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An Analysis of the causes of the Wars and the course which they took.

Michael D. Miller

Chapter 16: King Henry V's appearance and character


If the period of the life of King Henry V before he became King has been dealt with somewhat briefly, it is for the purpose of demonstrating the moulding of the character of the man who launched his French wars. The wars which King Henry V undertook in France are known to history as part and parcel of the 100 years war. Nevertheless, they are divisible from the wars which King Edward III and his son the Black Prince had conducted, as there had been a long period since 1377 when, if there had been no real peace, there had also been no serious campaigning. King Henry V's wars, which lasted from 1415 until 1450, had an enormous and malign influence upon the history of the 15th-century in England, and were one of the main causes of the Wars of the Roses. It is thus necessary to go into the period of his reign, short as it was, in some detail.

King Henry V had three main objects, two of which are clear cut and the third somewhat hazy. First and foremost was the conquest of France. His second, but scarcely lesser priority, was the ending of the Great Schism which saw no less than three Popes in Rome, Avignon and Geneva. This in Henry's eyes weakened the Church; there should be only one Pope, and he should be in Rome. His third priority can only be guessed at, to lead an united Europe upon a Crusade to rescue the Holy Places from the grip of the infidel. It certainly seems that he nurtured some ambitions in this direction, and he is reported to have said as much as he lay dying in 1422. He played a large part in bringing the Schism to an end. Prodigious strides were made towards the conquest of France, although if it had ever been completed it must remain an open question how long it would have lasted. His early death in 1422 at the age of 35 prevented its completion, and also prevented the launching of any Crusade. Who knows what this redoubtable warrior would have achieved had he lived longer then he did.

King Henry V was without doubt a charismatic King, and everyone's idea of what a King should be. He was 25 years old and in the prime of his life when he ascended the Throne. He was, like his father, a formidable jouster. He was also said to be a considerable athlete, who could run down a stag and vault, fully armoured, into the saddle. His portrait in the National Portrait Gallery is a 16th-century copy and may well have been touched up to show the leading hero from the age of heroes, but even allowing for this it is the picture of an outstandingly good looking man of great presence. The brow is high and intelligent, with thick auburn hair cut very short in the military style of the time around the ears and the back of a finely shaped head. The nose is long and straight, and surmounts a full mouth and a jutting and determined chin. He was said to have fine white and regular teeth. The eyes are shown as being hazel, and were recorded as being capable of expressing deep and careful thought or steely hardness and determination. We see only the left side of his face, as presumably the unsightly scar left by the arrow wound which he suffered at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403 was on the right. The whole face shows a capacity for gentleness and compassion besides the ruthless determination of the warrior. It could be the face of a scholar, a physician, a bishop or a judge besides that of a King and a soldier.

Soldierly qualities

King Henry V's prowess as a soldier and a leader are well known.and the combination of a strategist and a tactician is rare indeed. It will come as a surprise to many to learn that he only fought in two pitched battles during his life, Shrewsbury in 1403 and Agincourt in 1415, and only in the latter was he the overall commander. He conducted numerous sieges and, having learnt his lesson at Aberystwith in 1407, he persisted in any siege which he undertook until success had been achieved. The only possible exception is Orleans in 1421, and it is doubtful if he really intended to lay siege to that city at the time. His preparation was always meticulous, and he took the greatest care to see that all that was required was actually present and readily to hand. He was especially solicitous for the well-being and comfort of his men. If a siege had to be conducted during the winter months, huts were constructed to house them. He shared the discomforts and dangers to which his men were exposed, and it was no uncommon sight to see the King himself, covered in mud from head to foot and soaked to the skin, supervising the digging of the trenchs or the man-handling of the guns into position. There were even instances of the King himself entering the mines, and engaging in hand-to-hand fighting with the defenders deep below ground. He was a soldiers general, and his men knew that any task which he undertook he intended to complete. They knew what he intended to do and what he expected of each one of them. Rarely if ever did they let him down. If he had commanded them to march to the Gates of Hell and lay siege to that city they would have done so, because they knew the King himself would ride at their head.

