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The Shire Hall - Agincourt Square, Monmouth - statue of King Henry V. (Elliot Brown/CC-BY-SA 2.0)

SCIENCE & TECH: Henry V, the Most Capable Medieval English King?

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During the 1300s AD, England was embroiled in a bitter rivalry with its neighbor across the channel, France.  This generational strife saw both of these major nations vying for the ultimate power within Europe. But in order to succeed in this rivalry and come out on top as the ultimate player, these powers had to have capable leaders and kings at the helm. Henry V was King of England from 1413 to 1422 AD, and was well suited for the role, proving to be a capable and successful monarch. He was especially noted for his military prowess and the victories he achieved against France. This is his story.

Henry V, a King and a Warrior Both

Henry V, famously known as Henry of Monmouth, ascended to the English throne in 1413 AD, marking the culmination of the Plantagenet dynasty‘s struggles for power. Henry’s reign, though relatively short, is regarded as one of the most impactful in English history. His military prowess, diplomatic acumen, and charismatic leadership left an indelible mark on medieval Europe. Born on August 9, 1386, in Monmouth, Wales, Henry was the son of Henry Bolingbroke, later King Henry IV, and Mary de Bohun. His upbringing amidst the tumultuous political landscape of medieval England shaped his character and ambitions, ultimately leading him to become one of England’s most celebrated monarchs.

The Shire Hall – Agincourt Square, Monmouth – statue of King Henry V. (Elliot Brown/CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Henry’s childhood was marked by the ongoing conflict between his father, Henry Bolingbroke, and King Richard II, which culminated in Bolingbroke’s deposition and ascent to the throne as Henry IV in 1399. As the heir to the throne, Henry of Monmouth received a rigorous education befitting his royal status. Raised in royal splendor, yet amidst the chaos of civil strife, Henry received an education of the highest standards for the time. His tutors, drawn from the ranks of clergy and nobility, imparted knowledge ranging from literature and theology to martial arts and chivalry. From an early age, Henry displayed a keen intellect and a thirst for knowledge, traits that would serve him well in his future endeavors. He was tutored in subjects ranging from literature and theology to military strategy and governance, preparing him for the responsibilities that awaited him.

Despite the challenges of his upbringing, Henry developed a reputation for intelligence, strength, and a keen understanding of statecraft from an early age. His experiences during this formative period would later shape his approach to kingship and governance. Henry’s relationship with his father, King Henry IV, was complex. While he admired his father’s strength and resolve, he also felt the weight of expectations placed upon him as the heir to the throne. Henry sought to emulate his father’s leadership qualities while forging his own path to greatness. He honed his skills in horsemanship, swordsmanship, and military strategy, preparing himself for the challenges that lay ahead. Little did he know that his destiny would lead him to become one of England’s most celebrated monarchs, renowned for his military exploits, diplomatic prowess, and visionary leadership.

Born for Great Deeds and Leadership

Henry’s military prowess would become a defining characteristic of his reign. In 1415, he embarked on what would become his most famous campaign: the conquest of France. The pretext for the invasion was Henry’s claim to the French throne through his ancestry, a claim disputed by the French monarchy. Henry V’s claim to the French throne stemmed from his lineage and the complex web of medieval European politics. The claim itself was based on the principle of agnatic primogeniture, which dictated that the eldest male descendant of the previous monarch had the strongest hereditary right to the throne. At the time of Henry’s claim, the French monarchy was in disarray due to the ongoing Hundred Years’ War and the madness of King Charles VI. The French succession was contested between the House of Valois, represented by Charles VI, and the House of Burgundy, a cadet branch of the French royal family. Henry saw an opportunity to exploit this instability and assert his claim to the throne.

The campaign in France culminated in the Battle of Agincourt on October 25, 1415, where Henry’s outnumberedEnglish forces achieved a stunning victory against the French army. This great clash stands as one of the most celebrated military triumphs in English history and a defining moment in Henry V’s reign. The battle took place near the village of Agincourt in northern France and pitted Henry’s English army against a much larger French force commanded by Constable Charles d’Albret and several other French nobles. Henry’s army, composed largely of longbowmen, infantry, and a small contingent of knights, faced daunting odds. The French army, numbering perhaps as much as five times the size of the English force, boasted heavily armored knights and mounted cavalry, making them a formidable adversary on the battlefield.

Longbowmen at the Battle of Agincourt. (The real Marcoman / Public Domain)

Longbowmen at the Battle of Agincourt. (The real Marcoman / Public Domain)

However, what the English lacked in numbers, they made up for in strategy, discipline, and the deadly effectiveness of their longbows. Henry deployed his archers in a staggered formation, protected by wooden stakes driven into the ground to thwart cavalry charges. The terrain, which was muddy and uneven due to recent rains, further hindered the French cavalry’s mobility, favoring the English defensive position. As the French advanced, they found themselves bogged down in the mud and subjected to a relentless barrage of arrows from the English longbowmen. The densely packed French ranks became easy targets for the English archers, who rained down volleys of arrows with devastating effect. Hundreds died, and a vast majority of those were French nobles and high-ranking courtiers. This fact alone was a terrible setback for France.

