Henry V

(History of the World: The Renaissance)

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.

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 were said to be those of a dove in peace but a lion’s when he was angered.

Life’s Work

Henry V was crowned on April 9, 1413 (Passion Sunday), in an unusual spring snowstorm. Equally unusual, and commented upon by his contemporaries, was the marked change in his character, which immediately became more somber and regal. The total reversal is heightened, however, in Shakespeare’s Henry V (1598-1599), for dramatic emphasis; Henry’s youth had been spent largely in camp and council, rather than in taverns and the streets.

One of the complaints voiced in Henry’s first parliament, in 1413, was the weakness of royal power during his father’s last years. The son moved decisively to counter this and appointed such skilled and experienced officers as his kinsman and new chancellor, Henry Beaufort. Throughout his reign, Henry was well served by his officers and officials.

In December, 1413, Henry had the remains of Richard II, the monarch deposed and perhaps ordered killed by his father, reburied with royal pomp at Westminster. This action was an indication both of Henry’s affections for the man and of his allegiance to the ideal of kingship as a station partially sacramental in nature.

Henry was noted for his orthodoxy and concern for the unity of the Church, and he was greatly concerned with the growing Lollard movement in England, which threatened both ecclesiastical and social stability. The Lollards, a form of early protestants, were led by Sir John Oldcastle, who was arrested in September, 1413, and interrogated by numerous officials, including the king himself. Oldcastle escaped and early the next year devised a plot to seize the king and his brothers. Acting with his customary decisiveness, Henry surprised the rebels as they gathered at St. Giles’ Field outside London, and crushed the revolt. Sir John escaped again but was later captured and executed in 1418 while Henry was campaigning in France.

France was the dominant theme of Henry’s reign. English kings had held territory in France, and Henry was determined to reconquer that which had been lost; he also sought the crown of France itself. In the Parliament of 1414, Henry’s claims were asserted, and support was given for a military expedition.

The English asserted title to the provinces of Normandy, Touraine, Anjou, Maine, and Ponthieu, as well as border territories ceded to them by previous treaties. Henry also desired a marriage with Catherine, daughter of the French King Charles VI, and a large dowry for the bride. The demands were considerable, but they were made at an appropriate moment.

Charles VI was a weak monarch, frequently insane, and control of France was split between the Dauphin and his supporters, the Armagnacs, and John, Duke of Burgundy. Although powerful, France was largely incapable of using that power. By contrast, Henry V brought to the struggle both unshakable personal conviction and national unity.

The first of Henry’s three expeditions to France began on August 11, 1415, when he sailed with twenty-five hundred men-at-arms and eight thousand archers from Portsmouth. After a two-month siege, the port of Harfleur capitulated. Rather than return by sea to England, Henry marched overland toward Calais in a striking demonstration of claim to the disputed territory. The march also put his small army in great danger.

On October 25, 1415, near the castle of Agincourt, and only two days’ march from the safety of Calais, Henry and his now seven thousand men found their way blocked by at least fifty thousand French troops. The English line drew up between two forests, with their front protected by pointed stakes driven into the ground. When the heavily armored French knights attacked across a muddy field, the English longbowmen devastated their ranks. Continued French assaults only increased the disaster, and an English counterattack finished the French. Henry arrived in England with more than two thousand prisoners from the French nobility, and the battle won on St. Crispan’s Day became the centerpiece of Shakespeare’s Henry V and an enduring part of England’s national mythology.

The new importance of Henry and England was signaled in 1416 by the visit of Sigismund, the Holy Roman Emperor. The emperor and Henry concluded a treaty which ended the schism in the Church between rival popes by the election of a new pontiff, Martin V, and promised a joint crusade in the future. Henry’s long-range goal was to lead a united Europe in reconquest of the Holy Land.

As part of that plan he pressed his claim to the French Crown. In the fall of 1416, he carefully prepared for his second expedition, and his extensive shipbuilding efforts can justly qualify him as the founder of the Royal Navy.

In July, 1417, Henry sailed with fifty thousand troops. He landed in Normandy, cut off the province’s communications with the rest of France, and secured a base of operations. This was done through a series of sieges conducted by Henry and his lieutenants. By the end of July, Henry had invested the strategic town of Rouen, which held out until January of 1419 but which was forced to surrender because of famine and lack of support. Significantly, the French, split between Armagnac and Burgundian factions, were unable to relieve the town.

Henry skillfully exploited this internecine feud in his negotiations, which brought success in May, 1420, with the Treaty of Troyes. This agreement between Henry, Philip of Burgundy (his father, John, having been killed), and Charles VI excluded the Dauphin from succession, recognized Henry as the heir to the Crown after Charles’s death, and made him regent during the king’s life. It also confirmed Burgundy in alliance against the dauphin and granted Catherine to Henry in marriage. The marriage was celebrated on June 2, 1420 (Trinity Sunday); a son, Henry, was born on December 6, 1421.

After the treaty, Henry entered Paris and established his officers there. By the end of the year, the royal couple had sailed to England, where Catherine was crowned at Westminster on February 24, 1421. A triumphal royal progress through England was cut short in April with the news of the defeat and death of Henry’s brother, the Duke of Clarence, in France. On June 10, Henry left England on his third, and final, expedition.

Once in France, Henry quickly reversed the military situation in favor of the English. On October 6, he invested the town of Meaux; the siege lasted until May, 1422, and during the long winter months, in the crowded, unsanitary conditions of the camp, Henry contracted the dysentery that would kill him.

