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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    Not Peer Reviewed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 the Elizabethan Context: Empire, Invasion, Succession

    The anonymous playwright who in the mid-1580s penned Famous Victories for the Queen's Men chose as his subject a historical figure and historical events with which he could depend upon his audiences being instantly familiar. Even as they were occurring, Henry's military successes began to be recorded in English, French, and Latin by eyewitnesses and historians with access to eyewitness accounts issuing from both sides of the English invasion of France. Indeed, historian Keith Dockray remarks, "From the very moment of his accession, if not before, Henry embarked on a deliberate stratagem of image-creation, consciously presenting himself as a dramatic contrast to his cautious and uncharismatic father Henry IV, a man not only resolved to restore harmony at home but also vigorously reassert traditional English claims to hegemony in France" (13). The initial histories and other near-contemporaneous fifteenth-century accounts of the events of Henry's reign were later embroidered with anecdotes about Henry's unruly youth and incorporated into the major sixteenth-century English chronicle histories of Hall, Holinshed, and Stow (Dockray 47-50). By the time our anonymous playwright wrote The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, in fact, Henry had become an English national hero. The play's major historical source, Edward Hall's The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York (1550), ends its chapter on "the victorious actes of kynge Henry the fyft" (Henry V fol. 51v) with a detailed account of Henry's magnificent funeral and sums up the tragically short-lived monarch's reign with an almost Shakespearean defiance of time's potential to tarnish the lustre of his fame: "Thus ended this noble and puissant prince his most noble and fortunate reygne ouer the realme of England: whose life although cruell Atropos before hys time abbreuiated, yet neyther fyre, ruste, nor frettyng tyme shall emongest Englyshemen ether appall his honoure or oblyterate hys glorye, whyche in so fewe yeres and bryefe dayes achyued so hyghe aduentures and made so greate a conquest" (Henry V fol. 51v).

    Aiding the intrepid historian in his battle against fire, rust, and fretting time in the last decades of the sixteenth century were such plays as Famous Victories, Shakespeare's later Henry V (first performed 1599), and possibly another Henry V play if, as David Bevington has suggested (18), the "harey the v" (33) whose thirteen performances at the Rose theatre between 28 November 1595 and 15 July 1596 are recorded in Henslowe's diary is a distinct play from the other two (Foakes 33-7, 47-8). "[W]hat a glorious thing it is," writes Thomas Nashe in 1592, "to have Henry the Fifth represented on the stage, leading the French king prisoner, and forcing both him and the Dolphin to swear fealty" (113). Thus, Nashe declares, "our forefathers' valiant acts, that have lain long buried in rusty brass and worm-eaten books, are revived, and they themselves raised from the grave of oblivion" (113).

    Nashe may or may not be alluding specifically to Famous Victories, in which the French King Charles VI is neither led onstage as a prisoner nor forced to swear allegiance to Henry (at least not in the two surviving early modern editions published in 1598 and 1617), yet his remarks, made in the context of a defense of plays against detractors who claimed that they inculcated sloth and immorality, clearly demonstrate that at least some of their audience members perceived history plays in general and history plays about Henry V in particular to be performing significant (and positive) ideological work in early modern English culture. Twentieth-century critics of Famous Victories have until recently tended to label the play's ideological work as patriotism, often in order to explain or excuse the play's supposed faults as a work of dramatic art. Thus, Madeleine Doran asserts that Famous Victories' "chief shaping attitude is patriotism" (Doran 114); although he describes the play as a "decrepit pot-boiler," Bullough concedes that it was "[f]rom Famous Victories Shakespeare learned how to fuse comedy and heroism in one of the greatest national figures" (4.168). This critical verdict has persisted. Contending that "playgoers enjoyed its untroubled patriotism" (99), James Shapiro asserts that "The Famous Victories had no ambition to leave audiences wrestling with any great moral issues and it certainly didn't make any intellectual demands on them. If you were paying to see a play about Henry V you could expect to have a few laughs and cheer on your nation and its heroic past" (99). McMillin and MacLean offer a more complex assessment of the ideological function of Famous Victories and other Queen's Men plays, but they nonetheless also argue that one of the main purposes of this elite touring company was nationalist propaganda. As we have seen, though, Champion and others have found Famous Victories to be less ideologically acquiescent than these arguments would indicate, and in the three subsections that follow I will outline ways in which elements of the play's Elizabethan historical context would almost inevitably give its re-enactment of the history of Henry V a critical edge.


