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
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 evils of war between Christian states.11 Even Lydgate,...
(The entire section is 10,630 words.)