Henry V of England

Detail of Wooden Tomb Effigy of Henry V in Westminster Abbey
The tomb of King Henry V at Westminster Abbey. Angelo Hornak / Getty Images


An icon of chivalry, a conquering hero, an exemplar of kingship and a supreme self-publicist whose image has always owed a debt to the one he encouraged, Henry V is among the hallowed triumvirate of inordinately famous English monarchs. Unlike his two famous triumvirs - Henry VIII and Elizabeth I - Henry V forged his legend in a little over nine years, but the long-term effects of his victories were few and many historians see something unpleasant in the arrogantly determined, albeit charismatic, young king. Even without Shakespeare's attention, Henry V would still be fascinating modern readers; even his childhood was highly eventful.

Birth of Henry V

The future Henry V was born at Monmouth Castle into one of England's most powerful noble families. His grandfather was John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, third son of Edward III, a staunch supporter of Richard II - the ruling king - and the most powerful English noble of the age. His parents were Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby, a man who had once acted to curb his cousin Richard II but now acted loyally, and Mary Bohun, heir to a rich chain of estates. At this point Henry 'of Monmouth' was not considered an heir to the throne and his birth was thus not recorded formally enough for a definitive date to have survived. Consequently, historians can't agree whether Henry was born on August 9th or September 16th, in 1386 or 1387. The current leading biography, by Allmand, uses 1386; the new introductory work by Dockray uses 1387.

Noble Upbringing

Henry was the oldest of six children and he received the best upbringing an English noble could have, mainly training in martial skills, riding, and forms of hunting. He also received an education in subjects beloved by his parents including music and playing the harp, literature and three languages – Latin, French and English – making him unusually highly educated and a reader of legal and theological works. Some sources claim that the young Henry was sickly and 'puny'; even if true, these complaints didn’t follow him past puberty.

From Noble Son to Royal Heir

In 1397 Henry Bolingbroke reported treasonous comments made by the Duke of Norfolk; a court was convened but, as it was one Duke's word against another, trial by battle was arranged. It never took place. Instead, Richard II intervened in 1398 by exiling Bolingbroke for ten years and Norfolk for life and Henry of Monmouth found himself a 'guest' at the royal court. The word hostage was never used, but the underlying tension behind Monmouth's presence at court – and the threat to Bolingbroke should he react violently - should have been clear. However, the childless Richard also had a genuine fondness for the, evidently already impressive, young Henry, and he was knighted by the king.

The situation changed again in 1399 when John of Gaunt died. Bolingbroke should have inherited his father's Lancastrian estates but Richard II revoked them, kept them for himself and extended Bolingbroke's exile to life. Richard was already unpopular, seen as an ineffective and increasingly autocratic ruler but his treatment of Bolingbroke cost him the throne. If the most powerful English family could lose their land so arbitrarily and illegally, if the most loyal of all men is rewarded in death by his heir's disinheritance, what rights did other landowners have against this king? Popular support swung to Bolingbroke who returned to England, where he was met by many key nobles and urged to seize the throne from Richard, a task completed with little opposition the same year. On October 13th, 1399 Henry Bolingbroke became Henry IV of England, and two days later Henry of Monmouth was accepted by Parliament as heir to the throne, Prince of Wales, Duke of Cornwall and Earl of Chester. Two months later he was given the further titles Duke of Lancaster and Duke of Aquitaine.​

Relationship of Henry V and Richard II

Henry's rise to heir had been sudden and due to factors beyond his control, but the relationship between Richard II and Henry of Monmouth, especially during 1399, is unclear. Henry had been taken by Richard on an expedition to crush rebels in Ireland and, upon hearing of Bolingbroke's invasion, the king confronted Henry with the fact of his father's treason. The following exchange, allegedly recorded by one chronicler, ends with Richard agreeing that Henry was innocent of his father's acts and, although he still imprisoned him in Ireland when returning to fight Bolingbroke, Richard made no threats against the younger Henry. Furthermore, sources suggest that when Henry was released, he traveled to see Richard rather than return directly to his father. Is it possible, historians have asked, that Henry felt more loyalty to Richard, as a king or a father figure than to Bolingbroke? Prince Henry agreed to Richard's imprisonment but does this, and Henry IV's decision to have Richard murdered, cast any light on Monmouth's later impatience to usurp his father or to rebury Richard with full regal honors in Westminster Abbey?

