King Henry V

Born: September 16, 1386

Monmouth, Monmouthshire, Wales

Reign: March 21, 1413 - August 31, 1422 (9 years)

Died: August 31, 1422

Chateau de Vincennes, France (Age 35)


Henry of Monmouth was born the eldest child of Henry Bolingbroke (the future king Henry IV) and his first wife, Mary de Bohun, most likely on September 16, 1386. Though there is also evidence that he may have been born the following year, the 1386 date has been the general conclusion amongst historians. Very little is known about Henry’s early childhood, as was the case for even members of the royal family (including those who were expected to become king, which Henry was not). He lost his mother, Mary, in 1394, when she died giving birth to her sixth and final child, but is believed to have been brought up fairly comfortably, and with all the benefits due to a member of the expanded royal family and high aristocracy, with his three brothers and two sisters, under the supervision of their maternal grandmother, the dowager Duchess of Hereford, and a series of nurses and governesses.

In 1398, Henry’s father, Bolingbroke, was exiled from the kingdom by his cousin, King Richard II, for a period of ten years as a result of his quarrel with Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk. After his father departed to Paris, where he was to spend his exile, the younger Henry seems to have spent a good amount of time in the royal household and accompanied the king on his unsuccessful, and fateful, Irish expedition the following year. Henry was treated with nothing but kindness by the king (who actually knighted the youth during the expedition), but many historians will claim that he was taken to Ireland as a hostage for his father’s good behavior. Earlier in the year, Richard had extended Bolingbroke’s exile to life and confiscated his vast inheritance after the death of John of Gaunt, Bolingbroke’s father. The king was undoubtedly aware that he may have provoked his cousin into invading England and wanted to have the exile’s eldest son in his possession for reassurance purposes. Bolingbroke did indeed invade England in Richard’s absence, claiming at first to only want his inheritance, the lands of the Duchy of Lancaster. In the end though, Richard was forced into abdicating the throne and Bolingbroke, as the king’s closest relation in the male line, was crowned as King Henry IV. The younger Henry (or “Hal,” as he was commonly known as during his youth) was now the heir to England’s throne.

As a result of his new exalted status, Hal was given the titles of Duke of Lancaster, Aquitaine and Cornwall, Earl of Chester and Prince of Wales (the latter of which would be the most important due to the coming trouble within the region). Within a few months of his accession, the new king faced the first of many plots against his throne in the form of the Epiphany Rising, which, though put down with relative ease, sealed the fate of the deposed and imprisoned former king, Richard II, who was proclaimed to be dead by February 1400. Shortly after these events, the prince took part in his father’s failed Scottish campaign in the hopes of gaining some valuable military experience.

Because of his usurpation of the throne, Henry IV was to face widespread rebellion throughout the majority of his reign from the Scots, the French, the Welsh and even from his own, once loyal English subjects. By the autumn of 1400, the great Welsh rebellion, led by the self-proclaimed Prince of Wales, Owen Glendower, which was to occupy Hal’s attentions for the greater part of the next ten years, effectively began. As the official Prince of Wales, this rebellion struck home for Hal. During the first years of the uprising, Hal was still too young to be given any major responsibilities and the situation went very poorly for the English, due heavily to a lack of funds in the royal exchequer. To make matters worse, the Percy family, once some of the most staunch supporter of Henry IV, joined forces with the Welsh and Scottish rebels in a plot to depose the king. Luckily, Henry acted fast and was able to defeat the rebels at the Battle of Shrewsbury, with the rebellion’s leader, Henry “Hotspur” Percy, being killed. Hal himself participated in the battle, receiving a grave arrow wound to the face, and most certainly gained some solid military experience in the encounter.

After Shrewsbury, the situation in Wales gradually (albeit very slowly) began to improve for the English. As time went by, Prince Hal took on a more active role in putting down the rebellion, even as further rebellions took place in England (once again involving the Percy family). By 1408, these rebellions had come to an end and, by the following year, Glendower’s revolt, for all intensive purposes, collapsed. Hal was able to take back most of the castles Glendower had conquered during the apex of the rebellion and captured a number of Glendower’s close relatives, including his wife and several of his children and grandchildren. Glendower himself escaped and most likely lived out the rest of his life in caves and other isolated places, dying no later than 1416. The Welsh rebellion was a very important test for the prince and he handled it exceptionally well considering his lack of finances and all of the other issues the realm was dealing with at the time. Hal was able to reassert his authority in Wales and was already looked at as a brave general, more than worthy to be King of England.

