King Henry V Of England

The real man behind the legendary English King Henry V and a summary of the key events of his reign, including his battles in France.

King Henry V of England

Most people know king Henry V of England (b. Sept.[]) 1387; d. 21 Aug. 1422) as the rebellious Prince Hal and then the legendary warrior-king of Shakespeare's plays. In fact, Henry was from childhood on a conscientious, dutiful member of the feudal warrior class, notable primarily for his skill and luck at waging war.

Henry's grandfather, John of Gaunt, was the third son of Edward III. John's nephew, Richard II, was the son of Edward III's eldest son, Edward (known as the Black Prince). As part of an ongoing struggle with the nobility over the limits of royal power, Richard banished John's son Henry of Bolingbroke, and on John's death he confiscated John's vast Lancastrian estates. While Richard was in Ireland, attempting to quell an insurrection, Bolingbroke invaded England (1399), eventually seizing power as Henry IV after forcing Richard to abdicate.

On his expedition to Ireland, Richard was accompanied by his eleven-year-old cousin Henry of Monmouth--Henry of Bolingbroke's eldest son. During that time, Richard knighted his young cousin, and there is evidence that the young Henry felt both affection and admiration for King Richard. When Richard was taken prisoner by Bolingbroke, Henry's father, it is likely that the boy was torn between duty to a father he barely knew and loyalty to his royal cousin, whom he genuinely respected and cared for.

Henry of Monmouth's relationship with his father would never give evidence of warmth or deep affection, and it is possible that this emotional distance between the two was at least partly responsible for the popular tales of Prince Henry's rebellious youth.

But far from spending his youth carousing in taverns, as Shakespeare's Prince Hal does, the real Henry, Prince of Wales, spent his years from age twelve to age nineteen stationed in the Welsh marches, trying to maintain England's rule over rebellious Welshmen led by Owen Glendower.

At first Prince Henry "ruled" under the governorship of older, more experienced men. His first governor was Henry Percy (Hotspur), son of the Earl of Northumberland. Although Percy and his father were among Henry IV's earliest supporters when he challenged Richard for the crown, Hotspur eventually rebelled against Henry IV and died in battle at Shrewsbury against the royal forces.

By 1406, when he was nineteen, Henry was governing Wales in his own name. Both as a commander in the field and as a governor, Henry was brave, competent, and loyal to his father, King Henry IV.

By the end of 1406, after six years of hard fighting and governing in Wales, the by now experienced and well-seasoned young man was beginning to involve himself in matters of governance pertaining not just to Wales, but to the entire kingdom. From November of 1406 on, his presence begins to be recorded in government councils.

Because King Henry's health failed rapidly, his vigorous, ambitious son began to actively involve himself in matters of governance. His growing responsibility and influence is evidenced in the way the prince and his party achieved pre-eminence in the privy council and in important government posts, often replacing King Henry's own hand-picked and trusted advisors.

The king had placed his sons in key positions, where he needed trustworthy advisors and agents, but Prince Henry seemed determined also to dominate the machinery of government through his own surrogates. In 1410 and 1411, the prince and his party were clearly dominant in the privy council.

At the end of 1411, the king's health temporarily rallied and he once more took control of the council, replacing the prince and his supporters and shifting England's French policy. (The prince and his party had favored the Burgundian party in France, while the king favored the Orleanist party.)

Meanwhile, having withdrawn from the council, Prince Henry became the focus of rumors that he intended to overthrow his father, though he denied those rumors and fervently declared his complete loyalty to the king. Despite his protests the rumors were widely believed, and there is no doubt that the prince's popularity--much greater than his sick father's--helped to feed those rumors and to arouse the king's suspicions against his son.

A reconciliation was achieved in 1412, when the prince, kneeling before his father, offered him his own dagger, saying the king could slay him, for "my life is not so desirous to me that I woulde live one daye that I shoulde be to your displeasure."

