Kingship, Legitimacy, and War in Henry V



Henry V (1599), Shakespeare’s last Elizabethan history play, is framed by two regime changes. It opens at the accession of Henry V, a man reformed who has left behind his wild ways and degenerate companions such as Falstaff. It closes with the Chorus foreshadowing the shambolic reign of his son, Henry VI, when France will be lost and England herself will be ravaged by civil war. Far from a patriotic chronicle of Henry V’s glorious conquests, the play depicts an astute new ruler shoring up his shaky legitimacy by pursuing a foreign war. 
‘for miracles are ceased’

Henry’s first Parliament is in session and the Commons are pushing for a bill that would heavily tax the Church. The funds are meant to boost the kingdom’s military clout as well as strengthening its welfare provision. The Church hierarchy are naturally alarmed by the prospect of losing the lion’s share of their revenue. But, rather than protesting in the Lords, they choose a subtler and, as it turns out, more effective tactic. In return for quashing the bill, the Archbishop of Canterbury has offered to the king a subsidy larger than the clergy had ever granted. And, as he tells the Bishop of Ely, Henry has already hinted he would accept it. 

The question of why the new monarch should cut a behind-the-scenes deal with the Church instead of working with his Parliament is soon resolved. Henry needs a compelling reason to go to war with France and only the highest prelate in the land can provide it. This cannot be any flimsy pretext but a cause that will seem both legally and ethically sound, and as such capable of uniting the nation only lately riven by civil broils. 

The two prelates have got the measure of their new prince. Waxing lyrical about his wondrous transformation from a dissolute youth into a consummate politician, they reject out of hand the idea that the change was divinely inspired, ‘for Miracles are ceased’. Rather, Henry must have dissimulated his wildness to gain first-hand experience of lower-class life normally inaccessible to future monarchs, a unique kind of royal apprenticeship. 

‘No King of England, if not King of France’

The sequence of events is suggestive. Henry has already staked a claim to French territories, and the Dauphin’s newly arrived embassy is a response to it. He has also in principle secured funds for a major military campaign. Now, in the presence of his nobles, he enjoins the Archbishop ‘justly and religiously’ to unfold his title to the French crown, vowing that he will accept the cleric’s verdict. This is a splendid PR exercise, as there is really no doubt what that verdict will be. Besides, the nobles too are on board, and enthusiastically back the expedition. 

For Henry, this is a priceless endorsement of his kingship. The son of a man, Henry Bolingbroke, who had usurped the crown from Richard II and indirectly caused his death, and whose reign was troubled by repeated rebellions, is hailed as the heir to England’s greatest kings. Rehearsed in the context of Henry’s putative claim to France, his august royal ancestry is traced back to Edward III, the scourge of the French at Crécy. France, meanwhile, emerges as a country ruled by a series of misfits and usurpers.

‘as clear as is the summer’s sun’

Henry and those around him are acutely aware of the legitimating power of religion and history. That is why the king invokes God at every turn, and why Canterbury’s seemingly interminable – and impenetrable – genealogical excursus is so vital. By the time Henry replies to the Dauphin’s insolent gift of the tennis balls and issues a general call to arms, he has brilliantly succeeded in fortifying his title to England’s crown by tying it to that of France. In a later scene, his envoy will brandish Henry’s elaborate genealogical tree under the French king’s nose. 

History has other uses too. As well as furnishing justification for war in the form of a convoluted dynastic claim and supplying a line of royal worthies for the current incumbent to emulate, it serves as a storehouse of political wisdom and precedent. Thus, Henry duly remembers the danger ever posed to England’s continental ventures by her ‘ill’ neighbour, the ‘weasel Scot’. To guard against a likely Scottish attack, he will divide his forces, leaving enough troops at home to defend the northern border. 

One last thing before the army sails. With Falstaff dead, the remaining members of Henry’s band of lowlifes, Bardolph, Nym, and Pistol, are ready to embark for France, if in search of profit rather than glory. Not everyone, however, has bought into the French enterprise. An unnamed common man caught railing against the king lingers in prison, and an assassination plot involving three men of noble birth in the pay of France is intercepted. Rather than having the would-be regicides arrested, the king himself dramatically unmasks them. He proclaims the treason’s discovery as providential and a sign of God’s blessing for his campaign.

Henry V is an odd war play. None of the characters dies or is wounded on stage. The few alarums and excursions aside, war is mostly evoked through words – Henry’s chilling ultimatum demanding the surrender of Harfleur, his order to kill the French prisoners at Agincourt, report of the heroic deaths of York and Suffolk, lists of casualties on both sides read out after the English victory. Shakespeare’s earlier history plays abound in battle and combat and murder scenes. Here the audience is forced to imagine the carnage while watching how it is being devised or threatened or relived. Yet that hardly makes the trauma any less severe. Nor is the impact of off-stage violence diminished by what is happening on stage, whether Pistol’s grotesque antics or the inane conference between the Welsh, Irish, Scottish, and English captains complete with the Welshman Fluellen’s trademark stylistic infelicities turning horror to humour. 