As he grew older, the prince, in addition to his growing military experience, also became more active and influential in the day to day governing of the kingdom and was a member of the royal council from late 1406 on. By 1410, when Hal no longer needed to focus his attentions on the Welsh revolt, he and his political allies (his Beaufort uncles, half-brothers of Henry IV) actually held more power on the council than the king himself, who, since 1405, had been growing increasingly sick with an unknown skin ailment. The elder Henry no doubt felt threatened by the power his eldest son and heir was accumulating and worried that he, like Richard II, would be forced to abdicate the throne he had worked so hard to gain. To make matters worse, the king and prince differed on which faction to support in the ongoing French civil war, the Armagnacs (whom the king supported) or the Burgundians (who had the support of the prince), both of whom were vying for control of the French king, Charles VI, who was becoming increasingly crippled by mental illness. By late 1411, Henry IV took back power, despite his continued poor health, and dismissed the prince and his supporters from the royal council. For the remainder of the reign, Hal was forced to recognize the fact that his father would never abdicate the throne and that he would have to wait until he died naturally to become king. Despite the fact that the king seemed to favor his second son, Thomas, Duke of Clarence, over Hal, it appears that the two reconciled their differences. Many contemporary chroniclers told of a story in which the prince visited his father when he was near death and handed him a dagger, asking him to kill him then and there if he felt he was not completely loyal to him. At this point, touched at his son’s gesture, the king burst into tears and tossed the dagger aside, officially reconciling father and eldest son. On March 20, 1413, Henry IV died and Hal ascended the throne as King Henry V.

The major problem looming over England by the time of Henry’s accession to the throne was, by far, the conflict with France. In 1360, Henry’s great-grandfather, Edward III, who was in possession of the French king, John II, at the time, forced the French to agree to the Treaty of Bretigny, which gave Edward control over the territories he had conquered (most importantly the entirety of Aquitaine) in full sovereignty, as opposed to as a vassal of the French king. When Charles V ascended the French throne in 1364, he refused to acknowledge the terms of the treaty and took back most of what Edward III had conquered by the early 1370s. By this point, Edward was too old to lead another army to France and his eventual successor, Richard II, was no warrior. Therefore, the war remained relatively dormant for the last thirty years of the fourteenth century, despite the fact that English kings continued to style themselves “King of France,” a tradition begun by Edward III (a grandson of King Philip IV of France through his mother Isabella) when he initiated the Hundred Years’ War.

Henry IV thought of leading an expedition against the French but was kept busy at home through a combination of civil rebellions and ill health. Henry V, however, saw a huge opportunity to take advantage of a country whose king was only seldom in control of his mind and where two rival factions (the Armagnacs and the Burgundians) were destroying each other in order to gain power. For this reason, Henry decided to renew the Hundred Years’ War and sought to woo the Duke of Burgundy as an ally, just as he had begun to do in the final years of his father’s reign. Talks of peace were open between the two sides and a marriage was proposed between Henry and Katherine, daughter of the mad King Charles VI. But Henry was clearly bent on war, seemingly wanting not only to re-conquer all the territory that Edward III had once possessed, but to regain the entire Angevin empire that had been lost by King John over two hundred years ago, and quite possibly the entirety of France (after all, he was styled “King of France”). This is made clear by the highly unreasonable demands Henry made in order to supposedly procure a peace: The French were to surrender Aquitaine, Normandy, Maine, Anjou, Touraine and several other territories (basically the entire Angevin empire of Henry II); were to repay the remainder of the ransom of John II from fifty years earlier; and were to provide a suitable dowry for Henry’s intended bride, Katherine. It would be incredibly naïve for anyone who has ever studied the situation to believe that the French would accept this outrageous proposal and Henry knew this very well. Therefore, by the spring of 1415, the two sides prepared for war.

