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Saturday, 21 August 2010

Henry V, an English icon revisited (the icon series)

henry v of england Painting is in "The Ro...Image via Wikipedia
Henry V (16 September 1386* – 31 August 1422) is an English icon embedded in our cultural identity. This is largely due to William Shakespeare’s immortal play “The Chronicle History of Henry V” and its two prequels concerning his father’s reign. The medieval king from the house of Lancaster has been painted in literature as the archetypical English hero. He begins as the roguish tearaway Prince Hal in his youth, son of the usurper Henry of Bollingbroke now known as Henry IV, but becomes a pious and gallant warrior who cements his reputation when he defeats the French on their home ground at the Battle of Agincourt. This symbolic and yet short-lived battle is where the mythology of Henry V begins. Like many icons, Henry V’s legend began during his lifetime. He was purposefully modelled by his propaganda in a way that was so convincing that it has inspired many people up to the present day. However, as primary source evidence indicates, Henry V was also responsible for several atrocities during his lifetime and, in particular, during 1415 when he fought his most famous battle. 
This hasn’t stopped the famous blue-blooded adventurer and writer; Sir Ranulph Fiennes from making the warrior king his idol. Fiennes, a descendent of Henry V and fighters on both sides at Agincourt, explained on Radio 4’s biography series “Great Lives” that he admired the great king’s relationship with the common solider. Being an officer in his father’s regiment, the Royal Scots Greys, and later the Special Air Service, this huge military image of Henry V has an appeal to Fiennes. Given the scale of Henry’s ambitions he also strikes a figure of an adventurer, something else Fiennes explained in his radio interview served as a source of inspiration. Dr Juliet Barker, the medieval expert and authority of Henry V also interviewed on the show, helped explain Henry’s extraordinary focus and organizational qualities. She began her interview discussing how Henry came to the throne carrying a huge burden of guilt from his father’s usurpation, but with strong ideas and a decisive attitude to get all of England’s affairs in order. Both Barker and Fiennes agreed upon Henry’s many strengths and in particular his ability to empathize with the common soldier, which Barker argues won him the “unswerving support” of his subjects.
Fiennes, who is noted more for his extraordinary achievements as an explorer, adventurer and philanthropist, raising incredible sums of money for charity during his expeditions, is clearly more into the myth of Henry V than the actual history. Barker did have to explain, for example, that contrary to the carousing “Prince Hal” image of Shakespeare’s plays “Henry IV Part One” and “Henry IV Part Two” there is no evidence to suggest he was a roguish tearaway before he became king. She explained in her interview how this was a popular archetype attributed to heroic figures. It sits well with the Christian idea of redemption – the story of a great king who puts his sinful past behind him to become a pious and righteous monarch. Barker puts it that the story is perhaps an allegory for maturity, explaining how man must put away his childish pursuits when faced with the responsibility of supreme authority. Even to this day you will find many historical books who have repeated the later propaganda on Henry V’s pre-kingly life and it was something that the majority bought into during the time of Shakespeare’s play. Barker argues that no contemporary source evidence shows anything of these carousing days to be true.
It is a conclusion also supported by Ian Mortimer, another historian, but one who has a far less favourable opinion on Henry V. Barker says that Prince Henry was far too busy and preoccupied with his own responsibilities to live a wild life. Indeed one point that all the sources, including Shakespeare, agree upon is that Henry IV’s rule was a very troubled one beset by various rebellions. Prince Henry was involved in putting down English insurgencies and was locked in conflict with Glendower’s Welsh rebellions. It is little surprising that Henry would be remembered for his military career given the amount of experience he grew up around. In fact, it is arguable that he was keener than his father in this respect, seeking to continue his great-grandfather Edward III’s work by invading France. It was politics like this that put Henry at loggerheads with his father during Henry IV’s latter years. The two were publically reconciled, but if we are to follow Mortimer’s accounts at one stage Prince Henry’s ascension to the throne was possibly in question.
Both Barker, the supporter of Henry V, and Mortimer, the critic, agree that the French campaign climaxing with Agincourt was centred on Henry’s justification in the eyes of God of his right to be king. Both also appear to agree that he wasn’t really much of a talker. Fiennes actually likes the fact that Henry V was a man of little words rather being Shakespeare’s great motivating orator. For Fiennes, this just shows why he was so beloved of his men – he was a man of action, not pretty speeches.
