A Study Guide for Shakespeare's Henry V

Henry V

HENRY V (1413-1422)
(adapted from The History of England by I. Tenen)

The genius of Shakespeare has perpetuated an impression of Henry V, before his accession to the throne, as a dissipated young man who spent most of his time in low-class taverns with disreputable companions. There may have been a popular tradition to this effect, but it is difficult to see how it fits in with the official accounts of Henry's work as Prince of Wales. He led armies against Owen Glendower for years, fought on the Scottish border as well, and took a prominent part in the King's Council, all before he was twenty-five. Besides all this, he took religion very seriously. This is difficult to reconcile with the picture of a jovial madcap Prince Hal, boon companion of sots and foot-pads. However, both Shakespeare (or Holinshed) and history agree that, on his accession, he devoted himself entirely to his royal duties.

Henry's hatred of the Lollards showed itself immediately by his arrest of the most influential among them, Lord Cobham, as good a soldier as he was a scholar, sometimes known by his earlier title, Sir John Oldcastle. The leading prelates found him guilty of heresy and he was imprisoned in the Tower pending his execution at the stake. He escaped and organised the London Lollards with a view to a revolution. Henry was told of the plot and surrounded them with troops as they assembled for a midnight rendezvous near Westminster. Some were burned as heretics, others hanged and imprisoned as rebels (14I4). The government professed to know of plans for a general rising of Lollards throughout England, and the authorities joined the clergy in a hunt for heretic-rebels. Cobham escaped at the time but was caught and executed in I4I7. After this, we hear no more of the Lollards and can only guess that their doctrines circulated in secret and influenced later movements.

Henry's conscience now being clear, he was ready to devote himself to the problem of France. He sent the French king a demand for the whole of western France and Flanders as well as the Princess Katharine for his bride. In the event of a refusal, he threatened to claim the French throne. The French made a counter offer of two-thirds of Aquitaine and a large sum of money as Katharine's dowry, and Henry refused. If Edward III's claim to the French throne had been weak enough, Henry's was weaker. In any case, Edmund, Earl of March, now a young man on the best of terms with Henry, had a better claim legally to both thrones. Henry was determined to conquer France, and even if he had persuaded himself that his cause was just, to us the sanctimonious air of righteous indignation which he finally adopted smacks of hypocrisy.

Just as Henry was preparing to sail for France at midsummer in 1415, a conspiracy was discovered. Richard, Earl of Cambridge, who had married the Earl of March's sister , had organised a plot to rouse Wales and the north and put his brother-in-law on the throne. But the Earl of March was not at all ambitious and revealed the plot to the king, who had the leaders beheaded. Henry sailed to the mouth of the Seine and after a short siege captured Harfleur, which he meant to use as a base for the conquest of Normandy. Serious illness broke out in his army, and as it was now autumn, he decided not to continue the offensive. But instead of returning straight to Southampton he decided to march along the coast to Calais, perhaps in order to see how much resistance he would encounter. When he reached the Somme estuary, he found the ford by which Edward III had crossed in I346 strongly defended. The English were therefore compelled to march a long way up the river before they could cross. By this time their provisions were running short and a large French army was approaching, which a few days later barred their way at Agincourt. Henry chose a position between two woods which would compel the enemy to attack on a narrow front, thus making it impossible for them to outflank him with their greatly superior numbers. After some hesitation the French made the mistake of attacking, which was exactly what the defensive tactics of the English required, especially as the enemy could only advance slowly over the wet ploughed land. The French horse were easily checked by showers of arrows. But their foot advanced in such dense masses that the English bowmen could not stem the attack at a distance. The French foot now reached the English line, which began to fall back under the tremendous pressure. But the French heavily-armoured spearmen were tired by their march through the mud and were too closely massed to be able to move freely. The English archers now had an opportunity for showing their prowess in hand-to-hand fighting. Sword, dagger, axe and mace were plied with deadly skill. The French attack was shattered, and the English, flushed with triumph, advanced on the main body of the French and cut it to pieces, whereupon the third " battle " or division fled in panic. It was an even more amazing victory than Crecy or Poitiers. Fifteen hundred French nobles and knights were slain and many distinguished prisoners captured, and that, by sick and starving men. Henry advanced to Calais and returned home amidst tremendous enthusiasm (I4I5).

