Archive for November, 2015

Shakespeare’s Hollow Crown: The Burdens of Kingship for Plantagenet Kings

November 13, 2015


Having just written two blogs on Henry Vth and touched on this subject, I wanted to explore Shakespeare’s re-occurring theme of the burdens of kingship in his history plays with particular reference to Richard II and Henry IV, Parts I and II and on into Henry Vth and Richard III.

Richard II’s famous monologue sums up the perils of medieval kingship thus:

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,

Wonderfully concise and arresting lines which powerfully express the fears which weigh on the troubled mind of that particular king but which could easily be understood and empathized with by many Shakespearean monarchs from Lear and Macbeth to the Lancastrian Henrys and his Richard III.

The symbolic image of the crown itself is a constant motif throughout Shakespeare’s history plays. It is the physical embodiment of the office of the king, the visual signifier of where power lies or should lie. It is also, rather like Tolkien’s One ring, a character in its own right. It is a burden and a curse and the harbinger of death and personal torment for the wearer even as it beguiles and eludes and tempts the people who covet it or are desperate to retain it on their heads.

Later in Richard II there is the crucial scene where Richard is forced to formally and publicly renounce his kingship and hand over the crown to Bolingbroke. Here Shakespeare writes with such mastery and understanding about the burden of wearing the crown yet the impossibility of laying it down when the time comes to let it pass to another.


Give me the crown. Here, cousin, seize the crown;
Here cousin:
On this side my hand, and on that side yours.
Now is this golden crown like a deep well
That owes two buckets, filling one another,
The emptier ever dancing in the air,
The other down, unseen and full of water:
That bucket down and full of tears am I,
Drinking my griefs, whilst you mount up on high.

The crown itself is the focus of all eyes in the scene as power and kingship are transferred from one man to another; one eager to claim it and the other most unwilling to part with it until it becomes an almost unbearable tension of opposites on either side of the hollow ‘O’. The vacant air within the circlet is like the eye of the storm, still but surrounded by a swirling tempest of emotions and ambition.

Richard conjours up the metaphor of the deep well within the centre of the crown and their two souls being suspended like buckets, one disappearing into the abyss as fortune’s wheel raises the other up. This is a clever metaphor as it alludes to several other re-occurring images in the play. Richard’s tears are mentioned on several occasions during the course of his slow descent into despair and here they are the liquid who’s weight drags him down into the dark pit. The imagery of water and cleansing is another which is noticeable in the ‘Hollow Crown’ trilogy of films. Richard was particularly fastidious, washing his hands before the scene where he banishes Mowbray and Bolingbroke for their quarrel and again wading through the surf as he returns to England after the campaign in Ireland. He talks about those courtiers who have become so many Pontius Pilates, washing their hands of their anointed king, even as they pity him.

Purification is also intrinsically linked to the rites of his coronation as well and to another famous line in the play where Richard declares that

Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off from an anointed king;

Shakespeare stresses again and again that what makes Richard so alone in the midst of his troubles, what detaches him from reality and turns good men against him when he is arrogant and magisterial, is the divine nature of his conception of kingship. The mystical experience of being anointed has turned his mind and does something to all those kings who share that experience. They do not walk the Earth as other mortals do even though they are as subject to mortal ills as any other man. They are touched by God and that alters them for all time.


Now mark me, how I will undo myself;
I give this heavy weight from off my head
And this unwieldy sceptre from my hand,
The pride of kingly sway from out my heart;
With mine own tears I wash away my balm,
With mine own hands I give away my crown,
With mine own tongue deny my sacred state,
With mine own breath release all duty’s rites:
All pomp and majesty I do forswear;

As a viewer you feel the enormity of Richard’s pain as he says these lines because you see what it costs him to speak the words and how he literally does ‘undo’ himself. The burdens which he lays aside – the crown and sceptre – are not easily handed over because they are the outward symbols of his divine status but the other things are even harder to lay off. The balm on his anointed body, the unsaying of the sacred rites of his coronation oath leave a residue within his soul that can not be fully washed away or discarded because he has absorbed them into the very fibres of his being. He has made a pact with God and that can not be unmade whatever may happen to his temporal body.

Once he is no longer the king he is nothing. Yes, he has lost his titles and lands and estates, he has lost his retinue and household, his wife and his inheritance but more than these he has lost his identity. Even a poor beggar has a name but who is ‘Richard’ now that he has been stripped of every aspect of the elaborate construction which made him an icon to his people?