Mortimer is not so convinced by Henry’s relationship with his men. Despite agreeing that Henry was very courageous, single-minded, focused and had tremendous organizational skills, Mortimer argues he was a very callous and humourless man. He seemed to care little for those immediately outside his carefully manufactured personal circle of trust. He ran a campaign on very strict rules for his troops. Concerned with the image of being a godly king he was very careful about his men’s behaviours outside of battle sullying his reputation or offending God. However, this extended far beyond having a tight control over his men’s excesses. In Mortimer’s “1415: Henry the V’s Year of Glory” there is primary source evidence of Henry virtually starving his archers by making them travel and then strictly prohibiting their movements. Mortimer also relays the king’s orders that any woman caught near their camp was to be given a warning to stay away. If they came back they were to have one arm broken. After the victory of Agincourt, many of Henry’s soldiers were left to make their own way home without a week’s wages. Even in death Henry, the great pious king, forbade the vast majority of his soldiers the dignity of Christian burials. For expediency he had hundreds of their bodies piled up and burned. Only a very select few of his close friends on the campaign were prepared appropriately and shipped back to England for burial.
There are many known controversies surrounding Henry’s campaign in 1415, the year that made his name in English history, and Barker and Fiennes did not shy away from them during their light-hearted discussion. At Agincourt Henry made a decision that even shocked those at the time, he ordered the slaughter of all the French prisoners. Fiennes and Barker go with the contemporary argument put forward by Henry’s supporters that it was essential to do this in order to prevent the prisoners from teaming up with the rest of the French. Mortimer, not surprisingly, doesn’t buy this and cannot see that this was a real threat. He argues the decision was made, in haste, at a certain phase of the battle when Henry was concerned that his men would be too preoccupied with securing the wealthy ransoms for their prisoners than focusing on the battle at hand.
Even Henry’s seemingly merciful decisions have been brought into question. At Harfleur, for example, he allowed the women and children to go free. This was not as magnanimous as it first seems. The women and children were effectively cast out to fend for themselves with no provisions or protection whatsoever, leaving them to the mercy of the elements, dehydration, malnutrition and the high likelihood of attacks by bandits. Furthermore, he had already attacked in direct contravention of even the secular laws of engagement at the time – threatening to kill every citizen of Harfleur if it was not surrendered to him. In his letter to Harfleur, Henry had aligned himself with the ancient laws of the Torah. He was enacting a Deuteronomic law. There had been a precedent. Edward “The Black Prince” had attacked Limoges in 1370. Contemporary chronicler Jean Froissart asserted that Edward and his army had killed everyone when they finally broke through the walls. This type of reasoning was typical of Henry. He was even more of a religious fundamentalist than his father and seemed to believe that he was doing God’s duty when he invaded France
He saw himself as God’s representative on Earth and this allowed him to break just about every secular or Christian law in place. Of course, he did his best to justify his every act of war by not only asserting his reasons through English bloodline, but being seen to be willing to negotiate for peace before hand. Throughout 1415 he willingly accepted ambassadors from France, but his actions long before they arrived and throughout the discussions did not paint a picture of a man fighting for peace. Of all primary source evidence one of the most revealing are financial accounts. From hard figures we can tell a lot about a person’s intentions. Henry was undeniably preparing for war in France.
This is further backed up by the demands Henry made of France from the beginning to the end of his 1415 campaign. His correspondence with the French ambassadors, their king and Raoul de Gaucourt, the defender of Harfleur, clearly show a man determined to provoke rather than to negotiate. He refused to accept any of the monetary, marital or land concessions offered to him by France. He was not for haggling and essentially demanded half the country.
