William Shakespeare and Henry V by Teresa Cole
One of Shakespeare’s most enduringly popular plays is Henry V. Indeed Henry appears as a main character in three plays, although in the first two his star is undoubtedly eclipsed by the fat knight, Falstaff. Despite the fact that Shakespeare was writing some 180 years after the death of his subject, Henry’s story had never been allowed to fade from the public consciousness, championed first by those who survived him, and later by Tudor kings such as Henry VIII, who saw himself as a similarly heroic figure.
There were, therefore, many sources available to Shakespeare on which to base his works. Notable among them was the Chronicle of Edward Hall and the collaborative work known as Holinshed’s Chronicles, while the play, The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, being performed in the late 1580s, has so many points in common with Shakespeare’s own acknowledged work that some have suggested it might have been an early attempt by the bard himself. Given this wealth of material to draw on, it is interesting to consider how much of the story is told in the plays matches what we know as historical fact about this ‘star of England’.
Certainly Shakespeare telescoped the timescale within his three plays. We see Henry first as a grown man, Prince Henry, king-in-waiting, consorting with thieves and scoundrels at the time of the Percys’ revolt and the battle of Shrewsbury. In fact at that time Henry was a boy of sixteen, while Hotspur, shown as his contemporary, was a generation older and recently the Prince’s mentor and governor. In spite of this the boy did fight in the battle, not rescuing his father as depicted in the play, but still contributing substantially to the king’s victory, and in the process receiving a severe wound to the face that might easily have ended his career there and then.
As for the tales of consorting with low-lifes and frequenting the taverns in Eastcheap which make up a large part of the first two plays, there is again some basis for this in the records. Henry, made Prince of Wales immediately after his father’s accession to the throne, spent a large part of his teens actively and dutifully subduing the Glendower rebellion in his principality. There was, however, a period in his early twenties when something of a rift appeared between him and his father, Henry IV, though this seems to have been more of the king’s making than his son’s.
The Prince had been effectively running the country for some time during the king’s prolonged illness when abruptly he was dismissed and stories began to circulate about his behaviour. Accused of drunken brawling, womanising and even stealing the wages of the Calais garrison while Captain of Calais, Henry himself always flatly denied these stories, claiming that someone was deliberately trying to blacken his name. Certainly he was present in Eastcheap. He had a house there, formerly known as Poulteney Inn, given to him by his father, but the only concrete evidence of brawls names his brothers rather than himself.
Maybe the strongest evidence for these accusations is the fact that many people commented how much the Prince changed for the better as soon as he became king. Shakespeare’s comment, “The breath no sooner left his father’s body but that his wildness … seemed to die too,” only reflects what people were saying at the time.
The strangest part of the unruly episodes depicted in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, however, is the naming of the fat knight himself. Though he comes down to us today as Sir John Falstaff, Shakespeare originally called him Sir John Oldcastle, and only changed the name under sustained pressure from the descendants of the real Oldcastle, one of whom was chamberlain to Queen Elizabeth I. Why the playwright originally chose that name is puzzling since there seems nothing whatever in common between the historical character and the drunken head of a thieves’ kitchen.
Sir John Oldcastle was indeed a friend of Prince Henry, first becoming acquainted with him during the Welsh wars. On marrying an heiress he became Lord Cobham with a seat in the House of Lords, and his notoriety is based not on thieving and drunkenness but on his membership of what was at the time seen as a heretical sect, the Lollards. These predecessors of the Protestant revolution to come, followed the teaching of John Wycliffe, believing that the Catholic Church was corrupt and in need of reform, and far too involved in meddling in state rather than religious matters. Lollard involvement in the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 led to the sect being banned, and from 1401 Lollards in England who refused to recant could be burned as heretics.
In 1413, soon after Henry became king, Oldcastle was arrested, put on trial for his beliefs which he made no attempt to deny, and condemned as a ‘most pernicious and detestable heretic.’ The king, however, intervened and insisted Oldcastle should have 40 days to consider his situation before the death penalty should be carried out. In that time Sir John escaped from the Tower, led a failed plot against Henry, escaped again and then spent four years at large, probably in his own territory of Herefordshire, before being captured and finally put to death in December 1417. At that time Henry was busy at the siege of Rouen so we don’t know whether he would have tried again to save the life of his old friend.
Of course by the time Shakespeare was writing the Protestant religion held sway in England and it was dangerous to be a Catholic. Oldcastle’s stand against the old church would, by then, have been seen as heroic. When the bard changed the name of his character, therefore, he added a clear disclaimer in the epilogue to Henry IV Part 2. “For Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not the man.” Some have suggested that the Shakespeare family held secret sympathies with the outlawed Catholic Church, and it is just possible that the name Sir John Oldcastle was chosen deliberately in an attempt to blacken the name of that martyr. If so it seems the playwright did not allow for the determination of high-placed family members to protect the image of their ancestor.
Teresa Cole's new paperback editon of her book Henry V: The Life of the Warrior King and the Battle of Agincourt is available now.