Writing for the court of ‘Gloriana’, Shakespeare knew that his audience would implicitly understand the nature of this construction of the king. The king was constantly under scrutiny from everyone from the pope, prelates of the church, his family and related nobility through every strata of his own subjects to foreign ambassadors, legates, rival monarchs abroad, the chroniclers and the commentators and philosophers. Sound kingship was judged on a variety of core qualities – courage on the field of battle, leadership both in war and in political decision making, piety and respect for the church but tempered by the ability to manage the power of the bishops and the pope, the exercise of judgement and prosecution of justice and, in England particularly, the need to carry parliament with you when making new laws or raising revenues and taxes. Beyond these practical attributes though the king must impose his divinely sanctioned will through his person. He must be still, stand tall, wear his robes of state with panache and know instinctively how to address every degree of rank and estate of man who he dealt with. He became the living embodiment of the state of his nation so that any perceived flaw in his person became a slight on his people. Ill-health, mental instability, poor physique, old age all wore down the iconography of the king and were read like an omen of doom hanging over the nation. When Henry IV is dying his son Clarence recounts portents about the death of kings seen in the landscape. We can find other links between the king and his land which I will discuss later which imply the close bond between the body of the monarch and the physical land which his rules over.


The river hath thrice flow’d, no ebb between;
And the old folk, time’s doting chronicles,
Say it did so a little time before
That our great-grandsire, Edward, sick’d and died.

We can begin to see the burdens of kingship already. In a feudal society the king must be all to his people. Henry Vth’s lines, spoken on the eve of Agincourt ring in our ears:

Upon the king! let us our lives, our souls,
Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children and our sins lay on the king!
We must bear all. O hard condition,
Twin-born with greatness, subject to the breath
Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel
But his own wringing! What infinite heart’s-ease
Must kings neglect, that private men enjoy!
And what have kings, that privates have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?

The history plays bring out the deep sense of weariness that hangs about the king. Bolingbroke barely rests the crown upon his head before he is confronted with evidence of treachery from within his own family and must decide who to punish and who to absolve. We see him realize that it was far easier to be Henry Bolingbroke, for all his troubles, than to sit in judgement like Solomon and listen as a father and mother plead for either punishment or clemency for their errant son before his throne. You feel that, for the first time, he understand what it was to be Richard II when he listened to the private enmity between two great lords and weighed up all the factors before he made the decision to exile both. Richard made an error of judgement and this lead to his being overthrown and deposed. Bolingbroke now feels the full weight of his kingship too because every decision could be the one that tips him off balance and marks the beginning of the end for him.

Another vitally important ‘character’ in these plays is England herself. Shakespeare’s works are suffused with a deep sense of love, admiration and pity for his homeland and his kings shoulder the responsibility for decisions which might make ‘poor England bleed’. Shakespeare loves every fold in the land, every barn and blade of grass that make up his England and we are to understand that good kings feel this depth of emotional attachment to their land as well. Richard II seizes up a handful of English earth and commands it to work against Bolingbroke and his rebels, to block his path with spiders and snakes in what seems like a pact between the king and the very earth of his kingdom. The king is ‘England’ and England is her king.

There are many allusions in Richard II to the coming conflict which would divide the country in bitter civil war for generations. Richard is warned by York about what he will unleash in taking Lancaster’s lands and properties when Old Gaunt dies and then Bolingbroke is also given a stark prophecy by the Bishop of Carlisle if he should usurp the throne from his cousin:


let me prophesy:
The blood of English shall manure the ground,
And future ages groan for this foul act;
Peace shall go sleep with Turks and infidels,
And in this seat of peace tumultuous wars
Shall kin with kin and kind with kind confound;
Disorder, horror, fear and mutiny
Shall here inhabit, and this land be call’d
The field of Golgotha and dead men’s skulls.
O, if you raise this house against this house,
It will the woefullest division prove
That ever fell upon this cursed earth.
Prevent it, resist it, let it not be so,
Lest child, child’s children, cry against you woe!