The stories of Prince Henry's riotous youth are not contemporary, and they must be viewed skeptically. Certainly young noblemen and royals at that time indulged in behavior that would be considered outrageous today, yet Prince Henry's many years of responsible, dutiful service in Wales as both a warrior and an administrator, years that occupied his entire adolescence, suggest that he was always more sober and conscientious than such stories would allow.

On the other hand, his deliberate moves to gain control of the king's council and of the machinery of governance during the king's prolonged illness, plus the persistent rumors of his intended grab for the crown before it passed to him on his father's death, do suggest an undercurrent of friction between the king and his son, as well as a willingness on the prince's part to enhance his own power at his father's expense.

Prince Henry was crowned King Henry V on 2 April 1413. One of the first major challenges to his rule was led by his former friend and once loyal captain, Sir John Oldcastle. Oldcastle had become a Lollard, an adherent of the teachings of religious reformer John Wycliffe. Henry was rigidly orthodox in his beliefs, and his Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel, was determined to stamp out the Lollard heresy.

In September of 1413, Oldcastle was imprisoned in the Tower for his heretical beliefs, but he escaped and then spearheaded a Lollard plot to capture the king and the entire royal family during the 1413 Christmas celebration.

The plot was discovered and foiled, and most of the leading conspirators were captured and executed, but Oldcastle himself remained at large until the autumn of 1417. His success in evading capture provides evidence of continued pockets of resistance to the rule of a king whose father had, after all, usurped the throne.

The most serious plot against Henry V was the Southampton Plot of 1415, which came to light just before he set sail for his first expedition to France. The main instigators of this plot were the Earl of Cambridge, Thomas Gray, and Henry Lord Scrope, whose uncle Archbishop Scrope of Canterbury had been executed for his part in the 1405 conspiracy against Henry IV. Their plan to assassinate Henry V and place on the throne the Earl of March, Richard II's legitimate heir, was revealed to Henry by the Earl of March himself. The three conspirators were executed, and Henry sailed to France on schedule.

That expedition constituted a reopening of the Hundred years War, which had been temporarily halted by the Treaty of Bretigny in 1360. In that treaty, Edward III had agreed to surrender his claim to the French throne, inherited through his mother Isabella, daughter of King Philip the Fair of France, when the male Capetian line became extinct in 1328. In return, the French would give the British king full sovereignty over the duchy of Aquitaine, which was greatly enlarged by the addition of other nearby territories to the deal. In the north, the English territories would include Calais and several nearby counties.

But Edward's surrender of his claim to the French throne and his sovereignty over the enlarged duchy of Aquitaine were never formally ratified or put into effect, and in later years the French managed to recapture much of the territory they had lost to the English.

Thus Edward and his successors never formally abandoned their claim to the crown of France. In 1414, Henry V added to these claims his assertion of a legal right to the original lands of William the Conqueror in Normandy.

Despite frenzied diplomatic maneuvers between England and France during the months leading up to Henry's first expedition to France, there is little doubt that Henry always intended to go through with the invasion. His main purpose in pursuing diplomacy was probably to bolster his legal and moral position, since he could claim to have tried reason before resorting to force.

The fact is, Henry believed that his expedition had a good chance of success at that time because France was terribly weakened by civil strife among powerful French factions. At the center of French civil unrest was King Charles VI, who was often incapacitated by unpredictable bouts of insanity. Whichever faction could gain control of the king would dominate the government of France.

The French king's uncle, John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, had arranged the murder of his cousin and rival, Duke Louis of Orleans, in 1407, and then had been forced to seek English aid in 1411 when Louis's son Charles marched against him with a sizable army. But then when King Henry IV temporarily regained his health at the end of that year, he withdrew English support from the Burgundian faction favored by Prince Henry and his supporters and offered assistance to Duke Charles of Orleans.

In 1415, King Henry V was well aware that the French continued to be too preoccupied with their internal power struggles to effectively resist an English invasion.

Henry's initial goal when he embarked for France was to capture Harfleur, the great port of Normandy. After a month-long siege, he captured the fort and began the process of turning it into an English base.