A Young and Capable Military Master

The Battle of Agincourt solidified Henry’s reputation as a military genius and secured English dominance in the Hundred Years’ War. It also paved the way for England’s rise as a dominant European power during this time. His strategic brilliance, combined with the discipline and valor of his troops, allowed the English to prevail against overwhelming odds. The victory at Agincourt bolstered Henry’s legitimacy at home and abroad, cementing his status as a warrior king.

While Henry was celebrated for his military achievements, he was also a shrewd diplomat and skilled administrator. His reign saw significant advancements in governance, including reforms to the legal system and efforts to curb corruption within the government. Henry’s ability to navigate complex political landscapes earned him respect from both allies and adversaries.

“If we set aside the charges of sacrificing the welfare of his country to an unjustifiable war of aggression, and of being a religious persecutor, Henry V stands before us as one of the greatest and purest characters in English history, a figure not unworthy to be placed by the side of Edward I. No sovereign who ever reigned has won from contemporary writers such a singular unison of praises. He was religious, pure in life, temperate, liberal, careful and yet splendid, merciful, truthful, and honourable; ‘discreet in word, provident in counsel, prudent in judgment, modest in look, magnanimous in act;’ a brilliant soldier, a sound diplomatist, an able organizer and consolidator of all forces at his command; the restorer of the English navy, the founder of our military, international and maritime law. A true Englishman, with all the greatnesses and none of the glaring faults of his Plantagenet ancestors, he stands forth as the typical medieval hero. At the same time, he is a laborious man of business, a self-denying and hardy warrior, a cultivated scholar, and a most devout and charitable Christian.”

–        William Stubbs, The Constitutional History of England in Its Origin and Development, Vol. III (1878)

One of Henry’s most notable diplomatic accomplishments was the Treaty of Troyes in 1420, which effectively ended the first phase of the Hundred Years’ War. The treaty recognized Henry as heir to the French throne and married him to Catherine of Valois, daughter of King Charles VI of France. This marriage alliance was intended to unite the English and French crowns and bring an end to decades of conflict. It was a major step forward for the English monarchy, and France was the obvious loser in this treaty. Alas, all of these achievements did little for Henry, whose life would be cut short very early.

Marriage of Henry V of England to Catherine of Valois, daughter of King Charles VI of France. (enwiki / Public Domain)

Marriage of Henry V of England to Catherine of Valois, daughter of King Charles VI of France. (enwiki / Public Domain)

The Untimely End of a Bright and Illustrious Monarch

Henry V’s untimely death in 1422, at the age of 35, cut short what many believed would be a long and illustrious reign that would lead England to greatness. Henry V died on 31 August 1422 at the Château de Vincennes to the east of Paris. His death sent shockwaves through England and Europe, leaving behind a legacy of unfulfilled potential and uncertainty for the future. The exact cause of Henry’s death remains a subject of debate among historians. While some sources attribute his demise to dysentery, a common ailment among soldiers during wartime, others speculate that he may have succumbed to complications from an untreated illness, or injuries sustained in battle. But despite his relatively brief time on the throne, Henry’s legacy endured for centuries. He was revered as a national hero in England, celebrated in literature, drama, and folklore.

Shakespeare immortalized Henry V in his famous play of the same name, depicting him as a noble and inspirational leader who rallied his troops to victory against overwhelming odds. The “St. Crispin’s Day Speech,” delivered by Henry before the Battle of Agincourt, remains one of the most iconic passages in English literature, symbolizing courage, unity, and the triumph of the underdog. This famed passage found its way to many movies and motivational speeches:

“From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be rememberèd—

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother;”

–        William Shakespeare, “Henry V”

Beyond his military achievements, Henry’s reign laid the groundwork for the consolidation of royal power in England. His efforts to strengthen the monarchy and centralize authority helped pave the way for the emergence of the Tudor dynasty and the establishment of a more stable and unified English state.

Lewis Waller as Henry V in play Henry V by William Shakespeare (Lizzie Caswall Smith/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Lewis Waller as Henry V in play Henry V by William Shakespeare (Lizzie Caswall Smith/CC BY-SA 4.0)

A Promising King Who Left Too Soon

In the end, Henry V of Monmouth’s legacy as a warrior king, diplomat, and statesman endures as a testament to his indomitable spirit and visionary leadership. His military triumphs, diplomatic achievements, and contributions to governance shaped the course of English history and left an enduring mark on medieval Europe. Henry’s reign may have been brief, but his impact resonates through the centuries, reminding us of the transformative power of leadership, courage, and determination in the face of adversity. We can only wonder how medieval England would emerge if Henry’s reign would have been much longer than it was.

Top image: William Shakespeare and Henry V with blue sky in background in Stratford upon Avon. Source: Paul Rushton/Adobe Stock

By Aleksa Vučković

References

Allmand, C. 1992. Henry V. Yale University Press.

Matusiak, J. 2013. Henry V. Routledge.

Mortimer, I. 2012. 1415: Henry V’s Year of Glory. Random House.





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