The king must protect ‘the common weal’, he must be a father to his people and choose the true course for the nation to follow. It is his responsibility if his wars are unjust and his people are lead into unholy bloodshed and it is also his care and burden to see that his subjects are governed well, left to their husbandry of the land and unmolested by rival lords and their ambitions. A weak king brings woe to his people. An ambitious king who stirs up civil strife fails his people by bringing rebellion and disorder. A king who listens to flatterers and promotes favourites exposes his people to poor government and disaster. A barren king who fails to provide a clear line of succession opens the way to dynastic feuds and civil war as does a king who dies leaving a child to follow him.

In Henry IV part I and II Shakespeare explores the burdens of sons and shaping your successor whilst retaining full command and authority. Henry IV has become a distrustful and crabby old man. The constant battle against rebellions and plots has twisted his nature and his relationship with his eldest son and heir has deteriorated into rage and despair and outright defiance on the part of Prince Hal. Where a king should form his son in his own image but never allow him to become presumptuous, Henry IV’s desire to control all aspects of his regime has driven Hal away to the taverns and into the arms of an alternative father figure who is the antithesis of every qood quality that a king should possess. You sense that Henry IV knows all this in his heart but can not help but repeat the same mistakes at every encounter with his son. Exasperation and slipping authority combined with illness and exhaustion are the means by which he loses his grip on his son and ultimately his life too. Henry IV like Richard III suffers from insomnia due to his particular fears. Like Henry Vth during the long watches of the night, both these kings are troubled by their fears. Shakespeare compares their wakefulness to the lowly wretches who can sleep soundly on their pallets because their consciences are clear and unburdened by great responsibilities.


O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude,
And in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

Shakespeare links emotional turmoil with the death of old men in these plays . Old Gaunt dies a broken man due to his son’s harsh treatment and exile. Falstaff turns his face to the wall when his Hal repudiates him publically. Henry IV dies due to his disappointment and despair over his son’s behaviour.

HENRY IV on Hal’s debauchery:

Most subject is the fattest soil to weeds;
And he, the noble image of my youth,
Is overspread with them: therefore my grief
Stretches itself beyond the hour of death:
The blood weeps from my heart when I do shape
In forms imaginary the unguided days
And rotten times that you shall look upon
When I am sleeping with my ancestors.

In another scene about the transition of power from one king to another Shakepeare uses the symbol of the crown itself again. Prince Hal believes his father to have passed away and so takes the crown and places it upon his own head, only to have his father stir and wake again.


Thy wish was father, Harry, to that thought:
I stay too long by thee, I weary thee.
Dost thou so hunger for mine empty chair
That thou wilt needs invest thee with my honours
Before thy hour be ripe? O foolish youth!
Thou seek’st the greatness that will o’erwhelm thee.
Stay but a little; for my cloud of dignity
Is held from falling with so weak a wind
That it will quickly drop: my day is dim.
Thou hast stolen that which after some few hours
Were thine without offence; and at my death
Thou hast seal’d up my expectation:

The words that Henry IV speaks are a mirror to those spoken by his deposed cousin, Richard II. It is so bitter a thing to relinquish the crown, even to his own son, that it feels to him like a deposition. Hal will overturn his statutes and usurp his throne and bring all to ruin. Yet as soon as Hal assumes the sacred office of king his personality is altered. His relationship with his brothers changes in an instant.


This new and gorgeous garment, majesty,
Sits not so easy on me as you think.

Henry is changed and out go Falstaff and his companions at the ale house. He knew the burdens that awaited him on his father’s death and we are a witness to this in the scene where he looks at the crown beside his father’s head on the pillow and states that it has robbed him of many hours of rest. Hal has been living like there is no tomorrow because he knew that all his former life would come to a sudden end once he assumed the role of king. Not such a fool as his father had thought all those years, he is actually was astute and immediately shoulders his new responsibilities and rises to the challenges of his office. History would see him eclipse his father and become an iconic symbol of kingship for generations to come.

In the last of his Plantagenet kings, Shakespeare explores the dark side of ambition. His Richard III seizes the throne without any justification, motivated by evil desires and twisted ambition to outshine his golden brother and remove his sons. Seen in the context of the other plays it would seem that Shakespeare needed to create an unjust, power hungry king to balance out the weakness and vacillation of Richard II, the weary pessimism of Henry IV and the brilliant glory of Henry Vth. Shakespeare distorts Richard’s limbs as a visual and literary device to prove his evil nature and lack of worth. Kings are tall and fair and well-made, they do not limp their way to their thrones over the bodies of those they slew to get there.

