Gilbert: Henry V at 600

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(Host) It’s rare that one can note a 600th anniversary, but it was six
hundred years ago today that England’s Henry V became king upon the
death of his father, Henry IV. Commentator and Vermont Humanities
Council executive director Peter Gilbert has the story.

Most of us know of Henry V because of Shakespeare’s history plays. He
appears in three: Henry IV, Parts I and II , and Henry V . Particularly
well-known today are two highly acclaimed but very different film
versions of Henry V, Lawrence Olivier’s patriotic film, made in 1944,
during World War II, and Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 antiwar production.

Shakespeare if not in history, Prince Hal, the Prince of Wales, had a
riotous youth, full of drinking, lawbreaking, and troublemaking with
Falstaff and other friends. But then, according to Shakespeare’s version
of the story, when Henry became king, he put such behavior behind him,
rejected his old compatriots, and became a good and devout monarch. (His
riotous behavior when he was prince brings to mind today’s Prince Harry
of Wales and his periodic lapses in judgment; perhaps he’ll mature in
time, too, but in any case, he’ll soon move from being third to fourth
in line to the throne, and so it’s unlikely that he’ll ever become

When Henry became king in 1413, he quickly solidified
power, a significant achievement, particularly given that he was only
the second king to come from the House of Lancaster. His father, Henry
Bolingbroke, had deposed his cousin King Richard II and become Henry IV;
that’s how his son became, in due course, Henry V.

According to
Shakespeare’s play, Henry V was a highly successful king because he
took the advice his father offered on his death bed – that he "busy
giddy minds/With foreign quarrels," that is, that he distract and keep
potential domestic adversaries busy by declaring war against a foreign
enemy so that they don’t scheme against him. It wouldn’t be the last
time in world history that international conflict and war were used for
domestic political purposes.

Henry went to war with France, and
in the anxious night before the Battle of Agincourt, Shakespeare’s King
Henry inspires his heavily outnumbered troops by invoking their manhood
and the kinship they feel for one another. His stirring "St. Crispin’s
Day" speech concludes:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

next day, Henry’s army achieved one of the most dramatic victories in
history, in part due to the army’s novel use of the longbow; French dead
outnumbered English perhaps fourteen to one. Moreover, the French lost
numerous lords, princes, dukes, and counts while the English lost two.

due course, Henry was recognized as heir to the French throne; he
married Catherine, daughter of France’s King Charles VI; and his young
son eventually became King Henry VI. He was an enormously successful
monarch, especially considering that he died at the age of only
thirty-five, ironically not in battle in France, but of dysentery.

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