Looking for the Wednesday Wandering? Page back one for news about the re-release of “Servant of Death” and some reminiscences about author Fred Saberhagen. Then come back and join me and Alan as we sort through the true and false about one of England’s most famous kings.
JANE: So, was Prince Hal, the young man who would become King Henry V, the rogue that Shakespeare made him out to be? Did he hang out at the Boar’s Head Tavern with Falstaff, Mistress Quickly, and the other low lives?
ALAN: It seems unlikely. From the age of twelve, young Henry was very busy fighting his father’s battles. He simply didn’t have time to debauch himself. In his early teens, he led an army against the Welsh rebellion of Owen Glendower. And in 1403, when he was only sixteen years old, he joined his father in the Battle of Shrewsbury where he was severely wounded.
JANE: Wounded? How?
ALAN: He was shot in the face with an arrow – shades of the Battle of Hastings in 1066 where it is claimed that the English King Harold died from an arrow in the eye, thus losing England to William the Conqueror.
JANE: Face with an arrow? Brrr… Yet Prince Hal didn’t die of his wounds. Lucky for him – and apparently for England.
ALAN: His wound was initially treated with honey, which has antiseptic properties. A special tool was designed to unscrew the broken arrow shaft from his face and the resulting heavily-bleeding wound was flushed with white wine. The wound was then packed with wads of flax soaked in bread, honey and turpentine oil. Every two days, the wads were withdrawn and replaced with smaller ones to encourage the wound to close. After twenty days, the healing was complete. It must have been excruciatingly painful and Henry was left with permanent scars.
JANE: I found myself shivering in sympathy just reading your description!
There’s a lovely book about the medicinal properties of honey and other useful medical treatments now fallen out of use: Honey, Mud, Maggots, and other Medical Marvels by Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein. I quite enjoyed it. Also, it’s the sort of resource that’s very useful for writers who want to add a little spice to their low-tech medical treatments.
I wonder where the legends originated that Henry V was a rogue in his youth.
ALAN: It’s hard to know where he found the time! The Encyclopedia Britannica says that stories of his dissipation have been traced back to within 20 years of Henry’s death and so cannot be completely dismissed – but it gives no references. The Britannica article then goes on to claim (again, with no evidence) that doubtless the Elizabethan playwrights greatly exaggerated this aspect of Henry’s character.
In 1813, one Alexander Luders published a biography of Henry V in which he made the interesting suggestion that if Henry really had been a dissipated youth it was undoubtedly because he spent all his time hanging around with soldiers. “..[his associates] were probably military men, whose habits frequently lead them to dissipation.”
Perhaps it was all just a bit of an urban legend.
JANE: Believe it or not, the thought about hanging around with soldiers occurred to me before you got to Mr. Luders’ explanation. I say we should take it as fact!
But returning to our young hero… Did the crowned king live up to his youthful heroics?
ALAN: When his father died, Prince Hal was declared king. He was crowned at Westminster Abbey on 9th April 1413 during a terrible snowstorm. Opinions were divided as to whether or not this was a good omen.
He then spent most of his reign fighting the French…
JANE: Those battles were at the heart of Shakespeare’s play, The Life of Henry the Fifth, although the time period was so tightly telescoped that Shakespeare – through the Chorus – actually apologizes to the audience for the liberties he took with time. As we’ve noted elsewhere, this sort of apology was not typical of the Bard at all, which I find interesting.
ALAN: I don’t know how else Shakespeare could have solved the technical problem he was faced with, though like you I do find it fascinating that felt he needed to apologise to his audience. Perhaps he felt a little guilty…
In all his battles, Henry proved to be a brilliant military tactician but he was definitely no humanitarian. At the battle of Agincourt he ordered all the French prisoners to be killed. Many of them were high-ranking nobles who could have been ransomed. But nevertheless they were all killed.
JANE: Shakespeare deals with the killing of the French prisoners, although only in two lines and within the context of battle. King Henry is very aware his army is sick and weak. Therefore, the prisoners must die because there are not enough soldiers to guard them.
ALAN: A few years later during the siege of Rouen, the city authorities were unable to feed the population, and so they forced the women and children to leave the city in the belief that Henry would let them pass through his lines unmolested. However, Henry refused to allow them passage and the women and children starved to death in the ditches that surrounded the town.
JANE: Nasty… But, of course, the town was also at fault, since they made no effort to reclaim their own people, nor did they negotiate their passage in advance. It’s a situation that shows neither side as particularly heroic, since Rouen would have been using existing supplies to keep their own military alive and vital. In turning the women and children loose, they were effectively adding to their ability to maintain the siege. Henry would have been aware of this.
Although in his play Shakespeare was clearly trying to show Henry V in his brightest, most heroic light, still the atrocities of war are not completely ignored. The speech King Henry gives before the gates of Harflew is chilling in how it offers the details of what happens in a sacked city, and even more chilling in that the guilt for those atrocities is passed on to the residents of Harflew – making it, in a sense, their “fault” if their old people are horribly murdered, their women raped, and all the rest. No wonder they surrendered!
ALAN: I think we have another spelling thing here – all my references have Harfleur, rather than Harflew. (Again, Harfleur is the modern spelling).
JANE: Since I’m referencing Shakespeare, not history, I believe I shall retain his spelling. Adds color – and confusion!
ALAN: Quite right too!
Henry V has one of Shakespeare’s most stirring and brilliantly written speeches in it. The words that he puts into Henry’s mouth just before the battle of Agincourt on Saint Crispin’s day never fail to put a lump in my throat. The speech is so famous that it has become something of a cliche in its own right. Nevertheless, I still find it incredibly moving.
JANE: I agree… One does not need to be British or even of English descent to find it a powerful exhortation. Shakespeare knew his stuff… “The fewer men, the greater share of honor./ By God’s will, I pray thee not wish one man more” and “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.”
I must restrain myself or I’ll just go back and transcribe the whole thing…
ALAN: I recently saw a TV programme where the British historian Simon Schama suggested that this speech was a deliberate attempt to flatter Elizabeth by drawing parallels with her own speech at Tilbury before the English fleet set off to fight the Spanish Armada – yet another example of Shakespeare ingratiating himself!
JANE: Okay… A fine playwright and one who knew on what side his bread was buttered… If he meant to flatter, Elizabeth certainly would have been.
ALAN: In many respects, Henry V was an absent king. The military campaigns in France were always his primary concern. But nevertheless he regarded himself as very much an English king. He insisted on using English as his primary language in both his private correspondence and in his military despatches. He also insisted that all official government papers be written in English. In doing this he broke with a 350-year-old tradition. Ever since the Norman Conquest in 1066, French had been the language of officialdom, but from now on it would be the English language that would predominate. In retrospect, this is probably his most noteworthy accomplishment.
JANE: Henry’s choice makes sense. How could he spend his life fighting the French, yet give their language dominance?
Maybe he would have made more of a cultural impact, but didn’t he die very young?
ALAN: Henry died of dysentery in 1422 at the Chateau of Vicennes near Paris in the midst of another military campaign in France. He was only 36 years old.
JANE: Even when I first read the play, that would have seemed very young. Now, as my hair silvers, he seems too young not only to die, but to have achieved so much.
The next of our Henries is, of course, VI… Shakespeare wrote a lot of plays about his reign, so I’m guessing we’ll have a considerable amount to talk about.
ALAN: Ah yes. Henry VI. The man who was King of England. Twice.
JANE: Cool! Let’s do it!