    25If, as Clare has argued, "the history play . . . served collective memory in representing the nation's heroic past" (102), then in the mid-1580s the Elizabethan collective memory may have found the service provided by Famous Victories to be as painful and unsettling as patriotic and nostalgic. Henry's brightness would unavoidably have illuminated the damage fretting time had wrought to England's greatness over the 150 years from Henry's death to the reign of Elizabeth. Henry's conquest of France represented one of the high points for the English in the One Hundred Years War between the two countries that began in 1337 when Philip VI of France seized the duchy of Aquitaine from Edward III, who claimed the French crown through his mother Isabella, daughter of the earlier French king, Philip IV (Allmand 7, 13). Henry's conquests gave the English monarch and his successors the rule over a large European empire with vast resources (France was the most populous European nation in the medieval period). That empire, however, began to disappear rapidly after Henry's death in 1422. By 1429 the dauphin Charles, son of the French King Charles VI whose defeat Famous Victories dramatizes, had with the help of the army of Joan of Arc sufficiently repulsed the occupying English forces to be crowned Charles VII at Reims (Allmand 33-34). Although in 1431 the English countered with the coronation of Henry VI, Henry's son by Katherine, as king of France in Paris (Allmand 34), by 1453 the French had largely succeeded in driving the English from their territories (Allmand 36). Finally, through the Treaty of Cateau-Cambr├ęsis in 1559, a year after Elizabeth's accession to the English throne, and the Treaty of Troyes in 1564, the English ceded back to the French their last possession on French soil, the economically and strategically important port city of Calais (Guy 264-67). Not since 1066, the year the duke of Normandy conquered England and inaugurated a new Anglo-Norman dynasty, had England been so insular.


    Vulnerability accompanied the insularity. If during Henry's reign England was the imperial aggressor, during Elizabeth's reign England was primarily the target of the imperial aggression of sixteenth-century Europe's Catholic powerhouse, Spain. In the sixteenth century, the Protestant Reformation divided Europe into hostile confessional camps. By 1534 Henry VIII (r. 1509-1547) had placed England in the Protestant camp, a position extended by his son Edward VI (r. 1547-1553), reversed by his eldest daughter Mary (r. 1553-1558), who married Philip II of Spain and returned England to Catholicism, but finally consolidated by Elizabeth. Protestant Elizabethan England thus emerged as the David-like champion of European Protestantism pitted against the gigantic military might of a Spanish empire whose efforts to assert its hegemony in the European arena were sustained by immense flows of New World gold and silver. The struggle was fought mainly abroad, with Elizabeth sending money and small numbers of troops to support Protestants in the Low Countries and France or sponsoring naval raids along the coasts of Spain and Spanish American territories. By 1585, however, England was unofficially at war with Spain, a situation that rendered a Spanish attempt to invade England an imminent likelihood (Hammer 1-3). The anticipated attempt materialized in 19 July 1588, when a Spanish armada of 131 ships sailed into the English Channel, but bad weather and superior English naval mobility and gunnery prevented Spanish ships or troops from landing on English shores (Guy 339-42). Spain would launch similar Armadas in 1596, 1597, and 1599 (Guy 350-351).

    The decades of the 1580s and 1590s, then, the decades of Famous Victories' composition and initial performances, were a time of deep military anxiety for the English nation, an anxiety that the memory of Henry V's vanished martial accomplishments may have exacerbated as much as ameliorated. The anxiety generated by the heightened militarism of Elizabethan England may be obliquely refracted in Famous Victories' recruiting scene, in which a captain presses John Cobbler, Derrick, and the thief Cutbert Cutter for service in France. The system of impressment dramatized in this scene is Elizabethan rather than medieval. Elizabeth's government attempted to establish a national system of recruitment for the militia and the army to replace a system that relied on aristocrats recruiting their own soldiers (Hammer 67). The recruiting scene is an ambivalent representation of the results. Although Derrick seems eager to fight, John is not. The common tradesman John perceives war not as the opportunity to acquire glory but as a potentially ruinous economic disruption: "Oh, sir, I have a great many shoes at home to cobble" (TLN 998-999), he pleads to the captain. "Tush, I care not. Thou shalt go" (TLN 1001), is the captain's reply. Whether they wanted to or not, commoners bore the brunt of the wars begun by aristocrats. The new recruiting practices also found easy targets in "masterless men," dispossessed and wandering criminals and paupers whose lack of a master placed them on the peripheries or in the interstices of Elizabethan society. Cutbert Cutter represents this demographic. "Dost thou want a master?" (TLN 1032), the captain asks Cutbert. "Ay, truly sir" (TLN 1033), Cutbert replies, upon which the captain immediately declares, "I press thee for a soldier to serve the king in France" (TLN 1034-1035). Having been exploited then abandoned as Prince Henry's "villain that was wont to spy out our booties" (TLN 26-27), the masterless Cutbert is returned to his old master, now King Henry V, to do him further service in the larger thievery of war.


