“King Henry the Fifth, too famous to live long!
England ne’er lost a king of so much worth.”
Those are the immortal words of William Shakespeare used to describe our subject for today.
King Henry V had a short life and an even shorter reign, so why is he remembered as one of England’s greatest monarchs? Three simple words: Battle of Agincourt. Widely considered one of England’s greatest victories against its perennial enemy, France, it turned the tide in the Hundred Years’ War and poised Henry to become the dual monarch of both nations. Whether or not this actually happened…well, let’s find out, as we explore the life and reign of Henry V.
Henry was born at Monmouth Castle, in the Welsh town of the same name, hence why he is also commonly known as Henry of Monmouth. Strangely enough, nobody is really sure when he was born. Although we all know that he eventually became king, he was not in the line of succession at first, so nobody bothered to record his birth in the official records. The two most frequently-used dates are September 16, 1386, and August 9, 1387.
Henry was the eldest of six children to Henry Bolingbroke and Mary de Bohun. His mother died in 1394, after giving birth to her final child, while his father took the throne of England by force from his cousin, Richard II, and became King Henry IV in 1399. Once his father ascended to the throne, he named Henry of Monmouth as his heir and granted him several titles such as Prince of Wales and Duke of Lancaster.
Although he did not expect it, Henry embraced his new role, considering it his destiny to one day rule over England and conquer France. He was enthusiastic when it came to learning all aspects of government, but he was absolutely enthralled when it came to military matters. That being said, he was still a young man, one with absolute wealth, power, and privilege, and he liked to use them to his advantage when it came to letting his hair down. Several medieval sources described Henry as being somewhat of a party boy in his youth, or an “assiduous cultivator of lasciviousness,” to use the contemporary parlance. However, it seems that he got over his wild teenage phase pretty fast, and by the time he ascended to the throne, he was better known for his piety than his partying.
From a young age, it became clear that Henry was a skilled warrior and commander. His father, King Henry IV, not only encouraged his son’s interest in all things military but practically demanded it. He knew that all the books and training in the world were no substitute for the real thing, so he thrust his son into the heat of battle from an early age. This was partially done out of necessity since King Henry IV had to contend with several rebellions during his reign and needed all the good commanders he could get his hands on.
Prince Henry of Monmouth distinguished himself at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403 when he was only 16 years old, against his former guardian and teacher, Sir Henry “Hotspur” Percy. Although Hotspur had originally been an ally of Henry IV and helped him seize power from Richard II, he eventually rebelled and managed to amass a large army of people who wanted the king gone from the throne.
The battle turned into a decisive victory for King Henry IV after Hotspur was killed in battle, but the king almost lost his heir when Prince Henry of Monmouth was injured in battle. And this wasn’t any papercut, either. The 16-year-old Henry nearly died after being shot in the head with a freakin’ arrow. When he was brought to the hospital, Henry still had the arrow embedded deep in his skull, but he made a miraculous recovery thanks to the royal surgeon John Bradmore. And as a unique treat, Bradmore not only managed to save the prince’s life but also wrote a treatise detailing his treatment, which still survives to this day. Here is how the surgeon described the ordeal:
“…the son and heir… was struck by an arrow next to his nose on the left side during the battle of Shrewsbury. The arrow entered at an angle, and… the head of the aforesaid arrow remained in the furthermost part of the bone of the skull for the depth of six inches… First, I made small probes from the pith of an elder, well-dried and well-stitched in purified linen the length of the wound. These probes were infused with rose honey. And after that, I made larger and longer probes, and so I continued to always enlarge these probes until I had the width and depth of the wound as I wished it. And after…I prepared anew some little tongs, small and hollow, and with the width of an arrow… I put these tongs in at an angle in the same way as the arrow had first entered, then placed the screw in the center and finally the tongs entered the socket of the arrowhead. Then, by moving it to and fro, little by little I extracted the arrowhead.