So far Henry's strategy does not seem to differ from that of Edward III and the Black Prince. A rather pointless raid had ended in a sensational but quite indecisive victory, partly due to the enemy's stupidity. But the next stage in the war proved that Henry was capable of planning an invasion on much more elaborate and scientific lines. Parliament, as a result of Agincourt, was in a mood of ardent patriotism and voted money freely. Not only were the army and navy increased, but sappers and gunners were enrolled and all the gear required for siege warfare was taken across. In I4I7 Henry landed on the south side of the Seine estuary opposite Harfleur, and successfully attacked Cacn and other towns of western Normandy, meeting with little resistance. For the feud between the Burgundians and the Armagnacs paralysed the striking power of France. In the summer of I418 Henry crossed the Seine and began the siege of the strongly fortified and important city of Rouen. It resisted till the beginning of the next year, after all the non-combatants had been driven out to starve between the two armies, and the garrison themselves had eaten everything in the town that was eatable. By the end of the year there was scarcely a fort in Normandy which was not held by an English garrison, including Richard I's " Saucy Castle.". The strict discipline of the army and the orderly government established by Henry in Normandy are in strong contrast with the disorder and futile misery wantonly caused by the English in Edward III's time. Henry was stern enough where there was resistance. But where the inhabitants promised him loyalty, he was ready to give them peace.

In 1419 the hatred between the Burgundians and the Armagnacs was increased by the treacherous murder of the Duke of Burgundy. The Duke had, at first, not been hostile to Henry, until he demanded stiff terms for peace after the conquest of Normandy. Burgundy's patriotism had then been roused, and he had offered his loyalty and his army to the young Dauphin (son of the French king). But the duke was murdered in the very act of homage, by one of the Armagnac leaders to whose party the Dauphin belonged. The new Duke of Burgundy, burning to avenge his father's death, went over to Henry, and King Charles felt that he could not face this alliance. In 1420 the Treaty of Troyes was signed, by which Henry was to marry the Princess Katharine at once, act as regent during Charles's lifetime and succeed to the French throne on his death. In 1421 Henry returned to England, where his bride was crowned queen and presented to her subjects throughout the land.

A disaster to the army which he had left behind in charge of his reckless brother, the Duke of Clarence, brought Henry hurrying back to France. For it was not to be expected that the Dauphin would meekly accept the surrender of his heritage, and fierce fighting had soon begun again. The English had advanced through Maine to Anjou, and in his haste to catch up with the Scots and French, Clarence had left his archers behind on the wrong side of a river, and that mistake had been fatal (Battle of Beauge, 1421 ). Henry did not continue this southern advance, but pressed eastwards to occupy the district round Paris. Several towns were quickly captured, but Meaux, east of Paris, resisted doggedly all through the winter till the early summer of I422. During the siege Henry contracted the exhausting disease which had disabled his army at Harfleur. While hurrying to defend the province of Burgundy from invasion by the Dauphin he collapsed and died soon afterwards. Before his death, he made complete arrangements for the government of England and northern France. His brother John, Duke of Bedford, who was with him, was to be regent in France. His other brother Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, was to continue as regent of England. Thomas Beaufort, Duke of Exeter, was to be the guardian of the infant son, the news of whose birth had cheered Henry at the siege of Meaux. Bedford was urged to persist with the war and keep on good terms with the Duke of Burgundy. To the very last Henry was quite convinced that he was fighting in a holy cause, and regretted that he had not conquered France soon enough to enable him to go on a Crusade for the recovery of Jerusalem.

Reference Materials with Text Links for Items for Sale on Amazon.com:

Henry V by Wlliam Shakespeare (Dover Thrift Edition)

Henry V by Wlliam Shakespeare (Bantam Classics Edition)

Henry V by Wlliam Shakespeare (Folger Shakespeare Library Edition)

Henry V (DVD) starring Laurence Olivier

Henry V (DVD) starring Kenneth Branagh

Henry V Original Soundtrack Recording of 1989 Film (Audio CD) by Patrick Doyle

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