We don't know for certain.

War In Wales

Henry V's reputation began forming in his 'teenage' years, during his father's reign, as he was given – and took – responsibilities in the government of the realm, impressing many lords. Originally a local dispute which was nearly put down the same year, Owain Glyn Dŵr's uprising of 1400 swiftly grew into a full-scale Welsh rebellion against the English crown. As Prince of Wales, Henry – or, given his age, Henry's household and guardians – had a responsibility to help fight this treason, if only to recover the revenues Henry's welsh lands should bring him and plug a gap in royal authority. Consequently, Henry's household moved to Chester in 1400 with Henry Percy, nicknamed Hotspur, in charge of military affairs.

First Pitched Battle: Shrewsbury 1403

Hotspur was an experienced campaigner from whom the young prince was expected to learn; he was also the enemy whose defeat gave Henry his first taste of pitched battle. After several years of ineffective cross-border raiding, the Percy's also rebelled against Henry IV, culminating in The Battle of Shrewsbury on July 21st, 1403. The prince was in command of the king's right flank, where he was wounded in the face by an arrow but refused to leave, fighting until the end. The king's army was victorious, Hotspur killed, and the younger Henry famed throughout England for his courage.

Return to Wales, Henry's 'School'

Henry had started to take greater responsibility for the war in Wales before Shrewsbury, but afterward, his level of command increased greatly and he began forcing a change in tactics, away from raids and onto the control of land through strong points and garrisons. Success was initially hampered by a chronic lack of funding – at one point Henry was paying for the entire war from his own estates - but by 1407 fiscal reforms facilitated the sieging of Glyn Dŵr castles; they fell by the end of 1408 leaving the rebellion fatally undermined and by 1410 Wales was brought back under English control. Throughout this period Parliament continually thanked the Prince for his work, although they often asked he spend more time personally in command in Wales. For his part, Henry's successes as king are clearly based on the lessons he learned in Wales, particularly the value of controlling strongpoints, the tedium and difficulties of besieging them and, above all, the need for proper supplies lines and a reliable source of adequate finances.

He also experienced the exercise of royal power.

The Young Henry and Politics

Henry also gained a political reputation during his youth. From 1406 to 1411 he played an ever increasing role in the King's Council, the body of men who ran the nation's administration; indeed, Henry took overall command of the council in 1410. However, the opinions and policies Henry favored were often different, and with regards to France entirely the opposite, of what his father wished. Rumors circulated, especially in 1408-9 when illness nearly killed Henry IV, that the prince wished his father to abdicate so he could assume the throne (a desire that was not without support in England) and in 1411 the king became so irked he dismissed his son from the council altogether. Parliament, however, were impressed by both the prince's energetic rule and his attempts to reform government finances (and thus cut expenses).​

In 1412 the king organized an expedition to France led by Henry's brother, Prince Thomas. Henry – most probably still angry or sulking over his expulsion from power – refused to go. The campaign was a failure and Henry was accused of staying in England to plot a coup against the king. Henry reacted vigorously, sending letters of denial to powerful English lords, obtaining a promise from Parliament to investigate and personally protesting his innocence to his father. In doing so, he verbally attacked lords loyal to Henry IV and a series of accusations and counter-accusations were exchanged. Later in the year, more rumors emerged, this time claiming the Prince had stolen funds earmarked for a siege of Calais, prompting an irate Henry and a large armed retinue to arrive in London and protest their innocence. Again, Henry was found innocent.

The Threat of Civil War?

Henry IV had never secured universal support for his seizure of the crown and by the end of 1412 his family's supporters were drifting into armed and angry factions: the prince’s clear policies of 1410 had already gained him a large following. Fortunately for the unity of England, before these factions became too rigid people realized Henry IV was terminally ill and efforts were made to obtain peace between father, son, and brother; they succeeded before Henry IV died on March 20th, 1413. Had Henry IV remained healthy, would his son have started an armed conflict to clear his name, or even seize the crown? Throughout 1412 he seems to have been acting with righteous confidence, even arrogance, and after the events of 1411 was clearly chaffing against the rule of his father. While we can't say what Henry would have done, we can conclude that Henry IV’s death came at a fortuitous moment.