After the 1415 campaign and the victory of Agincourt that had cost the crown and taxpayers a fortune, not mention the lives of hundreds both in battle and to the dysentery that ran rife through the siege of Harfleur what was the result? Well, it wasn’t long before the French got their lands back, so it wasn’t much in expansionist terms. However, this really wasn’t Henry’s primary objective. Both his modern day supporters and critics agree that the reason behind the campaign was to assert and prove Henry’s position as king. He was the son of a usurper, someone who had taken the throne away from God’s representative on Earth. Furthermore, he had publically fallen out of favour with his father and at one stage it looked like he might even have been passed over by one of his brothers. The Agincourt campaign proved in the eyes of God - and no less to Henry himself - that he was the rightful ruler of England.
My attention was first drawn to Henry V when I studied for my A level in English literature. I was studying Shakespeare’s earlier play “Richard III”. My English teacher, great man that he was, insisted that I watch all of Shakespeare’s History Cycle in order to get a real feel for the background being described in “Richard III”. The History Cycle consists of eight plays. Those covering the Wars of the Roses and the ascension of “Henry VII – Henry VI Parts I, II and III”, and “Richard III” - were written first, those predating these events – “Richard II”, “Henry IV Parts I and II” and “Henry V” – were written second. To draw a somewhat crude comparison it is much like George Lucas’s two Star Wars trilogies – the original three films and the prequel trilogy. “Richard III” is a blatant and melodramatic piece of propaganda, made to flatter Elizabeth I and the Tudor dynasty. Henry VII, who started the House of Tudor, symbolically ends the War of the Roses in “Richard III” and deposes the villainous Richard III in single combat. It also rights the original sin against God committed by Henry IV when he deposed Richard II. When Shakespeare went back to record these earlier events he was fully aware that despite the supposed sin committed by Henry of Lancaster, Richard II was generally accepted by all as a weak king and Henry V was an institutionalized hero. Therefore his victory at Agincourt ends the second four plays he wrote on a high note. Shakespeare gives Henry V some of the most inspiring pieces of oratory ever written. It is built on the strong propaganda machine put out during Henry’s lifetime and the legend that persisted.
Henry’s victorious campaigns may have not really improved England in a functional way and their motives were clearly inspired by extreme self-centred egotism and a type of overzealous religiosity that was severe even for medieval times, but as is often the case the people fell in love with its symbolism. I think of him much in the same way as the myth of John F. Kennedy or even Princess Diana. These are people whose image far outshone their actual deeds. They represented a idealism – a certain heroism that resonated with the people of their age. However, with the case of Henry V it would appear that his image well and truly stood the test of time, so much so that the arguments presented in the book of a highly respected and accomplished historian like Ian Mortimer have proven to be something of a shock. Now when I look back at those who wrote before him, you cannot help but feel that they wanted so badly to believe in the legendary image. They wanted to strip away the Shakespearean oratory and the obvious propaganda, but still be able to present a figure of a man who was truly great. In many respects it seems that he was and Mortimer credits him with some extraordinary and commendable abilities. He is also perhaps a little unfair in places. He might have argued that certain “acts of mercy” was done for pure image during his campaigns, but the point remains that there were those – such as the Black Prince – who did follow through with their dreadful threats.  
His bravery and intelligence is without question. He not only fought in thick of it during his various battles, even fighting with his feet on the ground as he defended the wounded body of one of his brothers at Agincourt, but carefully plotted his every move. However, it is worth mentioning that during his relatively short reign more people were burned at the stake for supposed heresy than during the reigns of his extremely religious father and many of the monarchs before him. Mortimer also points out Henry’s illegal claiming of lands in his home country and the fact that he did not win “the praise of the world”. Many viewed him as a tyrant and Mortimer goes onto speculate that the type of Godly right of kings concept Henry believed in and vigorously endorsed through his sword was what would eventually result in the English Civil War centuries later.  

*Juliet Barker argues that we know his birthday for sure as his horoscope was cast and recorded.

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Ian Mortimer's revealing and in depth revisionist analysis of Henry V through the year that made him a legend:

Juliet Barker's account of Henry V's most famous campaign:

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