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

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.


8 Responses to “Shakespeare’s Henry Vth – King Hal versus the real Henry Plantagenet”

  1. Mr WordPress Says:

    Hi, this is a comment.
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  2. giaconda Says:

    Reblogged this on murreyandblue.


  3. lorr957 Says:

    I believe the account of his facial wound in battle and subsequent treatment , and that of his final illness and stoic determination to ride on despite imminent death, speaks more eloquently than almost anything else about the nature of the man. Truly formidable ! I would not like to meet him, I scares the life out of me.He was one focused dude !


  4. giaconda Says:

    I agree Lorr957. Plantagenet kings certainly didn’t lack ‘balls’ when it came to leading from the front and braving it out to inspire their men. I read the account of how Henry’s wound was operated on last week and it must have been pretty excruciating but probably no worse than ‘natural childbirth’ at that time.


  5. Lady of Winchester Says:

    I for one do not put nuch faith in Ian Mortimer’s, book, especically his judgement on Henry V, which pretty much ignores contemporary religious sentiments and ideas. If Henry V was a ‘fanatical fundamentalist’ for believing God was on his side, then what would that make Christine De Pizan, who wrote barely 5 years before the Agincourt campaign ‘Wars waged in just cause are but the proper execution of justice’?

    No, Mortimer’s take on Henry represents populist history at is sensationalized worst- not least for the way it attacks other historians who know more tham him- like the late great C.T.Allmand, whose magesterial biography of Henry far surpasses his own.


    • giaconda Says:

      Ian Mortimer is controversial and I don’t pretend to swallow his arguments whole. He has a particular perspective on Henry’s character and motivations but there is debate over the legality of Henry’s claim to France and the means by which he prosecuted his war which are valid points for discussion. What does make a ‘just war’ in these circumstances and would Chistine de Pizan have seen his cause as just?


      • Lady of Winchester Says:

        I wrote on this subject in some detail in my BA Dissertation, which I can ‘dig out’ later on.

        The main issue I had with this work was the author’s tendency to miss out certain details that had some bearing on the argument. For instance, he mentions the burning of Lollards, and states that this did not happen in the reign of Edward III and Richard II- implying that they were more religiously tolernt.
        What is not mentioned is that the law which actually allowed for the burning of heretics in England was not passed until 1401, which would explain why it did not happen before then.

        Furthermore, the seven persons mentioned were all involved the Lollard Rising of 1414 (which I looked at as well), which was not really just about religion- some of those involved seem to have been little more than armed thugs.

        Also,the attacking of other historians. Its not necessary.


  6. Website Says:




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