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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    Not Peer Reviewed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

    Who Was Henry V

    Born on 16 September 1387 at Monmouth in Wales, the child who would become Prince of Wales in 1399 and Henry V in 1413 was the eldest son of Henry Bolingbroke, earl of Derby, and the grandson of John of Gaunt, who as the duke of Lancaster and eldest surviving son of Edward III (r. 1327-1377) exercised considerable influence during the reign of his nephew, Richard II. Richard's father was Edward the Black Prince, the eldest son of Edward III. The Black Prince, however, died in 1376, a year before his father, so in 1377 Richard became England's king at the age of ten (Keen 260). His reign came to an ignominious end in 1399 when he was deposed by Henry of Bolingbroke, who became Henry IV. Having been banished from England in 1398, Henry had returned in 1399 with an army to claim his ancestral rights as duke of Lancaster, of which Richard had deprived him upon the death of John of Gaunt that year, but, seizing the opportunity afforded by Richard's absence in Ireland, decided to press further and claim the crown as well (Keen 293-4, 297-8). As Maurice Keen aptly puts it, Bolingbroke "got the crown because he was the man of the moment" (303). Famous Victories' Prince Henry might respond to the twinges of his father's conscience regarding his usurpation of Richard's crown by telling him that "Howsoever you came by it [the crown], I know not" (TLN 749), but historically the future Henry V surely did know. Having been a hostage in Richard II's camp during his father's rebellion (Seward 8-9), Prince Henry would have been well aware of the dubious means by which his father came by the English crown.

    5Moreover, becoming Prince of Wales upon his father's accession, Henry began to undertake important political and military roles in his father's regime. Contrary to the impression that the opening half of Famous Victories might give, Henry spent much of his youth working hard in his father's military campaigns in Scotland, Wales, and northern England. In 1403, at the age of sixteen, he was made lieutenant of the Marches of Wales (Seward 18) and took part in the Battle of Shrewsbury, at which his father's forces defeated a group of northern earls and Welsh rebels who intended to place the young Edmund Mortimer on the throne as Richard II's legitimate successor (Seward 19); he led his father's Welsh campaigns until the Welsh rebel Owain Glyn Dwr's final defeat in 1410 (Seward 18-25). Desmond Seward argues that "Henry V's Welsh wars prepared him for the conquest of France" (25), and it may well be that, when Exeter and Oxford assert that Prince Henry's "former life shows no less" (TLN 759) in response to Henry IV's prediction of a successful reign for his son, they are being neither sycophantic nor ironic but merely alluding to this aspect of Prince Henry's past, otherwise ignored by the play. In fact the play (somewhat inaccurately) commences its narrative "in the fourteenth year of the reign of our sovereign lord King Henry the Fourth" (TLN 322-3), 1413, the year of Henry IV's death, the four years preceding which had witnessed the development of somewhat tumultuous relations between the ailing monarch and his now seemingly less than dutiful and obedient son. Incapacitated by illness, in 1410 the king was required to confide the realm's government to his council, which was dominated by his eldest son and his supporters. Prince Henry followed very different policy directions from his father, especially in matters concerning English involvement in French internal strife, and was dismissed from council and deprived of power when his father recovered in 1411 (Dockray 87-9). No doubt relations between father and son had not been helped by the fact that Prince Henry had suggested that his father should abdicate (Seward 31). The final year and a half before Henry IV's death on 20 March 1413 saw Prince Henry publicly attempting to counter rumors that he wanted to dethrone his father and achieving a degree of reconciliation with him in the "gown of needles" incident, a version of which is dramatized in scene six of Famous Victories (Dockray 90-3).

    After his accession to the throne, Henry V quickly began plans to obtain the crown of France. In 1414 and again in 1415, Henry sent embassies into France demanding the French crown, marriage to Charles VI's daughter Katherine with a large dowry, and major territorial concessions (Dockray 136-7). The French rejected these demands, as Henry surely knew they would. On 6 July 1415 he declared war on France, and on 11 August he launched from Southampton the full-scale invasion for which he had preparing throughout the preceding negotiations (Dockray 137-40).

    Famous Victories compresses this complex historical process into one fluid scene, at the beginning of which Henry's erstwhile companion Jockey exclaims "Did you not see with what grace he sent his embassage into France to tell the French king that Harry of England hath sent for the crown and Harry of England will have it?" (TLN 800-803) and at the conclusion of which Henry tells his noble counselors, "let us be gone and get our men in a readiness" (TLN 985) for the invasion. Framed by these expressions of Henry's unswerving determination, the scene shifts quickly from dramatizing Henry's rejection of the old companions of his dissolute recent past to staging the steps leading to the war with France as further confirmation of his reformation: Henry receives advice from his wise new counselors, responds haughtily to the French ambassador who conveys Charles VI's disdainful rejection of Henry's demands and presents the Dauphin Louis' insulting gift of a tun of tennis balls and a carpet, appoints as lord protector the Lord Chief Justice to whom he had given a box on the ear earlier in the play, and then marches off to war. His first stop was Harfleur, which he successfully besieged 19 August-23 September (Dockray 140). The siege seriously weakened Henry's army, however, and he decided to march back to the English city of Calais rather than venture deeper into French territory. A French army intercepted the English along the way, leading to the famous battle of Agincourt on 25 October, in which the English longbow played the central role in producing an overwhelming victory for the drastically outnumbered English (Dockray 143-55).

