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  • Title: The Famous Victories of Henry V: Introduction
  • Author: Mathew Martin
  • Textual editors: Andrew Griffin, Helen Ostovich
  • Coordinating editor: Michael Best
  • Production editor: Peter Cockett

  • Copyright Mathew Martin. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: Mathew Martin
    Editors (Text): Andrew Griffin, Helen Ostovich
    Not Peer Reviewed

    The Famous Victories of Henry V: Introduction

    Famous Victories and its Sources

    The author of Famous Victories took the received facts of Henry V's reign mainly from a mid-sixteenth-century history, Edward Hall's The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York (1550), much of which was later incorporated in Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles, the 1577 edition of which the author may also have consulted, along with Stow's Chronicles (1580). Tudor chronicles such as Hall's, Holinshed's, and Stow's are characterized by the way in which they weave the histories of individual monarchs and their reigns into moralizing and providentialist grand narratives: each particular monarch becomes an example of vice or virtue whose fate testifies to the unfolding of God's plan in the secular time of human affairs. In her essay on the providentialism underpinning Holinshed's history, Alexandra Walsham writes that "For early modern Englishmen and women the idea that history was a record of the marvellous workings of the Almighty in the world was both a pious commonplace and a deeply ingrained precept" (427) and that "far from bearing witness to the gradual collapse of providence as an explanatory paradigm, the two editions of Holinshed's Chronicles underline the vitality and resilience of this way of thinking" (429).

    Several examples from Hall will serve to illustrate the workings of providentialist thought in the play's historical sources. In Hall's narrative, Edward II and Richard II are held up as examples of kings who "fell from the high glory of fortunes whele two [sic] extreme misery and miserable calamitee" (Henry Vfol.1v) because of evil counselors, in contrast to whom the newly crowned Henry V's replacement of his old companions with wise advisors is praiseworthy. Indeed, Henry's adoption of new counselors is, according to Hall, evidence that Henry "determined with himself to put on the shape of a new man" (Henry V fol. 1r). Following up the echo of the terminology of Christian conversion here, at the end of his account of Henry's reign Hall lauds Henry as "the blazing comete and apparent lantern in his dayes, he was the mirror of Christendome and the glory of his country, he was the floure of kynges passed, and a glasse to them that would succeed" (Henry V fol. 49v). Later, through the mouth of the duke of York, Hall provides a providentialist interpretation of Henry VI's downfall as deferred punishment for his grandfather's usurpation of the crown from Richard II: "although almighty God slackely and slowly do procede, to the punishment of synners: yet the differryng of his scorge, is recompensed, with the greater payn, when his rod striketh, and oftentimes he leaueth the very malefactors, apparauntly vnpunished, and scorgeth their bloud, and punisheth them in their heyres, by worldely aduersitie" (Henry VI fol. 96v).

    Nonetheless, as Phyllis Rackin observes, sixteenth-century English historians were beginning to be influenced by rationalist models of historiography that tended to seek explanations for historical events in purely human terms, models developed previously in Italy in the works of such political theorists as Machiavelli (5-8). Historians like Hall and Holinshed, Rackin contends, "mingled providential and Machiavellian explanations, with no apparent sense of contradiction" (7). Famous Victories does likewise. As we have seen, the play follows Hall in representing Henry as a Christian monarch who, for example, attributes his success at Agincourt to God. The play also broadly reproduces the conversion narrative that structures Hall's representation of Henry's transition from prince to king: confronting his father in scene six in his cloak of needles, Prince Henry is suddenly struck by his "conscience" (TLN 613), submits himself to his father, and, after receiving his father's blessing, declares "I am born new again" (TLN 644). Yet in the play this pious perspective on Henry jostles with other, less flattering or moralized ones.

    Three examples, all frequently discussed in modern criticism of the play, illustrate the extent to which the playwright was willing to modify his sources to present these alternative perspectives. The play opens with Prince Henry and his companions gleefully counting the money they have just robbed from Henry's father's receivers (tax collectors and rent gatherers). The incident is related in Stow as follows: Henry

    15wold waite in disguised araye for his owne receyuers, and distresse them of theyre money: and sometimes at suche enterprices both he and his company wer surely beaten: and when his receiuers made to him their complaints, how they were robbed in their coming vnto him, he wold giue them discharge of so much mony as they had lost, and besides that, they should not depart from him without great rewards for their trouble and vexation, especially they should be rewarded that best hadde resisted hym and his company, and of whom he had receyued the greatest and most strokes. (Chronicles 583)

    The Prince Henry of Famous Victories, however, robs his father's receivers, does not restore their money but rather plans to spend it at "the old tavern in Eastcheap" (TLN 93) where "[t]here is good wine" (TLN 94) and "a pretty wench" (TLN 94), and after having intimidated the receivers with threats of hanging exclaims, "Was this not bravely done?" (TLN 84). In contrast to Stow's sporting but ultimately generous and fair prince, the play's prince, according to Larry Champion, here displays "his concern only for personal pleasure and for the material benefits that accrue from a privileged position above the law" (5). "The result," Champion suggests, "is a demystification of the royal house and an exposure of the corruption at its center" (5).

