Henry V of England

Illustration of the marriage of Henry V to Catherine of Valois
Henry V weds Catherine of Valois.

Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

An icon of chivalry, a conquering hero, an exemplar of kingship and a supreme self-publicist, Henry V is among the triumvirate of the most famous English monarchs. Unlike 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 find something unpleasant in the arrogantly determined, albeit charismatic, young king. Even without Shakespeare's attention, Henry V would still be fascinating modern readers.

Birth and Early Life

The future Henry V was born Henry of Monmouth at Monmouth Castle into one of England's most powerful noble families. His parents were Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby, a man who had once tried to curb the ambitions of his cousin, King Richard II, but now acted loyally, and Mary Bohun, heir to a rich chain of estates. His grandfather was John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, third son of Edward III, a staunch supporter of Richard II, and the most powerful English noble of the age.

At this point, Henry was not considered an heir to the throne and his birth was thus not recorded formally enough for a definitive date to have survived. Historians can't agree on whether Henry was born on August 9th or September 16th, in 1386 or 1387. The current leading biography, by Allmand, uses 1386; however, the introductory work by Dockray uses 1387.

Henry was the oldest of six children and he received the best upbringing an English noble could have, including training in martial skills, riding, and forms of hunting. He also received an education in music, harp, literature, and spoke three languages—Latin, French, and English—making him unusually highly educated. Some sources claim that the young Henry was sickly and 'puny' in childhood, but these descriptions didn’t follow him past puberty.

Tensions in Court

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. Subsequently, Henry of Monmouth found himself a "guest" at the royal court. While the word hostage was never used, there was underlying tension behind his presence and the implicit threat to Bolingbroke should he disobey. However, the childless Richard appeared to have a genuine fondness for young Henry and he knighted the boy.

Becoming the Heir

In 1399, Henry's grandfather, John of Gaunt, died. Bolingbroke should have inherited his father's estates but Richard II revoked them, kept them for himself and extended Bolingbroke's exile to life. By this time, 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 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 who urged him to seize the throne from Richard. This task was 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 with Richard II

Henry's rise to heir had been sudden and due to factors beyond his control, but his relationship with Richard II, especially during 1399, is unclear. Richard had taken Henry on an expedition to crush rebels in Ireland and, upon hearing of Bolingbroke's invasion, confronted Henry with the fact of his father's treason. The encounter, allegedly recorded by one chronicler, ends with Richard agreeing that Henry was innocent of his father's acts. Although he still imprisoned Henry in Ireland when he returned to fight Bolingbroke, Richard made no further threats against him.

Furthermore, sources suggest that when Henry was released, he traveled to see Richard rather than return directly to his father. Is it possible 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 it is unclear whether this and Henry IV's decision to have Richard murdered had any effect on later events, such as the younger Henry's impatience to usurp his father or his choice to rebury Richard with full regal honors in Westminster Abbey. We don't know for certain.

Experience in Battle

Henry V's reputation as a leader began forming in his 'teenage' years, as he and took on responsibilities in the government of the realm. One example of this is the Welsh uprising led by Owain Glyn Dŵr. When the small uprising swiftly grew into a full-scale rebellion against the English crown, Henry, as Prince of Wales, had a responsibility to help fight this treason. Consequently, Henry's household moved to Chester in 1400 with Henry Percy, nicknamed Hotspur, in charge of military affairs.

Hotspur was an experienced campaigner from whom the young prince was expected to learn. However, after several years of ineffective cross-border raiding, the Percys rebelled against Henry IV, culminating in the Battle of Shrewsbury on July 21st, 1403. The prince was wounded in the face by an arrow but refused to leave the fight. In the end, the king's army was victorious, Hotspur was killed, and the younger Henry famed throughout England for his courage.

Lessons Learned in Wales

Following the Battle of Shrewsbury, Henry's involvement in military strategy increased greatly and he began forcing a change in tactics, away from raids and into the control of land through strong points and garrisons. Any progress was initially hampered by a chronic lack of funding—at one point, Henry was paying for the entire war from his own estates. By 1407, fiscal reforms facilitated the sieging of Glyn Dŵr castles, which finally fell by the end of 1408. With the rebellion fatally, Wales was brought back under English control just two years later.

Henry's successes as king can be clearly tied to the lessons he learned in Wales, particularly the value of controlling strongpoints, approaches to dealing with the tedium and difficulties of besieging them, and the need for proper supply lines and a reliable source of adequate finances. He also experienced the exercise of royal power.

Involvement in Politics

From 1406 to 1411, Henry played an ever-increasing role in the King's Council, the body of men who ran the nation's administration. In 1410, Henry took overall command of the council; however, the opinions and policies Henry favored were often counter to those favored by his fater—particularly where France was concerned. In 1411, the king became so irked that 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.​

In 1412, the king organized an expedition to France led by Henry's brother, Prince Thomas. Henry—possibly still angry or sulking over his expulsion from the council—refused to go. The campaign was a failure and Henry was accused of staying in England to plot a coup against the king. Henry denied these accusations vigorously, obtaining a promise from Parliament to investigate and personally protesting his innocence to his father. Later in the year, more rumors emerged, this time claiming the Prince had stolen funds earmarked for a siege of Calais. After much protest, Henry was again found innocent.