Henry becomes Henry V of England

The man born Henry of Monmouth was proclaimed king on March 21st, 1413, and crowned as Henry V on April 9th. Legends claim that the wild prince turned into a pious and determined man overnight and, while historians don't see much truth in those tales, Henry probably did appear to change in character as he fully adopted the mantle of King, finally being able to direct his great energy into his chosen policies (predominantly the reclamation of England's lands in France), while acting with the dignity and authority he believed was his duty. In return, Henry's accession was broadly welcomed by a population both encouraged by Henry's stint in government and growing desperate for the strong monarch England had lacked since Edward III's mental decline. Henry did not disappoint.

Early Reforms: Finances

For the first two years of his reign, Henry worked hard to reform and solidify his nation in preparation for war. The dire royal finances were given a thorough overall, not by the creation of any new financial machinery or alternative sources of income, but by streamlining and maximizing the existing system. The gains weren't enough to fund a campaign overseas, but Parliament was grateful for the effort and Henry built on this to cultivate a strong working relationship with the Commons, resulting in generous grants of taxation from the people to fund a campaign in France.

Early Reforms: Law

Parliament was also impressed with Henry's drive to tackle the general lawlessness into which vast areas of England had sunk. The peripatetic courts worked much harder than in Henry IV's reign, tackling crime, reducing the number of armed bands and trying to solve the long-term disagreements which fermented local conflict. The methods, however, reveal Henry's continued eye on France, for many 'criminals' were simply pardoned for their crimes in return for military service abroad. Indeed, the emphasis was less on punishing crime than channeling that energy towards France.

Henry V Unites the Nation

Perhaps the most important 'campaign' Henry undertook in this phase was to unite the nobles and common people of England behind him. Henry showed, and practiced, a willingness to forgive and pardon families who had opposed Henry IV (many because they had remained loyal to Richard II), none more so than the Earl of March, the lord Richard II had designated as his heir. Henry freed March from the imprisonment he had endured for much of Henry IV's reign and returned the Earl's landed estates. In return, Henry expected absolute obedience and he moved quickly, and decisively, to stamp out any dissent. In 1415 the Earl of March informed on plans to put him on the throne which, in reality, were the grumblings of three disaffected lords who had already abandoned their ideas. But Henry actedm and made sure he was seen to act, swiftly to execute the plotters and remove their opposition.

Henry V and Lollardy

Henry also acted against the spreading belief in Lollardy, which many nobles felt was a threat to England's very society and which had previously had sympathizers at court. A commission was created to find all Lollards, an uprising – which never actually came close to threatening Henry – was swiftly put down and a general pardon was issued in March 1414 to all those who surrendered and repented. Through these acts, Henry made sure the nation saw him as acting decisively to crush both dissent and religious 'deviance', underlining his position as England's Christian protector, while also binding the nation further around him.

Treatment of Richard II

Furthermore, Henry had Richard II's body moved and reinterred with full regal honors in Westminster Cathedral. Possibly done out of fondness for the dead king, the reburial was a political masterstroke. Henry IV, whose claim to the throne was legally and morally dubious, hadn't dared perform any act which gave legitimacy to the man he usurped, but Henry V dispelled that shadow instantly, demonstrating a confidence in himself and his right to rule, as well as a respect for Richard which pleased any of the latter's remaining supporters. In addition, the codification of a rumor that Richard II once remarked how Henry would be king, most certainly done with Henry's approval, turned him into the heir of both Henry IV and Richard II.

Henry V as Statebuilder

Henry actively encouraged the idea of England as a nation separate from others, most importantly when it came to language. When Henry – a tri-lingual king – ordered all government documents to be written in vernacular English (the language of the normal English peasant) it was the first time it had ever happened. The ruling classes of England had used Latin and French for centuries, but Henry encouraged a cross-class use of English – markedly different from the continent. While the motive for most of Henry's reforms was configuring the nation to fight France, he also fulfilled almost all the criteria by which kings were to be judged: good justice, sound finance, true religion, political harmony, accepting counsel and nobility. Only one remained: success in war.