Before Henry departed though, he was forced to deal with what would be one of the few problems he would face at home. The Southampton Plot, as it has come to be known, seems to have been a conspiracy to murder Henry and his brothers and place Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, on the throne. If the royal succession could pass through a female line, March would have undoubtedly had a better claim to the throne than, through his descent from Lionel of Antwerp, second son of Edward III (John of Gaunt, Henry’s grandfather, was the third son) than Henry did. For this reason, it is no surprise that Henry IV kept March in captivity for most of his reign. Henry V, however, looked to reconcile himself with his father’s enemies (Owen Glendower was even offered a pardon around this time, but did not respond) and March was set free. The three major conspirators in the plot were Richard of Conisburgh, Earl of Cambridge; Lord Henry Scrope; and Sir Thomas Grey. All three men had some sort of quarrel with the king that can be assumed to be the reason why each of them decided to rebel: Cambridge had been given an earldom but no greats of land to support it, making it completely meaningless; Scrope’s uncle, Archbishop Richard Scrope of York, had been executed by Henry IV; and Grey’s son was married to Cambridge’s daughter, giving them a family connection. It is also believed that Glendower, the Lollard rebel Sir John Oldcastle (an old acquaintance of Henry’s and a man who was to be burned for heresy two years later) and the French (who were none too happy that the English would be invading their country) all had the possibility of being involved in the plot. Regardless, the plot was highly disorganized and it turns out that March himself turned the conspirators in, saving his own head in the process. Cambridge, Scrope and Grey were all promptly arrested, convicted and executed as traitors. A week later, Henry set off for France.

Henry’s first stop in France was Harfleur, an important, strategically-located port city on the coast of Normandy. The English army immediately began to lay siege to the city, and were able to subdue it in a little over a month. Unfortunately, they were not able to do so without losing a large portion of the army as a result of dysentery. With the capture of Harfleur, Henry now had a place on the Norman coast where he could land safely whenever he pleased (as well as a safe haven for English merchants, who were constantly harassed by the city) and had taken the first step in conquering the entire duchy. The Norman capital, Rouen, was right down the river from Harfleur and several years later, Henry would set his sights on it. After the capture of Harfleur, Henry made the decision to return home to England via Calais, the other English possession on the French coast. Being that the colder weather of autumn was rapidly approaching and his army was severely diminished, it seemed like the logical plan of action at the time and it appears that Henry’s main objective of the campaign of 1415 was no to conquer large portions of France, but merely to create a safe passageway between England and Normandy. He most certainly accomplished this by capturing Harfleur.

Henry’s choice to depart by way of Calais was made primarily to make it appear that he was not retreating by going back the way he had came. The French, however, were not about to allow the English to leave without a fight and undoubtedly knew their enemies were in a weakened position. Henry also knew that the French were very much still in the middle of a civil war and saw that this would give his army an advantage. The two armies met near the village of Agincourt, where the significantly smaller English army handed the French a devastating defeat. English losses were minimal, while French losses were in the thousands, with many important noblemen dead or taken prisoner. The Battle of Agincourt was, by far, the greatest English victory since that of the Black Prince at Poitiers in 1356. As was the case with Poitiers, the English never intended to do battle, but were drawn in by the larger French army. Regardless of this fact, in both battles the English won glorious victories against insurmountable odds. The main reasons for the decisive English victory seems to have been French dissension, English unity and the longbow, a powerful weapon used by the English that also played a role in the Edwardian wars of the previous century. When Henry and his men returned home, they were given a hero’s welcome and seemed completely unaware (as was to be seen by the king’s humble appearance and demeanor) that they had won what would go on to be one of the most well-known battles in English history.

Though Harfleur was won, it was by no means safe from French attacks, which began several months after Henry departed the continent. Henry’s uncle Thomas, Earl of Dorset, was able to defeat the French at the Battle of Valmont, but even this did not end French attacks on the English controlled city and it was clear that a relief force would have to be sent. The king himself was preoccupied in England, playing host to Sigismund, King of Hungary and Croatia and the future Holy Roman Emperor (who Henry was undoubtedly attempting to woo as a potential ally against the French), and was not able to deal with Harfleur’s defense in person. To serve in his place, Henry sent his brother John, Duke of Bedford. Bedford arrived near Harfleur and defeated the French in a fairly large naval battle at the mouth of the River Seine, ending, for the time being, the threat against the coastal city. Meanwhile, Henry and Sigismund had agreed to become allies against France through the Treaty of Canterbury. The king was also still interested in forming an alliance with Duke John of Burgundy. Both Henry and Sigismund travelled to Calais to discuss terms of an alliance with Burgundy, but were only able to convince the duke to ally himself with them if it meant he did not need to bear arms directly against his king, Charles VI, or the dauphin, a rater half-hearted accord.