Rather than follow the advice of his council, which was to return to England because of the lateness of the season and the loss of so many men during the long siege of Harfleur, Henry was determined to march his remaining troops the 160 miles to Calais, which would take perhaps eight days if all went well.

But his direct route to Calais was blocked by the French, and the English thus had to detour far out of their way to avoid battle with the much larger French forces. By the time it became evident that the English could not escape such a battle, Henry's troops were reduced and weakened by exhaustion, illness, and lack of provisions. Dispirited and facing overwhelming odds, Henry's men fully expected to die in battle.

Fortunately for the outnumbered English troops, the field of battle, lying between the villages of Maisoncelles, Agincourt, and Tramecourt, was particularly ill-suited to the heavily-armored French cavalry and their battle tactics. Their much larger numbers offered almost no advantage in a field that permitted no room for them to maneuver in. In many ways, in fact, their numbers hampered rather than helped them.

Furthermore, a continuous rain had left the field a muddy quagmire, where horses could barely manage a charge, despite straining to their utmost, and where knights in heavy armor sank to their ankles and above in the thick mud.

The French nobles contended with each other over pride of place, each insisting on his right to a lead position in the vanguard. There was no tactical organization--just a large number of arrogant french warriors determined to assert their own right to precedence in battle, like a star-laden sports team that loses its games because the players are concerned only with their own glory, not with functioning as a team.

English archers released endless volleys of arrows, felling horses and blocking the oncoming French foot column with barriers of dead bodies, fallen horses, and thrown riders. The French charge piled up on itself, but was enormous enough to finally break through. Nevertheless, the French were overwhelmed by the English in the hand-to-hand combat. Not only were they relying on outdated and inappropriate battle tactics, but their numbers created confusion in their own ranks and problems with movement on the field.

In their greed for glory, the flower of the French nobility had fallen in the front ranks of the initial charge. Many of those who did not die were captured, thus depriving France of most of its natural war-leaders.

The Battle of Agincourt, won against such enormous odds on 25 October 1415, was taken by Henry to be a sign of God's favor and of the justice of his cause. It also forever burnished his image as England's pre-eminent warrior-king and hero, surpassing even the legendary Richard the Lion-Hearted.

After a brief return to England, Henry set out in August of 1417 for a second expedition to France. His aim this time was to conquer the duchy of Normandy and to use it as a base for his further conquests in France. He first captured Caen and several smaller towns, and then, after a long and bitter siege, he finally captured Rouen. Even as he made war, he continued to negotiate with both the Burgundian and the Orleanist factions. His success at playing the two sides against each other was briefly interrupted when Duke John of Burgundy made a treaty with the dauphin, who was controlled by the Orleanists, to join in resisting the English invaders.

But when John was murdered during a meeting with the dauphin, his son Philip made common cause with the English against the dauphin and his supporters.

By this time Duke Philip had also joined forces with King Charles's Queen, Isabel. Together the two controlled King Charles. At Troyes, in May of 1420, Henry signed a three-way pact with Philip of Burgundy and Queen Isabel, acting for King Charles. The Treaty of Troyes gave him the French Princess Catherine as his bride, made him heir to the French throne on Charles's death, and also essentially made him regent of France--provided he could maintain that position through force of arms against the dauphin's armies.

After his wedding to Catherine on 2 June 1420, Henry returned to waging war against the dauphin for control of France. After a brief visit to England the following year, for Catherine's coronation and to raise money for his continued military campaigns, Henry returned to France, where he won a string of minor battles over the course of the next year. Despite his victories, he never managed more than a precarious hold over the French countryside.

Years of military campaigning had taken its toll on the king. During the summer of 1422, he suffered chronic fever and dysentery, a common killer of soldiers at that time. He died on 21 August 1422, at the age of thirty-five, leaving as his heir a nine-month-old son that he had never seen.

He also left England deeply in debt from his constant wars of conquest, and both England and France were burdened for many decades by civil strife and bloody dynastic wars, as a direct legacy of Henry V's ambitious forays into France.

Yet the English have always revered Henry V as a great national hero, idealizing his reign as a lost golden age of national triumph, glory, and unity.

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