During the spring and summer, Henry grew steadily weaker, and in August he was carried to Vincennes, his health rapidly failing. Realizing his state, he made arrangements for the education of his son, for the government of England and France, and for the continuation of his policies. He died early in the morning of August 31, 1422, at the age of thirty-five. There was an elaborate funeral procession which culminated on November 11 with his burial at the Chapel of Edward the Confessor at Westminster Abbey. On his splendid tomb his effigy lay, carved in oak with a cover of silver gilt and a head of solid silver. The head was stolen in 1545 but replaced by a bronze one in 1972. After many centuries, Henry V remains one of England’s most favored kings.


Henry V was judged by his contemporaries to be an outstanding, even exemplary, monarch. According to the standards of the time, he indeed was, since he brought his realm peace and justice at home and legitimate martial glory abroad.

Within England, Henry V’s reign was marked by tranquillity and order. Failure to ensure such order was probably the worst fault attributable to a late medieval monarch. Such failure had led to the fall of Richard II and had darkened the last years of Henry’s father. Largely because of his personal example and wise selection of deputies, Henry V provided his kingdom with the peace it desired.

Henry was noted for his sense of justice, which at times seemed to border on the inflexible. In this, however, as in his steadfast devotion to the Catholic Church, Henry was motivated by the ideal standards which he believed should guide a monarch. In any event, his consistent adherence to these standards helped assure a quiet realm in England, even though he was on campaign for almost half of his nine-year reign.

Henry’s campaigns in France form the keystone to Henry V’s fame during his life and his enduring memory after his death. His wars were supported by his countrymen for many reasons, but chief among them were Henry’s careful presentation of his efforts as a legitimate response to French provocations and his continued victories. Judged as a military monarch, Henry was outstanding, not only for the famous victory at Agincourt but particularly for his careful and thorough planning of his expeditions and his acute sense of posibilities and appropriate, effective strategy. He shared the hardships of campaigns with his troops, and his combination of talent and leadership made him the outstanding warrior of his day.

That day was short, but while he lived, Henry accomplished two of his goals. He had gained, although not consolidated, his claims to French territory and was assured the French Crown at the death of Charles VI. By an irony of history, the victorious, younger king died before the insane, older one, and Henry V never had the opportunity to rule both England and France, or to lead Europe on a new crusade. Still, while what might have been remains unknown, it is clear that the young King Henry V left England a stronger nation for his reign, and a name that yet lives.


Hutchinson, Harold. Henry V: A Biography. New York: John Day Co., 1967. A leisurely, discursive biography of Henry V and his times, with admirable treatment of the background and milieu of the early fifteenth century. A good introduction to readers unfamiliar with the characters or characteristics of the late Middle Ages.

Jacob, E. F. Henry V and the Invasion of France. New York: Macmillan, 1947. Rev. ed. New York: Collier Books, 1966. A thorough, yet readable, study of Henry’s campaigns. Since his conquest of France is the most important aspect of his kingship, this comprehensive overview is extremely valuable for understanding Henry’s accomplishments.

Keegan, John. The Face of Battle. New York: Viking Press, 1976. This is a remarkable book which explores and explains the nature of warfare from the participant’s point of view. The section on Agincourt is a stunning recreation of medieval combat and gives the reader a real understanding of what must have happened and why. Highly recommended.

Larbarge, Margaret Wade. Henry V: The Cautious Conqueror. New York: Stein and Day, 1975. A brisk, quickly moving account of the life and actions of the king; introductory students of the period may find that the book assumes at least some familiarity with the actors of the time.

McFarlane, Kenneth B. Lancastrian Kings and Lollard Knights. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972. Divided into two sections, the first primarily about Henry IV, the second about the Lollard movement in fourteenth century England. There is, however, a good general essay titled “Henry V: A Personal Portrait,” which is an excellent place for the beginning student to start. McFarlane has high praise for Henry V: “Take him all around and he was, I think, the greatest man that ever ruled England.”

Wylie, James H. The Reign of Henry the Fifth. 3 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1914-1929. Still the definitive study of Henry V’s kingship, this work goes into great detail on every aspect of the reign; invaluable for students who want to concentrate on specific moments of Henry’s career.

Henry V

(Comprehensive Guide to Military History)

Article abstract: Military significance: Henry’s strategy against France was to systematically capture the great towns and fortresses and turn them into headquarters for English garrisons. This enabled the English to impose taxes and help defray the cost of war.

Raised in his uncle Richard II’s household while his own father, Henry IV, was exiled, Henry V was knighted during Richard’s Irish expedition in 1399. Upon Henry IV’s usurpation of the crown, Henry was made prince of Wales and took command of the fight against the Welsh rebels who were led by Owen Glendower (1402-1409). Henry was a brave warrior at Shrewsbury in 1403. He suppressed both the Lollard Revolt (1413-1414) and that of the Percys (1403-1408).

Henry’s most famous exploits were against the French in the Hundred Years’ War. Determined to revive English dominion over France, he declared war in 1415, besieging and capturing Harfleur and attacking Calais. Almost trapped near the Somme at one point, he escaped and eventually led a force of 6,000 to victory at Agincourt, killing 3,000 French and capturing 1,000 more at minimal cost to his own side. His French adventure culminated in an alliance with Burgundy, the Treaty of Troyes in May, 1420 (whereby he became heir to Charles VI), and the siege and capture of Meaux (1421-1422). Weakened by exertion, however, he contracted camp fever and died before his French designs were completed.

Further Reading:

Allmand, C. T. Henry V. London: Methuen, 1992.

Earle, Peter. The Life and Times of Henry V. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1972.

Harris, G. J., ed. Henry V. London: Sutton, 1993.

Knight, Paul, and Mike Chappell. Henry V and the Conquest of France, 1416-1453. New York: Osprey, 1999.