The Myth of Henry V

Posted by Nick Efstathiadis in ,

By Felipe Fernandez-Armesto


Portrait of Henry V

Henry V is often regarded as one of England's finest Kings. However, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto argues that the reality is very different from the legend.

Appearance and reality

Henry V, in English myth, is the ideal Englishman: plucky and persevering, austere and audacious, cool-headed, stiff-lipped and effortlessly superior: 'simply the greatest man,' as my generation of undergraduates learned, 'ever to rule England'. Elizabethan dramatists boosted the image. With a bit of help from deluded historians and mythopoeic film-makers, Shakespeare turned Henry into a box-office hero and a romantic lead. The myth became more important than the man - just as well, for those who like their past to be comforting or inspiring. The reality, stripped out of the myth, is vicious and dispiriting.

Entombed in Westminster Abbey, Henry presents himself as he wanted us to remember him: a pious king, almost a saintly one, buried above Edward the Confessor, in a unique space, exclusively dedicated to the cult of the king's soul. A true king, crowned by God. A warrior-king, helmed and mounted. A chivalrous king, riding into history in hallowed company. Swan-badges allude, by a Latin pun, - signo, 'by a sign' echoes cygno, 'by a swan' - to a vision of the cross: 'by this sign, conquer!' Yet Henry's kingship was tainted. His usurping dynasty had no right to the crown. His victories were triumphs of hype, stained by the blood of war-crimes. His piety was remarkable, especially in zeal for burning heretics, but a saint he ain't.

The ugly prince, kissed by history, becomes a beautiful legend.

After Henry's death, English propaganda constructed an even more elaborate legend: of his self-transformation, after a reckless youth, into a model of responsibility. For the conversion of royal sinner into royal saint - the tale of how 'Madcap Prince Hal' became 'Harry the Great' - there is no scrap of contemporary evidence. Yet the English love it as an antidote to the despair their royal heirs generally provoke. For it's a tough job, being Prince of Wales, with no role, except to wait. Princes try to find ways of keeping busy - as soldiers or statesmen, playboys or politicians, grumblers or gardeners, leaders or liabilities - but generational conflicts, PR blunders and intolerable frustrations always seem to get in their way. It's a comfort to be able to turn to Henry V as an example of how the tearaway can turn regal, the rebel can become reliable. Whenever Farmer George's Black Sheep went astray, when Victoria's heir flirted with actresses or George V's with fascists, when Prince Charles got spattered with scandal or derision, the English could think reassuringly of Henry V. The ugly prince, kissed by history, becomes a beautiful legend.

Henry's spell of alleged laddyshness was a short episode when he was a de-mobbed soldier, twenty years old, with wild oats to sow. Supposedly, he spent time and money in taverns and brothels, in drunken brawls and sordid liaisons, with unsuitable playmates. 'He exercised meanly,' said a late but influential chronicle, ' the feats of Venus and Mars and other pastimes of youth.' The stories are plausible but untrue - part of an imaginative reconstruction of Henry's life which his brother later paid a hack to write up. The models are saintly conversion-narratives: St Augustine's, from an unchaste life, or St Paul's, from wickedness to apostleship, or St Thomas Becket's, from a wastrel 'suddenly changed into a new man'. Adolescent excess was an excusable background against which a born-again do-gooder could shine more effulgently with - in the words Shakespeare put into Hal's mouth - a 'reformation glittering o'er my fault'.

Quest for security

From a propaganda viewpoint, it was an important falsehood. When the legend took shape, England was locked in war against France, where kings supposedly worked miracles and bore the blood of saints. England needed comparable evidence of divine approval. Even in his lifetime Henry sometimes behaved as if bidding for sanctity. He vowed chastity, pledged thriftiness, affected the appearance of a priest: French ambassadors said he looked like one. He had his hair cut like a priest's as a sign of revulsion from worldliness. He used sacred oil from France at his royal anointing. He spent hours in prayer and confession. He even adopted, in art and pageant, the role of St George. The idea of presenting him as the product of a sudden royal conversion-experience arose, I suspect, from the liturgy of the day of his coronation: Passion Sunday, when Christ entered Jerusalem in kinglike triumph and the Church prayed for rescue, in preparation for Holy Week, from the depths of sin. 'From the depths have I cried to thee! Create, O Lord, a new heart within me!'