ANNE on the dead Lancastrian King Henry VI:

Poor key-cold figure of a holy king!
Pale ashes of the house of Lancaster!
Thou bloodless remnant of that royal blood!
Be it lawful that I invocate thy ghost,
To hear the lamentations of Poor Anne,
Wife to thy Edward, to thy slaughter’d son,
Stabb’d by the selfsame hand that made these wounds!

So much for Henry VI, consigned to his grave as a transparent ghost of a king, the pale ashes of his ancestors who displayed none of the attributes required to survive the rigors of kingship.

King Richard is haunted by the ghosts of those he has murdered on the eve of Bosworth and wakes from his nightmares in a sweat.


By the apostle Paul, shadows to-night
Have struck more terror to the soul of Richard
Than can the substance of ten thousand soldiers
Armed in proof, and led by shallow Richmond.
It is not yet near day.

There is no great speech though about the burdens which fret the king’s repose. Shakespeare doesn’t want the viewer to feel any sympathy for Richard’s wakeful night though he is an anointed king too yet we see no coronation and no reference to his anointed state because his must be a usurper through and through. Shakespeare transfers his empathy to Richmond. An unworthy king has no right to pine over the burdens which he must bear even if he will go out and fight on the field of battle to protect his crown the next day. Richmond gets the rousing speech to the troops, not Richard, and once more the symbolic image of the royal crown is transferred from Richard’s dead head to Richmond’s. Derby avoids any comparison with ladders or kingmakers in this play unlike Northumberland or Buckingham in Richard II or Richard III.


Courageous Richmond, well hast thou acquit thee.
Lo, here, this long-usurped royalty
From the dead temples of this bloody wretch
Have I pluck’d off, to grace thy brows withal:
Wear it, enjoy it, and make much of it.

So in this cycle of history plays we see how Shakespeare rolls the notion of kingship around his mind and draws out various strands to focus on.  Kings are set apart from all other men, even their own families. They are symbolic, iconic, sacredly ordained to rule their subjects by God’s will yet also cursed with the burdens and responsibilities of their royal state. They are rather to be pitied than envied and as Richard II says all murdered by one means or another due to the office they hold. Power makes a poor partner in life. For all their pomp and ceremony, all their wealth and status, these kings are poor wretches and it is hard not to agree with this assessment. How much happier their lives would have been away from the corruptions and intrigues of court. Would any of them have not desired to take off the weight of their crowns and live a few hours as an ordinary man?

The crown is a symbol of the crushing weight of their kingship. It is like armour that they must wear in the heat of a long day which burns as it protects, it is the residence of death, the deep well full of tears and the thing which denies them ease and remains totally unconcerned with their personal survival or well-being. To wear a crown is to be set apart, marked out and exiled from ordinary life. Pomp and ceremony walk hand in hand with judgement and responsibility and all are burdens that the king must bear alone until his death releases him.


Shakespeare’s Henry Vth – King Hal versus the real Henry Plantagenet

November 7, 2015

Following on from my recent post about the reception of the Agincourt campaign by later generations and the associated ‘myth-making’ which has informed our view of those events, I wanted to look at the character of the central figure in Shakespeare’s play and compare and contrast it with the ‘real’ Henry in the evidence that comes down to us today and the interpretations of some modern historians.

Hen Sha

Shakespeare makes his hero a paragon of virtue in so many respects that it would be well nigh impossible for the real, historical figure of King Henry to live up to his alter ego. Firstly, Shakespeare’s Hal is both stern and commanding yet also approachable and affable with his men. He is intelligent and charismatic, displaying all the qualities of a great leader and yet disarmingly gauche and awkward with Princess Catherine as he stumbles over his school boy French and tries to woo her in plain terms.

Laurence Oliver as Henry in 1944

Laurence Oliver as Henry in 1944

Hal is merciful; we see him pardon a man for speaking sedition before he embarks at Southampton despite the warnings of his treacherous councilors.


We judge no less. Uncle of Exeter,
Enlarge the man committed yesterday,
That rail’d against our person: we consider
it was excess of wine that set him on;
And on his more advice we pardon him.


That’s mercy, but too much security:
Let him be punish’d, sovereign, lest example
Breed, by his sufferance, more of such a kind.