Goals in France

English kings had claimed parts of the European mainland ever since William, Duke of Normandy, won the throne in 1066, but the size and legitimacy of these holdings varied through struggles with the competing French crown. Not only did Henry consider it his legal right, indeed duty, to recover these lands, he also believed honestly and utterly in his right to the rival throne, as first claimed, albeit cynically, by Edward III. At every stage of his French campaigns, Henry went to great lengths to be seen as acting legally and royally.

War Begins

Henry was able to benefit from the situation in France: the King, Charles VI, was mad and the French nobility had split into two warring camps: the Armagnacs formed around Charles' son, and the Burgundians, formed around John, Duke of Burgundy. As a prince, Henry had supported the Burgundian faction, but as king, he played the two against each other simply to claim he'd tried to negotiate. In June 1415 Henry broke talks off and on August 11 began what became known as the Agincourt Campaign.

The Agincourt Campaign: Henry V's Finest Hour?

Henry's first target was the port of Harfleur, a French naval base and potential supply point for the English armies. It fell, but only after a protracted siege which saw Henry's army reduced in numbers and affected by illness. With winter approaching, Henry decided to march his force overland to Calais despite being opposed by his commanders. They felt the scheme was too risky, as a major French force was gathering to meet their weakened troops. Indeed, at Agincourt on October 25th, an army of both French factions blocked the English and forced them to battle.

The French should have crushed the English, but a combination of deep mud, social convention, and French mistakes led to an overwhelming English victory. Henry completed his march to Calais, where he was greeted like a hero. In military terms, victory at Agincourt simply allowed Henry to escape catastrophe and deterred the French from further pitched battles, but politically the impact was enormous. The English further united around their conquering king, (who was now portrayed as a brave, chivalric idol), Henry became one of the most famous men in Europe and the French factions splintered again in shock.

The Conquest of Normandy

Having obtained vague promises of help from John the Fearless in 1416, Henry returned to France in July 1417 with a clear objective: the conquest of Normandy. While Henry's reputation as a formidable military leader is based on a battle – Agincourt – where his enemies contributed more than he, the Normandy campaign showed Henry to be every bit as great as his legend. Starting in July 1417, Henry maintained his army in France consistently for three years, methodically besieging towns and castles and installing new garrisons. This was the age before standing armies, when maintaining any large force required a great deal of resources and Henry kept his army functioning via greatly sophisticated systems of supply and command. Admittedly, warring between the French factions meant little national opposition was organized and Henry was able to keep resistance relatively local but it was nonetheless a supreme achievement and by June 1419 Henry controlled the vast majority of Normandy.

Equally notable are the tactics Henry used. This wasn't a plundering chevauchée as favored by previous English kings, but a determined attempt to bring Normandy under permanent control. Henry was acting as rightful king and allowing those who accepted him to keep their land. There was still brutality – he destroyed those who opposed him and grew increasingly violent – but it was originally far more controlled, magnanimous, and answerable to the law than before.

The War for France

With Normandy under control, Henry advanced further into France; others had also been active: on May 29th, 1418, John the Fearless had captured Paris, slaughtered the Armagnac garrison and taken command of Charles VI and his court. Negotiations had continued between the three sides throughout this period, but the Armagnacs and Burgundians grew close again in the summer of 1419. A united France would have threatened Henry V's success, but even in the face of continued English conquest – Henry was so close to Paris the court fled to Troyes - the French could not overcome their mutual hatred and, at a meeting of the Dauphin and John the Fearless on September 10th, 1419, John was assassinated. Reeling, the Burgundians reopened negotiations with Henry.

Victory: Henry V as the Heir to France

By Christmas, an agreement was in place and on 21st May 1420, the Treaty of Troyes signed. Charles VI remained King of France, but Henry became his heir, married his daughter Katherine and acted as de facto ruler of France. Charles' son, the Dauphin Charles, was barred from the throne and it was Henry's line who would follow, his heir holding two distinct crowns: England and France. On June 2nd Henry married and on December 1st, 1420 he entered Paris. Unsurprisingly, the Armagnacs rejected the treaty.