‘That island of England’

On eve of battle, the vainglorious French mock their outnumbered English foes. One braggart extols the virtues of his horse, another absurdly describes England as an island. Has the Frenchman been taken in by English delusions of grandeur? Or is he simply bad at geography? 

Before setting out, Henry has prudently taken precautions against an opportunistic Scottish assault. What then is the Scottish Captain Jamy doing among his troops? Or the Irish Mackmorris, so touchy when asked about his ‘nation’? Why are a Scot and an Irishman, never mind a Welshman, fighting England’s wars? In the early fifteenth century when Henry V is set, Scotland was an independent kingdom – for all that the English had been trying to conquer her; Ireland but partly under English control; Wales still trying to throw off the English yoke. On the play’s premiere in 1599, Scotland, now England’s ally, remained independent – the union with England was still in the future; Ireland in arms against English rule; Wales, annexed more than half a century earlier by Henry VIII, quiet and proud that the ruling dynasty, the Tudors, were Welsh. Therefore, the apparent camaraderie between the four nations seems nothing short of incongruous.

‘the mirror of all Christian kings’

The first printed edition of Henry V, out in 1600, lacked a Chorus. Hence there was no appeal to ‘the Muse of Fire’, no ‘Wooden O’, and not even ‘A little touch of Harry in the Night’. The Chorus appeared only in the version of the play published in a posthumous collection of Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies (1623). 

Part commercial compère aiming to win the customers’ favour for the piece and advertise the company’s other wares, part a-not-altogether reliable battle-field reporter, and part partisan chronicler, the Chorus is an irrepressible meddler. Not for a moment are the audience allowed to forget that the play is a play is a play is a play. Without the Chorus’s effusive accolades, King Henry comes across as even more of a thug. There is nothing to counterbalance his callous order to kill the prisoners in case the enemy regroups. Or his at once whiny and haughty soliloquy on the burdens of kingship in which he endearingly casts private men and social inferiors as slaves, lackeys, wretches, peasants, and the like. Or his self-serving prayer with its list of superficial – and, for Protestants, superstitious – gestures designed to expiate the guilt of his father’s usurpation whose fruit he continues to enjoy. Among them is payment to the poor – presumably the slaves, lackeys, wretches, and peasants – to pray for a pardon. 

Then again, the Chorus’s extravagant encomia evoke the image of an ideal prince from which the stage-king falls rather short. Besides, the Chorus’s account of what is happening is often sharply at odds with what the audience witness. Where is the modest ‘royal captain ‘walking from watch to watch, from tent to tent’ cheering his weary troops? Instead, conversing with the soldiers incognito, Henry gets to hear what they really think of him and his war. Speaking truth to power without knowing it, one of the men, Williams, issues a harrowing admonition reminiscent of a Breughel Last Judgement: 

But if the Cause be not good, the King himselfe hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs, and arms, and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day, and cry all, We died at such a place, some swearing, some crying for a surgeon; some upon their wives, left poor behind them; some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. 

Henry’s rousing St Crispian speech too alludes to the Last Judgement if in a rather immodest vein. For he foretells that that memory of the English triumph at Agincourt will live ‘From this day to the ending of the world’. Those who fought alongside him, he predicts, will proudly display their scars on each anniversary. Too bad that after the battle is won, the king forbids anyone to boast of victory on pain of death, declaring it God’s alone. Fluellen’s pathetic request for clarification, ‘Is it not lawful and please your Majesty, to tell how many is killed?’, does little to palliate the order’s grimness. 

‘To make divorce of their incorporate league’

Accepted under duress by the defeated French, the articles of peace effectively make England and France one, their union sealed by the marriage of Henry and Katherine. The couple’s son will inherit both crowns, Henry facetiously predicting the boy would take on Christianity’s Islamic foe – the Ottoman empire. 

But for all the talk of an inviolate Anglo-French league and ‘paction of these kingdoms’, the futility of the enterprise soon becomes manifest. Henry dies young, and the vast composite state he has created falls apart. Calais, England’s last Continental outpost, would be lost in January 1558, some ten months before Elizabeth I’s accession.

‘from Ireland coming, 
Bringing rebellion broached on his sword’

Henry V spoke to and of its time. When the play was first performed, England had been at war for over a decade with the world super-power, the Catholic Spain, assisting French and Dutch Protestants. Though lately withdrawn from France which had signed a peace treaty with Spain in 1598, some English troops remained in the Low Countries, with the bulk however being deployed to Ireland. Meanwhile, reports of a ‘phantom Armada’ raised fears of another invasion and put the country on the alert in 1599. The presence of Protestant refugees led to unrest and anti-immigrant riots. Declining economic situation, factionalism at court, and, above all, uncertainty about the succession blighted the final years of Elizabeth’s reign. Once seen as a triumphant royal bildungsroman, Henry V is anything but. Only drastic cuts and rewriting could make it sound the old jingoistic tune. 

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