O, let us yet be merciful.


So may your highness, and yet punish too.


You show great mercy, if you give him life,
After the taste of much correction.


Alas, your too much love and care of me
Are heavy orisons ‘gainst this poor wretch!
If little faults, proceeding on distemper,
Shall not be wink’d at, how shall we stretch our eye
When capital crimes, chew’d, swallow’d and digested,
Appear before us? We’ll yet enlarge that man,
Though Cambridge, Scroop and Grey, in their dear care
And tender preservation of our person,
Would have him punished.

The contrast with his swift response to the Southampton plot and treatment of Cambridge, Scrope and Grey is presented as the just action of a dread and feared sovereign exercising his power to protect his kingship from dangerous individuals. He is swift to act when it is required and when the highest in the land have betrayed his trust in contrast with his clemency over the drunken fool who spoke against him.

He is devout in his reverence for God and the church and his cause is just in his eyes and those of his council having been duly established in the scene with the Archbishop of Canterbury in Act One. Canterbury also praises his wisdom and knowledge of church matters as well as politics and military affairs.


Hear him but reason in divinity,
And all-admiring with an inward wish
You would desire the king were made a prelate:
Hear him debate of commonwealth affairs,
You would say it hath been all in all his study:
List his discourse of war, and you shall hear
A fearful battle render’d you in music:
Turn him to any cause of policy,
The Gordian knot of it he will unloose,
Familiar as his garter: that, when he speaks,
The air, a charter’d libertine, is still,

Shakespeare’s king is also multi-faceted. He leads from the front and shows his courage and determination yet we also glimpse the tortured soul behind the mask of kingship who suffers a sleepless night on the eve of the battle because the weight of his leadership is a burden which can not be put off.

Tom Hiddleston as Henry in 2012

Tom Hiddleston as Henry in 2012


Upon the king! let us our lives, our souls,
Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children and our sins lay on the king!
We must bear all. O hard condition,
Twin-born with greatness, subject to the breath
Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel
But his own wringing!

The eve of battle scene is my favourite part of the play in terms of the language and imagery used and because of the philosophical musings of the king as he sits in disguise and peels off the trappings of royalty for a brief moment. Shakespeare creates a very cinematic rendering in his descriptions of the proximity of the two rival armies, the horses answering each other in the dark and the sound of the armourers drifting across the no man’s land as a warning of the conflict to come. This is important not only for establishing the setting for the battle and the mood in the camps but also as the backdrop for Henry’s ‘Gethsemane’ moment.


From camp to camp through the foul womb of night
The hum of either army stilly sounds,
That the fixed sentinels almost receive
The secret whispers of each other’s watch:
Fire answers fire, and through their paly flames
Each battle sees the other’s umber’d face;
Steed threatens steed, in high and boastful neighs
Piercing the night’s dull ear, and from the tents
The armourers, accomplishing the knights,
With busy hammers closing rivets up,
Give dreadful note of preparation:

Hal is alone in every sense despite the presence of his ‘ghost’ army about him. The veils of kingship are lifted because he is symbolically freed by wearing Sir Thomas Erpingham’s cloak. This allows Hal to think on the nature of the power that he wields and the crushing responsibility which he must shoulder alone for the souls of his men and the outcome of his decisions during the campaign.

He is unmatched too. The French king is far away from the battlefield and totally incapable of fulfilling his duty as a king and the Dauphin is presented as an arrogant  joke – the antithesis of all that Henry is. Hal embodies everything that kingship is and ought to be in the play. Indeed Shakespeare re-visits the nature of kingship over and over again in his history plays. It seems to be an obsession which he can not shake off. His kings are tortured and conflicted souls, some pushed beyond the bounds of sanity by the burdens they bear and all weighed down by their crowns.

Olivier's eve of battle scene

Olivier’s eve of battle scene

What is kingship? What divides a king from the men who follow him and what is ceremony and pomp and power when you are cold and tired and ill, far from home and facing a superior enemy?

In his disguise, Hal talks to the men around the camp fire about their king being but a man as they all are:


I think the king is but a man, as I
am: the violet smells to him as it doth to me: the
element shows to him as it doth to me; all his
senses have but human conditions: his ceremonies
laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man; and
though his affections are higher mounted than ours,
yet, when they stoop, they stoop with the like
wing. Therefore when he sees reason of fears, as we
do, his fears, out of doubt, be of the same relish
as ours are: yet, in reason, no man should possess
him with any appearance of fear, lest he, by showing
it, should dishearten his army.