Threat of Civil War and Ascension to the Throne

Henry IV had never secured universal support for his seizure of the crown from Richard and by the end of 1412, his family's supporters were drifting into armed and angry factions. Fortunately for the unity of England, people realized Henry IV was terminally ill before these factions were mobilized and efforts were made to obtain peace between father, son, and brother.

Henry IV died on March 20th, 1413, but if he had remained healthy, would his son have started an armed conflict to clear his name, or even seize the crown? It is impossible to know. Instead, Henry was proclaimed king on March 21st, 1413, and crowned as Henry V on April 9th.

Throughout 1412, the younger Henry seemed to have been acting with righteous confidence, even arrogance and was clearly chafing against the rule of his father, but legends claim that the wild prince turned into a pious and determined man overnight. There may not be much truth in those tales, but Henry probably did appear to change in character as he fully adopted the mantle of King. Finally able to direct his great energy into his chosen policies, Henry began acting with the dignity and authority he believed was his duty and his accession was broadly welcomed.

Early Reforms

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 overhaul by streamlining and maximizing the existing system. The resulting 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.

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 to tackle crime, reducing the number of armed bands and trying to solve the long-term disagreements which fomented local conflict. The chosen methods, however, reveal Henry's continued eye on France, for many 'criminals' were simply pardoned for their crimes in return for military service abroad. The emphasis was less on punishing crime than channeling that energy towards France.

Uniting the Nation

Perhaps the most important 'campaign' Henry undertook in this phase was to unite the nobles and common people of England behind him. He showed and practiced a willingness to forgive and pardon families who had opposed Henry IV, none more so than the Earl of March, the lord Richard II had designated as his heir. Henry freed March from imprisonment 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 truth, were merely the grumblings of three disaffected lords who had already abandoned their ideas. Henry acted swiftly to execute the plotters and remove their opposition.

Henry also acted against the spreading belief in Lollardy, a pre-Protestant Christian movement, 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 identify all Lollards and a Lollard-led rebellion was swiftly put down. Henry issued a general pardon 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 leader and Christian protector while also binding the nation further around him.

Honoring Richard II

Henry had Richard II's body moved and reinterred with full regal honors in Westminster Cathedral. Possibly done out of fondness for the former 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. Henry V, on the other hand, demonstrated confidence in himself and his right to rule, as well as a respect for Richard which pleased any of the latter's remaining supporters. 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.

Statebuilding

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 that was 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.

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 and duty to recover these lands, but he also believed honestly and utterly in his right to the rival throne, as first claimed by Edward III. At every stage of his French campaigns, Henry went to great lengths to be seen as acting legally and royally.

In France, 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. Henry saw a way to take advantage of this situation. As a prince, he had supported the Burgundian faction, but as the 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.

Military Victories at Agincourt and Normandy

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. 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, Henry became one of the most famous men in Europe and the French factions splintered again in shock.

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. He maintained his army in France consistently for three years, methodically besieging towns and castles and installing new garrisons. By June 1419 Henry controlled the vast majority of Normandy. Admittedly, warring between the French factions meant little national opposition was organized but it was nonetheless a supreme achievement.

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 he was far more controlled, magnanimous, and answerable to the law than before.

The War for France

On May 29th, 1418, while Henry and his forces advanced further into France, John the Fearless captured Paris, slaughtered the Armagnac garrison and took 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 defeats at the hands of Henry, the French could not overcome their internal divisions. At a meeting of the Dauphin and John the Fearless on September 10th, 1419, John was assassinated. Reeling, the Burgundians reopened negotiations with Henry.

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 Henry's line would follow. On June 2nd, Henry married Katherine of Valois and on December 1st, 1420 he entered Paris. Unsurprisingly, the Armagnacs rejected the treaty.

Untimely Death

In early 1421, Henry returned to England, motivated by the need to acquire more funds and mollify Parliament. 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, Henry, had been born, 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.

Successes and Legacy

Henry V perished at the height of his power, only a few months following Charles VI's death and his coronation 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. He had shown a charisma which inspired soldiers and a balance of justice and forgiveness with reward and punishment that united a nation and provided the framework on which he based his strategies.

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, his opportunism and ability to react enabled him to exploit the situation fully. Henry fulfilled every criterion demanded of a good king.

Weaknesses

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 as 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 were concerned about his level of interest in France and they certainly didn't want to pay for a prolonged conflict there.

Ultimately, history's view of Henry is colored by the Treaty of Troyes. On the one hand, Troyes established Henry as the heir to France. 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. The task of properly establishing the Lancastrians as dual kings of England and France was probably impossible, but many also consider the dynamic and determined Henry as one of the few people able to do it.

Henry's personality undermines his reputation. His confidence was part of an iron will and fanatical determination that hints at a cold, aloof character masked by the glow of victories. Henry seems to have focused on his rights and goals above those of his kingdom. As ​prince, Henry pushed for greater power and, as an ailing king, his last will made no provision for the care of the kingdom after his death. Instead, he spent his energies arranging twenty-thousand masses to be performed in his honor. At the time of his death, Henry had been growing more intolerant of enemies, ordering ever more savage reprisals and forms of war and may have been becoming increasingly autocratic.

Conclusion

Henry V of England was undoubtedly a gifted man and 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—acting 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, and winning a throne, Henry left no long-term political or military legacy. The Valois reconquered France and retook the throne within forty years, while the Lancastrian line failed and England collapsed into civil war. What Henry did leave was a legend and a greatly enhanced national consciousness.