In the summer of 1417, Henry once again departed for France, this time bearing the standard of a conqueror. His first priority was to capture the major city of Caen, which he did after a siege of roughly two weeks. Over the following months, Henry went on to conquer many other towns within Normandy, including Alencon, Falaise and Cherbourg. Meanwhile, Henry’s “ally,” the Duke of Burgundy, had wrestled back Paris from his Armagnac foes, a move that would be key in the coming years, killing the Count of Armagnac (the head of the faction) and making the dauphin, the future Charles VII, the effective leader of the Armagnac (now Dauphinist) party. Once the English army was able to cross the River Seine, they laid siege to Rouen, the Norman capital and a city that provided direct access to Paris. After a long and painful siege (on both sides), the city finally surrendered itself in January 1419.

Once the siege of Rouen was completed, Henry easily moved on to take most of the other towns surrounding it until he had effectively conquered the entire Duchy of Normandy, putting it in English possession for the first time since 1204. The Duke of Burgundy, who still had control of Paris and Charles VI, attempted to make peace with Henry, but the English king still insisted on receiving the entire Angevin Empire of old, which the French simply could not agree to. Henry then marched on Paris, continuing to subdue towns along the way, prompting Burgundy to attempt to form an alliance with his enemy, the dauphin Charles. However, when the two groups met at Montereau, a quarrel broke out, in which the circumstances are not known, and Burgundy was killed by the dauphin’s men. Burgundy’s son and heir, Philip, was now forced to make a very difficult choice: Should he continue negotiations with the Dauphinists, who had just murdered his father, or should he side with the King of  England? After much contemplation, Philip decided to throw in his lot with King Henry, who seemed, at the time, the lesser of two evils compared to the dauphin. Henry now saw an opportunity to accomplish what even his great-grandfather, Edward III was unable to do: to be proclaimed King of France. After months of deliberation, the Treaty of Troyes was ratified between the two sides. The treaty stated that Henry was to marry the Princess Katherine and was to serve as regent of France while Charles VI still lived. Once the old king died, he was to be succeeded on the throne by Henry and his heirs. The dauphin was to be disinherited.

Even after the Treaty of Troyes was ratified, Henry was well aware of the fact that his work in conquering France was far from over (the treaty itself even stated that he would be responsible for conquering the rest of the territory) and that many towns even within the Ile-de-France and Champagne regions (let alone in the south of France) were still holding out for the dauphin. Therefore, Henry spent his honeymoon with his new wife gradually bringing these places under control. The king was able to make substantial progress as he conquered towns such as Sens, Montereau and Melun. At this point though, Henry realized that he must return to England, where he had not been for over four years, so that he may take care of basic affairs of state and have his new wife crowned as queen. After his recent string of successes Henry felt fairly confident that the situation in France was under control and departed back to England. While in his homeland, he witnessed Queen Katherine’s coronation and embarked on a grand tour of nearly the entire country. Unfortunately, the news that came next would prove to him that his attentions were still required in France. In a rash move, Henry’s brother (and heir) Thomas, Duke of Clarence, had engaged a much larger Franco-Scottish force in battle and was killed at the Battle of Bauge. The king was understandably upset over this turn of events and immediately set the wheels in motion to return to his new rebellious territory, which he did in June 1421.

With Henry’s personal presence back in France, more towns in the region of Paris, previously loyal to the dauphin, began to fall until there was only one major Dauphinist stronghold left in the Ile-de-France: Meaux. The siege of the well-fortified town was begun in the fall of 1421 and was to be one of Henry’s last major actions. During the siege, Henry did receive a bit of good news when he was informed that his wife had given birth to a son, Prince Henry, whom the king was destined never to lay eyes on. Several months later, after a siege of six months, Meaux surrendered to the English. It appears that Henry contracted the disease that would ultimately kill him during the long siege of Meaux. To this day, it is unclear as to what the king died of, but many historians will claim that it was simply a severe case of dysentery. Whatever the case may be, Henry slowly declined throughout the summer of 1422 and, knowing that the end was near, he updated his will, giving power during the minority reign that was to follow his death to his two surviving brothers, John, Duke of Bedford, and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester; his two uncles, Thomas and Henry Beaufort; as well as several other various lords. Henry’s wording within his will has longed been regarded as highly ambiguous, particularly in regards to Gloucester, who believed himself to have been assigned the task of protector of England. After gradually losing all the strength and vigor that had defined him as a man and a king, Henry V died on August 31, 1422, aged around thirty-five. He was succeeded on the English throne by nine-month-old son as Henry VI.

