Henry V and the Chivalric Revival - Essay

William Shakespeare


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Henry V and the Chivalric Revival

Robin Headlam Wells, University of Hull

"O for a Muse of fire!" What more appropriate way to begin an epic celebration of England's greatest warrior-king than an invocation to Mars, the baleful god of war with 'famine, sword and fire' straining like leashed greyhounds at his heels (Prol. 1-8)?1 Praised by his contemporaries as the flower of knighthood,2 the historical Henry V was the epitome of English chivalry; and chivalry is essentially a martial ideal, a code of values that glorified military prowess as the supreme achievement of the virtuous knight.3 For the medieval chevalier like Shakespeare's Duke of Exeter (4.6.7-32) death on the battlefield in the arms of a brother soldier while in the service of his liege is a consummation devoutly to be wished.

It is this chivalric ideal that the "warlike Harry" epitomizes. Shakespeare's holy warrior has "an aspect of iron" (5.2.239); his god is a 'God of battles' (4.1.285); and when he invades France he comes "In thunder and in earthquake, like a Jove" (2.4.100). Even as a wooer, he loves "cruelly" (5.2.211). But despite the celebratory tone of the Prologue, Henry V is no simple endorsement of chivalric ideals. The history of chivalry in late medieval and early modern England is a complex one, and Shakespeare's play embodies the ambivalent attitudes towards war and military heroism which that history inevitably reflects.

Flower of chivalry

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Henry V is chiefly remembered for his extraordinary victory at Agincourt. But hardened at an early age to the rigours of border conflict, he showed a passion for war and a contempt for "the cursyd vice of slouthe and ydlenesse"4 even before he became king. Shortly before his accession he commissioned a translation of the greatest war story of the ancient world. The result was John Lydgate's Troy Book, a translation of Guido delle Colonne's Historia Destructionis Troiae. Like Shakespeare, Lydgate begins his story with an invocation to Mars, patron of chivalry and the "causer [ . . . ] Of werre and stryf":

O myghty Mars, that wyth thy sterne lyght
In armys hast the power & pe my3t,
And named art from est til occident
The myghty lorde, the god armypotent,
That, wyth schynyng of the stremes rede,
By influence dost the brydel led
Of cheualry, as souereyn and patrown . . .
Now help, o Mars, pat art of kny3thod lord,
And hast of manhod the magnificence!5

In his prologue to the Troy Book Lydgate explains that it was Henry's own enthusiasm for "verray kny3thod", "the prowesse of olde chiualrie" and "al that longeth to manhood" that was responsible for the prince's interest in the Troy story (I. 69ff.).

Though Henry's early death meant that his political vision, enshrined in the Treaty of Troyes (1420), of a joint kingdom united under English rule would never be realized, it did wonders for his heroic reputation. As Edward Hall writes in his Chronicle, Henry's "fame by his death as liuely florisheth as his actes in his life wer sene and remembred".6 Already by the middle of the fifteenth century he had become part of English national mythology. When William Worcester wrote a book supporting Edward IV s renewal of the war with France he recalled Henry's "gret manhode" and exhorted Edward to remember the "victorious conquestis of youre noble predecessour".7 And as Henry himself had hoped to inspire patriotic sentiments by making the Troy story available to English readers, so Worcester, in urging his countrymen to take up arms, adjures them to recall the siege of Troy as an example of true chivalry:

let be brought to mynde to folow the steppis in conceitis of noble courage of the mighty dedis in armes of the vaillaunt knight Hector of Troy, whiche bene enacted in the seige of Troy for a perpetuelle remembraunce of chevalrie.8

Contemporary opinion about Henry and his policies was divided.9 Thomas Hoccleve, while praising Henry as the "floure of Chivalrie",10 concludes his epideictic Regement of Princes with a philippic on the...

(The entire section is 1179 words.)

The chivalric revival

(Shakespearean Criticism)

To suggest that Shakespeare was the intellectual prisoner of his time is to imply that Elizabethans were united in their endorsement of the militaristic values that Henry V stood for in the popular imagination. This is not true. A brief review of changing attitudes towards the chivalric ideal in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century England may go at least some way towards explaining the anomalies in Shakespeare's play.

