I’ve always been intrigued by the startling military accomplishments of England’s King Henry The Fifth So when I saw that Robert Bucholz had created a series of lectures called A History Of England From The Tudors To The Stuarts, I had to elbow the work into The 300. (Hank-5 predates the royal Tudors –but Bucholz, ever-so thorough– covers his reign anyhow).
Henry-Five, famous to many of us as young “Hal” from Shakespeare’s plays, Henry IV and Henry V, was a member of the extended family known as the House Of Lancaster. He ruled England for nine years starting in 1413, during which time he conquered– though he could never hold– the kingdom of France.
This amazing military victory has intrigued me plenty, but I’ve also long been curious if Henry The Fifth was more than just a conqueror… Did he achieve successes in other fields? What were his domestic policies? Did he make the people of England better off? If so, for short term or for long? Or if he made them worse-off, how?
Over time, I’ve learned to be more generous in my judgment of military rulers from centuries past. Due to the nature of international relations of the day (seems the powers were either at war or preparing for war), it could be argued that the best way to achieve success in domestic policy would be to achieve success in foreign policy. If a leader proved unable to keep his nation relatively safe and secure from invaders and aggressors, his subjects would have had their properties stolen or destroyed, had their friends and family members harmed or killed, and had their way of life stifled, altered, or wiped-out.
I’d go so far as to say that much of all this still holds true today– albeit, international antagonisms are nowadays usually more subtle than invading armies. Whatever the century, if a leader cannot secure the borders, it doesn’t matter how high-minded his domestic policy. Any civilizing or improving policies he institutes are subject to being ripped away when his country is overrun by foreign conquerors.
I get the impression from my readings in history that, with some pretty major exceptions to the rule, monarchs of the late Middle Ages or Early Renaissance days– except for tax innovations or impositions– pretty much left alone the customs of the land. Instead, the ruler focused most of his attention on foreign challenges– in other words, he felt his duty was to provide the security which would allow his people to MAINTAIN their customs in the midst of a world full of snarling, homicidal nations.
Any king, in any country and in any era (until the last hundred years or so of vestigial royal weirdness), must JUSTIFY his rule by keeping his people relatively safe and their property more or less protected. For if the king cannot provide these minimal requisites for a chance at a less-than-miserable life, then he is certainly not worth his cost. An incompetent prince risks that his own people (or a more component foreign ruler) will oust him, probably in a fashion quite unpleasant.
Henry The Fifth — Hal, if I may– was only the second man of the relatively short-lived royal Lancaster Dynasty to occupy the English throne. And he was the FIRST Lancaster to attempt to claim the kingship merely by right of birth. His father, Henry The Fourth (a man by the name of Bolingbroke before he took the throne), had overthrown the Plantagenet Dynasty by force of arms when he ousted that aesthete and land-grabber, Richard The Second.
Hal, apparently a wily young man, deflected his subjects’ thoughts from questions of the legitimacy of his kingly inheritance by straight-away re-starting the Hundred Years War with France.
The Hundred Years War (which was fought on and off for 116 years) had been started several generations before Hal by the Plantagenet king, Edward The Third. Edward The Third was a successful and popular warrior-king—much like Hal would prove to be. Ed-3 had French blood through his mama’s side of the fam, and he and his descendants would continue to press their claims to the French throne throughout the Hundred Years War. The royal Lancaster Dynasty (Hal’s father, Hal, and Hal’s son) were descendants of Edward The Third, and thus they ALSO claimed the French blood which, according to them, entitled them to rule the lands of France.
So young Hal… 1) wanting to divert his aristocracy from thoughts of seizing the crown for themselves as his own father had done, and 2) trotting out the old claim to the French throne… led troops across the channel and into France.
There, at the Battle Of Agincourt in 1415, Hal achieved one of the most outstanding military victories in history. His small band of weary nobles and their (likely wearier) conscripts defeated a much larger French army which was fighting on its home territory.
In short order, France (or at least its weak royal army) was on its knees before Hal. Part of Hal’s success was certainly due to his wise alliance with the French noble family known as the House Of Burgundy. By finding common cause with the Burgundians (both groups wanted to defeat the ruling royal House Of Orleans), Hal was able to the split the French power.
In another smart move, Hal– even at the pinnacle of victory– refrained from attempting to don the French crown himself. Instead, he married the French king’s daughter and secured the crown of France for the offspring of their union. This was done via the 1420 Treaty Of Troyes (the treaty forced upon the defeated French king).
What a run! Seven years on the throne, and Young Hal had not only lined-up things so that England and France would be united under one crown beginning with the next generation, but he had quashed questions of his legitimacy, presumably securing the throne for his family for the foreseeable future. Hal, in other words, was a rockstar.
Unfortunately (depending on whose point of view you take, I suppose), Hal died two years after the Treaty of Troyes. He left behind his French-princess widow and their infant son. At the time of his death, Hal had been back in France, still fighting, attempting to put down the inevitable French resistance. A few years later, French morale would get a serious boost from Mademoiselle Joan Of Arc, and the Hundred Years War would start to turn in France’s favor. Some readers might find it surprising to note that it was not the English who captured Joan Of Arc, but the Burgundians, who were still in league with the English at the time. The Burgundians captured Joan and then dutifully turned her over to the English, who as we know, allowed her to be burned at the stake for witchcraft (I believe it was the ecclesiastical, not the state, powers that passed the judgment—though the English government seems to have encouraged it).
But of course, even the House Of Burgundy didn’t really want an English overlord. They just wanted to weaken the competing (inconveniently royal) House Of Orleans. In the end, the French united enough to drive out England and secure their nationhood.
Hal’s infant son grew to manhood and ruled England for many years (albeit, his ministers ruled on his behalf during his early years). It is this son, Henry The Sixth, who history blames for losing France, for losing the Hundred Years War, and for losing the Lancastrian Dynasty’s hold on the throne after just three generations.
Henry The Sixth’s weakness led to the Wars Of The Roses (the first skirmishes flared in 1455). The Wars Of The Roses (a name given much later to the conflict) were fought for a generation between Henry The Sixth’s House Of Lancaster and the even more upstart House Of York. Both Houses claimed the throne of England. Funnily enough, neither family would emerge as final victors… what they most succeeded in doing was to clear the way for the House Of Tudor to come to power in 1485.
So ends the tale of King Henry The Fifth, Young Hal… a monarch I can’t help but visualize as a comet streaking across the sky in a short, brilliant –but ultimately ineffectual– trip through the realm.