The distinction for the real Henry of Monmouth was the anointing and swearing of oaths at his coronation which seems to have been a spiritual revelation and personal catharsis. All the bloodshed that followed in his grand expeditions to assert his just and rightful claims in France, all the dead babies and lost women wandering the countryside in search of shelter, the pulverized walls and shattered gun-stones, the disease and the hunger and the misery were the results of the mystical rites of his coronation.

‘Henry placed unprecedented emphasis on his coronation oath as the central theme of his kingship. Unlike his father, he treated it ‘almost as a manifesto, a programme for government’, he was committed to its implementation.’ (Juliet Barker Agincourt, p.41)

Henry of Monmouth, Prince of Wales, wayward son of a usurper, the disappointment, the less favoured brother became God’s representative on Earth at that moment. It is said that his character changed after the coronation. The extent of his womanizing has been questioned lately but he was said to have stopped sleeping with any woman after he became king and his court was noticeable for the absence of women as he preferred to surround himself with ecclesiastics and a few trusted noblemen. The quarrels with his father were over. The father was dead and gone and Thomas, Duke of Clarence now needed to prove his loyalty and know his place in council though he continued to advise Henry and Henry didn’t always care to follow that advice. The strain of his relationship with his father and desire to best his legacy may have been one of the motives for his decision to prosecute a campaign in France. He had already argued with Henry IV over whether to back the Burgundian or Armagnac factions before his death and was clearly unhappy with his father’s foreign policy decisions. Immediately after he landed back in England in November 1415 he traveled to Canterbury rather than straight to the capital in order to give thanks for his victory at the shrine of St Thomas a Becket but also to take his victory to his father’s tomb and that of his ancestor The Black Prince. It mattered a great deal to Henry to be seen to have succeeded where his father had failed but also to lay the victory at his feet as a means of winning his love and respect beyond the grave.

‘With Harfleur and Agincourt under his belt he could feel he was fit to be in their company. He had equalled their achievements. One suspects that with regard to his father, with whom he had never had an easy relationship, there was a personal score that had been settled by his proving himself on the Agincourt campaign.’ (Ian Mortimer 1415: Henry Vth’s Year of Glory, p476.)

Henry set out to deliver equal justice to all his subjects in the first year of his reign, to root out corruption and to bind the sons of his father’s enemies to him with unbreakable bonds of loyalty and respect. His first years as king saw him lay the foundations for his French campaigns by stamping his majesty in the hearts and minds of his subjects.

‘The French ambassadors…described him as being tall and distinguished in person, with the proud bearing of a prince, but nevertheless treating everyone, regardless of rank, with the same affability and courtesy.’ (Juliet Barker Agincourt, p.40)

He was a stern king and a pious one who rooted out the Lollards and sought to end the schism in the holy church through his foreign policy. He was God’s judge and later God’s scourge too against a sinful world which needed to learn who it should bow before.

King Henry Vth

King Henry Vth

Ian Mortimer’s book ‘1415’ paints a vivid picture of his version of King Henry Vth. He is a cold and calculating man, ruthless when opposed and fanatical in his religious beliefs. Mortimer clearly admires some of his qualities as a leader and military commander but fails to warm to him as man.

‘he had become what we call a religious fundamentalist – or, to be precise, a militant Catholic fundamentalist. As he later described himself, he was ‘the scourge of God sent to punish the people of God for their sins.’ Everything on Earth was subject to God’s will, and he himself, as God’s willing instrument, was prepared to wield all the destructive power he could to exercise that will. Of course, he was liable to be accused of tyranny by those who did not believe in his right to interpret God’s intentions; but they were among the minority.’ (Ian Mortimer 1415: Henry Vth’s Year of Glory, p.516)

Juliet Barker’s book ‘Agincourt’ also carried the same sense of Henry’s particular mind-set. His determination to go to war despite talking peace is less pronounced than in Mortimer’s account but he is implacable in his beliefs and again driven by his religious conviction that he is divinely appointed to the task of re-gaining the lands won by Edward III and the Black Prince in the C14th. Henry’s last letter to the French king demonstrates the utter determination to have what was his by right.