Civil qualities

King Henry V was no mere militarist. Unlike his Father, who was never very successful in these directions, he had that uncanny knack of commanding respect and devotion in other men and, as a natural concomitant, of being able to pick with an unerring instinct the men who would serve him best. In some cases he was mistaken; Lord Scrope of Masham, one of his very closest confidantes, actually plotted his deposition and death. When he came to the Throne in March 1413 however he chose a Council of outstanding talent, and this in itself did much to lead to the success of his policies. His relations with his Parliaments, whilst not invariably cordial, were fairly friendly and respectful on each side. He never made the mistake which his Father was apt to make, that of appearing on occasions distant from his Parliaments. He made it clear that he understood Parliament's concerns and, since he 'had a way' with him, he usually got the taxes which he wanted. In the field of diplomacy, he soon proved that he could pursue its intricacies in a masterly fashion in pursuit of his aims. It was always clear that he knew his own mind and what he wanted to achieve, even if he could conceal it from the other party. Clausewitz in a later age is supposed to have said that war is diplomacy carried on by other means. With Henry, it was more likely to be the case that diplomacy was war carried on by other means.

Strong religious feelings

From the very start of his reign, King Henry V made it plain that in matters of religion he was strongly orthodox and that he was deeply pious. He chose as his confessors too Carmelites, both of whom were well known for their extreme High Church views, Doctor Stephen Patrington and Friar Thomas Netter, sometimes called Walden after his birthplace, Saffron Walden where his Father had been a net maker. Both nursed a deep hatred of the Lollards, although Patrington was an Oxford man, which went even beyond the antipathy of Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury. This was taken as a signal that Lollardy and any other heresy would not be tolerated. Even among the distractions of his early days as King, Henry founded two monasteries, and it was obvious that other religious foundations would follow. King Richard II's remains were removed to Westminster Abbey to lie beside those of his Queen Anne in accordance with his wish. In all religious matters, the Crown was to be an example to his subjects, and no deviation was to be permitted. The marriage bond was sacrosanct, and the King, whatever he may have done when still the Prince of Wales, never touched another woman until he was himself was married. Behaviour in Church underwent some measure of transformation. It was not unusual in those days for men to bring their hawks to divine service to inure them to crowds of people. Dogs too were usually present, and they had been impressed with the sanctity of their surroundings. At any service which the King attended, such doings were simply not allowed. People were required to give their whole attention to divine service, and were expected to refrain from talking, laughing, hawking or spitting. If his subjects found these restrictions irksome, none were bold enough to say so.

A darker side

There was a darker side of King Henry V's nature. It all too often happens that judgements on the often bloody deeds of our ancestors are based on the standards and values of our own times, and thus they are accused of committing acts which appal us. To our eyes, the 15th-century was a brutal and cruel age with a marked resemblance to some of the fundamentalist regimes which hold sway in some parts of today's world. Yet by the standards of the time, men saw no objection to the summary execution of offenders, sometimes for crimes of the most trivial nature. Neither did they see anything obscene in the customary ending of the lives of murderers or traitors. Even less did they see anything cruel in the burning of heretics. Instead they saw the burning as salvation of the heretic's immortal soul, and considered they were saving the heretic from himself as his own worst enemy. King Henry V, who set as his ideal the pattern of a stern but just King, thought that he was amply justified in punishing severely offences which today would merit only a short term of imprisonment, demotion in rank, or perhaps a mere fine. During the Agincourt campaign a soldier was hanged for stealing a pyx from a church. He was punished for sacrilege. After the siege of Melun in 1420, the Sieur Bertrand de Chaumont was accused of taking bribes and was promptly beheaded, even though he had given loyal service at Agincourt itself and in the subsequent campaigns. To Henry, taking bribes was disloyalty, and disloyalty was a crime which could never be forgiven. The siege of Melun had been difficult, and Henry showed his irritation with the surrendered garrison, which he should have treated as gallant enemies, by exhibiting ferocious brutality. He intended to behead the commander of the garrison, Barbazon, and only relented when Barbazon reminded him of the battle they had fought with each other in the mines. Barbazon was locked into an iron cage at Chateau Gaillard where he remained many years. There were some Scottish prisoners, whom the youthful King of Scots, who was present at the siege, had called on to surrender at Henry's behest. They were hanged as traitors to their King. Any Armagnacs were handed over to Burgundian justice irrespective of whether they had any part in the murder of John the Fearless 1419. At the Conference of the English and French soldiers were to stay behind their respective fences. A skylarking English soldier jumped over the English fence and jumped back again. He was immediately hanged for breaking the King's plighted word. After the disaster at Bauge in 1421, Henry was heard to say that if his Brother Thomas had survived, he would have taken his head, and nothing in his long, distinguished and outstanding record of service would have saved him. It was part of the Standing Orders of Henry's armies that the French were never to be engaged in a pitched battle without archers, and the impulsive Thomas had charged on ahead without waiting for them to catch up. He was thus guilty of disobeying orders. The King may have been joking, but there is plenty to show that he may well have been in deadly earnest. The soldier Williams who, without the least idea with whom he was speaking, insulted Henry during the night before the battle of Agincourt, could count himself lucky to escape with a good scolding and an abjuration to be more careful with whom he picked fights in future.