    Scene four, the scene in which Prince Henry assaults the Lord Chief Justice for refusing to release Cutbert Cutter, affords the opportunity to observe the playwright negotiating between several sources to produce a similar demystification. Hall's account of the incident is brief: "for the imprisonmente of one of his wanton mates and vnthriftie plaisaiers he [Prince Henry] strake the chiefe Justice with his fiste on the face. For which offence he was not onely committed to streyght prison, but also of his father put out of the preuy counsaill and banished the courte" (Henry V fol. 1r). In the more elaborate versions of the incident found in Thomas Elyot's The Book named the Governor and Stow's Annals, however, the prince's anger is subdued when the Lord Chief Justice "charge you [the prince] desist of your wilfulnes and unlaufull enterprise, and from hensforth gyve good example to those whiche hereafter shall be your proper subjects. And nowe for your contempt and disobedience, go you to the prison of the kynges bench, where unto I committe you" (Bullough 4.289). Henry goes, and when his father hears of it he exclaims, "O mercifull god, howe moche am I, above all other men, bounde to your infinite goodness; specially, for that ye have given me a juge, who feareth nat to minister justice, and also a sonne who can suffer sembably and obey justice" (Bullough 4.289). Famous Victories clearly echoes the more extended version of Elyot and Stow, but, significantly, follows Hall in representing Prince Henry assaulting the Lord Chief Justice and being, as Janet Clare notes, unrepentant about it afterwards: "Gog's wounds, Ned, didst thou not see what a box on the ear I took my Lord Chief Justice?" (TLN 484-486). Contrary to Elyot and Stow's moralizing interpretation of this incident, according to Clare, the play's "message is unequivocal: there is one law for the powerful, another for the powerless" (106). Observing the comedy of the scene, created through the repetition in the dialogue, the physical assault, and Ned's menacing but humorous question (repeated throughout the play), "Gog's wounds, my lord, shall I cut off his [the Lord Chief Justice's] head?" (TLN 391), Louise Nichols contends that "[t]he scene (Ned's defiance included) completely destroys the moral emphasis given this part of Henry's life in the chronicles and in the process, makes a travesty of justice and the court setting. It is clearly a parody of the historical accounts which the audience would have known well, and this dramatic, comical version would undoubtedly have caused much laughter" (170).

    The third example involves the cloak of needles in which Prince Henry confronts his father in scene six. In Stow, when Prince Henry learns that his father "suspected that he would presume to vsurpe the crown, he being aliue," he "disguised himself in a gown of blew satten, made full of small Oylet holes, and at euery Oylet the needle wherwith it was made hanging still by a threede of silke. And about his arme he ware a dogges coller set ful of SS [curved links] of golde, and the Tirets [rings of a dog collar by which the leash is attached] of the same also of fine gold. Thus apparelled, with a great companye of Lordes and other noble men of his Court, he came to the king his father" (Chronicles 576). As Sally Romotsky insightfully observes, the author of Famous Victories has inverted the gown's meaning. If sixteenth-century historical accounts of Prince Henry's gown consider it to be a sign of his sincere contrition for his unruliness and his desire for reconciliation with his father (157), in Famous Victories the cloak "symbolizes callous ambition" (158) and aggression: "'tis a sign that I stand upon thorns 'til the crown be on my head" (TLN 533-534), according to Prince Henry, to which Jockey adds "Or that every needle might be a prick to their hearts that repine at your doings" (TLN 535-536). Later in the scene Prince Henry's sudden repentance before his father is dramatically represented when he gives his father his dagger, throws off "this ruffianly cloak" (TLN 628), and asks for his father's pardon. As Karen Oberer has recently argued, the play's audience would have been familiar with the symbolism of such sudden conversions from morality play drama: "The audience expects Prince Henry to transform just as Everyman or Mankind (or the prodigal) does" (173). Nonetheless, Champion suggests, the inverted symbolism of the cloak combined with the naked aggression of the dagger might strain the credulity of even those audience members accustomed to the sudden conversions of the morality play. If, as the cloak and the dagger might indicate, Prince Henry confronts his sickly father fully intending to murder him, then, according to Champion, his sudden conversion could be considered merely a face-saving strategy that "covers his original scheme to take the king's life; the resulting reconciliation with his father also solidifies his expectations for the crown" (7). Champion sees the ambivalence of the play's dramatization of Prince Henry's conversion as representative of the multivocality of the play as a whole. "The Famous Victories," he states, "in the final analysis, offers little guidance or shaping of events in such a manner as to delimit the meaning or significance of history, and the spectator is individually forced to come to terms with the welter of contradictions and conflicting ironies" (15).