Death of Henry V

In early 1421 Henry returned to England, motivated by the need to acquire more funds and mollify Parliament, which had requested his return and given no new grants, before returning to France in June to continue the fight against the Dauphin. He spent the winter besieging Meaux, one of the Dauphin's last northern strongholds, before it fell in May 1422. During this time his only child had been born – Henry, on December 6th - but the king had also fallen ill and had to be literally carried to the next siege. He died on August 31st, 1422 at Bois de Vincennes.

Henry V: Arguments For

Henry V perished at the apex of his fame, only a few months short of Charles VI's death and his own crowning as King of France. In his nine-year reign, he had demonstrated the ability to manage a nation through hard work and an eye for detail – the constant cross-channel flow of parchment enabled Henry to continue governing in detail while abroad – although he improved rather than innovated. He had shown a charisma which inspired soldiers and a balance of justice, forgiveness, reward and punishment which united a nation, providing the groundwork on which he moved ever forward, piling success on success. He had proved himself a planner and commander equal to the greatest of his era, keeping an army in the field constantly overseas for three years. While Henry had benefited greatly from the civil war being waged in France – it certainly facilitated the Treaty of Troyes – his opportunism and ability to react enabled him to exploit the situation fully. Furthermore, Henry fulfilled every criterion demanded of a good king; with this source material, it is easy to see why contemporaries and legends alike lauded him.

And yet…

Henry V: Arguments Against

It is entirely possible that Henry died just at the right time for his legend to remain, and that another nine years would have tarnished it greatly. The goodwill and support of the English people were definitely wavering by 1422, the money was drying up and Parliament had mixed feelings towards Henry's seizure of the crown of France. The English people wanted a strong, successful king, but they feared being subordinated to their ruler's new crown and the interests of a nation they increasingly viewed as a foreign enemy, and they certainly didn't want to pay for a prolonged conflict there. If Henry, as King of France, wanted to fight a civil war in France and subdue the Dauphin, the English wanted France to pay for it.

Indeed, historians have little praise for Henry and the Treaty of Troyes and, ultimately, everyone's view of Henry is colored by their view of it. On the one hand, Troyes made Henry the heir to France and named his line as future kings. However, Henry's rival heir, the Dauphin retained strong support and rejected the treaty. Troyes thus committed Henry to a long and expensive war against a faction who still controlled roughly half of France, a war which might take decades before the treaty could be enforced and for which his resources were running out. Most historians regard the task of properly establishing the Lancastrians as dual kings of England and France as impossible, but many also consider the dynamic and determined Henry as one of the few people able to do it.

Henry V's Personality

Henry's personality also undermines his reputation. His confidence was part of an iron will and fanatical determination - historians have often called him Messianic - and sources hint at a cold, aloof character masked by the glow of victories. Furthermore, Henry seems to have focused on his rights and goals above those of his kingdom. As ​prince, Henry pushed for greater power, and his last will made no provision for the care of the kingdom after his death (only scanty codicils from his deathbed tried that), instead, arranging twenty-thousand masses to be performed after said event. Henry was also growing more intolerant of enemies, ordering ever more savage reprisals and forms of war and may have been becoming increasingly autocratic.


Henry V of England was undoubtedly a gifted man, one of few to shape history to his design, but his self-belief and ability came at the expense of personality. He was one of the great military commanders of his age who acted from a genuine sense of right, not a cynical politician, but his ambition may have committed him to treaties beyond even his ability to enforce. Despite the achievements of his reign - including uniting the nation around him, creating peace between crown and parliament, winning a throne – Henry left no long-term political or military legacy. The Valois reconquered France and resumed the throne within forty years, while the Lancastrian line lost their other crown and England collapsed into civil war during the same period. What Henry did leave was a legend – one which later monarchs were taught to, and tried to, follow, and one which gave the public a folk hero – and a greatly enhanced national consciousness, thanks in great part to his introduction of vernacular English into government.