Henry V

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Article abstract: Henry V gave England justice and stability at home, while his military and political genius enabled him to proceed in the conquest of France and claim to its crown. He left England a strong power in European affairs.

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Early Life

The man who would become Henry V, King of England and Regent of France, was born on September 16, 1387, at Monmouth Castle in western England (this date of birth is sometimes given as August 9). He is familiar to modern readers and audiences as the Prince Hal of William Shakespeare’s plays, but his contemporaries knew him in his youth as Henry of Monmouth. His father, Henry, Duke of Lancaster, was similarly known from his birthplace as Henry Bolingbroke and was the cousin of the reigning monarch, Richard II.

Henry was well educated; the records for the Duchy of Lancaster show early payments for his books, a harp, and a sword. Unverified tradition says that he was educated at Oxford. Whatever his background, during his reign he showed considerable ability in a variety of fields, from the military (he was an outstanding general) to the musical (he composed several pieces of church music).

In 1389, Richard II exiled Henry Bolingbroke, whose sons were taken into the court, partly as kinsmen, partly as hostages. Richard displayed real affection for the younger Henry, taking him in May, 1399, on an expedition to Ireland, where the king himself knighted the youth. In August of that year, however, Bolingbroke returned to England in revolt; Richard rebuked his young relative, but Henry seems to have had no forewarning of his father’s actions.

Bolingbroke was quickly able to depose Richard, largely because the king’s erratic and willful actions had seriously undermined his support among the nobility. In October, Henry IV was crowned in London; his son participated in the ceremony and two days later was created Earl of Chester, Duke of Cornwall, and Prince of Wales. He was soon after given the title of Duke of Aquitaine, the English possession on the Continent, and Duke of Lancaster, his father’s former title.

From 1400 until 1408, Henry was occupied in subduing rebellion in his princedom of Wales. First, as figurehead of a council of nobles, and later on his own, he planned and led raids and skirmishes against the Welsh. In 1403, this struggle was interrupted by the conspiracy of the powerful Percy family of northern England. Henry IV and his son combined their forces to defeat the Percys at the Battle of Berwick (July 21, 1403), during which the prince was wounded in the face but continued in the fight.

By 1408 the Welsh had been hammered into submission, and Henry was more active in London and in the king’s council. In 1409, he was made Warden of the Cinque Ports and Constable of Dover, both important military posts. He was also taking a larger part in the government, partly because of Henry IV’s steadily weakening condition, caused by an unknown but disfiguring disease. It is likely that by 1410 the prince was ruling in his father’s name, aided by his relative Thomas Beaufort, the new chancellor. The Beauforts were to be valuable servants during Henry V’s reign. In 1410, Henry was also given the vital post of Captain of Calais, England’s stronghold in France.

An attempt to have the king abdicate in favor of his son led to the removal of Beaufort as chancellor and the temporary withdrawal of Henry from the court and council, but on March 20, 1413, Henry IV died and his son, at age twenty-six, became King of England.

There are several contemporary descriptions and portraits of Henry V, and they generally agree that he struck an appropriately kingly figure. He was above medium height, with a slender, athletic body, and was known as an exceptionally swift runner. His hair was smooth, brown, and thick; he had a cleft chin and small ears. The feature most noted by Henry’s subjects was his eyes, which...

(The entire section contains 2881 words.)

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