Post-classical history

Prologue

This book is not about a battle. It is about a man and his time. I have tried to show what he was and what he achieved over the course of one year: what he believed in, what he destroyed and what he became.

The subject was not an ordinary man. Indeed, Henry V was not an ‘ordinary’ king. He was a hero in his own lifetime. Following his early death in France in 1422, he was given a semi-legendary status. In the 1590s he was already established as an English national icon; Shakespeare simply took that icon and gave it an enduring value, even to less warlike generations, by putting his most patriotic speeches into Henry’s mouth. Shakespeare also gave Henry a more rounded, likeable personality: he gave him a cheeriness that the real Henry never had. When presented with the good looks and dramatic flair of Lawrence Olivier, in his film of Shakespeare’s Henry V, delivered in an appropriately patriotic style for English and American audiences during the Second World War, Henry became the archetypal English champion. His negative traits were forgotten, all the failures of the age were blamed on other men, and all the successes attributed to him.

As a result of this extreme adulation even the most scholarly historians have found it difficult to maintain their historical objectivity. The most famous example is the declaration by the English historian K. B. McFarlane that Henry V was, ‘the greatest man that ever ruled England’.1 Many other writers have presented Henry as the typical medieval warrior-hero, regardless of his solemnity and profoundly religious nature. So, although this book is about a man and his time, it is also about challenging certain assumptions that we make about him. I do think he was an extraordinary man, in that he demonstrated phenomenal organisational skills, focus, determination, resilience, leadership and – above all else – religious conviction; but I also feel he was a deeply flawed individual. He lacked the simpler qualities of compassion, warmth, and the understanding of human frailty that one naturally looks for in all men – yeomen and paupers as well as kings. McFarlane, preaching from a pulpit of academic prejudice against historical biography, failed to draw attention to these shortcomings of his character.2 Thus my verdict on Henry’s supposed ‘greatness’ is very different from Mr McFarlane’s.

There are already dozens of books on Henry V and dozens more on Agincourt – many of them by academic specialists who have devoted decades to the study of Henry and his battles. So it is fair to ask: what can I hope to do historically, over and above their collective efforts? What are the aims of this book?

First, it is a continuation of my examination of the nature of personality and political ambition in the middle ages, continuing these themes from my earlier books about Roger Mortimer, Edward III and Henry IV. It is thus the fourth volume of my ‘biographical history’ of later medieval England. Second, I have tried to give a fuller and more representative view of Henry’s non-military activities in this year, especially his religious deeds, which tend to be very briefly noted as examples of his spirituality in full-length biographies and books about Agincourt. Third, I have paid much more attention than usual to the characters and social movements that formed the backdrop to Henry’s ambitions in 1415, especially with regard to the papal conflicts and the burning of Jan Hus at the council of Constance. It is important to remember that, at the same time as Henry was trying to reunite the ‘kingdom of England and France’, many people were trying to reunite the Church, and Henry himself drew parallels between the two unifying movements. Fourth, I have tried to show how Henry’s activities were part of a wider attempt to unite religious and political authority at the time – a European-wide movement towards establishing the divine right of kings, and in many ways the basis for the shift towards absolutism in the following century.

The most significant innovation in this book is its calendar structure. One might call this an experiment in historical form. I have asked whether we can arrive at a different view of a historical subject through presenting well-known historical facts in a radically different way. As will be seen, a calendar-based form does permit many new insights. It forces a greater degree of accuracy with regard to dates and developmental processes. Repetition of key aspects of Henry’s behaviour appear in proportion to the evidence, and juxtapositions of important events go a long way to explaining some of his decisions. Above all else, the integration of all the various aspects of his life – the religious and the social, the judicial and the political – allow a vision of Henry that is very different from the patriotic stories with which we grew up. The book therefore is a demonstration of how a different framework may be used to see the past differently, and how we may obtain a new ‘projection’ (to borrow a term from geography) of the past by presenting historical events in a more chronologically precise way.

Having said that, the calendar form has its complications. Describing a whole year in a man’s life, day by day, is a huge literary challenge. I do not think that it has been attempted previously for a medieval or early modern individual. This is a very different book from 1599 by James Shapiro, for example, which is not a day-to-day study of Shakespeare. It is impossible to avoid the fact that the calendar is a non-literary structure, like the Periodic Table of the Elements, and creating a literary work out of the Periodic Table in atomic order would be a challenge for anyone (even Tom Lehrer had to change the order of the elements in his famous song). The author has to maintain a balance between the facts on the one hand and readability on the other. This balance pivots around the question: which details should be included in their proper place, and which might be safely excluded or mentioned elsewhere? Normally historians resolve this question silently, through excising anything that is not relevant to their thesis or theme, and this process of selection is concealed within the structure of their books. However, in this study, which has no structure except the days of the year, everything relating to the king and his challenges is relevant. To exclude or change the position of anything would partially distort the picture of Henry V in 1415. Moreover, it is only by including everything that we can start to go beyond the evidence and to remark on aspects of normal medieval behaviour that do not feature in Henry’s life – his lack of relationships with women, for example, or the lack of references to jousting. Herein lies the problem: to include every fact in its proper place would result in a massive book, full of repetitive lists of apparently inconsequential details; yet to cut or remove anything would distort our image of the man in this year, and ruin the experiment.

In trying to reconcile these problems of information, chronology and readability I have tended towards fullness and precision. I have included almost everything I can find relating to the king’s decision-making, even such routine things as the confirmation of episcopal elections, warrants for arrest, commissions of inquiry, and the granting of royal pensions. In most cases these have been included under the heading of the day specified in the document. I have not included everything known for the year, however; I have excluded regular appointments and payments that were routinely made by the bureaucrats at Westminster (unless the nature of the grant suggests that Henry was personally involved). Some matters of accounting detail from May to August have been relegated to the notes section, to avoid tedious repetition. I have ignored administrative clarifications, such as confirmations of earlier royal grants by chancery officials, which would distract from the main purpose of the book. On the whole, I have tried to use as many facts as possible to give a full and multi-dimensional view of Henry – as a warrior, organiser, devoted Christian, patron, statesman and king – and I have sought to show how he behaved in relation to priests, subjects, women, diplomats, brothers and friends, as well as those who fought for him and those who fought against him.

At the heart of this book – at the heart of all historical endeavour – there is one overarching purpose: to satisfy an instinctive desire to understand our race in other ages and in different circumstances, with regard to both individuals and communities, and to see how we have changed over the intervening centuries. For this reason I make no apology for wanting to go beyond patriotic hagiography and to look for the ‘real’ Henry V, as opposed to the charismatic Shakespearian hero or McFarlane’s ‘greatest man’. I have tried to draw attention to the complexities within Henry as an individual as well as the complexities of generally understanding men in a violent, God-fearing age. As I stressed at the end of my study of Edward III, it is in the inconsistencies of a character that one gets close to knowing the man. It is not in the bland generalisations that we find truth, but in the apparent irregularities that demand explanation. If I have alerted people to the fact that a man may be a hero and yet a monster, that he can be seen as blessed by God and yet be a wanton destroyer of lives, and that even a king might set himself on the path to his own self-destruction and the negation of his humanity in order to win recognition as something that people associate with ‘greatness’, then I will have succeeded.

This book is, therefore, not just a book about a man and his time, and not just about the significance of this year in his life. Nor is it just about reversing any assumptions made about him. It is about the way we understand people in the past and, by implication, the way we understand ourselves.

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