Henry V was written at a time when chivalric values, after a period of self-conscious anti-militarism, were once more in fashion.22 Originating in the Middle Ages as the code of values of a military aristocracy, chivalry placed paramount emphasis on physical courage and military prowess as the guarantors of justice and honour. Where this involved dynastic rights of the kind that were at issue in the Hundred Years War, chivalry provided justification for aggressive international action. In exhorting Edward to defend his territorial rights, William Worcester appeals to "ye noble Englisshe cheualrie [ . . . ] to take armes and enterprinses, seeing so many good examples before yow of so many victorius dedis in armes done by youre noble progenitoures".23 One of chivalry's most enduring legacies to the future was the honour code, a system of values characterized above all by a stress on competitive assertiveness. As Mervyn James explains, the honour code both legitimized and provided moral reinforcement for "a politics of violence".24 It was this medieval code of values that the Essex circle hoped to revive. To his admirers the Earl of Essex was a symbol of national pride, the "Faire branch of Honor" and "flower of Cheualrie".25 The earl was the centre of a dissident aristocratic movement that wanted to reform the commonwealth and restore military values to a society grown generally "unwarlicke, in love with the name, and bewitched with the delight of peace".26 Drawing on the aristocratic charisma of its leader, it called for a return to the heroic values of the past. In doing so it was self-consciously rejecting a generation of anti-chivalric thinking.

With changing methods of warfare and the gradual disintegration of the feudal system of land tenure in which chivalry was rooted, the old martial values were in decline at end of the fifteenth century. "O ye knyghtes of Englond", complains Caxton in his Book of the Order of Chyvalry (an expanded translation of Ramón Lulls' Libre del Orde del Cauayleria) "where is the custome and usage of noble chyvalry that was used in those days".27 What Arthur B. Ferguson calls "The Indian Summer of English Chivalry" is the literary rearguard action of men like Malory and Hawes, who wanted to revive an antiquated system of values that bore increasingly little relationship to contemporary social and military reality. By the second decade of the sixteenth century, that system was effectively dead. What had killed it was humanism.28

Fundamental to Renaissance humanism is a new sense of historical change. For the generation of More and Erasmus, a medieval culture of violence had no place in the new world of enlightened civic humanism. The sword and shield of Erasmus' Christian knight are those, not of the medieval warrior, but of St Paul's metaphoric "armour of God" (Eph. 6:13).29 Erasmus is the most uncompromising of the sixteenth-century pacifists.30 He concedes that war may be justified under exceptional circumstances, for example a Turkish attack against a Christian state. But wars between Christian states are inexcusable. In a barely concealed attack on the expansionist policies of the young Henry VIII, Erasmus denounces such wars as unmitigated folly:

Almost all wars between Christians have arisen from either stupidity or wickedness. Some young men, with no experience of life, inflamed by the bad examples of our forbears told in the histories that fools have compiled from foolish documents, and then encouraged by flatterers and stimulated by lawyers and theologians, with the consent and connivance of bishops, and even at their desire—these young men, I say, go into war out of rashness rather than badness; and then they learn, to the suffering of the whole world, that war is a thing to be avoided by every possible means.31

Erasmus' friend More, though equivocal as always, was clearly satirizing chivalric attitudes when he described how the Utopians despise the notion of honour in battle, counting "nothynge so much against glorie, as glory gotten in war".32 As C. S. Lewis disapprov ingly puts it, "the military methods of More's Utopians are mischievously devised to flout the chivalric code at every turn".33 The powerful influence of Erasmus' thinking can also be seen in Sir Thomas Elyot's The Governour. Though not a pacificist, Elyot upholds the humanist emphasis on the primacy of learning. Comparing social values in the...

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War and chivalry

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Modern criticism is divided on the question of whether the play wants us to see Henry V as Christian hero or deceitful Machiavel. Because Henry is a natural autocrat, post-structuralist historicism sees him, perhaps predictably, as the latter. In one of his most influential essays54 Stephen Greenblatt argues that throughout the three plays in which he appears Henry is a Machiavellian "juggler" and "conniving hypocrite". The final play of the series, says Greenblatt, "deftly registers every nuance of royal hypocrisy, ruthlessness, and bad faith".55 Ruthless Henry undoubtedly is, but to accuse him of bad faith is to deny him his most outstanding and most dangerous characteristic, namely his frank...

(The entire section is 3952 words.)

The dangers of idealism

(Shakespearean Criticism)

One effect of the meeting between Henry and his bishops at the beginning of the play is to make us warm to Henry's integrity. Confronted with such blatant cynicism, it is not difficult to admire the man of honour. As Robert Ashley writes in a treatise entitled Of Honour (c. 1600):

By honour are vertues kindled and incouraged, by honour are vices eschewed, by honour ignoraunce, error and folly, sloth and sluggishness, hatred and fear, shame and ignoraunce, and all evill affeccions are alayed.79

Henry is a man inspired by a heroic ideal. At Agincourt his integrity and his valour are set off to even greater advantage by the foolish...

(The entire section is 3209 words.)