievements were born out of fear, luck and pride: dirty, bloody. The truth is that in life, as opposed to legend, there are no golden-boy champions; there are only men and women. Some of them achieve great things, some inspire poets to write great works lauding their achievements, but in reality they are all prone to weaknesses and criticism. In this light, the question of whether Henry V was ‘the greatest man to rule England’ is absurd. Greatness itself is absurd: an undefinable and distorting chimera. We should perhaps think rather in terms of the ‘least flawed’ ruler. Was Henry the least flawed man ever to rule England? No, he was deeply flawed. But did he achieve something extraordinary despite this, in spite of his weaknesses and his mistakes? Undoubtedly, yes. That is what gives us hope.

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