The Life and Death of Henry V

Science has proven that nice guys do NOT finish last, but this wasn’t the case for Medieval kings. For monarchs in the Middle Ages it was survival of the fittest — and the fittest were those who were capable of ruthless, blood-curdling violence.

It is that hard-core capacity for annihilating the perceived enemy that makes Henry V one of the most successful warrior-kings in English history.

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The future King Henry V of England was born on an unconfirmed date in 1386 above the gatehouse of Monmouth Castle, the eldest son of John of Gaunt’s eldest son, Henry of Bolingbroke (later Henry IV of England). He was the second cousin of King Richard II of England; they were both great-grandsons of King Edward III of England.

Henry V at Monmouth

When he was born, he was far removed from the line of succession to the throne, yet by the time he entered his teen years, his father had overthrown Richard II, and young Henry became the Prince of Wales and Duke of Lancaster. It was quite a jump in status, but Henry would prove well able for the challenge.

He was actively participating in warfare at age 15, fighting alongside his father against Harry Hotspur in the Battle of Shrewsbury on 21 July 1403. An arrow hit the prince in the face, but an experienced and brilliant chirurgeon named John Bradmore saved his life. First Bradmore covered the wound with honey, which is antibacterial and thus an effective antiseptic, while he invented a spur-of-the-moment tool to pull the broken arrow shaft out of Henrt’s face in much the same way a cork is unscrewed from a wine bottle. Bradmore prevented infection by flushed the wound with alcohol, and the prince lived.

It had to have hurt like the very devil, though, and would have left hell’s own scar.

Henry IV wasn’t a great king, and was in poor health, so off and on from 1408 the prince (advised by his trusted and loyal half-uncles, Henry Beaufort and Thomas Beaufort) was in charge of the government. He finally became king in truth when his father died on 20 March 1413. He was crowned Henry V on 9 April 1413 at Westminster Abbey during a colossal snowstorm, which became subject of debate as to whether or not it was favorable or ill omen.

Maybe it was both? He was a mighty military commander in the tradition of kings Edward I and Edward III, but he did not enjoy their long life and reign.

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Straight from the gate, Henry VI demonstrated he had a zero tolerance policy for any challenges to his authority. When the Lollards agitated for religious reform in 1414, he jumped on them with both feet. He even burned his close friend Sir John Oldcastle to death, in order to “nip the movement in the bud”.

The Southampton Plot on 1415 was likewise harshly dealt with. The conspirators wanted to replace Henry with Edmund Mortimer, 5th Earl of March, who, as the great-grandson of Lionel of Antwerp, 1st Duke of Clarence, had a better claim to the throne. The Earl of March himself warned Henry of the plan on On 31 July 1415, and was therefore spared. However, his co-conspirators were not so lucky. They were immediately arrested and swiftly executed. Sir Thomas Grey was beheaded on 2 August, while  Richard of Conisburgh, 3rd Earl of Cambridge and Henry Scrope, 3rd Baron Scrope of Masham went under the axe on 5 August.

Once he felt secure on the throne of England, Henry eyed the throne of France, which he was legitimately a contender for; his great-great-grandmother, Isabella of France, was the only one of Philip IV of France’s four children to produce surviving offspring. It seemed like an ideal time to make a play for the French crown, since the current king, Charles VI of France, was intermittently mentally ill his heir, Dauphin, was far from impressive.

Bent on conquest, King Henry set sail for France on 12 August 141. He landed near Harfleur, and succeeded in capturing a few weeks later on 22 September. After this victory, Henry turned towards Calais, which was a bad plan that just happened work out spectacularly for him. 

On 25 October 1415, on the plains near the village of Agincourt, a French army intercepted his route. Despite his men-at-arms being exhausted, outnumbered and malnourished, Henry led his men into battle, decisively defeating the French, who suffered severe losses. It is often argued that the French men-at-arms were bogged down in the muddy battlefield, soaked from the previous night of heavy rain, and that this hindered the French advance, allowing them to be sitting targets for the flanking English and Welsh archers. Most were simply hacked to death while completely stuck in the deep mud. Nevertheless, the victory is seen as Henry’s greatest, ranking alongside the battle of Poitiers.