And then I cleansed the wound with a syringe full of white wine and then placed in new probes, made of wads of flax soaked in a cleansing ointment… And from the second day, I shortened the said wads… every two days, and thus within twenty days the wound was perfectly well cleansed. And afterward, I regenerated the flesh with a dark ointment. And note that…I always anointed him on the neck, every day in the morning and evening, with an ointment to soothe the muscles, and placed a hot plaster on top, on account of fear of spasm, which was my greatest fear. And thus, thanks to God, he was perfectly cured.”
Rise to the Throne
As you might imagine, taking an arrow to the face in the midst of battle and living to talk about it earned Henry some serious bragging rights with his soldiers. This was his first fight and already the prince developed a reputation as a mighty warrior, even with the dorky bowl haircut. And it didn’t take long before Prince Henry was back in the saddle, both figuratively and literally, ready to take part in his next conflict.
This one wasn’t so easily solved, though. In 1400, the Welsh leader Owain Glyndŵr instigated a revolt with the goal of ending English rule in Wales. He turned into a formidable foe who kept King Henry IV busy for years to come and, in a way, even bested him, as he sapped all the energy from the English king who felt his body begin to fail him even though he was still in his late 30s. As a result of this, Henry of Monmouth started taking a more active role in his father’s government, aided by his uncles.
With free reign, the prince decided to switch tactics when it came to dealing with Glyndŵr. Instead of the traditional raids and skirmishes, he adopted a war of attrition, by setting up garrisons in strategic locations to cut off his enemy’s supply routes. This forced the Welsh leader to retreat into his main strongholds, which Henry then attacked with siege weapons. Meanwhile, he also offered pardons to Glyndŵr’s allies, which many of them took when they saw the tide turning against them. In 1409, Glyndŵr lost his last bastion of safety, Harlech Castle, and was forced to retreat into the mountains. From there, he conducted the occasional raid, but he wasn’t a serious threat anymore. Owain Glyndŵr disappeared completely from the historical record in 1412, and his ultimate fate remains a mystery. It is said that only his direct descendants know the location of his final resting place and they are not in a sharing mood.
As far as Henry of Monmouth was concerned, he impressed a lot of people with his military and ministerial skills, despite his young age. By 1410, the prince had become the de facto ruler of the country as the commander of the royal council, but he soon found himself at odds with his father. The two of them disagreed over policies, specifically when it came to France and, although the prince had his supporters, his father was still the king and his word was final. Fed up with his son’s eager and rebellious nature, King Henry IV dismissed him from the council entirely in 1411. However, he did not take any more drastic steps, such as naming a new heir. This meant that, for the prince, it simply became a waiting game…one that did not take too long.
On March 20, 1413, Henry IV’s unknown affliction finally claimed his life, after years of poor health. The following month, Henry V was crowned the new King of England.
Settling Matters in England
Now that Henry was the man in charge, he adopted a conciliatory approach – let bygones be bygones, he thought, as he wanted to rule over a united nation and also move away from his father’s legacy as many regarded him a tyrant. Henry restored titles and properties to many noblemen who had been dispossessed by his father, chief among them Edmund Mortimer, who had been imprisoned for allying himself with Henry “Hotspur” Percy. Mortimer had been the heir presumptive to King Richard II, so he would have ruled England if Henry IV had not taken power by force. Even now, he still had the second-strongest claim to the throne after Henry V, so it was a big gamble on behalf of the new king to release Edmund Mortimer from prison, let alone restore his old authority.
Fortunately for Henry, the gamble paid off. Mortimer knew not to bite the hand that fed him. Instead of fighting again over the top position and possibly dying or ending up in prison once more, Mortimer was ok with playing second fiddle and became one of Henry’s most trusted counselors. He remained loyal even after the king’s death and served part of the Regency Council to Henry’s infant son, who became the new king.
Of course, not everyone was a fan of Henry V. As is often the case when a new ruler takes power, especially one so young, there are people who see it as an opportunity to sow the seeds of chaos, thinking that the unestablished, inexperienced king will be a pushover. There are two such instances during Henry’s reign that we should cover before getting to his shenanigans in France.
