Henry V

Henry V – A Bold but Brutal King

Henry VBorn in 1387, Henry arrived into a tumultuous world. Within twelve years, his father, Henry of Bolingbroke, had wrested the crown from Richard II, and he had suddenly found himself Prince of Wales. However, though he was prince of that land, his was not a comfortable position. Wales was not ready to be tamed by the Plantagenets, and young Henry spent many of his teen years battling, often against the Welsh ruler, Owain Glyndwr.

Henry Hotspur

When Henry Bolingbroke had deposed Richard II in 1399, it wasn’t just the crown that his family had won, however. They’d also gained the allegiance of many key figures in the realm. One in particular being Henry Hotspur Percy.

The Percy family had lost their verve for Richard and switched sides before the deposing took place. When Richard was captured, they’d had cheered and found themselves handsomely rewarded by the new king, Henry IV. However, their ‘friendship’ was not sustainable. Henry IV was a hard man and refused to help Hotspur’s brother-in-law when he was captured by the Welsh. So, for many reasons, which also involved the Scots, Hotspur switched allegiance yet again, and turned against his new king.

Their forces met at Shrewsbury in 1403. Henry, Prince of Wales, was there too, supporting his father against this turncoat. It was a fierce battle, but the rebels didn’t have the edge. Henry Hotspur Percy was killed and Henry IV won. However, the young Henry was wounded, taking an arrow to his face. Thus, before he’d even reached the age of twenty, he was battle hardened and fighting shoulder to shoulder with the tough role model that was his father.

A worldly-wise man became king

Henry V ascended the throne in 1413, when his father died wracked by disease. It’s of note that the new king was the first king of England, since the Normans had invaded, to speak in English. But there were many who were still aggrieved at Richard’s heir losing out. They made their indifference to his patriotism known, and this led him to have to stamp out plotters swiftly and harshly to make his point.

Henry turned his focus to France

Having made various demands of the French – including the return of Aquitaine, 2-million crowns, and the French king’s daughter’s hand in marriage – Henry set sail in 1415 to visit in person with his army.

His first action was to besiege the town of Harfleur.

Enjoying the fact that the French army did not come to its rescue, he achieved success there in just a few weeks. However, it came at a cost. He lost many men to hunger and disease, as well as fighting, and this reduced his strength significantly.

But Henry wasn’t one to back off when the odds were stacked against him. Instead, he marched north to Calais, taking a meandering route to avoid the French army along the way. It was only once he’d crossed the Somme, that their forces met.

The Battle of Agincourt

The Battle of Agincourt has achieved almost mythical status; partly enhanced by the writings of Shakespeare across many of his plays. And it’s worth remembering that, at this point, Henry was still not yet thirty. But that didn’t mean he was inexperienced.

To their folly, it was the defenders who chose the spot for the battle; a narrow strip of muddy land bordered by trees. It served to be a very poor choice.

The French psyche encouraged leaders to lead their men from the front. An admirable trait in many settings, but it was to be their downfall in this instance.

Henry was the first to make a move, and the French were swift to advance in response. They launched their cavalry, whilst he held his archers back… primed. As the French thundered forward, a barrage of arrows was released, and they were cut to shreds. In many cases, this sent the French knights crashing to the ground resulting in them needing to advance on foot. However, they swiftly discovered that the ground was a quagmire and extremely slippery. As a result, it didn’t take long for Henry to annihilate the French forces and hundreds upon hundreds were slaughtered.

Immortalised in history but not Henry’s finest hour

If we give Henry the benefit of the doubt, he killed his prisoners through fear that he’d captured so many that they would outgun his guards. But whatever the real reason, his act of brutality remains a large smudge on his record, and is possibly only countered because he’d achieved victory against all odds. Regardless, it didn’t hold him back.

By 1417, he’d captured Caen and Normandy, and taken Rouen after a lengthy siege. Here, his brutality once again came to the fore. He refused to help 12,000 expelled residents, and left them to die of starvation as they remained wedged between the city’s walls and his English lines.

Charles VI of France eventually gave in. Metaphorically waving his white flag, he pledged that the French throne would be left to the English upon his death. And to further enmesh this relationship, he allowed Henry to marry his daughter, Catherine, in 1421.

Within a short time, the pair enjoyed the birth of their only son – Henry VI. In retrospect, it’s lucky the king took steps to sort out an heir. For within a year, he was back in France, continuing to battle other territories allied to the French king. And after gaining victory in May 1422 in the Siege of Meaux, he succumbed dysentery and died on the 31st August the same year.

Henry V’s legacy

Plays, songs, and legends have abounded about Henry V. But then why wouldn’t that be the case? He’d been a prince well-primed on the battlefield before he took the throne. It would seem that he had luck on his side, particularly when it came to Agincourt. And as a long-overdue return match to the Battle of Hastings, his victory at Agincourt then secured his place in the English history books.