Assessment and Analysis

Henry V is widely regarded as one of the most successful English monarchs of all time. When comparing Henry to previous kings, two men almost immediately come to mind: Richard I and Edward III. In the case of Richard, it must be noted that both men reigned as king for nine years, most of which was spent outside of England. They both preferred war over women and indeed never married until they were well into their thirties an unheard of concept considering the importance of the royal succession. In addition, both men were looked at by their subjects as heroes and were feared by their enemies. When Henry is compared with his great-grandfather, Edward III, their respective accomplishments in France are the first things that historians think of. Whereas Edward is credited with the great victories at Crecy and Poitiers, Henry can boast of his massive triumph at Agincourt. But was the battle as glorious as it is made out to be in Shakespeare and other literature and chronicles? Despite destroying French morale at the time, Henry did not gain any territory by the victory and was indeed on his way back to England and had no interest in engaging in a full-scale battle. However, the battle proved that Henry was able to rally his troops and to overcome insurmountable odds and therefore must be looked at as a complete success.

The major difference between Henry and Edward III is that, whereas Edward outlived his success, Henry died on top of his game. Edward had conquered all of Aquitaine, Calais and most of Brittany. When he died, the English only controlled a greatly reduced Aquitaine (Gascony), Calais and several other scattered fortresses. When Henry died, the he left to his infant son not only Gascony and Calais, but Normandy, Champagne and the Ile-de-France, as well the French crown upon the death of Charles VI. Though much of Henry’s success did come about through his skills as a general, he also experienced some unprecedented good luck by the fact that France was in the broils of a civil war and was led by a demented king. It can also not be forgotten that much of the reason that Henry was able to gain control of Paris was due to the friendship of the Duke of Burgundy. Henry was able to show, however, that he was able to conquer territory by diplomacy and siege warfare and indeed only fought in one battle during the Hundred Years’ War: Agincourt.

All in all, it is difficult to make the case that Henry’s life and reign were not completely successful. He was able to restore the prestige of the crown after his father’s turbulent reign, just as Edward III had done after the disastrous reign of his father, Edward II. Henry was able to achieve this by uniting the people of England (most importantly the nobility) against a common enemy (the French), therefore distracting them from civil rebellion, just as Edward III had done. Whereas his father’s reign was filled with rebellion after rebellion, Henry was able to breathe relatively easy at home (with the exception of the Southampton Plot and a brief Lollard rebellion at the beginning of the reign, which culminated in the burning of John Oldcastle in 1417).

Besides distracting his magnates with warfare, Henry made it a point to reconcile himself with his father’s old enemies and show that he could be both merciful and firm. The Earl of March, Henry’s greatest rival to the throne, was released from prison and restored to royal favor; the Percy heir, Hotspur’s son, was restored to the Earldom of Northumberland; and even the Welsh rebel Owen Glendower, whom Henry had fought against for so long, was offered a full pardon. When his subjects rebelled though, Henry proved to be ruthless. This is evident by the prompt executions of Cambridge, Grey and Scrope. In dealing with the conquered French citizens, he treated them with respect but let it be known that he would not tolerate rebellion and forced a number of them to leave their homes. The one major issue with Henry was that he left a situation that would be nearly impossible to maintain for any extended period of time to his underage heir. Within thirty years of his death, France would be completely lost (excepting Calais). As in the case of Edward III, whose strong reign was followed by that of a weak, minor king (Richard II), Henry V’s days of glory would not last and his son, Henry VI, would once again bring shame on the monarchy with his poor governing skills.

Further Reading

Allmand, C. T. Henry V

Dockray, Keith. Henry V

Earle, Peter. Henry V

Hutchison, H. F. Henry V

Labarge, Margaret Wade. Henry V, the Cautious Conqueror

Seward, Desmond. Henry V as Warlord

Wylie, James Hamilton. The Reign of Henry the Fifth

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