First, there were the Lollards, a recent religious movement initiated by a theologian named John Wycliffe a few decades earlier. Up until Henry’s reign, they were mostly tolerated, but he felt that they were starting to gain too much steam, so he wanted to stop their momentum by arresting some of their more prominent members. Instead, the Lollards decided to fight back, and an uprising took place in 1414, led by one of Henry’s closest friends, Sir John Oldcastle. Previously, the king had even stayed Oldcastle’s execution when he had been sentenced to death for heresy, but for the knight, his beliefs trumped over his friendship with the king. He and a few hundred conspirators tried to sneak into Henry’s palace in disguise, but their poorly-planned plot had already been uncovered by the king’s spies and they proved to be no match for the troops waiting for them. Oldcastle himself managed to escape, while his co-conspirators were all hanged or burned at the stake, but his freedom was only temporary. Three years later, Oldcastle was captured and executed by being burned alive over a slow fire.
The other conspiracy against Henry V took place in 1415 and was known as the Southampton Plot, or the Cambridge Plot, named after its main instigator. Richard of Conisbrough, 3rd Earl of Cambridge, alongside Lord Scrope and Sir Thomas Grey, were noblemen still loyal to the former king, Richard II, who believed that his heir, the aforementioned Edmund Mortimer, was the rightful King of England. Their plan was to assassinate Henry, thus paving the way for Mortimer to claim the throne. They didn’t get a chance to establish how they were actually going to do this because their little intrigue was soon exposed to the king by none other than Edmund Mortimer himself. As we said, the former heir had consigned himself to the role of sidekick. As soon as he was informed of the plot, he was like “I want nothing to do with this. You people are going to get me killed.” So he went straight to King Henry and told him everything, swearing that he had nothing to do with it. Fortunately for him, the king believed him. As far as the other three were concerned, though, despite calls for clemency, it was off with their heads.
Now that matters in England had been settled, Henry V was finally able to do what he had been wanting to do ever since he was still a counselor for his father – invade France.
War in France
Henry’s war against France was part of the larger conflict between the two nations known as the Hundred Years’ War which, despite its name, actually went on for 116 years. It also wasn’t one continuous fight, but rather a series of wars separated by truces. When Henry invaded France in 1415, there had been peace between the two sides for over 25 years, ever since the time of his grandfather, John of Gaunt, who also spent most of his adult life fighting the French.
This whole affair kicked off thanks to Henry’s great-grandfather, King Edward III of England, who said in 1340 that he had the rightful claim to the French throne. This was the kind of complicated and incestuous web of bloodlines that the European royals were really good at weaving, but the gist of it was that Edward III had been the closest male relative to the deceased French king, but he was related through his maternal line. The French, however, wanted someone related through a male bloodline, so instead they chose Philip VI as the new King of France. Ever since then, the English kings who followed Edward III gave themselves the unofficial title of “King of France,” just to signify that they still had not abandoned their claim and that the guy who actually ruled France was just keeping the throne warm for them.
When Henry V took power, he decided that he didn’t want his title to be merely honorific, so once matters were settled in England, he gathered his army and crossed the channel in August 1415. His first target was the port town of Harfleur. It was a small, but important settlement, so it was heavily fortified and was able to withstand the English siege for over a month before its inevitable surrender on September 22.
Despite being a military loss, the siege of Harfleur was a boon for France. For starters, it gave the French King Charles VI time to muster his troops, but it also allowed a deadly wave of dysentery to spread and wreak havoc through the English ranks. Casualty estimates are all over the map, but they could have totaled a maximum of 5,000 soldiers, from both disease and fighting. Considering that Henry’s initial army was slightly over 11,000 troops, that meant that he probably lost at least a third, up to almost half of his army just besieging this little town. All of a sudden, Henry’s dreams of conquering France seemed dead in the water, but then something happened that bestowed Henry the reputation as one of the greatest military commanders in English history.
With his army decimated, the king was forced to abandon his plan of attacking Paris. Instead, Henry wanted to march to Calais and retreat to England to regroup. The French, of course, had no intention of letting him leave quietly. They saw their opportunity to crush their foe and they were going to take it…so they met the English army at Agincourt.