Equally legendary is the story of Henry's reconciliation with his father, which the propagandists crafted to resemble the edifying biblical tale of the Prodigal Son. Henry is supposed to have abased himself before his father in a cloak full of needles to signify thrifty intentions and to have earned, in return, a touching benediction. The real scene was much less edifying. Henry's quarrel with his father was not about the alleged youthful peccadilloes on which the propaganda concentrated, but about the usual political agenda: money and power. At a deeper level, Henry had every reason to hate his father, who had neglected him in childhood and slaughtered the father-substitutes to whom the child turned.

Henry's quarrel with his father was not about the alleged youthful peccadilloes..... but about the usual political agenda: money and power.

The immediate circumstances surrounding the old king's deathbed were too urgent for sentiment. Factions were manoeuvring for power like buzzards around bones. As the king's health crumbled, Henry and his friends were out of office and excluded from patronage. This was a serious matter for the prince, who had an expensive household of toughs, lackeys, sycophants and freeloaders to keep up. He staged a coup, bursting into the king's presence with a dagger in his hand and an army at his back. What followed was not a reconciliation, but a negotiation. The king got peace. Henry got power.

The myth of Henry V

According to the next instalment of the legend, he used that power - especially after his own accession in March, 1413 - to repudiate unsuitable old friends. The propaganda-writers made this out to be virtuous: evidence of the depth of the new king's conversion and of the mettle of his incorruptibility. Such is the tenor of Shakespeare's account of the disgrace of 'plump Jack' Falstaff, the abettor of Henry's boyhood pranks; the same spirit pervades Shakespeare's depiction of the execution - severe but just - of Henry's old carousing companion, Bardolph. Really, faithlessness to old friends was part of the normal pattern of Henry's behaviour. He had turned on his beloved advisers and comrades-in-arms, Harry and Thomas Percy, at the battle of Shrewsbury in 1403. Later, he would disavow his old tutor and longtime ally, Henry Beaufort, in a dispute with the pope over papal authority in England.

The most notorious case was that of Sir John Oldcastle, a battlefield friend, whom Henry burned to death for heresy at the start of his reign: the politically subversive heresy of the Lollards, whose dangerous doctrine of 'dominion by grace' implied that kings had to earn power by being good. Henry represented the sacrifice of a friend as noble and the case as a trial of his own faith - 'God scourged him,' his chaplain said, 'in Sir John Oldcastle'.

A further dimension of Henry's quest for security at home was war abroad...

A further dimension of Henry's quest for security at home was war abroad - a way of exporting aristocratic violence. He had no right to the crown of France - after all, he had no right to that of England either - but it was an ineluctably traditional claim: a real king in England was obliged to pretend to the throne of France. According to the legend, the war displayed Henry's military genius. Really, it was a story of gambler's luck. At first, Henry probably envisaged no more than a chevauchée - a raid where the English would grab what they could. But a superior French army got stuck in the mud at Agincourt and Henry did what every gambler does with unexpected winnings: he increased his stake, bidding to rule France in reality. He also began, on the field of Agincourt, a career as a war criminal, massacring prisoners in defiance of the conventions. Even so, the French hated each other more than they hated him. So he was able to prolong victory in alliance with French factions and successfully demanded a promise of the reversion of the throne.

The policy was never likely to succeed: the war overstretched English resources and left the parts of France which Henry conquered prostrate with depredations and disease. But the last element of the legend fell into place. Henry married a French princess, Catherine of Valois. It was a marriage of convenience - part of the political deal: a typical royal marriage, in fact. Henry neglected his bride and, when he was dying, ignored her. The great love of her life was her bodyguard, whom she married after her husband's death. Yet Shakespeare's love-scenes have stamped English minds with effectively indelible romantic images. We should not repine. In history, myths are more powerful than facts. In the long run, they generate more effects. The course of history, if there is such a thing, depends less on what actually happens than on the falsehoods people believe.

About the author

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto is a Professorial Fellow of Queen Mary, University of London, and a member of the Faculty of Modern History, University of Oxford. His books include Millennium (latest ed. 1999), Truth: a History (1997) and Civilizations (2000). Recent honours include the Caird Medal and the John Carter Brown Medal.

BBC - History - British History in depth: The Myth of Henry V

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