    The dramatization of Agincourt takes up the bulk of the second half of Famous Victories, from scene eleven to scene eighteen, highlighting the overconfidence of the French in contrast to the grim resolve and piety of the English. Although in scene eleven the French king and ambassador recognize the magnitude of the threat posed by Henry's invasion, both the dauphin and the constable treat it lightly. "Tut, my lord, although the king of England be young and wild-headed, yet never think he will be so unwise to make battle against the mighty king of France" (TLN 1072-1075), the dauphin advises his father. The constable is even more condescending: "Tush, we will make him as tame as a lamb" (TLN 1101), he retorts when the French ambassador reports that Henry "is such a haughty and high-minded prince, he is as fierce as a lion" (TLN 1099-1100). Two scenes later, on the eve of the battle, a French captain catches his men playing at dice for high-ranking figures in the English forces, including the king, as hostages. Rather than rebuking them, the captain informs them that the king "is left behind for me, and I have set three or four chair-makers a-work to make a new disguised chair to set that womanly king of England in, that all the people may laugh and scoff at him" (TLN 1226-1230). "I am glad, yet with a kind of pity, to see the poor king. Why, whoever saw a more flourishing army in France in one day than here is?" (TLN 1232-1235), he declares. In contrast, the English forces are fully cognizant of their plight: "They threescore thousand, and we but two thousand. They forty thousand footmen, and we twelve thousand" (TLN 1262-1265), Henry calculates at the beginning of scene fourteen, "They are a hundred thousand, and we fourteen thousand: ten to one" (TLN 1266-1267). Nonetheless, Henry is not dismayed: "My lords and loving countrymen, though we be few and they many, fear not. Your quarrel is good, and God will defend you. Pluck up your hearts, for this day we shall either have a valiant victory or an honorable death" (TLN 1268-1272). Henry's piety remains even after the battle is over: "the honorable victory which the Lord hath given us doth make me much rejoice" (TLN 1351-1352).

    Having given eight scenes to Agincourt, the play then moves from the comic interlude in scene eighteen featuring Derrick and the French soldier to Henry's negotiations for France and Katherine in scenes nineteen and twenty-one. The dramatic illusion created by this sequence, and by Derrick's allusion to "the duke of York's funeral" (TLN 1607-1608) in scene twenty, is that the negotiations follow immediately after the battle, but historically almost five years separate Agincourt and the Treaty of Troyes, signed 21 May 1420, whose terms were that Henry be regent of France during Charles VI's lifetime, that Katherine be given to Henry in marriage, and that their heirs be recognized as the legitimate French monarchs (Dockray 188-89). Henry V returned to England soon after Agincourt, on 15 November 1415, but invaded France again 1 August 1417, besieging Rouen 30 July 1418 and negotiating the Treaty of Troyes after Rouen surrendered 19 January 1419 (Dockray 159; 170-8). Henry did not live long enough to enjoy the fruits of the Treaty of Troyes, however: he died on 31 August 1422, predeceasing Charles VI by less than two months and leaving the English and French crowns to his infant son Henry VI.

    10This brief summary of Henry's reign might leave the impression that Henry was preoccupied primarily with foreign affairs. According to modern historians, however, Henry did not neglect domestic matters (Seward 171-2), and one such domestic matter is especially noteworthy because of its conspicuous absence from Famous Victories: the matter of Sir John Oldcastle. Prince Henry's companion before Henry became king, Sir John Oldcastle (1378-1417), was executed after having been found guilty of heresy in 1413 and having been implicated in various revolts against Henry between 1413 and 1417 (Dockray 53, 103-10). Oldcastle's heretical beliefs derived from those of the proto-Protestant fourteenth-century Oxford scholar John Wycliffe, and sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers like John Foxe considered Oldcastle to be a martyr (Corbin and Sedge 2). Nonetheless, the play chooses not to mention either Oldcastle's religious beliefs or his rebellions, limiting Oldcastle's presence to that of a minor character, Jockey, who, along with his companions Ned and Tom, disappears from the play after Henry dismisses them in scene nine. One might chalk this up to the dramatic streamlining to which the examples of dramatic compression discussed above attest, but significantly, writing in the 1580s, the playwright saw fit to minimize internal political divisions and confessional conflicts to present Henry as a Christian hero leading a nation whose fissures are primarily those of class. The play's only hint at confessional conflict, in fact, is mapped onto and muted by national antagonism. Urging John in scene ten to say goodbye to his wife and depart as soldier for France, Derrick says, "Why, John, come away! Dost think that we are so base-minded to die among Frenchmen? Zounds, we know not whether they will lay us in their church or no" (TLN 1054-1057). An Elizabethan audience member might anachronistically assume that the reason underlying Derrick's fear that dead English soldiers wouldn't be given a proper burial is that Catholics considered Protestants heretics and therefore unfit for burial in the sacred ground of the churchyard, but even if this is the case the play deflects the religious tension outward onto the larger, more emphatically stated conflict between the English and the French, and turns the possibility of improper burial into a joke.