Victory at Agincourt
There is no definitive source on the size of the French Army – some claim 12,000, others all the way up to 30,000. Suffice to say that it was significantly larger than what Henry was working with, so the French military leaders regarded this fight as a mere bagatelle.
On October 25, 1415, Henry proved them very wrong. Let’s start with the battlefield. Although we’re not sure of the exact location of the battle, witness accounts said that Henry lured the French army into the narrowest section of the field, wedged between two wooded areas, in order to make it harder for them to maneuver. Movement was also heavily impeded by thick and slippery mud, caused by heavy rains. There, knowing that the French had a strong cavalry, Henry erected a row of sharp stakes in front of his soldiers, to stop the enemy’s charge. Finally, he employed his secret weapon – the longbow. In past battles, the English longbow had proven to be devastatingly effective, so the French knights had no choice but to wear heavy armor that was thick enough to stop the arrows from piercing through.
The battle that was supposed to be a gimme for the French soon turned into a bloodbath. The rank-and-file soldiers were swiftly decimated by the neverending hail of arrows, whereas the heavily armored men-at-arms were exhausted from moving through the muddy terrain, and those who fell down found it almost impossible to get up again. Indeed, a large part of the French army had not been killed by sharp English steel, but by being suffocated in the mud or getting trampled by friendly forces. When it was all said and done, Henry stood triumphant next to a giant pile of corpses that numbered up to 6,000 Frenchmen, whereas he only lost a few hundred soldiers.
It was an overwhelming victory, any way you looked at it, but Henry still didn’t have an army big enough to take full advantage of it. Instead, he returned to England, where he was greeted as a hero, and began making preparations for a new invasion.
In early 1417, Henry was ready to travel to France again. This time, there were no hair-raising, skin-of-my-teeth moments. Instead, the king preferred a systematic series of sieges of strategically-important cities on his way to Paris. It took a lot longer and was nowhere near as exciting, but it was effective nonetheless. By 1419, Henry had taken Caen, Normandy, and Rouen, and Paris seemed an inevitability.
He was aided by the fact that the French were dealing with their own internal strifes and struggles for power. Just because they had a common enemy did not mean that all the various French factions played nice with each other. Quite the opposite, in fact. The Duke of Burgundy, one of the most powerful men in the country, favored a diplomatic treaty with Henry. Because of this, he was assassinated in 1419 by his enemies, and his son, Philip the Good, allied himself with England and helped negotiate a treaty between Henry and Charles VI, the King of France.
The Death of Henry
On May 21, 1420, England and France signed the Treaty of Troyes. Charles VI disinherited his eldest son, the dauphin Charles VII, and married his daughter, Catherine of Valois, to Henry, who became the new regent of France and had his bloodline recognized as the rightful successors to the French throne. In other words, Charles was allowed to remain king while he still lived, but once he bit the dust, the crown went to Henry or his sons.
On paper, Henry had accomplished his goals. However, he knew that actually getting the treaty enforced was another matter. Because there was an ongoing power struggle in France, some factions had allied themselves with the dauphin and kept fighting the English, hoping to reinstate Charles VII as the heir. They even brought in the Scottish on their side, since they were always down to kill a few Englishmen. This left Henry no choice but to return to France in 1421 for his third military campaign. This one, however, would prove to be his last.
At first, things went well. Henry once again adopted the safer strategy of prolonged sieges until his opponents surrendered. But just like at Harfleur, dysentery swept through the English camp and the king himself fell prey to its noxious clutches. Ultimately, it wasn’t the arrows or swords of his enemies that befell King Henry V, but a lethal illness, which took his life suddenly on August 31, 1422.
Henry was only 35 years old at the time of his death and he was quickly followed by the French king who died two months later. This meant that his infant son, Henry VI, became the new king of England and France but, as you might expect, a lot of other people weren’t too keen on this idea, so the Hundred Years’ War resumed once more.