In none of these cases was King Henry V going beyond what was permissible by the standards of the time. The same is still true of some other cases, but they are less easy to excuse on this ground alone. At the siege of Louviers in 1418, Henry was very nearly killed by a gun stone fired from the walls. After the city's surrender, Henry had the gunners who fired the shot hanged. This seems unnecessarily severe, and it was stretching things too far to say that they were consciously firing at their King. The slaughter of the prisoners at the Battle of Agincourt may have been justified on military grounds; the position of the English army was still critical, and the French were renewing their attacks. It still sickened men at the time, and not only on the grounds that so many rich ransoms were lost. Even less easy to excuse than this was his treatment of the wretched citizens of Rouen whom the starving garrison thrust out of the city gates as so many bouches inutiles. Henry refused to let them pass through the besieging English lines to seek what sustenance they could find in the countryside and pushed them back into the ditch below the City walls. It was a convention of the time that the population of a besieged city was a legitimate military target, but the sight of newly born babies being hoisted into the city in baskets to be baptised and then returned to the ditch to starve with their parents should have melted the heart of a stone. King Henry V could have fallen back upon another of the time's conventions, that it was part of the knightly duty to protect the weak and the helpless, and nobody would have criticised him for doing so. There is no suggestion that sadism formed any part of Henry's character, but there was unquestionably a darker side to this determined and unrelenting warrior, firm and just as he was commonly held to be.

Some conciliation and Council appointments

Henry, with his eye for picking men who would serve him well, and with his capacity for conciliation which went far beyond that of his Father, restored the young Thomas Montacute, John Holland and Richard de Vere to the Earldoms of Salisbury, Huntingdon and Oxford respectively, so that they could enjoy their dignities and their estates. John Mowbray, the brother of Thomas who was executed for treason in 1405, was restored to favour and became the Earl Marshal. The young Edmund, Earl of March, now 22, was released from all restraint. He, like the others, was to repay Henry's generosity many times over with loyal service in France and in Ireland before his death in 1425. Next, Henry appointed a Council of outstanding talent. Thomas Arundel's chancellor-ship had lapsed with the death of King Henry IV. His place was taken by Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester. Thomas, Earl of Arundel, became the Treasurer. Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, Thomas Langley, Bishop of Durham, Henry Chichele, Bishop of St David's, and shortly to be Archbishop of Canterbury, joined the Council as did the King's two younger brothers, John and Humphrey. There seems no mention of Thomas, Duke of Clarence, but perhaps he was still not fully trusted. The absence of Thomas Beaufort, Earl of Dorset seems strange, but it is likely that he was not quite forgiven for taking part in Clarence's expedition to France. A short while later he became Duke of Exeter.

Consultation was frequently extended to include the members of the King's Household who were not members of the Council, and these included Edmund, Earl of March, the Constable Lord Fitxhugh, Sir Thomas Erpingham, Richard Courtenay, Bishop of Norwich and Lord Scrope of Masham. King Henry V was seen to head a powerful team which made an excellent impression on his first Parliament when it met in May 1413, even though it dropped one broad and somewhat churlish hint. The King's late Father had given a promise of good governance and for the most part he had kept it. In one respect only he had been found wanting; he had not put down the lawlessness which plagued the Kingdom. A better performance was expected of the new King.

Copyright Michael D. Miller 2003