Henry V is among the most famous of England’s monarchs, beautifully immortalized in Shakespeare’s play. He led the English to numerous victories in France, most notably at Agincourt, and was named heir to Charles VI’s French throne. But he died unexpectedly at 34, and left behind just one heir – an infant titled Henry VI who lacked all of his father’s attributes, and had inherited his maternal grandfather’s insanity.
Historians have come to regard Henry V as a great warrior and inspiring leader, but a proud and arrogant king. This assessment was perhaps unavoidable; Henry was enshrined for so long that his reign invited criticism. But he only ruled for nine years, and most of those were spent fighting against the French. Whatever his personal qualities, he was a formidable warrior-king and succeeded in finally conquering the French, thus making England a formidable European power and uniting the English barons behind his cause.
Henry V ‘Harry of Monmouth’
parents – Henry IV and Mary de Bohun
date and place of birth – 16 September 1387 at Monmouth Castle
wife – Catherine de Valois
date of marriage – 2 June 1420
children – Henry VI
years of reign – 1413-1422
date of coronation – 9 April 1413 at Westminster Abbey, London
date and place of death – 31 August 1422 at Bois-de-Vincennes, France
Henry V grew up in the court of his cousin, Richard II, held as a privileged hostage in return for his exiled father’s good behavior. To Richard’s credit, he was kind and generous to the boy; perhaps Henry remembered this affection for, upon accession to the throne, he had Richard’s body moved from Kings Langley to Westminster Abbey.
Henry was born on 16 September 1387 at Monmouth Castle (hence his nickname ‘Harry of Monmouth’), to Henry, earl of Derby (who became king of England in 1399) and Mary de Bohun, heiress to the earl of Hereford. The tumultuous events of 1399 were undoubtedly confusing to him – King Richard had taken Henry to Ireland while he quelled a rebellion, even as Henry’s father was returning from exile to claim the duchy of Lancaster and, eventually, the throne. Richard left Henry at Dublin Castle when he returned to England to face the boy’s father; in a matter of weeks, a messenger arrived to escort him home to England in triumph. His father was soon crowned king, and Henry became Prince of Wales, duke of Cornwall, earl of Chester, duke of Aquitaine, and duke of Lancaster. He was just twelve years old.
By the time he was fifteen, Henry had already fought alongside his father against the English and Welsh rebels. And by the time he was eighteen, Henry was intimately involved in the work of his father’s government. He was energetic and strong-willed (some called him arrogant and domineering), but he had many supporters. In fact, as Henry IV wasted away, many nobles implored him to abdicate in favor of his son. But Henry IV did not do so, and there is no proof that Henry was behind these efforts. It is true that his relationship with his father was stormy and conflicted. Their main disagreement was over English policy in France. Civil war had broken out in France in 1407 during one of Charles VI’s bouts of insanity, and two factions had emerged – the Burgundians and the Armagnacs. Henry IV was eager to press English claims against certain French territories and he believed the Armagnacs would best support his cause. But his son supported the Burgundians. This dispute ended only with Henry IV’s on 20 March 1413, and Henry’s coronation at Westminster Abbey on 9 April 1413.
As king, Henry faced the same problem which had plagued his predecessors – the power struggles of the great English barons. As discussed at the Henry IV page, the barons had steadily accumulated power and influence throughout the fourteenth century, and were loathe to give it up. Richard II had attempted to thwart them, and was deposed; Henry IV was forced to bargain with them for financial and political support. Upon his accession, Henry V faced the same problem – but it is to his great credit that he managed to unite most of the barons behind his rule. How? By successfully waging war in France.
Immediately upon becoming king, Henry entered into negotiations with the French – and was wholly unsuccessful. This was not surprising since he demanded restoration of the entire Angevin empire. From that moment on, his entire administration was focused upon one end – regaining those lands by force. His personality was charismatic and inspirational, and parliament and the people rallied behind his cause. Henry invaded France on 11 August 1415, and successfully besieged Harfleur; on 25 October 1415, he had his greatest victory – at the Battle of Agincourt. The French outnumbered the English three-to-one, but their leaders were inept and they raced across muddy fields and marshes only to meet the deadly accuracy of English and Welsh longbowmen. The French lost over six thousand men; Henry’s forces lost but four hundred.
France had not fallen to England with that great victory, but Henry’s legend had begun. The English were enthused, the French were frightened and indecisive, and both the Holy Roman Emperor and the duke of Burgundy lent their support to his cause. In August 1417, Henry began another military campaign, this time to conquer Normandy; it fell to him in spring 1419. Barely a few months after this amazing victory, the duke of Burgundy was murdered and his supporters rallied behind Henry to press his claim to the French throne. (Remember that the Burgundians were fighting the Armagnacs, supporters of the dauphin Charles.) The Burgundians essentially allowed Henry to assume the duke of Burgundy’s claim; this was formally recognized with the Treaty of Troyes in May 1420. On 2 June 1420, Henry further strengthened his claim by marrying Catherine of Valois, the French king’s daughter. They returned to England in early 1421 and toured the country for the next few months, but in June Henry returned to France, leaving his bride in England (and already pregnant.)
On 6 December 1421, Catherine gave birth to Henry’s first and only child, also called Henry, at Windsor Castle. The king remained in France, however, and in May 1422 the dauphin’s stronghold of Meaux fell to his forces. The Armagnac party was defeated, and Henry was recognized as heir to England’s throne by both the Burgundians and Armagnacs. Charles VI had recognized his claim when he married Catherine in 1421.
The future seemed to hold even more glory for Henry. He was famous, his exploits were the talk of Europe, and his people – noble and common – were essentially united in praise of him. But none of this mattered when Henry contracted dysentery, and died on 31 August 1422 at the age of 34. Ironically, Charles VI died just five weeks later. Henry had come within a few weeks of being crowned king of France – but fate denied him that crown.
In the end, Henry ruled for less time than any king since the Norman conquest of 1066. But, in that short span of time, he was more successful than any of the Plantagenet kings since Henry II. He had regained much of the Angevin empire, and – even while on campaign in France – had continued to welcome messengers and petitions from England. This devotion to detail and administration allowed him to keep the support of parliament (which provided the money for his campaigns.)
His intense imagination and energy were formidable to behold, and his contemporaries held him in awe. In truth, he was among the greatest of English kings.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Henry V" https://englishhistory.net/middle-ages/henry-v/, January 12, 2022