It really is better to be lucky than it is to be wise.

Henry caused a massive international scandal when he ordered the execution of all the French prisoners, including some of the most highly born nobles, who were usually treated as ‘guests’ and ransomed. Henry was as ruthless his fierce ancestor, Edward I, and every bit as bent on uniting what he saw as justifiably ‘his’ territory under his rule. 

Henry’s reputation for savagery grew when he resumed his invasion of France two years after the Battle of Agincourt, Henry renewed the war on a larger scale in 1417. The siege of Rouen was particulary horrific. Faced with an internal famine, the magistrates of Rouen sent the city’s women and children out of the city gate, “believing that Henry would allow them to pass through his army unmolested.” Instead, “Henry refused to allow this,” and left the women and children to die “of starvation in the ditches surrounding the town.”

death taking woman and child

Henry also adopted the practice of chevauchée as he swept through France, raiding the surrounding countryside in order to weaken the opposition, “primarily by burning and pillaging enemy territory in order to reduce the productivity of a region”. These scorched earth tactics resulted in the deaths of thousands of French people, and the populace was left terrified of the English nightmare plundering their country.

By the time Henry and his forces rolled up to the gates of Paris in August of 1419, no one was foolish enough to expect mercy from him. Charles VI had no real choice but to agreed to the the Treaty of Troyes, which allowed Charles and his family to remain alive, but named Henry as the heir and regent of France. As a final seal on the deal, Henry wed the king’s daughter, Catherine of Valois, on 2 June 1420 at Troyes Cathedral.

Marriage_of_henry VI and_Catherine of Valois

She had to have been miserable about it. She was marrying a man she would have considered a monster, the scared and barbaric evil-doer that had ravaged France and deposed her brother. Sadly, her body was the state’s property, and she would become the vessel for Henry’s heirs whether it broke her heart or not.

Henry spent their honeymoon besieged and taking the castle at Montereau, before turning his attentions to the city of Melun. One he captured Melun in November, he returned to England with his wife, leaving his younger brother Thomas of Lancaster, 1st Duke of Clarence, in charge of the English forces in France. Thomas would prove to be less militaristic than his brother. In March 1421, Thomas was killed at Battle of Baugé, and the Franco-Scottish army was victorious.

Having succeded in impregnating his bride, Henry returned to France on 10 June 1421 to recoup this loss. By August, Henry had captured Dreux and relieving his forces at Chartres. In October, his troops besiege Meaux, which would hold out against him for several months. It was there that he receive word that his wife had given birth to a boy on 6 December 1421 at Windsor Castle. The baby was named Henry after his sire, and the king’s satisfaction must have been immense.

But fate was about to roll the dice against him.

The king contracted dysentery some time before the fall of Meaux on 2 May 1422,  and he never recovered. The disease ended Henry V’s nine-year reign on 31 August 1422 at the Château de Vincennes. The scourge of France had died at the young age of 36,  and his son was merely an infant.

The baby was nonetheless declared King Henry VI of England, with his uncle, John of Lancaster, 1st Duke of Bedford, acting as regent.

Lord Steward John Sutton, 1st Baron Dudley, transported Henry V’s embalmed remains to England for burial. Upon the arrival of the king’s body, a large procession was formed and accompanied his coffin from Dover to St Paul’s Cathedral in London. He was interred at Westminster Abbey on 7 November 1422, and on the day of his funeral four horses drew the chariot bearing his mortal shell into the Nave of the Abbey as far as the choir screen.

Modern head on Henry V's tomb WEstminster Abbey.

The Latin inscription around the ledge of his tomb begins with the sentence, “Henry V, hammer of the Gauls, lies here.”

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