‘By the bowels of Jesus Christ’, he pleaded, ‘Friend, render what you owe.’ (Monstrelet, iii, pp78-80; St Denys, v, pp.526-8)

So we see some striking parallels with Shakespeare’s king but also a more sinister and deadly undercurrent of fanaticism and intransigence. He could be courteous and affable yet he didn’t allow any man to make eye contact with him in order to preserve his majesty. A world away form the familiar camaraderie of Shakespeare’s Hal.

‘Henry, according to at least one source, would not allow anyone to look him in the eye and deprived his French marshal of his office for having the temerity to do so.’ (Juliet Barker, Agincourt p. 39)

Mortimer’s account of the Southampton plot reveals doubts over the nature of the conspiracy. There was discontent among these lords and possibly wider involvement including others much closer to Henry himself, like Thomas Arundel, who’s defection would have hit him much harder but it seems rather unformed and uncoordinated. Did Henry deliberately allow Cambridge enough rope to hang himself in order to remove an inconvenient rival before he departed for France and was Scrope sacrificed in order to achieve this? In contrast with Shakespeare’s merciful Hal the real Henry was capable of ruthless expediency when necessary in order to eliminate potential threats and clear the way for his great expedition though he did try to end the quarrels with his father’s enemies and start afresh with the next generation.

Looking at the surviving source evidence such as muster rolls and financial documents the scale of the planned campaign and organisation required are striking. Anne Curry gives detailed evidence of the preparations made by Henry and his administration in the lead up to the war in the recent Future Learn course on Agincourt run by the University of Southampton.

‘This is war according to accountants…this is the bureaucracy of war and it shows the very sophisticated administration of the English royal government at this point.’ (Future Learn, ‘Agincourt 1415’ online course 2015 – Week 1:How to Raise a Medieval Army)

Henry and his administration coordinated the movement of troops, horses, ships, ordinance and the provisioning of the army with skill and intelligence. They worked with efficiency and meticulous attention to detail yet the initial phase of the campaign hardly went to plan.

muster roll

Whilst Shakespeare’s focus is on the rousing ‘Once more into the breach’ speech and Henry’s masterful leadership at Harfleur, the reality was that Henry’s decision to lay siege to the town in order to provide a bridgehead for the next phase of his campaign lead to the English army being delayed in a long and difficult siege. De Gaucourt’s defense of the town was stronger than anticipated and resulted from Clarence’s failure to cut him off from getting inside at the start of the siege with reinforcements. The walls held for longer, the resolve of the garrison and townspeople was a thorn in Henry’s side and his troops were already struggling to find victuals and became prey to dysentery from eating contaminated shellfish from the harbour. The trials sent to test Hal and his ‘band of brothers’ are alluded to in the play but no blame is attached to the decisions made by the king and his councilors. Why did the supplies run out so fast as men were told to bring 3 months rations with them from England. Why did the English mis-calculate the length of time required to take Harfleur and why did they seem to be unprepared for the scorched earth policy of the French? Henry had run out of money too and could not pay the troops for the second quarter of service and had to offer jewels as security for future payment.

Thomas of Clarence advised that Henry should return to England with his army by sea from Harfleur after they succeeded in taking the town according to Tito Livio Frulovisi in the ‘Vita Henrici Quinti’ but Henry couldn’t admit to his country and parliament that he had blown that vast an amount of expenditure and resources on the taking of one town which would not hold if left in isolation as an English possession. He wanted to visit the lands that he held to be his by right and to show the French that he could march through Normandy to Calais if he so chose but they were constantly harassed by the enemy and the casualty rate continued to rise from hunger and sickness. He couldn’t get across the Somme at Blanchetaque as he had hoped due to the presence of a large French army on the other side. He lost more men near Fecamp when the army spread out in search of supplies and despite finally crossing the Somme at Bethencourt he lead his rag-tag army straight towards an enemy force which outnumbered the English at least 3 to 1 after a gruelling 80 mile detour.

Shakespeare has Henry say that he would not engage the French as he is and just wants to get to Calais which might be interpreted as wishful thinking considering his previous actions but Mortimer thinks that he was hell-bent on bringing the French to a set battle and that was his intention when he began the long march. Perhaps it had been but the detour had taken the stuffing out of his men and now he was in a desperate situation.