    In its opening scenes the play hints at another major Elizabethan political issue: succession. In scene two, as the three members of Billingsgate Ward's local watch--John Cobbler, Robin Pewterer, and Lawrence Costermonger--prepare themselves for their evening duties, they discuss the antics of the youth they presume is their future sovereign. Noting Prince Henry's reputation for highway robbery, John comments to Lawrence that "I dare not call him thief, but sure he is one of these taking fellows" (TLN 121). Clare comments that John's "subordination makes him circumspect; he names thievery by not naming it" (110), acknowledging through his rhetorical evasion that "there is one law for the powerful and another for the commonality" (110). John's circumspection is more explicit when, immediately after (not) calling the prince a thief, he touches upon the matter of succession: "I hear say, if he use it long, his father will cut him off from the crown. But, neighbor, say nothing of that" (TLN 124-126). In an Elizabethan context, the anxiety of these commoners is understandable. When Elizabeth ascended the throne in 1558, the expectation was that she would marry and, unlike her elder half-sister Mary, produce an heir to continue the line of Tudor monarchs and provide English government with long-term political stability. Close to thirty years later, Elizabeth remained unmarried and childless. Commoners and aristocrats alike were concerned that some resolution to this problem be found, but Elizabeth reacted violently to their attempts to offer her their advice. In 1579, for example, John Stubbes, author of a tract opposing Elizabeth's last serious marriage negotiation, with the French and Catholic duke of Alençon, had as thanks for his efforts his right hand publicly chopped off (Neale 245-46). Elizabethan audiences would have had no difficulty sensing the fear of political oppression and recognition of political exclusion underlying the nervousness of the watchmen's conversation, while also being reminded that their monarch, unlike Henry IV, had no heir whatsoever, and certainly not a male heir who, however unruly as a youth, would later become a triumphant military hero.

    The audience's awareness of the events surrounding Mary Queen of Scots might have added to this tension. Chased from Scotland in 1567 and held by Elizabeth under closely guarded forms of house arrest until her execution in 1587, Mary had been queen of France during the brief reign of her husband Francis II (r. 1559-60) and queen regnant of Scotland from 1542 to 1567. Lineally descended from Henry VII by Henry's oldest daughter Margaret, the Catholic Mary was considered by many to possess a stronger claim to the English crown than Elizabeth, the dubiously legitimate daughter of Henry VIII's arguably adulterous union with his second wife Anne Boleyn, to be the strongest candidate to be Elizabeth's successor, and, in the minds of many English Catholics, to be the logical choice to replace Elizabeth should a Spanish invasion of England succeed. Mary's presence in England unsurprisingly raised the temperature of the debates surrounding legitimacy, marriage, and succession. Indeed, Mary became the center of Catholic conspiracies to assassinate Elizabeth and place Mary on the throne (Guy 277-8, 284-5, 331-7). The unravelling of one such conspiracy, known as the Babington Plot, led to Mary's execution in 1587 (Guy 334-6). The history dramatized by Famous Victories would no doubt have resonated strongly with the concerns of this heated political situation. The play features a monarch whose father, Henry IV, usurped the English crown from its previous wearer, Richard II, in 1399 and then had him murdered, and whose own legitimacy was called into question on the eve of his invasion of France in 1415 by a conspiracy, known as the Southampton Plot, whose participants intended to assassinate Henry and replace him with Edmund Mortimer, son of the man whom the parliament had declared in 1397 to be the heir presumptive of the childless Richard II (Seward 9, 47-9; Dockray 110-15; Keen 303).

    30Interestingly, the play mutes this thread of Henry's history, omitting the Southampton Plot entirely and converting Henry IV's rather vague mention of the questionable means by which he acquired the throne into an opportunity for his son to display a bravado that wins him the approval of the dying king and his aristocratic advisors. Having given Prince Henry his crown, Henry IV confesses that "God knows, my son, how hardly I came by it and how hardly I have maintained it" (TLN 747-748), provoking from Prince Henry the rousing declaration that "Howsoever you came by it, I know not, but now I have it from you, and from you I will keep it. And he that seeks to take the crown from my head, let him look that his armor be thicker than mine, or I will pierce him to the heart, were it harder than brass or bullion" (TLN 749-754). Prince Henry's words minimize the matter of legitimacy, valorizing instead the martial strength necessary to maintain power: in domestic as well as foreign affairs, Prince Henry will prove his legitimacy with his sword. The dying king, Exeter, and Oxford approve this position. "Nobly spoken, and like a king" (TLN 755), responds Henry IV, "Now trust me, my lords, I fear not but my son will be as warlike and victorious a prince as ever reigned in England" (TLN 756-758). Perhaps unwittingly raising to the surface the disregard of legality implicit in Prince Henry's power politics, Exeter and Oxford in unison reply that "His former life shows no less" (TLN 759). Famous Victories may avoid directly or extensively addressing the issues of legitimacy, succession, and marriage in their Elizabethan configurations, then, but even in the limited form in which it touches upon them it raises probing political questions to which its Elizabethan audience would have been sensitive.