At this point it would seem that God really was on Henry’s side as a combination of factors turned what should have been a crushing defeat into a miraculous triumph. Henry can’t take the credit for the effect of rain on muddy fields, or for the French decision to block his army at a location where the terrain favoured the smaller English force or for the inability of the French commanders to work together or follow Boucicaut’s plan which might have been much more effective at combating the English longbowmen. Perhaps Henry was astute enough to gamble on French rivalries surfacing as they came together to fight him. Perhaps Henry also knew that the composition of his force with 3 archers to each man at arms would favour him in a bottleneck situation where the French cavalry couldn’t get to grips with them and it was his decision to command each archer to cut a 6′ long wooden stake to carry with them in case of cavalry attack which was to prove very effective at neutralizing the French cavalry charges at the beginning of the engagement.

Whatever Henry hoped to achieve on the eve of the battle it still looked like suicide and he must be praised for holding firm under the enormous pressures he faced and choosing to stand and fight rather than making a deal to save is own hide or ride off under cover of darkness. He simply had to win or die in the attempt because he had staked so much on the outcome.

The rest, as they say, is history or legend or myth or what you will. He pulled victory from the jaws of defeat and returned to England as a national hero, all doubts over his kingship blown away by the clear evidence that he was God’s chosen man.

Within the constraints of his medium, Shakespeare brings us the battle through glimpses and reported action thus avoiding the problem of massed archers by writing them out of the action but it is notable that he is at pains to add to the humiliation of the French in his rendering of the murder of the baggage train boys but skirts over Henry’s order to kill the French prisoners in a line.


Tis certain there’s not a boy left alive; and the
cowardly rascals that ran from the battle ha’ done
this slaughter: besides, they have burned and
carried away all that was in the king’s tent;
wherefore the king, most worthily, hath caused every
soldier to cut his prisoner’s throat. O, ’tis a
gallant king!

Propaganda writing at its best. There is uncertainty over why Henry ordered the killing of the French prisoners but the most likely explanation was necessity due to the arrival of Antoine, Duke of Brabant and a second French attack rather than retribution for the murder of the pages. Eye witness testimony from Ghillebert de Lannoy suggests that the prisoners were herded into barns and burnt alive which presents a rather less heroic image of the English yeoman!

Contemporary chroniclers forgave Henry too. The focus had to be on the scale of his victory in terms of how many French lords and nobles were either dead or captives of the English compared to the loss of the Dukes of York and Suffolk and a few commons. To contemporary eyes and to Shakespeare’s too it could only mean that God had ordained that Henry was right and had been from the outset. The French must shoulder the guilt for the death and destruction and for failing to grant him his just rights and legal inheritance. Even French chroniclers focused on apportioning blame among their own commanders such as the Picard writer of the ‘Chronique d’Enguerrand de Mostrelet’ and the ‘Histoire de Charles VI’. It should be said that these sources were compiled years after the event and therefore with the benefit of hindsight or with a particular bias, such as the Vita Henrici Quinti which was composed under the patronage of his brother Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. Finding an unbiased source is impossible and by the time Shakespeare was looking for material Holinshed’s history was far from reliable in terms of impartiality. The legend had obscured the reality.

So what do we make of the player king as opposed to the real Henry? They clearly shared many attributes and qualities. Both were courageous, clever, implacable and devoutly religious. They both impressed those who regarded them and were able to lead their men and persuade them to stand firm against the odds. Shakespeare makes his Henry more human and more likable than Henry Vth seems to some of us now in a largely secular society and one much more attuned to the feints of propaganda and spin. In some ways our questioning of his decisions and knowledge of the true nature of the campaign only increases our respect for his achievement at Agincourt yet without that certainty of moral conviction it is harder to condone his intransigence and failure to reach a negotiated settlement. While we should not impose our own codes and value systems on the past it is hard to accept the level of carnage and destruction which these campaigns brought to the native population for the sake of what appears naked ambition even if it also provided economic and security benefits.

Shakespeare’s Hal is just one facet of the complex iconography of Henry Vth as national hero, saviour, warrior King and great Plantagenet which has been fed down to us today but he is an important one. The power of Shakespeare’s talent, the beauty of his words and imagery and the many great actors who have embodied Henry Vth through the generations all add enormous weight to the popular image we carry and which continues to inform how the real man is viewed. It may prove impossible to tease them apart.